How Easy Is It to Imagine Absolutely Nothing?

The Big Bang is, for most, the beginning of all science questions about the universe … and the mind and all that Many dislike the Big Bang because, while it is makes the best sense of the universe, it implies that there is a God. What are the arguments either way?

Some see the Big Bang as engineered, though not by a divine Mind. Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb, argued in Scientific American last October that advanced aliens engineered the Big Bang and that, when we humans are sufficiently advanced, we will create other universes as well. Loeb’s hypothesis is not logically stranger than the many that attempt to account for the Big Bang without underlying information/intelligence.

It does not appear that the Big Bang had a natural beginning. It was the beginning. Before it, there was nothing at all, which is a hard concept for us to grasp. In a debate with naturalist philosopher David Papineau, theistic neurosurgeon Michael Egnor described it as an effect with no physical cause. Despite their other differences Papineau agreed with that. Some have argued that there were multiple Big Bangs, each building on the ashes, so to speak, of the last. University of Birmingham philosophy prof Alastair Wilson attempts to explain the concept poetically, relying on cosmologist Roger Penrose,

For a philosopher of science, Penrose’s vision is fascinating. It opens up new possibilities for explaining the Big Bang, taking our explanations beyond ordinary cause and effect. It is therefore a great test case for exploring the different ways physics can explain our world. It deserves more attention from philosophers.

For a lover of myth, Penrose’s vision is beautiful. In Penrose’s preferred multi-cycle form, it promises endless new worlds born from the ashes of their ancestors. In its one-cycle form, it is a striking modern re-invocation of the ancient idea of the ouroboros, or world-serpent. In Norse mythology, the serpent Jörmungandr is a child of Loki, a clever trickster, and the giant Angrboda. Jörmungandr consumes its own tail, and the circle created sustains the balance of the world. But the ouroboros myth has been documented all over the world – including as far back as ancient Egypt.

The ouroboros of the one cyclic universe is majestic indeed. It contains within its belly our own universe, as well as every one of the weird and wonderful alternative possible universes allowed by quantum physics – and at the point where its head meets its tail, it is completely empty yet also coursing with energy at temperatures of a hundred thousand million billion trillion degrees Celsius. Even Loki, the shapeshifter, would be impressed.

Well, it sounds grand but, once we take our explanations “beyond ordinary cause and effect,” we lose the power of logic to evaluate them. Neurologist Steven Novella offers another approach. Also hat tipping cosmologist Roger Penrose, outlines a theory by which the universe could have come about from nothing without a beginning by asking us to reimagine what “nothing” means. Perhaps there can’t be “nothing” but the fact that the universe is expected to wind down until it undergoes heat death may be, he considers, a way out:

Perhaps the laws of reality (the metaverse, whatever) simply do not allow for a state that we would understand as completely nothing. We think of nothing as simply the absence of stuff, of matter and energy, but perhaps it’s more complicated than that. It may simply be impossible for there to be truly nothing in that simplistic sense. This, of course, deals with the ultimate nature of reality, where physics borders metaphysics.

What if the maximally expanded and cold universe mathematically approaches the identical state as the singularity that resulted in the Big Bang? Again, our human minds limited by the frame of the Earth cannot wrap around this concept, but we can crunch the numbers. At some point the heat death universe becomes a singularity, and then starts another cycle of the universe. If you want to really blow your mind, some physicists even speculate that this would be the same universe. Not another version of the same matter and energy, but the actual same universe in space and time. Essentially the end of the universe and the beginning of the universe are the same moment in time, the universe loops back in on itself in one giant self-contained temporal cycle.

The universe would then be temporally finite but unbound (Stephen Hawking discussed this in his book, A Brief History of Time). The best analogy is a ring, we just keeping going around the ring forever, but there is no true beginning or end. In this concept there is no beginning or end, there is no before, there is just a bound infinite loop. This solves the “something from nothing” problem, because the universe did not come from anything, it just always was. This still leaves us with the deeper question – why is there something instead of nothing, but that may not be a useful line of inquiry.

In that case, the matter that makes up the universe must be assumed to be an eternal Something. Novella places his trust in mathematics but it’s hard to know if we should trust mathematics if he is right. “In the beginning, the Lord created the heavens and the earth” is a simpler explanation in that it has the advantage that God is not considered to be either the universe or part of the universe. Eternal existence is simply part of the nature of God. But that makes more sense for God than for the universe.

The non-theistic explanations are colorful but it is not clear that they solve problems. Rather, they demonstrate the difficulty we have imagining… absolutely nothing.


  1. The nature of the physical space seems the most important subject in physics. A present paper proceeds from the assumption of physical reality of space contrary to the standard view of the space as a purely relational nonexistence - void. The space and its evolution are the primary sources of phenomena in Mega- and micro-worlds. Thus cosmology and particle physics have the same active agent - physical space.

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