Why do we see something rather than nothing?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“Why is there something rather than nothing?” The question, which Gottfried Leibnitz (1646-1716) asked in his The Principle of Nature and Grace, Based on Reason (1714), is so fundamental to philosophy that it is often called “The Question” and is regarded as “philosophy’s central, and most perplexing, question”, according to the Oxford philosopher Bede Rundle who adopted it as the title of his 2004 book.1 The question, as a matter of fact, has been science’s central, and most perplexing, question as well, for generations of scientists have sought to explain why we observe an abundance of matter—from elementary particles to stars and galaxies—in the universe. In the context of scientific endeavor, “The Question” should perhaps be rephrased as: “How is there something rather than nothing?” This is so because, as the American physicists Lawrence Krause points out in his 2012 book, A Universe from Nothing, scientists have to be cautious about “why” questions.2

As for the question of how there is something rather than nothing, we have witnessed a remarkable progress in particle physics in recent decades, culminating in the discovery of the mechanism by which elementary particles acquire their masses. We tend to consider scientists to be an unemotional and rational lot. That this is hardly the case was amply demonstrated on July 4, 2012, when the discovery of a particle related to the Higgs mechanism was announced at CERN in Switzerland. The occasion was greeted with such excitement and exuberance by the physics community that some of them likened the discovery to the appearance of the Messiah they had been waiting for, prompting the popular media to call it the discovery of God particle. In any event, the discovery was, according to the American physicist Brian Green, “the most important experimental achievement in the field of the last 50 years”3 With that discovery, scientists seem to have finally succeeded in explaining how something can come out of nothing, thus negating Lucretius’ claim that “nothing can come out of nothing”, the claim that has been embraced by generations of philosophers and scientists in the West.

The discovery of the Higgs boson confirms the favored theory in particle physics that the Higgs field pervades the vacuum and gives mass to elementary particles, the mechanism known as the Higgs mechanism. Although it is not composed of actual matter, the Higgs field carries a type of charge, which allows particles to acquire masses. The discovery of the Higgs boson, an actual particle with definite mass, was an experimental confirmation of the theory of the Higgs mechanism by which elementary particles acquire masses. Since the Higgs field is everywhere and spread throughout the universe, the universe itself—bosons, electrons, quarks, and other particles—can emerge from the quantum vacuum, lending support to the claim that matter in the universe can emerge from empty space, that something can come from nothing.

What is important to note is that when physicists talk about “nothing”, they are talking about “empty space”. What is also important to note is that what physicists call “empty space” is not quite empty. As Frank Close explains, “The basic idea is that there is a kind of tension existing in otherwise ‘empty’ space that manifests itself by producing forces on objects that happen to be in the vicinity.”4 The sphere of influence of this tension is what is called a field. Fields are ubiquitous in the universe from the electric field that fills the empty space within the atom to the gravitational field of the Sun that keeps the Earth in its orbit. Now we have the Higgs field that is everywhere and is spread throughout the universe.

That a field is filled with a kind of tension implies a mechanism, or an activity, which explains how something comes from nothing, how there is something rather than nothing. In the parlance of physics, that activity is energy that exists in empty space even in the absence of matter or radiation. As Laurence Krause explains, “the energy stored in empty space gets turned into an energy of real particles and radiation, creating effectively the traceable beginning of our present Big Bang expansion.”5 Another American physicist Lisa Randall explains it this way: “Essentially, when you jiggle the Higgs field—add a bit of energy—you can create an actual particle. A single field both permeates the vacuum—empty space—with a nonzero constant value everywhere, and is also responsible for particle creation.”6

Needless to say, Leibnitz could not have anticipated the discovery of the Higgs mechanism, for he wrote his The Principle of Nature and Grace three centuries ago. What is remarkable about Leibnitz is, however, that not only did he pose the fundamental question about why there is something rather than nothing but he also anticipated the presence of some mechanism by which something comes out of nothing. Having posed the question, Leibnitz went on to provide his own answer: “I reply first that all things are created ex nihilo, not from preexisting matter at any moment whatever, for even matter itself is created; and it is of no consequence that some other things might have existed already in the past, for in that case they would have been annihilated later.” But how does something appear from empty space, out of nothing? Here is Leibnitz’s answer: “I maintain also that substances, whether material or immaterial, cannot be conceived in their bare essence without any activity, activity being of the essence of substance in general.” Replace the word “activity” by the “Higgs mechanism”, we can see how insightful Leibnitz’s remarks were in explaining the appearance of matter in the universe.

The idea that something comes from nothing, while it may have been difficult for the people in the West to accept, has not been so for people in the East, to the extent that they have been familiar with the ideas expounded by such prominent thinkers as Lao Tzu and the Buddha. The idea that the universe is a field full of potentialities is well expressed by Lao Tzu: “The Tao is an empty vessel; it is used, but never filled. Oh, the unfathomable source of ten thousand things!”7 Those ten thousand things are, according to the Buddha, sankharas that we observe in the phenomenal world around us, including ourselves. But all these sankharas are intrinsically empty, as the Buddha explains in the following dialogue with Ananda: “In what way, venerable sir, is it said, ‘Empty is the world?’ It is, Ananda, because it is empty of self and what belongs to self that it is said, ‘Empty is the world’.”8 Indeed, “nothingness” can be said to be the ground state of the universe in the Buddha’s view: “By completely transcending the base of infinity of consciousness, aware that ‘there is nothing,’ a monk enters upon and dwells in the base of nothingness.”9 As for the mechanism by which something comes from the base of nothingness, it is the idea of paticca samuppada, or “dependent origination”. Since nothingness is the ground state in Buddhist thought, the fundamental question to be asked is not “why is there something rather than nothing?” but “why do we see something rather than nothing?”

  1. Rundle, Bede, Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  2. Krause, Lawrence, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing, New York: Free Press, 2012, Chapter 9.
  3. Greene, Brian, “Mind and Matter”, Smithsonian Magazine, August 2013.
  4. Close, Frank, Nothing: Avery Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2009.
  5. Krause, op. cit. Chapter 9.
  6. Randall, Lisa, Higgs Discovery: The Power of Empty Space, 2013.
  7. Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, New York: Vintage Books, 1972.
  8. Bhikku Bodhi, In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005, p. 347.
  9. Ibd., p. 398.