Quantum mechanics, mathematical abstraction and the nature of nothing

Oct 9, 2012


Discussion by: Luis_Cayetano
One theme that has sometimes cropped up on this site and others that discuss God and the origin of the universe is whether ‘nothing’, as used by the physicists, is the same as what lay persons usually have in mind (‘literal nothing’). Reading Stenger, Kraus and others, one can see that nothing isn’t as straightforward as it’s commonly thought to be. We now know, for example, that (nominally) empty space has energy, that virtual particles can appear ‘from nothing’, and that the universe itself may have ‘come from nothing’ (Stenger has a beautiful sentence in one of his books where’s he’s talking about symmetry breaking and calls the universe ‘frozen nothing’).

Well, you can see my point. Perhaps nothing is something after all. Perhaps the nothing that most people think they know is not even a state of reality that could be had, and maybe it’s a nonsensical concept to begin with (we just haven’t had our consciousness raised enough to see why).

In ecology, there are models of population dynamics that yield useful results – SO LONG AS the values are above zero. These same models also produce negative values, which are nonsensical in the real world, as there cannot be a negative number of organisms. When an actual population reaches zero, that’s the end of it; in these models, stuff is still happening beneath the x-axis, which is of no ecological interest. So these values are simply part of the model, but this part of the model does not correspond to anything real. They’re just consequences of using the model, which works, as I said, when the values are positive.

Could quantum mechanics be, in a way, like this? Quantum mechanics – and here I mean the mathematical models used therein, not the physical reality of quanta, virtual particles and the like – IMPLIES that if you take out all the matter in a given space it will still have energy; it IMPLIES that things at the minutest scales are ‘uncaused’ (whatever that could mean). But that doesn’t mean that they are. Could these be the physics version of the negative organisms – consequences of using a mathematical model that, overall, is good at predicting reality, but not necessarily corresponding to it in every respect?

It also seems to me that belief that something can come from the Lay Person’s Nothing is philosophical idealism, which is a hopelessly religious idea. What we CALL nothing is in fact something; the ’empty space’ of the vacuum is a fabric or substance, it’s just that it lacks any structure that our best instruments can so far detect, and hence can be seen as synonymous to ‘chaos’ (which is not truly chaotic, since that would mean that things ‘just happen’, a non-explanation).

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