2013 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: “The Existence of Nothing”

Last night, I attended the 2013 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: “The Existence of Nothing” at the Hayden Planetarium in the Museum of Natural History. After attending the debates for the past eight years, I found this among the funniest, most conceptually intricate, and most thought-provoking. Moderated by astrophysicist and Hayden Planetarium Director Neil deGrasse Tyson, the annual debate brings together a panel of world-renowned scientists to yell, quip, insult, and (occasionally) converse on the “bleeding edge of science.” The discussions are informal, hilarious, and ultimately thought-provoking. The debate is held in the memory of the late Dr. Isaac Asimov — Columbia alumnus, prolific novelist, scientist, and science writer of over 500 books, and inventor of the word “robotics” (he most famously wrote I, Robot and the Foundation series). Asimov was a patron of the Museum who frequented its resources as he researched for his books. Each year, the audience for the debate grows larger and larger — this year for the first time the crowd filled not one, not two, but three overflow rooms outside the LeFrak Theater on 77th Street.

This year’s official blurb:

The concept of nothing is as old as zero itself. How do we grapple with the concept of nothing? From the best laboratory vacuums on Earth to the vacuum of space to what lies beyond, the idea of nothing continues to intrigue professionals and the public alike.

After a lively debate — you can watch the the full video recording here — the discussion essentially boiled down to definitions. What, really, is nothing? How do we define nothing? Even pure vacuum, in which neither energy nor matter exists, still contains the fabric of space-time, even if not curved by anything physical. What about virtual particles? And even if we were to eliminate the fabric of space-time itself, if our laws of physics, or some other set of laws, still applied — and should matter or energy be inserted into this “nothingness” — then, because some set of laws would still apply to that so-called “nothingness,” perhaps it’s not nothing after all. Even if we shrunk space down to a single point of zero radius with zero energy — as in the humorous “Pointland” chapter of Edwin A. Abbott’s classic mathematical satire Flatland — it could still contain the laws of physics.

Let’s briefly run through each of the distinguished panelists’ final definition of nothing:

1. “Remove zero to get the null set.” Simple but genius. This stood out among the other panelists’ definitions as the only, purely mathematical description of nothing. — Charles Seife: Professor of Journalism, New York University, author of Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

2. “Nothing is…not anything.” We’re making it too complicated, this panelist says. Historically, philosophers rarely debated nothing because there’s quite simply nothing to debate. Nothing is the lack of anything, and that’s all there is to it. — Jim Holt: Science journalist, author of Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story

3. (Waving comically behind his head.) Nothing is what is beyond our perception, where we cannot see. This panelist had brought a glass model of a multiverse, and waved to the “space” around the model to refer to nothing — the place from which we can receive no light, the place where we cannot even look because it is outside our realm of perception, beyond the universe(s) itself(themselves). — J. Richard Gott: Professor of Astrophysical Sciences, Princeton University, author of Sizing Up the Universe: The Cosmos in Perspective

4. The lack of anything — no matter, no energy, no space, no time. — Lawrence Krauss: Professor of Physics, Arizona State University, author of A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing

5. “Eliminate degrees of freedom from the zero-point energy quantum state.” Once we’ve chiseled “vacuum” down to a zero-radius point (aka “Pointland”) without matter or energy, eliminate dimensions one by one and you’ll achieve absolute, pure, and unadulterated nothing. Probably the most scientific and least philosophical definition, next to Seife’s highly mathematical interpretation of the removal of zero to get the null set. — Eva Silverstein: Professor of Physics, Stanford University, co-editor of Strings, Branes and Gravity

Dr. Tyson revealed his own definition of nothing in his final remarks: Centuries ago, nothing was defined as “void,” the lack of matter, which we’d eventually associate with outer space or vacuum. Later, we learned that energy exists in vacuum, therefore vacuum is not nothing. Then relativity told us the fabric of space-time itself, even when absent of both matter and energy, is still something, possessing dimensions and capable of curvature. Then quantum mechanics gave us virtual particles. Today we define nothing as what is beyond our perception, the space beyond our universe where there is no matter, no energy, no space, no time, no laws, nothing — but tomorrow we will discover something new, and our definition of nothing will be pushed further ahead, always beyond the reach of what we know, which is something.

For me, the problem underlying most of the discussion was, as Holt and Dr. Tyson alluded to, that the laws of science are not the laws of our universe. Science is not reality — it is our perception of reality. As science progresses (if we assume it does, and in a unified manner — which the “Stanford school” of science philosophers might disagree with), we move deeper into reality, making the unknown known and understanding that there is more beyond our reach, as Dr. Tyson suggested. In this context, Dr. Gott’s assertion that nothing is what is beyond our perception make sense. By observing nothing, we would automatically have made it something because we are not only perceiving it, but, in doing so, are able to assign patterns and laws to it, giving it substance as “something.”

But simply because we cannot perceive of something doesn’t mean it’s not there. This returns to my initial concern that science and its laws, like any human pursuit, embodies only our perception of the universe, not of the reality of the universe itself. Nothing, if it is anything, is perhaps not only beyond perception — it is by definition beyond comprehension.

After all, if we could understand nothing, wouldn’t it then become something? This again assumes a universe defined only by our own, inherently limited point of view.

The 2009 Asimov Debate "From Planets to Plutoids" on Pluto's demunition from planet to dwarf planet.
The 2009 Asimov Debate “From Planets to Plutoids” on Pluto’s demunition from planet to dwarf planet.

My final concern was with the theological and metaphysical discussions which inevitably popped up during the conversation. A good portion of the discussion centered around creation myths, the big bang, multiverses, parallel universes, and theology, the latter of which, according to most of the panelists, decreed a distinct “beginning” arising from some primordial cosmic “void.” It was a very Westercentric view of philosophy centered almost entirely around a one-dimensional critique of Christianity and Greek thought, with the occasional, tangential reference to “Others” such as an Amazon tribe without a creation myth and the Babylonians’ development of zero. There was almost no discussion whatsoever of Jewish mysticism, Chinese philosophy, or the complexities of Muslim theologians’ and philosophers’ debates on free will, determinism, and the timeless versus created nature of the Qur’an. As implied in Ted Chiang’s incredible short story “Tower of Babylon,” the human quest for knowledge does not necessitate an immediate refusal of religion; the so-called battle between science and religion is arguably a “false dichotomy,” as a friend of mine put it, which reduces an otherwise fruitful intellectual discussion to black-and-white banter.

The discussion of “creation” in itself assumes a causal view of time, which as in Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” or Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, is only one of many possible interpretations of time. Time itself, one could argue, is as much a construct of human perception as the laws of science.

Of course, the relevance of this discussion seems perhaps futile. Why engage in a debate, literally, on nothing? Krauss put it well when he responded to this concern by asking who questions the relevance of Mozart’s symphonies. As Albert Einstein said, “After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in aesthetics,plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are artists as well.” The quest for knowledge and truth is as much a human pursuit as any form of art.

Here’s the full video:


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