How Can Something Come From Nothing?

For some folks the question whether something can come from nothing appears meaningful in discussions around the existence of God or the creation of the world. For instance, how did the world come into being, and what was there before it came into being: something else, or was there nothing. And if there was initially nothing other than a God, how was he able to create something from nothing, etc.

Aside from discussions around the existence of a God – usually a matter of wishful thinking versus a rational discourse about substantiated beliefs –  it is easy to get caught up in language games – words pushing  words – without actually being to assert anything either concrete or definitive, e.g., if something is not nothing, and nothing is not something – then, presumably, these terms are mutually exclusive, and it would be difficult to use either term, something or nothing, in some kind of meaningful relationship beyond stating that the one excludes the other on purely logical grounds.

Of course, we could involve the distinction between denotation and connotation and denotation – what event or object a term refers to versus what this  object or event means or signifies, e.g. the difference between Venus the evening star and Venus the morning star – they both reference the same object but we have different contextual meanings for them – and is something British analytical philosophers such as Austin spent a lot of time on, or Frege’s Sinn and Bedeutung, which means something similar in my mind – although Bertrand Russell would likely disagree – but in the end we would in all likelihood be even less clear of what we mean by the distinction between something and nothing other than that nothing is the negation of something.

The question that might be meaningful to me in some sense is the one that asks: is the concept of non-existence even available to us?  Clearly, the answer is no. Nothing – nothing existing – is not available to us for discussion except, perhaps, in some abstract sense, where we can approach the concept of non-existence, which – of course – is really a contradiction of terms, and by pointing this out, we have come as close to it as appears feasible, given the rules of language that are there to keep things intelligible to the extent that some kind of discussion it about appears possible. And that should not be a function of the fact that – when we say something like “in the beginning there was nothing” – we have actually implied the existence of nothing at some time or another, as that would clearly be a function of grammar as opposed to making an ontological statement. Clearly, our language is misleading us here.

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How Can Order Evolve From Chaos?

Scientists have been known to pose the question of how organized matter could have evolved from what would have appeared to be absolutely chaotic conditions when the material universe came into being.

The obvious answer would be that there was no chaos to begin with, as much as it would appear to have been the case. And what would appeared to have been chaos at the outset was simply not understood, or at least not in its inherent nature which was only seen from the outside and without the benefit of knowing how the appearance of chaos related to that which gave rise to it.

Looking at the course of evolution to date would – in my mind – suggest very much the presence of an organizing principle that is in fact  the engine of evolution, and part and parcel of everything that exists, as would be the case if we stop looking at the universe or cosmos as a collection of disparate particles of sorts and instead consider it the one and only unified entity it has always been and always will be.

 

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The Truth Lies Within

I believe I pointed out earlier that it makes more sense to look for answers that underpin the meaning and nature  of our existence “from the outside in”, as opposed to “from the inside out” – and this in connection with attempts to understand the origin and nature of the physical universe with VLTs (Very Large Telescopes), and where the field of vision becomes forever wider and less defined as we get further afield and away in time and distance from ourselves. As such, no meaningful antecedents regarding the origin and nature of our existence will be derived from our examination of outer space.

Instead, going into the opposite direction- and within ourselves – will narrow down to an ever finer point of focus, and should lead to the very source of why we have these  kinds of existential questions in the first place.  While the nature and intent of these questions remains the same – why or what for are we here – their formulation will be less a function of language or the need for a technical explanation and so not be limited by it. Language functions on the basis of distinctions between subject and object and the multitude of relationships between them in terms of their various properties.  While this will get us around in the material world and with each other in a functional manner, these distinctions become less relative as we descend within ourselves and beyond the world of our ever changing sensory experiences, and into the realm of  thought and understanding. That is to say, the place at the receiving end of our experiences  that can look past their fragmentation and complexity and discover their underlying unity, meaning and purpose, and that is some more easily intuited – or felt – as opposed to being capable of being articulated.

For instance, if you think of the multitude of people in the world – as opposed to thinking of all the differences between them, and the sometimes good  - but so often terrible things they do to each other as a result of the differences between them, and think of them instead as really being just one creature, one life form, one aspect of a living planet that is being instantiated time and time again with tremendous skills and potential to act on them with the hope that that it  will get it right one day and assume its proper place under the stars, whatever that place may be.

To focus on that requires you to be less of an individual, to blur the distinction between subject and object, between self and others, and to diminish the sense that you are one of many while assuming a  unity with the nature of the world from which you sprang, and to which you shall return.  To touch base with our fellow creatures in this manner begins beyond the level of our sensory experiences,  and predisposes our thoughts towards them, and should we ever be able to pull this off …  well, the world will be a more meaningful place for it.

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What The World Is Made Of

I mentioned Spinoza in a previous post – and I revisited him recently because much of what he says I am in agreement with, at least in principle, if not necessarily in language.

While Spinoza talks about God, it is not in the anthropomorphic sense of a God as usually portrayed by the Judeo-Christian or Muslim varieties of religion, i.e., very much like a person – a kind of father figure – with human emotions and perhaps even a body of sorts and who seems to take a personal interest in what the creatures he created here on earth are up to. As such Spinoza strongly rejected the notion of a providential God —the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and claims that the Law was neither literally given by God nor any longer binding on Jews. Not surprisingly, this conception of God got him thrown out of the Amsterdam orthodox Jewish community for good when they excommunicated him in 1656.

Instead, Spinoza holds that God is the one and only unique and indivisible substance that the universe is made of. There are no other substances. This also means there is no God-like personality that likes to meddle in human affairs and who needs to be feared or worshiped as a means to keep us in line.

This view suits me fine, to the point that, if God is everything, and everything is God, why even use the name “God”, as this renders that concept logically empty, since it doesn’t signify anything over and above the cosmos.  At any rate, I don’t like the use the name “God” in any context because of the traditional connotation that seems to suggest a personality with some of the worst “petty” human traits I can think of: vain, jealous, vengeful, narrow minded.  This, to me, is how the God of the Old Testament comes across: high maintenance (!)  And we could fault him as well for being a overbearing megalomaniac who refuses to own up to the fact that the confused humanoid creatures here on earth are entirely his creation, and that he should take full responsibility for the murder and mayhem that has taken place down here.  But, so much for that silly fairy tale … we should be glad for anyone who is able to leave that behind them.

There are some other aspects of Spinoza’s philosophy I like, including his claim that, while everything in the the cosmos consists of the one indivisible substance (his idea of God),  it has an infinite number of attributes, two of which we are directly familiar with, namely thought and  extension. I like to think of them as our two distinct ways of being in the world, and the way in which we encounter our own substance as entities with material bodies (extension) and a conscious mind (thought) in the ever changing world of our sensory experiences.

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Evolution’s Agenda

I realize there isn’t a lot of structure to this blog, and as such it pretty reflects the (dis)organizational structure of my thought – which is all over the place, most of the time. So here is some more disorganized thought on one of my favorite  topics, the aims or objectives of evolution.

One reason I continue to dwell on that subject is because I think about this process from a number of different perspectives, .e.g., as a process that can be observed over time in terms of what it has brought about – or where it seems to be leading to.  Or how it does its “work” – the various mechanism that it employs to reach its goals – and what we can learn from that.  In the end, of course, there is only one thing going on – and that is everything – but as a human being you cannot see that entire picture, and so you must differentiate between some aspect of evolution, and another, and so piece together the muddled picture that I am dancing around with in my head.

I have been led to conclude that, if the cosmos is about anything at all, its agenda is about reinventing itself as a new entity, by turning itself inside out – so to speak – and reconstituting or manifesting  itself as the sum of all the power and creativity that it is capable of.  You could say that it is a question of “rising to the occasion”,  as this is something that we are all challenged with as human beings: we all have the same agenda, namely to make something of ourselves that captures our true potential.

And so we are in the process of being turned inside out – and turning ourselves inside out –  in that our emerging consciousness is at the top of creation, and we are being urged to look deeper within ourselves to enable our own advancement as a species, to be more creative, more empowered, and to be more enlightened to take charge of our fate as an agent of evolution. Presumably, all this to bring about a better world than the dystopia we’re stumbling around in now, preoccupied – seemingly – by the instincts of a predatory,  grubby animal that excels primarily at procreation and boundless appetites, and fouling its own nest in the process.  Yes, Homo Sapiens, indeed.

I know, within the scope of everyday things all this sounds like pure nonsense, and the “turning ourselves inside out” sounds like a phrase from an old Baron Münchhausen tale (!) But to me, the scope of every day things is utter nonsense if you think about it a little longer than two minutes – and referred to as”the absurd” by the existentialists – unless you can tie it to a larger perspective that provides the overall context for it,  and who is to say what that might be?  And – beyond some wild metaphysical speculation – I don’t have answers either, but one thing that I am certain about is that all this is not about the accumulation of material objects – such as how many pigs you own -or you status in the human anthill.

However, to hold such temporary and shallow objectives central to life is entirely consistent with  being a member of a relatively recently evolved animal species that is seemingly still firmly attached to its root instincts, including to always having to satisfy the immediate needs of the present moment. And whether that would be trying to figure out where the next meal comes from, or the next million bucks; the difference is one of degree only, and not of kind. There continue to be indications that  this species is actually capable of rising beyond this kind of basic instinctual behaviour and structure a future for itself that is less reliant on sensory gratification, and more on reasons related to pursuing a common  good that benefits the whole of humanity.

The human race could be forgiven for being as confused as it is with respect to what it should be all about, because – as Spinoza (1632-1677) put it – they find themselves with needs and desires without understanding the reasons why they want and act as they do.  Lacking this knowledge about themselves and their place in the world creates the illusion that they can do as they please, and which is a source of much grief in the world when they act against their own interest because they don’t know any better.

But I don’t think we can take it much further than that at the moment, as we are trapped by the very thing that we are – the creature that could be – but can’t because of what and where we are on the evolutionary scale.  A familiar theme I have expressed a number of times, but never as eloquently as Kafka, such as in The Passenger and Before The Law and that I have discussed here earlier.

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In Pursuit Of A Greater Good

It is difficult not to get depressed by the kind of news you get today, such as the recent  events in Algeria that resulted in the death of perhaps as many as 50 innocent people at the hands of Islamic Militants,  a sub-species of the human race dedicated to the cowardly act of killing unarmed, innocent civilians. But then, on occasion, you can find something at the opposite end of the spectrum that will lift your spirit and bolster your faith in people once again because it shows an astonishing degree of enlightenment in thought and action, and  more remarkably so since it was expressed as early as 2000 BC by the ancient Zoroaster faith in a hymn from the Farvardin Yasht:

We worship this earth, we worship those heavens: we worship those good things which stand between the earth and the heavens and that are worthy of sacrifice and prayer, and are to be worshiped by the faithful man. We worship the souls of the wild beasts and the tame. We worship the souls of the holy men and women, born at any time, whose consciences struggle, or will struggle, or have struggled, for the good.

While “worship” or “faithful” or “holy” or “sacrifice” and “prayer” are typical terms as applied by the formalized, totalitarian religions as a means to keep the great unwashed under their control,  they can stand perfectly on their own without reference to a 3rd party – an imaginary deity of sorts,  such as a vengeful god – by applying them to the way in which we pursue the truth about ourselves. That is, we pursue these truths faithfully, for their own sake, and without coercion from anyone, and to the benefit of all mankind. And what we will find is the good inherent in all of us, and this is the truth that is “holy” and should be “worshiped” in the sense that we will put this above everything else that we treasure about life in this universe. By “sacrifice” we might well have to be less selfish than usual on occasion, in order to put the greater good ahead of ourselves. And by “prayer” we need to do nothing more than express the hope and belief in ourselves that we are here for the right reasons, which is to realize the common good in ourselves as we rise to our full potential as human beings.

I can’t claim to have any special insight here, but it seems to me that, first of all, it makes sense to pursue the things that benefit us most as a species, and not look at sacrificing some individuals to the betterment of others as a means to advance the human race as a whole. This has to be a fundamental truth about ourselves, but sadly, the sum of human history to date shows primarily the exploitation and slaughter of the many to benefit the few. And if this proves anything all, it is that the formalized religions have been absolutely no help at all to the betterment of humanity, and in fact can be seen as the instigators – and in many cases the perpetrators – of much of the murder and mayhem that has befallen the many people of this earth for reasons that make no sense at all,  as happened again in Algeria just now.

And so, yes, we can get there without religion, or the need to be murdered for them, and especially without the Islamic religion in its most virulent and primitive form,  and which uses its ancient tribal laws – known as Shariah law – in an inhumane and brutal manner in order to keep its adherents in line. Clearly, life has no value there, when it is so easily denigrated or even dispensed with in order to prevent dissent.  I’m referring to caning people in public, hacking off hands and stoning people to death  … Barbaric acts that have no place in a society that values the sanctity of life.  I guess that happens in communities where folks are absolutely not allowed to think for themselves and must accept some ancient doctrines “on faith”, or else ….

Of course, all this coercion in the name of a higher authority has nothing to do with achieving some mystical purpose or aspiration involving a god, creation or eternity, or whatever else a religion might be about, as in the end this is all about the few having the means to control the many in everyday life, and where women and girls are devalued to the level of cattle, to be used and abused at will because it is their duty to comply. How much more morally and ethically backward – or primitive –  can you get?  Clearly, no effort towards the greater good is happening here.

 

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So Is There A Plan?

I made a reference earlier to the cosmos having an agenda as it pushes the evolution of its substance towards ever more organizational, diversity, complexity and behaviour.  We could deny this of course, but the theory of evolution wouldn’t make much sense without having some kind of intent at the root of it all. I guess the notion of the cosmos having an objective of sorts  makes a lot of people uncomfortable, in particular if they are saddled with religious beliefs that appear irreconcilable with such a concept. And for philosophers it will provide a ready ground to question the metaphysics around it, i.e. how does such an objective exist, and where would you start to formulate an ontological argument for its existence?

I would want to go so far as to say that – if the the cosmos were to have an intent or objective, it would not be over and above but be entirely intrinsic to it, such that it is present in everything that exists as a part of it. This would make every material particle part of “the plan”, but – in my mind –  it would be a mistake to think of the universe as consisting of gazillions of distinct and individual particles that somehow are held together, kept in place and enabled to interact with the help of natural laws, eg., gravity, mass, opposite attraction, etc.  That is what we see perhaps, and that is likely a function of how we need to see the world around us in order to be able deal with it effectively at our level.

Instead, there  is really only one entity that – while it exists in mysterious ways – its being encompasses  all that exists and what is significant about that is not the enormity of its age, size or energy (the very thing that we mere mortals find so intimidating) but the depth and quality of its creative ability to bring about its raison d’être, whatever that might be, such as to justify its own existence (what I think) –  as this is something we are all saddled with …

Sorry, more kitchen-table cosmology, I guess.

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Seeing Is Believing

And so I keep coming back to that notion that it is a mistake to think that we apprehend  the world through the machinery of our perceptual apparatus  as if we were seeing it through a clear piece of glass – although that is the way in which we would normally think we are seeing the world of our experiences, as the process of seeing is completely transparent to us.  And so it is when we look at a TV, and  see the images displayed on it.  The technology that brings us the imagery is taken for granted because we have no reason to question it so long as keeps producing an accurate picture of the world has we have encountered it without this technology. But if you think about how the technology  of television was developed, you can imagine that there was was a lot of going back-and-forth between the actual object and the appearance of it on a CRT after it was transmitted – to the point that the technology allowed for an accurate representation of the object.  And so you could argue that mother nature went about this the very same way, with the difference being that the adjustments were made as required, gradually, to the biology of living systems as it was evolving, based on how it needed to interact with the reality it perceived via its sensory experiences.  And that is the difference of course between seeing something on TV versus seeing it directly – as you are unable to in interact with your TV, but you can with your environment.

So what reason do we have to believe the physical world as we experience it is not accurately represented in our experiences,  such that it is necessary to maintain the distinction between the world out there – as it is from itself (Kant’s ding ansich) – and the world as it is delivered to us internally via our sensory apparatus?

To cut to the quick, I’m sure we have all seen the Matrix movies – and you will get from it the idea - in principle -  that the brain can be fed any kind of reality if the technology was there to make it happen.  This is a very old argument in philosophy: the Brain-in-Vat hypothesis, and the ultimate skeptical Cartesian argument about the external world, namely that:

… one is a brain in a vat with systematically delusory experience, (is) modeled on the Cartesian Evil Genius hypothesis, according to which one is a victim of thoroughgoing error induced by a God-like deceiver. The skeptic argues that one does not know that the brain-in-a-vat hypothesis is false, since if the hypothesis were true, one’s experience would be just as it actually is. Therefore, according to the skeptic, one does not know any propositions about the external world (propositions which would be false if the vat hypothesis were true). (Brueckner, Tony, “Skepticism and Content Externalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition)

I don’t know about you, but I am quite comfortable assuming there is no evil genius or Matrix-like environment out there is messing around with our brains – although, yes, we can’t absolutely sure about that  :-)

Another reason to suspect the perceived world to be “tainted” by the perceiving and interpretive apparatus of the brain  is the fact that we approach the world, presumably with a particular intent or purpose in mind. That is to say, the evolving universe has put us here with an agenda.   And even if this agenda should to a large extent be about the ability to survive,  there will be a  principle applied to the manner in which the brain and its sensory apparatus  develops based on the input of the environment that is physically external to it. And so we can’t be sure what aspects of the world have been included or screened out in the development of our sensory organs, but we can safely make the assumption that the sensory abilities we have developed most are of the greatest benefit to us. Thus, we see what we need to see, hear what we need to hear, etc., as well as in the particular manner that serves us best in order to deal with the information in the most successful  manner.  That is: in the interest of advancing the agenda that includes our very instantiation and continued survival as a component of  the evolving cosmos for purposes that continue to be an absolute mystery for us.

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The Limits Of Our World

The ability to conceptualize the data of our sensory experiences into the reality of our every day world is critical to our ability to survive and thrive in it. And that isn’t necessarily a uniquely human ability – and would exists in varying degrees within other creatures in the world depending on their level of sentiency. But only in humans is this capacity developed to the point that it can be articulated in terms of shared ideas, and be the subject of continuing investigation and analysis.   Now that we can do this and chimps – our nearest cousins in the animal kingdom – cannot, is not just a function of the ability to use one’s brain more effectively, but also the fact that the human cerebral cortex, the brain’s most highly evolved region, is three times larger in humans than in chimps. The latter simply don’t have the hardware for this –  to put this in very simple terms.

The point is that –  when it comes to understanding the nature of the world – we will likely also run out of hardware in our cerebral department, eventually, when we run into the limits of the conceptual framework that we have imposed on it, as those will be the limits of our world as well.  We simply cannot reach beyond our grasp – either physically or intellectually – when it comes to understanding the world we see in our minds in terms that account for our own presence in it – as that would reach beyond the fact of our own physical creation, a fact that is given to us without recourse to justification.

Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world. (Arthur Schopenhauer)

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About Form and Function

” Reality is created by observers in the universe”  - John Archibald Wheeler, Theoretical Physicist (1911-2008)

To (finally!) continue the thread from the previous post a bit further, it follows we are no innocent bystanders here with respect to the spectacle of the world as we have encountered it; we are implicated in the very creation of it, as a conceptual construct based on our interaction with the world, given that we have no other means of approaching it other than through the realm of our sensory experiences. Here I am revisiting the views held by Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Idea (1818). I wrote about this earlier in 2006. I also share his rejection of naïve realism, or what I would call scientific materialism, that the things we observe in the world are what they appear to be, absolutely, and forever, and not in anyway a function of human perception in the sense that they can be modified based on our understanding of things.

This doesn’t mean that things don’t exist unless they are perceived – the peculiar thing that Berkeley seemed to have believed, but only that – while the world brought us about in a material sense through a process of evolution – we also created it for ourselves conceptually in order to be able to function in it. (Thinking our way around these two seemingly incompatible theories of the world is what Schopenhauer referred to as an antinomy in our faculty of knowledge, and here he follows Kant who has some well-known antinomies of his own.)

Now it could be argued that it is in fact a useless – if not false – distinction between the world as it is from itself and that very same world as we encounter it through our experiences. Given that we have no other means of accessing it directly in a material sense, is it in fact a meaningful exercise to even refer to it as a matter of some significance? To all intents and purposes, if we never refer to it again, what would be lost in our discussions about the nature of the world?

Kant introduced the “thing-in-itself”, or “ding ansich” in German – to suggest that the true nature of  the world is fundamentally unknowable as we can only grasp the nature of things indirectly through perceiving them as objects in relation to ourselves – how we have experienced them.

In that connection I wrote earlier that  it is one thing to experience the world through one’s senses – it is another thing to experience it logically, e.g., to experience such things as cause and effect, time, space and the various ways in which objects relate to us and each other. If these relationships are permanent features of the physical universe, it wouldn’t matter in what form you encountered them in your experiences, your conclusions about them would be same. But in the end, it would be less important what the world looks like versus what can be abstracted from it. And this would lead me to say that the nature of the world is about function (a method that relates an objective to its instantiation) –  and not form (the manifestation of matter and energy), the latter being  incidental to the process, and a means to an end in terms of being the medium that allows the function to be enabled or expressed.

This is an important view for me and consistent with my argument that we should perhaps be less preoccupied with determining the age, origin and size of the material  universe, by poking into the furthest and oldest region of the universe, looking for clues of sorts – and, instead, look more closely at what the logical or functional nature of the various cosmic events appear to be about,  such as the manifestation of a directional and seemingly intrinsic teleological process leading to ever higher degrees of material complexity and organization, and where this particular process would seem to want to take us to.  As such, the cosmos is a work in progress, and that is as much information as we have about it.

 

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