Sometimes, in a conspiratorial tone, I reveal to my students that the Great Big Philosophical Question – the baddest of all bad asses – is “Why is there something rather than nothing?” But I think an equivalent question is whether something can ever turn into nothing, even though somehow this question doesn’t sound as profound. When we think through the question, and try to imagine either possibility, I think we enter into a dissonance between what we can imagine and what we can conceive. There isn’t any problem in imagining a green ball in a black space suddenly disappearing or appearing. But something in the mind shifts uneasily and starts asking, “But… but… where did it go? Where did it come from? What caused the change? Whither? Whence?” We can imagine it, but we can’t think it.
Maybe our mental bias against causeless comings and goings is simply an extension of our learning about object permanence, back in our Piaget days. We see the ball roll behind the partition and expect to see it roll on out the other side. That sets our prejudice, and primes us for the Great Big Question.
But wherever we get that bias, it seems nature doesn’t share it. Every empty space is crammed with causeless comings and goings. (Cute video here.) Subatomic particles, and their accompanying fields, spring into existence on a temporary loan of energy from the universe, then fade out once again and thus repay the loan. If I understand correctly, some think the universe itself is just such an episode. But what this really means is that, really, there is no such thing as nothing, at least not that science ever encounters. Anytime you think you’ve set up an empty space, particles and fields start popping up in it and spoiling the batch. Perhaps it is tempting to think, “Ah! But if you ever really could get ahold of some true nothing, nothing would ever come of it!” But such a thought seems to beg the question. If “nihil nihilo fit” is just false, then you can’t ever get ahold of some nothing of which nothing ever comes. Pesky causeless somethings keep popping up.
What about in the world of the mind? I am sure that I had many thoughts yesterday that are now gone for ever. Have they become nothing? (Don’t start thinking about the energy in the brain; we have stopped talking about the physical world for now.) And what about the new ideas I will have today? At times we say that new ideas come from old ideas, mixed and rematched. But I am not sure that means they don’t come from nothing. For an idea is a form; it is a structure that is differentiated from other structures by its structure. And while our experience may suggest that old forms prompt the creation of new forms, I don’t see it as obvious that the new form comes just from the old ones. Where does the new structure come from? It is not identical to the old ones, as they are different forms. Do you have an idea of a donkey? of peacock feathers? Of course. But until now I will bet that you never had an idea of a donkey with peacock feathers for ears. The combination – that is to say, the form – is something new. And it came to me out of nowhere.