05 August 2011

Superpositionality answers Heidegger

Heidegger's famous question

Martin Heidegger famously asked "Why is there something rather than nothing?" There have been many attempts to answer it, but every single attempt I have seen has been wrong in some important respect. I will propose an answer (skip ahead if you can't wait).

But first I will try to convince you that the existing answers don't work, and then lay some groundwork for my answer.

Some sources

How do I know that I've covered the field of attempted answers well? Why should you believe I have? As opposed to me inventing strawmen, or covering some attempts but not "the good ones".

So here are some sources that already surveyed the attempted answers:

  • Nothingness (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) More of a flowing discussion than a list of answer candidates. Section 1 is relevant, the other sections less so.
  • The biggest Big Question of all (Shermer)
    1. God
    2. Wrong Question
    3. Grand Unified Theory
    4. Boom-and-Bust Cycles
    5. Darwinian Multiverse
    6. Inflationary Cosmology
    7. Many-Worlds Multiverse
    8. Brane-String Universes
    9. Quantum Foam Multiverse
    10. M-Theory Grand Design
  • Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? The Only Six Options (Patton)
    1. The universe is eternal and everything has always existed.
    2. Nothing exists and all is an illusion
    3. The universe created itself
    4. Chance created the universe
    5. The universe is created by nothing
    6. An transcendent being (God) created all that there is out of nothing.

Survey of attempted answers

Answers that only push the question back one step farther

"God made it all"

Covering what

Shermer's answer (1), Patton's answer (6)

The failure

The circularity of this has already been hashed to death. 'Nuff said.

Spontaneous generation (Science version)

Covering what

Michael Shermer's answers 3 thru 10 all fall into this category. Patton's (3) and (4) seem to belong in here too.

The problem with it

Usually this is tied to quantum phenomena, often to quantum fluctuations of the (hypothesized) inflation field, as in Shermer's (9).

But look at it thru the lens of the original question. "Why does anything exist?" leads directly to "Why does this something, the inflation field, exist? (if it does)" and "Why do these particular rules for it, that it can fluctuate and inflate, exist?" And the space and time that the quantum fluctuations inflate in are somethings too, so we have to ask why they exist too.

Note that if any of these question have ordinary answers, like "spin foam pre-existed and became the space-time", this merely pushes the question back one step, "Why does the spin foam exist?".

One can ask similar questions of the other science spontaneous generation answers. I won't bore you or myself by ringing changes on this theme across all of the science-y answers.

So this entire pattern of answer is a non-answer that can never truly answer "Why does anything exist?"

Probabilistic generation

What it covers

Discussion in Nothingness

Even if "Nothing exists" [is] the uniquely simplest possibility [], why should we expect that possibility to be actual? In a fair lottery, we assign the same probability of winning to the ticket unmemorably designated 321,169,681 as to the ticket memorably labeled 111,111,111.

The problem with it

Here the "something" assumed in the answer is much more subtle. Why should this cosmic roll of the dice cause a world to exist? I roll dice all the time in tabletop RPGs. This has yet to cause the things I roll up to pop into actual existence. Why is this cosmic roll of the dice different? What "breathes life" into it?

Whatever thing breathes life into it constitutes a subtle something that's assumed by the answer. So again we can ask, "Why does that something exist?"

Another issue

The Stanford Nothingness notes that the assumption that there's one empty world (nothingness) can be questioned. Is there at most one empty world?

Not too far off though

Nevertheless, this approach does hint at the answer that I give.

Answers that try to change the question

"Why not?"

The problem with it

When it's put as simply as this, it's obvious that it's just dodging the question. Next I'll look at some more sophisticated attempts to undercut the coherence of the question.

The universe has always existed

What it covers

Patton's (1)

The problem with it

It's a sleight of hand. It focusses on a tangential element of the question and then removes that element. The essential question goes unanswered.

Ordinarily when we speak of something existing, there was a moment at which it came into existence, or at least a time-frame in which it did. But that's a misleading intuition pump; easy to imagine, because it's commonplace, but really doesn't fit the question. The question wasn't "When did stuff come into existence?" or even "Why, when it came into existence, did it do so?"

If the universe has always existed and stretches backwards in time forever, well then, the question becomes why that backwards stretch:

  • contains something rather than nothing.
  • itself exists

"Wrong Question"

What it covers

Shermer's answer (2) at first glance appears to fall here (but it mostly won't)

"Somethingness" is the natural state of things.

The problem with it

Saying that somethingness more natural than nothingness is saying that there is some meta-rule that favors somethingness over nothingness. Well, that meta-rule is a something. So ask again, why doe that something it exist? So on closer inspection, this answer is mostly a species of Spontaneous generation (Philosophical version).

But one part of the issue that belongs under this subheading, not there. Having asked "Why does the meta-rule exist", one might answer the same way again: "Its existence - its somethingness - is more natural than its non-existence". Ie, appeal again to the meta-rule itself. So re-raising the original question does not immediately defeat this answer. The fixpoint here is in positive territory, as it were, not in negative territory. Before, in the answers that only push the question back one step farther, the fixpoint was in negative territory.

This answer still has serious problems.

  • It's entirely circular; not neccessarily false but it doesn't resolve anything.
  • One needs to ask why this fixpoint of meta-rules is selected as "real" and capable of self-support, when other fixpoints are not. What breathes life into somethingness-is-natural and not into others? NB, this question is "why choose this?", not "why does anything exist?"
  • And not least, Occam's Razor. I've ignored it thru this whole discussion so far, but it's important. Occam's Razor is completely contrary to somethingness-is-natural and has enormous empirical and intuitive support.

"Everything exists" is as simple as "Nothing exists"

What it covers

Discussion in Nothingness.

As far as simplicity is concerned, there is a tie between the nihilistic rule "Always answer no!" and the inflationary rule "Always answer yes!". Neither rule makes for serious metaphysics.

The problem with it

"Everything exists" not the same as "Something exists". So this argument fails to put "Something exists" on an equal footing with "Nothing exists".

Experiencing nothingness

Experiencing nothingness itself

If nothing existed, what exactly would you notice?

Of course you wouldn't see big dark shadows and hear the hollow echoes of sounds you make. You wouldn't have eyes to see them, or ears, or a brain to appreciate the experience. You would notice exactly nothing.

Experiencing everythingness

Earlier, we saw that "Everything exists" is as simple as "Nothing exists". So Occam's Razor is as favorable to everythingness as it is to nothingness. If my answer is to be reasonable, it can't ignore everythingness just because Heidegger didn't mention it.

So let's ask, in exact parallel: If everything existed, what exactly would you notice?

Of course you wouldn't see a big pink elephant and then a leprechaun dancing with a poodle in a kaleidoscope. That's a chaotic parade of some the individual things you could possibly see, but it's not experiencing everything at once. Not by a long shot.

What would you experience, if you experienced everything at once, with nothing at all left out?

Well, you couldn't localize it. You couldn't understand it, or pin it down as being some particular thing. You couldn't even pin it down as some particular thing that it wasn't.

What about your eyes and your brain? That's the most bizarre part. You'd have every possible eyes and every possible brain. In everythingness, every question of the form "Does X exist?" gets the answer "yes". "Does brain X exist?" (yes) "Does brain X, additionally having the property of being your very own thinking organ, exist?" (yes)

So I think that what you'd experience in everythingness would be completely formless and indistinct. Essentially the same as the experience of nothingness. And I think that if you experienced normal existence and nothing and everything at the same time, it would again add up to just normal experience.



Superpositionality or "quantum superposition" considers that a system is "really" in a state that is an overlapping of all of the possible configurations. By "really", we mean in the view of someone outside the system - in the birds-eye view, as it were.

Co-incidentally, Shermer's answer (7) is about Many-Worlds (M-W), which implies superpositionality. He didn't seem to notice the connection to his question.

M-W also implies something else that I will use in my argument: superpositions are parsimonious. M-W is extremely Occam-friendly. This seems to surprise people who don't understand M-W.

The question assumes too much

Earlier, I chided answers that try to change the question. So I have to be careful not to commit the same sin myself. Nevertheless, if a question assumes too much, it's OK to challenge those assumptions. Just play fair.

There is one very subtle assumption in the question. "Why is there something instead of nothing?" 1.

The question assumes that one or the other is the case. It's an obvious and mundane assumption, but one that doesn't work in such a basic philosophical question. I propose that it's one assumption too many. I'm going to remove that one assumption and then answer the question.

Misunderstanding averted

I'm not saying that superpositionality gives rise to physical existence. That would be wrong in several ways.

  • It's not that superpositional principles "act on" the nothingness and generate things out of it. The nothingness remains completely intact, as it were.
  • Superpositionality just doesn't do that. It does not create things.
  • And if I said that, I'd be sinning again one of my own pet peeves. By no means am I trying to dazzle anyone with Deep Science. Quite the contrary, I'm building my explanation from reasoning that I hope will already be familiar to my readers.


1 The same assumption may occur in a more subtle form in "Why does anything exist?" - which can be taken as constrasting to the possibility of that thing not existing, ignoring the possibility of both being the case.

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