Find the fallacy…

On page 45 of Programming the Universe, Seth Lloyd says,

The universe began just under 14 billion years ago in a massive explosion. What happened before the Big Bang? Nothing. There was no time and no space. Not just empty space, but the absence of space itself. Time itself had a beginning. There is nothing wrong with beginning from nothing. For example, the positive numbers begin from zero (the “empty thing” [Sanskrit: shunya]). Before zero, there are no positive numbers. Before the Big Bang, there was nothing––no energy, no bits.

I find one of Lloyd’s central claims here highly dubious, for at least two reasons. Before I state my reasons, however, I wanted to invite readers to give their two (or three) cents about the quotation. Why am I dubious? Should I be? Is Lloyd just right, or just out in left field?

Okay, now I will explain my reasons for looking askance at Lloyd’s obiter dicta on, literally, nothing and everything. I appreciate the good insights others offered, some of which will be shown to anticipate my own ideas.

First, Lloyd seems flagrantly guilty of the fallacy of “Plato’s beard.” Graham V. noted this quite well in his first comment about having no bananas. Lloyd seems to be reifying Nothing as a convenient blank slate, or a perfectly supple springboard, for the rest of his theorizing. But, of course, nothing is totally, like, not amenable to being a starting point since it lacks being in any sense. Given nothing, there is not any thing by which, in which, or with which anything could be caused. And yet Lloyd seems fine with the idea that no thing caused every thing. This problem is so obvious that I feel almost condescending explaining it. But, as another commenter mentioned, a Ph.D. in hard science seems to be a blank check to say anything, and, paradoxically, nothing in so many words.

My second worry about Lloyd’s cosmological nihilism is that, if 0 can generate its own successor, then it can likewise generate its successor’s successor. I am using the term “successor” in the technical sense of number and arithmetical theory, where one number, n, is followed by another as its successor, S(n), and, in turn, a further successor as its successor’s successory, S(S(n)), etc. ad inifnitum. The problem with Lloyd’s comments are that he gives 0 a generative, or additive, power it cannot coherently have. If “there is nothing wrong with” 0 yielding 1 as its successor, then it follows that 0 together with 1 could generate 2. But the very definition of 0 is that any one of its successors added to it produces only that successor and nothing more or less.

A third, related worry is more of a historical quibble. Zero, as I think we all have heard, is a relative late-comer in human discourse. People got along fine for centuries without 0––we are alright without nothing, it seems. Historically, then, it is not the case that 1 and the other natural numbers derived from 0, but quite the contrary: zero was a hard-won theoretical abstraction from the natural numbers, whereby we got nothing from something. As in theory, so in nature. The “ground zero” of the universe is a theoretical abstraction denoting the limit of spatiotemporal reduction, not the wellspring of space and time. Just as zero derived from other numbers in history, so zero only has a derivative seat at the table in cosmology. It is, in the most radical sense, a negative concept, a desperate inference, about concrete existence.

Fourth, Lloyd seems oblivious to the fact that, if there were no spatial or temporal dimensions in which the progress from nothing to something could happen, then there is literally no way it could have happened as a physical phenomenon. There would be no amount of time in which nothing could generate “nothing +” and no space in which the generation could occur. He says, for instance, that time had a beginning. But this begs the question, “When was it?” The answer is not something science can address; the beginning of time is a metaphysical problem amenable only to metaphysical solutions. Therefore, on Lloyd’s account, because it lacks all spatial and temporal dimensions, the generation of all things––creation––is not a physical phenomenon. Because zero––pure ontological void––is not a physical possibility, and is not to be “filled up” by natural means; crossing the gap between nothing simpliciter and anything requires infinite power. This is fine for a theist to say, but meaningless for a scientist to assert. If Lloyd’s creation happened as it did, we should be able to ascertain where and by what forces it happened (i.e., its theoretical positions in time and space), but since it lacks any spatial and temporal dimensions, it is unmeasurable and, thus, not a proper object of scientific inquiry. Thus, interestingly, to connect my ‘null’ thoughts here with my previous thoughts about the immeasurability of infinity, it seems that both 0 and ∞ are not properly scientific objects, but limit terms driven by theoretical tinkering. If it is being described scientifically, the physical universe can exist only in dimensions greater than 0 and less than ∞.


11 Responses

  1. I’m completely unqualified for this, but will answer anyway 🙂
    I see a problem with assuming that before the big bang there was nothing. What happened before the big bang is unknowable, and unknowable does not equal nothing. Just as the concept of numbers do not spring into existence at zero, the universe did not necessary spring into existence at the big bang.

  2. the positive numbers begin from zero (the “empty thing” [Sanskrit: shunya]). Before zero, there are no positive numbers.

    Could it have something to do with the fact that zero is neither a positive or a negative number?

  3. There’s a difference between the sign zero, and what we signify with that sign. Zero is not an “empty thing”. Because then it would be a “thing” with nothing in it. The writer is just making a lazy inference from our use of certain mathematical signs to the nature of reality.

    I’ve heard this called the “yes, we have no bananas” fallacy.

    Graham Veale

  4. Another example would be Peter Atkins argument that if all the negative particles have a matching positive particle nothing exists.

    A PhD in the Sciences allows you to publish pretty much anything.


  5. The idea he’s trying to express, IMO, is if you know thing which is size X grows with speed Y, then you can figure out the maximum amount of time it has been growing. The simplest hypothesis is to assume it’s always been growing, and so the scientists count back to the zero point. It seems paradoxical, but it makes the measurements easier. Maybe future tests will force the scientists to say that the universe had to start from something the size of a golf ball, and so they’ll replace the big bang with the eternal golf ball. For the moment, however, to posit that the beginning point has any mass is a superfluous hypothesis.

  6. Lloyd’s most obvious problem is so obvious I didn’t even bother pointing it out; I have some self-respect. I decided to shoot in a different direction but failed miserably. This is not surprising since I stink at math, philosophy, and science. I should have stuck with what I excel at-sarcasm; which brings me to this quote from Dawkins:

    The universe could so easily have remained lifeless and simple-just physics and chemistry, just the scattered dust of the cosmic explosion that gave birth to time and space. The fact that it did not-THE FACT THAT LIFE EVOLVED OUT OF NEARLY NOTHING, some 10 billion years after THE UNIVERSE EVOLVED OUT OF LITERALLY NOTHING is a FACT so staggering that I would be mad to attempt words to do it justice. And even this is not the end of the matter. Not only did evolution happen: it eventually lead to beings capable of comprehending the process, and even of comprehending the process by which they comprehend it.” (THE ANCESTOR’S TALE: A PILGRIMAGE TO THE DAWN OF EVOLUTION, pg. 613)

    In some combox I commented as follows:

    In the beginning was Nothing, and Nothing said (apparently to no one in particular) “let there be Almost Nothing,” and so it was! millenniums came an millenniums followed-the first cosmic age.

    Then, Nothing knew Almost Nothing and they brought forth some kind of stuff, and they named it “Some Thing.” Millenniums came and millenniums followed-the second cosmic age.

  7. […] a site I seldom comprehend, in a post I barely understood, about a subject I know nothing about, I attempted to take up the challenge to […]

  8. And there was, but not really, maybe almost some great rejoicing had by none!

  9. I’m responding to this statement on a Northern Irish blog. I’m wondering if it would be appropriate to ask posters if they can spot any fallacies/incoherence in Jonathan Bartley’s position? If the hosts think I’m intruding by asking for thoughts, just delete this post and there’ll be no hard feelings.

    G Veale

    “Commenting on the statement issued today by six churches and Christian groups against US anti-gay hate group Westboro Baptist Church, who proposed to picket in the UK on Friday but were yesterday banned by British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith from entering the country) Jonathan Bartley, co-director of the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia, said:

    “It is welcome that a number of churches and evangelical groups have made a public statement and joined the many others who are opposing Westboro’ Baptist church-style hate speech. But it is relatively easy to issue statements against extremists, distance oneself, and condemn them. It is more challenging, and uncomfortable, to acknowledge what one might have in common with those we find abhorrent. But that is what the message at the heart of the Christian faith requires.

    “This is the real challenge that Westboro Baptist church presents. And among those who have condemned Westboro are some who preach rejection of faithful gay relationships, who deny their baptism and Christian ministry, and who refuse their wisdom. Some have attempted to negotiate opt-outs from equalities legislation so they can themselves discriminate against lesbian and gay people in employment and in the provision of goods and services. The Evangelical Alliance in particular removed the Courage Trust from its membership when the Trust made a Christian commitment to affirming lesbian and gay people.

    “The six churches and groups have said with one voice: ‘We believe that God loves all, irrespective of sexual orientation’ We invite them to reflect these words in their actions.”

  10. I’m very late in looking and replying here, so maybe no one will see it, but my take is:

    Lloyd’s most obvious mistake is the fallacy of equivocation. The positive numbers do not “begin” in the same sense that the actual physical universe “begins”. Numbers are not temporal items and there is no real succession among them. 2 comes “after” 1 only in the sense that it is greater than one, but not in the sense that today is “after” tomorrow.

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