Divine Neutrality, Blog. Science, Philosophy

Why Is There Anything?

March 14th, 2008

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I am thinking about the functions of religion. What does organized religion give to people that drives them to suspend reason. What is the nature of man that religion exists?

I conclude that people need guided ceremony. And they need prayer: something to offer consolation in times of despair and celebration in times of joy. There exist organizations that offer prayers. Besides the prayers of traditional religions, there are many groups offering non-denominational prayers. Unitarians do this. I googled non-denominational prayers and was led here:

theGreenBelt blogspot, Non-denominational prayer

This site gives some examples of non-denominational prayers. I find them quite poetic. What disturbs the rather astute writer of that excellent greenbelt blog is the futility of the prayer. She is not so much disturbed by the references to deity, God and Creator. Here’s one of the prayers.

Let us pray. We meditate on the transcendental Glory of the Deity Supreme, who is inside the heart of the Earth, inside the life of the sky, and inside the soul of the Heaven. May He stimulate and illuminate our minds.

I am not a believer. So I try to put myself into the state of mind of someone who is – someone especially sensitive to imagery. For him a phrase like ‘the creator’ is an embraceable metaphore for some ultimate grandness in the scheme of existence in which we partake. ‘Creator’ can be a word of poetry to which an artistic temperament can respond. For such a person a text such as “for some ultimate grandness in the scheme of existence in which we partake” is cumbersome – and even belittling.

The significance of a single supreme deity (as opposed to myriads of them – primitive demons – or even a sprinkling of them – say, a pantheon of gods) is the simple poetic recognition of some single ultimate mystery: Why is there anything?

Physics has an answer to this question! It arises from the idea of quantum fluctuations. By the laws of physics a vacuum cannot exist. Particle – antiparticle pairs appear out of the vacuum. So nothingness, as an everlasting state of the universe, is not possible according to the laws of physics.

Another way to see it is this: the ground state of the universe is not nothingness. There is always a zero point of activity. Here’s an elemental analogy: The ground state of an atom is not collapse. (This finding by Rutherford in 1910 and which Niels Bohr explained in 1912 was the founding event of modern quantum mechanics.) The ground state of an atom has a persistent cloud of electrons hovering over a massive nucleus attracting those electrons. The uncertainty principle – a law of physics – does not allow collapse. Quantum mechanics forbids anything from having both a fixed position and zero motion at the same time.

Does this explain why there is not nothing? The explanation is this, “Because the laws of physics demand it. The laws of physics say there cannot be just nothing.”

That there are such laws is surely awesome.
They govern the universe.
They reign supreme.

God!

Physics turns the question, “Why is there anything?” into the question, “Why do laws of physics exist?”

In either case it’s an ultimate question. And surely unanswerable. It translates metaphorically into a single mystery – a single ‘god’.

Now, one comes to the idea of prayer. Why pray to the laws of physics?

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Comments

  1. 1

    Excellent Blog. I’ve been reading along and just wanted to say hi. I will be reading more of your posts in the future.

    - Jason.

    - Jason Elder @
  2. 2

    Thank you so much, Jason.

    - Marvin Chester @
  3. 3

    Why is there anything? This ever-present, startling mystery, always immediate, right here…

    Not just why is there a universe (or why are there universes), but why is there even a logical “is-ness” within which universes are potential? The terrible mystery of the existence of existence itself…

    - michael chester @
  4. 4

    This reminds me of The Who’s Peter Townshend’s “Nothing Is Everything, Everything Is Nothing” from his solo album of the mid-70′s. In this song, Pete paraphrases his guru, Meher Baba, who never speaks, but instead writes small tidbits of wisdom on a chalkboard he carries as he rides a donkey.
    This leads me to ask, why are there creatures who have arisen from the continuously emerging complexity of the “known” universe who are aware of themselves? Creatures who seem to, at least temporarily on individual bases, circumvent The Second Law of Thermodynamics. Creatures who, in the words of Daniel C. Dennett,
    “predict future,” and consequently store wealth?”

    - Breht @
  5. 5

    I like the question posed at the end: why pray to the laws of physics indeed?

    A couple of comments:

    Is nothing the same as the vacuum? A vacuum, while itself at the lowest energy state possible, is still full of energy, not to mention space and time. To my mind, nothing only makes sense as no-thing, which from another point of view, is the same as everything, smeared together…or, that is, formless chaos.

    I don’t understand what physicists mean by “laws” if they are meant to be something more than a convenient shorthand for persistently observed regularities expressed within some theory about this universe. What gives laws their “authority”? Or, is the concept of laws (and maybe even causality) a human fiction, fed by our hunger for a creator and law giver?

    -steve

    - Steve Strasnick @
  6. 6

    @ Steve. Your comments are thought provoking and intelligent. Thank you.

    David Ellerman says that the universe didn’t arise out of nothing but rather condensed from a nebulous cloud into discernible things.
    http://www.ellerman.org/category/qm/

    What I mean by laws of nature:

    To be granted the title, law of nature, a theory must have been validated by experiment innumerable times and must have never been contradicted by a single experiment. A valid theory doesn’t merely catalogue experience; it predicts experience. It predicts what will happen should you perform an experiment. That’s how you test a theory.

    An idea – a theory – that makes quantitative predictions about the behavior of nature all of which are found to be true without exception over years of investigation is granted the honorific, ‘law of nature’. And with this honorific comes its authority. Among scientists there is no law giver – and there are only a few law seekers. In my view the noblest pursuit in life is to seek structure in the natural world; to seek out what might be laws of nature.

    Examples of such laws are these:
    Maxwell’s equations which govern how electricity and magnetism behave.
    Newtonian mechanics in its domain of speeds small compared with light.
    Einstein’s relativity.
    The rules of quantum mechanics.
    The laws of thermodynamics.

    - Marvin Chester @
  7. 7

    Thanks for your response, Marvin.

    Ellerman’s material looks promising, though a little intimidating at first glance. I understand partitions, but am unclear how they can be applied to QM. Guess I’ll have to think about it. Thanks for the reference. He seems like an interesting guy.

    I agree with you that laws must be understood in the context of a falsifiable theory that makes predictions, but isn’t the ability to explain an observed phenomenon in terms of more fundamental or abstract forces or entities also a key element of this story? I like David Deutsch’s account of explanation in this regard.

    My deeper puzzlement, though, is what underlies the regularity we see in nature. For example, if this regularity is due to some kind of dynamic self-organizational principle that follows from some simple set of rules (see Wolfram, for example), we might have a fundamental explanation and simple laws explaining the behavior of the universe, though ones that would give us no ability to make accurate predictions about what the universe might do next.

    So we might have a theory with complete determinism and yet still be surprised about what happens next. Is this all free will is in our own case? The ability to be surprised?

    –steve

    - Steve Strasnick @

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