Via an email (thanks, Nick) I learned about a Slate article that's based on a chapter in "Why Does the World Exist?" by Jim Holt, a book I blogged about recently.
Updike on the Universe describes Holt's interview from John Updike, a noted novelist who has mused about the mystery of existence in his writing. It's worth a read. Here's a sample:
“When you think about it,” he continued, “we rationalists—and we’re all, to an extent, rationalist—we accept propositions about the early universe which boggle the mind more than any of the biblical miracles do. Your mind can intuitively grasp the notion of a dead man coming back again to life, as people in deep comas do, and as we do when we wake up every morning out of a sound sleep. But to believe that the universe, immeasurably vast as it appears to be, was once compressed into a tiny space—into a tiny point—is in truth very hard to believe. I’m not saying I can disprove the equations that back it up. I’m just saying that it’s as much a matter of faith to accept that.”
Here I was moved to demur. The theories that imply this picture of the early universe—general relativity, the standard model of particle physics, and so forth—work beautifully at predicting our present-day observations. Even the theory of cosmic inflation, which admittedly is a bit conjectural, has been confirmed by the shape of the cosmic background radiation, as measured by the Hubble space telescope. If these theories are so good at accounting for the evidence we see at present, why shouldn’t we trust them as we extrapolate backward in time toward the beginning of the universe?
“I’m just saying I can’t trust them,” Updike replied. “My reptile brain won’t let me. It’s impossible to imagine that even the Earth was once compressed to the size of a pea, let alone the whole universe.”
l resonate with Updike. It is impossible to imagine.
But lots of modern science is exceedingly difficult to understand using the tools of everyday experience: common sense, perceptions, emotions, observable causes and effects.
So I don't have a problem with modern cosmologies which tell us that the entire universe, a hundred billion galaxies, each containing on average a hundred billion stars, once was as large as a grain of sand (or smaller).
However, the question remains: what's up with that "grain of sand"?
It isn't nothing. It's almost nothing. So someone who believes that an explanation is needed for the existence of the universe won't be content with an answer that says it arose from nearly nothing.
The big debate is between science's view of nothing and religion's/philosophy's view of nothing. (I wrote about this earlier in the year.) I've become comfortable with how most scientists basically look upon nothing: as the least amount of something we know about.
Thus the quantum vacuum counts as nothing. Empty space counts as nothing. Yes, a vacuum and empty space are minimal something's. But nobody has ever experienced absolute nothing, and no one ever will, because an experiencer obviously is something.
Another Slate article discusses this nothing vs. nothing debate. Check out "Has the Meaning of Nothing Changed?" by Ron Rosenbaum if you're a fan of the mystery of existence.
In the past couple of decades, quantum cosmologists claim to have pulled a rabbit out of a hat and explained "how something came from nothing" with quantum theories of the origins of the universe. But is the nothing these theorists claim to be describing true nothing, capital-N Nothing, the Really Big O, the Ultimate Zero?
Or are the quantum cosmologists peddling a nothing that comes encumbered with more than few somethings: space, time, even the entire conceptual edifice of quantum theory invisibly calling the shots?
Why should you care about nothing? Well, I know what I care most about is the purity of the nothing invoked in this maddening question. Pure nothingness: It’s the last unspoiled, uncluttered concept in the cosmos. I don't believe in God, but I do believe in Nothing, in the sense I want to believe in mysteries beyond the reach of the mind. It makes life more interesting if existence can't yet be reduced to a series of equations.