Can something come from nothing? (DYM I.16)

By John Allen

In a comically existential moment from Seinfeld, George pitches Jerry his idea for an NBC sitcom: "It's a show about nothing."  Jerry is incredulous.  As the conversation develops, however, George convinces Jerry that the idea just might work. 

It is a brilliant scene of absurdist theater, cleverly metafictional and postmodern.  The dialogue is beautifully crafted, yet it achieves almost Shakespearean levels of spontaneity and verbal play as the entire scene builds toward Jerry's single-word punchline to George's "nothing":  

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This question about something coming from nothing has intrigued philosophers and physicists.  In Sophie's World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy, Sophie's teacher, Alberto, begins his philosophy course with "Where does the world come from?"
She hadn't the faintest idea. Sophie knew that the world was only a small planet in space.  But where did space come from?
It was possible that space had always existed, in which case she would not also need to figure out where it came from.  But could anything have always existed?  Something deep down inside her protested at the idea.  Surely everything that exists must have had a beginning?  So space must sometime have been created out of something else.   
But if space had come from something else, then that something else must also have come from something.  Sophie felt she was only deferring the problem.  At some point, something must have come from nothing.  But was that possible?  Wasn't that just as impossible as the idea that the world had always existed?  
They had learned at school that God created the world.  Sophie tried to console herself with the thought that this was probably the best solution to the whole problem.  But then she started to think again.  She could accept that God had created space, but what about God himself?  Had he created himself out of nothing?  Again there was something deep down inside her that protested. Even though God could create all kinds of things, he could hardly create himself before he had a "self" to create with.  So there was only one possibility left: God had always existed.  But she had already rejected that possibility.  Everything that existed had to have a beginning (9).  
Perhaps physicist Michio Kaku can help Sophie with her philosophical conundrum.  In his book Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos, Kaku explains how our universe and perhaps other universes formed from virtually nothing: 
In fact, to create a universe like ours may require a ridiculously small net amount of matter, perhaps as little as an ounce. As Guth likes to say, “the universe may be a free lunch.” This idea of creating a universe from nothing was first introduced by physicist Edward Tryon of Hunter College of the City University of New York, in a paper published in Nature magazine in 1973. He speculated that the universe is something “which happens from time to time” due to a quantum fluctuation in the vacuum. (Although the net amount of matter necessary to create a universe may be close to zero, this matter must be compressed to incredible densities, as we see in chapter 12.) 
Like the P’an Ku mythologies, this is an example of creatio ex nihilo cosmology. Although the universe-from-nothing theory cannot be proved with conventional means, it does help to answer very practical questions about the universe. For example, why doesn’t the universe spin?  Everything we see around us spins, from tops, hurricanes, planets, and galaxies, to quasars. It seems to be a universal characteristic of matter in the universe. But the universe itself does not spin. When we look at the galaxies in the heavens, their total spin cancels out to zero. (This is quite fortunate, because, as we see in chapter 5, if the universe did spin, then time travel would become commonplace and history would be impossible to write.) The reason why the universe does not spin may be that our universe came from nothing. Since the vacuum does not spin, we do not expect to see any net spin arising in our universe. In fact, all the bubble-universes within the multiverse may have zero net spin (Kindle locations 1558-1581).
Artist Robert Rauschenberg also explores the relationship between nothing and something in his painting, Mother of God.  Kay Larson explains the painting's dialectic in this excerpt from her book, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists:
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Mother of God is a dialectic of “something” and “nothing.” In the visual “silence” of the emptied-out orb at the center, nothing happens. Yet all the somethings radiate from it like a corona emerging from the nuclear furnace of the sun. The white sphere is absence and void— it has no form, and there is nothing in it that could be described in any sense— yet it pulses with generative silence, the field-of-becoming out of which “a-rises the next something,” as Cage said in his lecture at the Club. The Void is not truly void, since all the sparkling roadways emerge from it, tracing the pathways where people live.
Titles of paintings are often deceptive or random, and artists may or may not mean anything by them. Even so, it’s hard to avoid a first thought that the phrase “Mother of God” refers to the Virgin Mary. Yet no sign of Mary appears here. Instead, Rauschenberg seems to be taking a step back to the beginning of Creation— back to the moment before even the human concept of “God” arises. What is it that exists before “God” and out of which “God” arises? Mother of God seems to visualize whiteness as the ground of being (229-230).
Music, too, sometimes emerges from a sense of nothingness.  You can hear it in the opening movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony: the bows of the violins hardly touch their strings as they create a barely audible "ground of being" before erupting into a full out symphony celebrating creation and humanism. It ends in a boisterous affirmation of life sung by the chorus.

Mahler's Ninth Symphony explores contradictory feelings of pastoral happiness and existential despair.  The final movement, however, works its way into a quiet "ground of being," echoing the meditative feel of Gregorian chant.  In the final few measures, the strings seem to be singing a song of acceptance, one that embraces the quiet void after death.  When you hear this symphony performed live, great conductors will wait several seconds after Mahler's last whispering note before allowing the audience to applaud, recognizing the beauty and power of that final, silent nothingness.  

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