The question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is not new, and the evolution of the conceptualization of NOTHING offers (rather than an answer) an invitation to investigate (and possibly deconstruct) the question itself – in the spirit of contemporary physics, metaphysics, and direct physical (bodily) perceptions.
[Cole, K. C. (2002) The Hole in the Universe: How Scientists Peered over the Edge of Emptiness and Found Everything]
Modern physics tells us that you can get something from nothing. But it’s also clear that you can’t get something without nothing. Nor can you have nothing without something.
Sartre, whose Being and Nothingness goes on endlessly about the subject, makes it clear that the idea of nothing hinges explicitly on the idea of something: “Nothingness, which is not, can have only a borrowed existence, and gets its being from being. The total disappearance of being would not be the advent of the reign of non-being, but on the contrary the concomitant disappearance of nothingness.”
[Weatherall J. O. (2016) VOID – The Strange Physics of Nothing]
In Newtonian physics, a world with nothing would consist in empty space and time. In such a universe, space-time has a fixed, immutable geometrical structure whose basic properties would not change if stuff were suddenly to appear. It is simply a container standing ready for stuff to be introduced.
In general relativity, a world with nothing would again be a universe devoid of any stuff—that is, space-time with no matter present in any location. But far from fixed and immutable, the geometry of space-time is rich and dynamic, even without any matter at all.
In quantum field theory, the state of affairs with “nothing” in the universe is represented by a vacuum state. But this sort of state does not have the properties we might expect of a universe with nothing in it: in particular, if you start looking around, you may well find some particles. This vacuum state can give rise to observable phenomena, such as vacuum polarization (e.g. vacuum fluctuations, electron/positron creation and annihilation). It’s simply bizarre what sorts of measurement outcomes are possible in an empty universe.
But there are challenging incompatibilities between basic concepts of general relativity and quantum field theory. “Nothing” may be a bit weird in both theories, but in each case alone it is coherent. Put them together, however, and things start breaking down.
String landscape shows that there are approximately 10500 different ways for there to be NOTHING (compare this number to the estimated 10100 atoms in this universe). This radical nonuniqueness of the string vacuum demonstrates that the standard model (the current best model of the visible universe) describes just one of the possible combinations. The expansion is unfathomable and the string landscape opens the possibilities of completely different types of nothingness.
One might think that this is the sort of question that will ultimately be answered by our best physics. But we can now see just how much the question’s very meaning depends on the details of a background theory of physics. Perhaps the most extreme case is that of the vacuum state in quantum field theory. There, “something” and “nothing” are not even mutually exclusive: it is entirely consistent for there to be nothing, and nonetheless for stuff to show up when we try to detect it.
But even in general relativity, there are variants on nothingness that seem an awful lot like stuff. Why, then, are there black holes, rather than nothing? It turns out that black holes are just a variant of nothingness.
Are these sorts of answers satisfying? They are certainly not responsive to the original question: by “something,” one likely
did not mean “gravitational wave” or “vacuum fluctuation,” and by “nothing,” “quantum vacuum state.” But what did we mean? Did we, perhaps, have in mind some implicit theory of what the world would have been like if there were nothing, and conversely, of what sorts of things count as “stuff”? If so, then it seems significant that the ways in which these ideas have been co-opted by our best physics do not conform to those prior intuitions. If our previous understanding relied on some sort of theory, is it as well supported as quantum field theory or general relativity? And if not, shouldn’t we rethink why we cared about the question in the first place? 😊
HEART SUTRA (translated version by Thich Nhat Hanh)
this Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.
The same is true of Feelings,
Perceptions, Mental Formations,
all phenomena bear the mark of Emptiness;
their true nature is the nature of
no Birth no Death,
no Being no Non-being,
no Defilement no Purity,
no Increasing no Decreasing.
“That is why in Emptiness,
Body, Feelings, Perceptions,
Mental Formations and Consciousness
are not separate self entities.
The Kashmir tantric tradition knew for millennia that Spanda, the flip-flopping of the universe, represents the endless cycle of Being . Nonbeing . Being . Nonbeing … and modern physics would maybe add that Spanda is vibrating on the scale of Planck time (10-44 s)?
And the Dzogchen masters knew it too and suggested (probably to avoid burning of synapses …) to avoid the four extremes:
existence, non-existence, both, or neither.
Machig Labdrön’s Chöd is known as “Mahamudra Chöd”. Machig Labdrön was an 11th-century Tibetan tantric Buddhist master and yogini. Chöd is a visionary Buddhist practice of cutting attachment to one’s corporeal form (in terms of the dualistic proclivity to relate to one’s corporeal form as a reference point that proves one’s existence).
David Cronenberg’s “CRIMES OF THE FUTURE” (2022) is not exactly the Chöd practice, but I take the liberty to refer to this highly uncomfortable and disturbing yet fantastic and utterly artistic film as Cronengerg’s version of Chöd.
THE ART OF NOTHING
As I’m indulging in a few more studies of the contemporary “physics of nothing”, I’m also observing what it does in my body, and surprisingly, the strange thing it does is not contraction into the stress of banging the head into the unsolvable mysteries, but rather further expansion into the softness and vastness of the mysteries of the Void.
The sensation of the inner dance, softly expanding Tandava, evolves, and everything becomes an ART. So do I.
My heart of Being expands daily into the unfathomable vastness of the infinity and beauty of nothingness.
I’m the ART. The artpiece.
It couldn’t be otherwise
because I’m the artpiece
and the Artist.
Expanding, expanding …
Until the alienating forces
of the exploding universe
dissolve all the fetters
To finally arrive
NOTHING COMES FROM NOTHING
SOMETHING COMES FROM NOTHING
NOTHING COMES FROM SOMETHING
I AM NOT THEREFORE I AM 😁
(may everyone find peace and joy in their dissolution)