Has the Meaning of Nothing Changed? In his quest to understand the origins of the universe, Jim Holt stands up for the big 0
Don’t take this the wrong way, but I care about nothing. Meaning I care about the ongoing argument about the meaning of nothing, not that I don’t care about anything. One has to be careful in discussing nothing.
Anyway, I care particularly about the eternally vexing question: “Why is there something rather than nothing.” In other words, why does the universe exist at all?
There is a long and strong philosophical tradition examining these questions. Some trace the argument back to pre-Socratic philosophers. Then there is the great Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, who made a point in De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) that “nothing can come from nothing.” St. Augustine argued that God created the universe ex nihilo, from nothing, but neglected to explain how God emerged from nothing, arguing instead that He was always there.
And in the modern era, savants from Leibniz to Heidegger have tied themselves in knots over the issue. When the Big Bang theory emerged in the late 1920s, some people figured, “Problem solved.” But for purists among the interested physicists, philosophers, and bystanders such as myself, the Big Bang theory has not answered all questions. (For instance, “Where did the Big Bang come from? And how could it have come from pure nothing?”). And now the question of what exactly “pure nothing” is has become the subject of contention.
In the past couple of decades, quantum cosmologists claim to have pulled a rabbit out of a hat and explained “how something came from nothing” with quantum theories of the origins of the universe. But is the nothing these theorists claim to be describing true nothing, capital-N Nothing, the Really Big O, the Ultimate Zero?