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 ∞.