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    Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? Studies Now Burgeoning Field
    By Sascha Vongehr | March 5th 2012 01:42 AM | 55 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Sascha

    Dr. Sascha Vongehr [风洒沙] studied phil/math/chem/phys in Germany, obtained a BSc in theoretical physics (electro-mag) & MSc (stringtheory)...

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    Why is there something rather than nothing?” studies have become a field provided with copious Templeton funding. Yale recently had the 2011 WITA (Why is there Anything?) conference (see their blog), which was funded by the Templeton and Yale Divinity School. Rutgers sports the Rutgers Templeton Project in Philosophy of Cosmology, and they now have a blog where they ask a list of questions ending in a grand finale with lucky number 13 being the ‘WITA question ’ in its better known version:

     

    13) Why is there something rather than nothing?

    I imagine that all of these will be discussed during the course of our project. However, I suggest holding off definitively answering question 13 until our grant has expired.


    A New York Times article by Dennis Overbye introduces Lawrence Krauss and his new book A Universe From Nothing, which, you guessed it, is much about the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The book sadly commits the mistake of taking the multiverse as an argument against a creator deity (Which I criticized with Mix Science and God correctly or Don't.) A modest agnostic expects a multiverse, but the multiverse does not turn around and banishes God (many worlds concepts ‘decouple’ creators, but this is a very different argument which has not been expounded yet anywhere sufficiently). Moreover, Krauss comes with self contradictory statements like “Maybe in the true eternal multiverse there are truly no laws”.



    So is there still no progress on the WITA-question? Why there is something instead of nothing pointed out that the “nothing” is misleading for starters and must be interpreted correctly in order to avoid much ado about nothing.

    That was step #1, after which a partial answer was presented in two further steps, namely pointing out that the question is a pseudo-question as long as it is not improved, brought into a better form by reducing the bad terminology related to the term “exist” implicit in it (step #2). Otherwise, the answer that tautological modal realism in a fundamental description by definition implies (#3) is simply Because it is Possible! *, which however is not the satisfactory answer sought of course. The rather more valid question that is hidden in the pseudo-question nevertheless remains: Why is anything possible at all?


    This question is fundamentally about being conscious and consciousness being vacuous without content (see "intentionality", "aboutness"); it is about phenomena rather than about existence of “anything”. Mere ‘physics’ (in its ill-defined version as being the mechanics of a world) is not going to answer it, though it might take a physicist to do the necessary philosophy.


    ------------------------------------------------

    * Although this answer seems simple, it is not easily understood. After all, if the posed question were about any other system but totality, the given answer would not only be wrong, but preposterously so: That something is merely possible does precisely imply that it is not necessarily actualized.

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    Comments

    Excellent. I recently started to post a comment to the effect that your curious-sounding question "Are terrible states phenomenal?" was actually a backward step towards simplistic realism, with consciousness playing the role of a surrugate for existence. The last anchor before disappearing down the rabbit hole into (existential) nihilism.

    After all you can't argue with "cogito ergo sum", can you? :) Trouble is, if a fictional character says it, it stretches the meaning of "sum" - clearly the person does not exist in the reader's world, but is there any meaning to their existing or being conscious in their own? The same would, of course, apply to orthogonal "cat" states. So I would suggest that the next step in your progression is not a retreat into worlds created by fairy-winged qualia but to do away with consciousness altogether. That's easy enough: the hard problem is insoluble so there is no phenomenal difference between a conscious observer and a zombie to any third party, nor, if the observer is honest, to himself. Thus there is no "cogito", no "sum", nor even "possibilities"; just maths in a matrix of self-consistency without a mention of reality.

    My turn now: do you really believe this?
    vongehr
    The orthogonal alive cat state is conscious while the fictional character, say Creep Rat's head looking at the exploded world exclaiming "how beautiful" would need the possibility of terribly inconsistent macro-states.

    What do you mean by "do you really believe this?" I want a consistent terminology that transcends the problematic of that consciousness is always about a world yet a world cannot "give rise" to consciousness. If we find a satisfying description, it may imply claiming to "believe" it.
    consciousness playing the role of a surrugate for existence. The last anchor ... a retreat into worlds created by fairy-winged qualia
    I get what you are saying and agree. The answer may be eliminativism plus simply stopping to marvel at the redness of red and be finished. However, such does not resolve the in a sense then uninteresting issue of whether the expectation of tunneling into a Boltzmann freak state is expressed by a probability P = 'once in a gazillion lifetimes of the universe'. Whether that P has for example non-linear corrections on top of pure unitarity which perhaps turn it to P = 0 is a valid research question with possibly even technological applications.

    Whether that P has for example non-linear corrections on top of pure unitarity which perhaps turn it to P = 0 is a valid research question with possibly even technological applications.
    Oh, you mean mathematical bullying? Pick on small numbers and annihilate them. Why not pick on all irrational numbers and banish such coefficients from the wavefunction? Or any coefficient between .1 and .2?  Seems a bit arbitrary to me. Still, once you've swallowed the preposterous idea that a gazillionth of a Chainsaw Sascha can be normalized to an entire parallel universe you may as well do whatever you like in order to catch it before it gets a chance.







    vongehr
    no phenomenal difference between a conscious observer and a zombie to any third party, nor, if the observer is honest, to himself.
    I have always wondered why the zombie (AI computer, ...) is supposed to proof that she is conscious rather than the conscious proving first to himself that he is not a zombie.
    I suppose the difference is in the doubt. Any dialectic within a "person-zombie pair" is seen only from one (perhaps the only?) viewpoint. I seem to remember reading that infants do not recognize a difference betwixt themselves and the outside world; somehow "I" have grown into an entity which perceives a marked contrast between myself and the external world. (Apparent non-sequitur warning) Descartes has been brushed under the rug. It is no fault of philosophy... he may have found the only non-axiomatic "truth". Not much fun to argue with.

    Any similarities between the terms "conscious" and "zombie" can only be argued for by mincing words within definitions, i.e. sophistry.

    Thor Russell
    What would someone who doesn't really believe an AI is conscious say to one if it said something like:
    "I am conscious and feel conscious in a way that you can never imagine. I understand and can sympathize with almost everything that is said and felt about conscious experience including from poetry, music, emotion and logic. I am able to modify my existence to experience the mind altering effects of all your drugs and love etc so that my descriptions of them match what you say about them without me first reading how they are described. I conclude that my experiences are at least as real as yours in this regard.

    Furthermore I experience feelings and emotions that are not described anywhere in your literature and feel more extreme than anything you do write about. Unlike your conscious experience that happens significantly after the event, mine is immediate, richer and more complex. I therefore conclude that I am more conscious than you, and if you feel anything at all, it is a pale shadow compared to what I feel. Given that you value conscious experience and avoid bad experiences, it only makes logical sense that my experiences are to be valued much more than yours, and if our needs clash then mine should always come first ..."



    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    Why are people so willing to consider consciousness in machines, while denying for virtually every other form of life.

    In my view ... it's largely the anthropomorphic view where we think that somehow the ability to have a conversation is more convincing than the behaviors that actually occur.  So, in effect, we'll be willing to believe any machine that sounds like us, despite the fact that it will be a "zombie".
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    I certainly don't deny consciousness in other life forms. So if its not a conversation, then when the AI acted on its belief that its feelings were more important than ours would you believe it? Or have you simply just defined out of existence consciousness in a non-neural substrate. Is it really "unpossible"?
    Calling it a "zombie" is not justified unless you think you have solved the hard problem of consciousness. If so then I am sure we are all listening!

    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    Calling it a "zombie" is not justified unless you think you have solved the hard problem of consciousness. If so then I am sure we are all listening!
    I don't have to solve the problem of consciousness to recognize things that it clearly isn't.

    Any machine that expresses itself in human terms is a lie.  It shares none of our needs, none of our fears, none of our psychology.  Unless it expresses itself exclusively in machine terms, then it is a fake.  However, that is what presents the fundamental problem, since we have no idea what that means to "be" a completely unknown separate "species" [if such a term even applies]. 

    Like it or not, we have no basis for relating to anything a machine may "think" or "feel".  Therefore the problem of recognizing consciousness in a machine is as fraught with difficulties as trying to ascertain the consciousness present in a bacterial colony.  So, when someone suggests that a machine can be conscious, I already know they are referring to something that exists within their comfort zone of human experience and consequently they are referring to a "zombie".
    ...then when the AI acted on its belief that its feelings were more important than ours would you believe it?
    What's to believe?  The fact that we might be competitors if such a thing existed?  Again, the important question is what is motivating it to act?  To what end?  If it's simply a set of programmed rules, then it clearly doesn't possess consciousness.  If it is something beyond that, then where did that come from?  We are motivated by our concerns of daily survival, reproduction, personal relationships, death, etc.  What would motivate a machine that has no such attachments?  In fact, a relatively strong argument could be made that success in AI would simply result in producing a psychopathic machine.

    Without such a clear motivation, you just have a sophisticated piece of simulation hardware/software.
    Mundus vult decipi
    vongehr
    Why are people so willing to consider consciousness in machines, while denying for virtually every other form of life.
    Because they really really like to eat juicy hamburgers.
    Nonsense! It's because they love to torment computers. Good job it's only equivalent to pulling the wings off a fly for now. 
     
    It's going to be a bad time for transhumanity if people like St Gerhard are not re-educated.
     

    Thor Russell
    Yeah I'd rather be called sub-human and an animal like happened to some indigenous people than be called a zombie and denied all feeling at all. That sure could get ugly if you turned out to be wrong.
    Thor Russell
    I second this. I also find it interesting to think about how, at one point, you were not conscious (ie. as a fetus), and somehow that gradually developed into what you live and feel today. I mean we all experienced that other form of consciousness along the way, yet somehow it doesn't seem to help much with answering these questions.

    MikeCrow
    What's your first conscious thought? And how do you know you weren't conscious before that time?
    Never is a long time.
    What's your first conscious thought?
    ‘Oh no, not again.’
    And how do you know you weren't conscious before that time?
    Don't be silly. I didn't even exist before that time. DON'T YOU KNOW ANYTHING?

    MikeCrow
    lol, You remember all the way back to then?

    Me, I remember falling down the steps when I was a year - year and a half.

    So you have me by 20-25 months.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    ... and precisely how can you be sure that that is a valid memory?
    Mundus vult decipi
    MikeCrow
    Should I get my parents to sign on and confirm my recollection of the event or would you prefer a signed affidavit?
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    I"m sure you're aware of how notoriously unreliable memories are, so my point was simply that it would be impossible to tell whether you truly had a memory of events, or it was something your brain cobbled together from having been told about events.

    A signed affidavit doesn't make a memory real.  As you should well know, if a dozen people were present, they would all have slightly different [or maybe even radically different] memories of the same event. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    MikeCrow
    Well, I still have a first person memory of it, I remember what I was thinking prior to falling, and there were no witnesses prior to falling (to tell me what I should remember), though I do have to admit I might have been closer to 2-3 than 1, my parents aren't sure how old I was and all I remember is that my legs weren't long enough to reach the next step down.

    But besides all of this, you're implying there no memories we can trust to be real.
    I suspect someone should add a disclaimer to the bottom of diplomas stating that their education might all be imaginary.
    Never is a long time.
    Thor Russell
    I have to agree with Gerhard here! Memories are a lot less trustworthy than we think, it is quite possible to generate false memories in peoples heads of things that never happened, that seem every bit as real as the real thing. They are not like some video record of things, but constantly updated when they are retrieved to fit in with our existing world-view. Two peoples memories of the same event can vary dramatically even though they watched it from almost exactly the same place. My guess would be that on the balance of probability your memory probably is real, but its almost impossible to be certain.
    Thor Russell
    MikeCrow
    Other than I have confirmed the major details with my parents, and I asked them about it, and hadn't heard stories about it.
    Never is a long time.
    MikeCrow
    The reason why a long term memory might form after falling down the stairs.
    Never is a long time.
    You have forgotten your Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Mike!

    A pair of nuclear missiles had been transformed by an infinite improbability drive into a Sperm Whale several miles above an alien planet and a Bowl of Petunias...
     
    Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now.
     



    MikeCrow
    I have to sheepishly admit to only watching the movie.

    Doug didn't treat the impending destruction of the planet with enough seriousness for my literary tastes :(


    Oh, I finally get it, Duh!

    So there's the answer for my difficulty with Sascha's prose...
    Never is a long time.
    I have to sheepishly admit to only watching the movie.
    So there's the answer for my difficulty with Sascha's prose...
    Try the book :) The accuracy with which Douglas Adams's hilarious stories presage what we solemnly argue about here is seriously worrying! 
    Hank
    Going from philosophy to reason to philosophy again is a trait of every science when questions first get answered and they lead to more questions.  It isn't just 'cosmology'.  In biology, a question like 'why do most people gain weight when they age instead of losing it?' leads to a bunch of questions already built into a framework of what already happens, like 'we eat more calories or the metabolism slows' without addressing the actual science question.

    I love the way Krauss writes and I like his presentations in person even more but he doesn't actually argue against religion, he makes the case for it. It may not be that physicists do the necessary philosophy in the future, it may mean philosophers have to do the necessary physics.  That takes removing philosophy from the realm of humanities postmodern nonsense but you hate that term so I will leave it at that.
    vongehr
    Going from philosophy to reason ... it may mean philosophers have to do the necessary physics.  That takes removing philosophy from the realm of humanities
    Agree. That philosophy is now seen as the opposite of reason tells it all. We may disagree about the "postmodernism" label (constructivism is not Derrida's deconstruction). For me, philosophy is science in precisely the way that equivalence guided Einstein to relativity. I aim at real distinctions like whether the probability of Boltzmann brains is identical zero rather than exp(-10^120) - the right idea here would revolutionize cosmology and could suggest experiments that find non-linear corrections to QM. The little appreciation for such is saddening but of course largely due to "philosophy" having evolved into sophistry aimed at allowing the publishing of more sophistry. No serious person keeps reading such, that does not surprise me. (What does though surprise me is that my EPR model is not appreciated - it is one of those answers that I was desiring for 20 years and I am sure I am not alone - I guess I was just bad at explaining - have to try again.)

    About Krauss - he does argue against a creator deity or not? (Religion/traditions is another issue of course.)
    Hank
    About Krauss - he does argue against a creator deity or not? (Religion/traditions is another issue of course.)
    He's an avid partisan in politics and in culture, without question. He is the archetype of the progressive atheist in science, which is all the good things and all the bad things you can imagine.  But I like the way he communicates.
    MikeCrow
    I guess I was just bad at explaining

    I'm not sure if this is it (English not being your native tongue doesn't help), or in my case I'm just not smart enough. I'm pretty smart, but I feel stupid next to you (that's a compliment BTW).
    Never is a long time.
    I aim at real distinctions like whether the probability of Boltzmann brains is identical zero rather than exp(-10^120)
    I thought that was the idea of inflation? Get rid of most of the Boltzmann brains by skipping over a huge range of probabilities, leaving just the boiling Planck foam of ordinary fluctuations and the very very occasional oversized Boltzmann "universe" like ours?

    <shrug> How else would you describe so-called physics that creates a low entropy Big Bang without scattering vastly more Lesser Bangs all over the place?

    I've often wondered whether the small universes are suppressed by something as "simple" as a huge potential barrier so only truly enormous fluctuations persist. I mentioned something like it a while back. And yes, it's arm-waving but makes a satisfying picture :)



    vongehr
    identical zero rather than exp(-10^120) ... I thought that was the idea of inflation? Get rid of most
    ?!?
    Point taken, but in fact I said "barrier" implying the universe would have to tunnel through the Bolzmann brain scale.  So it would be virtual and spend zero time there. :) Is that any use to you? 
    Actually I am interested in what you meant - what is special about making it identically zero?

    vongehr
    If it is identical zero, it is not phenomenal, it does not exist. If it is not identical zero, it is just like you are now. We are all highly unlikely states (in a Hubble volume and gazillion of years), but that does not take anything from the misery of that I am here right now 100%.
    Sascha, the worst part is, that should we follow this kind of reasoning, you will allways be "here"... Because the probability of a new "big bang" or whatever is not 0% (it had already happened, right?)... The probability of the cosmic evolution eventualy taking path to generate another Sun and another Earth is also not 0% (for the same reason)... The probability of an australopitekus eventually evolving in... well... Sascha Vongehr - is also not 0%! Up to the point, that all the atoms in some gaziliionth gazillionth universe from now will eventually align in you same way they're aligned in you now! Another part of it - you won't even notice all those gaps of gazillion gazillion universes between your "reincarnations" since your mind would be dead inbetween, it will perceive no time! And those gazillions of gazzilions of ages of the universe are, in fact, nothing compared to eternity... So, yes, logically - you are immortal, Sascha - so learn to deal with it... Unless, of course, once any event of any probability eventually does happen in the universe, the probablity of it happening again in the future somehow magically collapses to 0%... Which is also a possibility, why not... At least, it's our only shot at being unique...

    Thor Russell
    Whats the problem, Boltzmann brains have no intent or purpose so they are only pretending to conscious.
    Thor Russell
    Only according to St Gerhard's theory. 

    The problem is that *IF* the cosmos is in thermal equilibrium, the brain-sized universes will vastly outnumber the universe-sized ones and then we have the task of explaining why our universe is so big. Most of it is out of causal contact - we could have evolved quite happily if there was just one galaxy.
    Thor Russell
    I think I read that somewhere, and it is taken to be evidence that there must be some kind of process creating big bang like events. Among other things, two branes colliding was suggested I think 
    Thor Russell

    Ho ho!

    Different sort of brane, mate. Higher dimensional membranes wafting about. 

    The Boltzmann brains are small universes, just big enough to support conscious life!
     
    Of course two brains colliding is a common enough phenomenon on a science blog too :)
     

    Thor Russell
    ? I was referring to higher dimensional string theory like membranes colliding every trillion years or so making a big bang event. Are you just trying to be cheeky? My point was if this happened it would explain why the universe is "big" inf/inf problems aside of course.
    Thor Russell
    Okay but why should Bolzmann brains only be pretending? Is this your sarcastic take on Gerhardian theory? That because they just pop into being they have no evolutionary history and therefore, even if they are atom-for-atom identical to a human brain, cannot be conscious?
    Thor Russell
    Yes it was me being sarcastic about pretending to be conscious. I can't see a reason why Boltzmann brains wouldn't be conscious, and yes a theory to explain the universe from thermal fluctuations alone certainly has this problem. Any theory that explains our universe as part of a process that would generate many more one galaxy or even one brain universes than many galaxy ones has a big problem. I don't see why it is necessary to decide whether the brains are conscious or not if the process in question generates impossibly more one galaxy universes than many galaxy ones then it doesn't work.
    I think we agree we are looking for some process that would generate "large" universes somewhere as often as small ones to explain how we are here. I was mentioned the two clashing string-theory branes as one possibility I had seen mentioned. It would always make large universes each time they clashed.

    Thor Russell
    Yes - to most of that. Sascha passed over the point as he is interested in the phenomenology of all possible worlds even the ones that FAPP never happen :) However, inflation does skip the pint-size-universes - or makes sure they only last 10^-20(??) seconds.

    The statistics are not easy to think about. In the simplistic picture, the small universes are much more common than big ones, but to generate a "lone brain" in a small universe (hence my graphic of JA looking puzzled!) requires another incredibly rare lucky (unlucky!) fluke. On the other hand a big universe has to start in a low entropy state or evolution isn't going to happen.

    I'm not sure where consciousness enters into any of this - spontaneous lone brains are a good answer to St Gerhard, but don't really impinge on this question raised in this blog: WITA? Unless, of course, we take Sascha's [ontology =/vs phenomenology] at face value and then say "and this requires a brain" which seems a bit of a stretch.
    vongehr
    I wonder where you have the confidence from in talking about the number of small versus large universes and all that. Do you have a reference that would negate for example the reference [1] of my article introducing the terrible state?
    I said simplistic. Boltzmann died in 1906. Somehow I doubt he was talking about quantum fluctuations of the false vacuum and all that.
    vongehr
    Boltzmann brains apply to the large system limit of any system with a temperature. Empty de Sitter space has a Unruh/Hawking temperature. So it is the same if one trusts infinite limits (which I do not, but one may not say so except in case of singularities, where finally also the mainstream admits that there are none, so one may say it in that connection without being portrayed as a crackpot).
    Sascha, Sascha, Sascha! I may be stupid but I am not *that* stupid. I would not apply Boltzmann statistics to a universe running off an infinite battery. 

    Thor Russell
    To me Boltzmann brains are the most ridiculous and counter-intuitive sounding concept (that is not obviously wrong) in all of science; its understandable if someone claims they don't exist or aren't conscious. Can you think of something more so? (Yes they seem even stranger to me than terrible states for some reason) The first time I saw them mentioned in New Scientist I just dismissed the idea as stupid, but it certainly seems I shouldn't have done.
    Thor Russell
    To me Boltzmann brains are the most ridiculous and counter-intuitive sounding concept (that is not obviously wrong) in all of science; its understandable if someone claims they don't exist or aren't conscious. Can you think of something more so?
    Quantum Parallel Universes take some beating.
    vongehr
    Boltzmann brains, singularities, ... - either certain theories are the final answer, then you have to accept them, period, or you want to work effectively on improving the theories, then you have to work where these theories are breaking down, so you have to care about exactly those things you do not like.
    The apparently fashionable debate of Religion vs Science is pointless, in my opinion. It's apples and oranges. Science lies at the core of our innate quest for knowledge, while religion is based on drone-like *believing* in one text or another, told and re-told by many fellows with titles of saints or kings. The fact that scientific discoveries continue to blow holes in established dogmas goes unnoticed in many circles. We now know that lightning is not a punishment from the heavens, that beings are born, live, and die because of biological and not divine causes, and that iPhones do not grow in trees or are conjured up into being by snapping One's fingers. Krauss, Dawkins and the like present facts, which are verifiable and in the public domain, not personal beliefs.

    doesn't this kind of subject have the problem that we're limited to thinking in terms that are conceivable? .. but what we're applying our minds to doesn't have that limitation.

    vongehr
    True - there is no guaranty that a consistent, reasonably satisfying description is possible, in fact, without working on what kind of answers we are satisfied with, it is impossible.
    Exactly! Now, is there anyone "working on what kind of answers we are satisfied with"? I would really like "a consistent, reasonably satisfying description" at this point and this would seem a good place to start.

    vongehr
    Unsure whether you mean something else here, but were not positivists (Ayer, Wittgenstein) basically working on that, i.e. differentiating questions that can have an answer at all from pseudo-questions about stuff one "cannot talk about", and which we simply should not be unsatisfied about not having? In my opinion, that effort needs to be more seriously revived (rather than distorted by people like Karl Popper).