The Riddle of Existence

Section Ten

Unanswered Questions

"God made everything out of nothing.
But the nothingness shows through."

Paul Valéry

"The void yields up nothing. You
have to be a great poet to make it ring.
Jules Renard

So is Reality completely exhausted by some sort of natural "physical" analogue to the rich mathematical properties of 0? Hand-waving rhetoric aside, may we seriously hope to extract a priori the postulates of the ultimate TOE from the properties of zero in a recast mathematics?

We don't know. If post-Everett universal QM is right, then as it stands it's a bizarre and utterly incongruous coincidence that "everything and nothing" should be the case - outside of the poetic excesses of Eastern metaphysics. On the other hand, as far as I can tell, there isn't a single sentence of this essay which isn't itself deeply problematic: ill-defined in its usage of terms or its presuppositions, and frequently both at the same time. Partly this may be because such an exercise in wild speculation tries to do what simply can't be done. This is to map out an explanation-space, using the more-or-less everyday 21th Century idiom of one species of genetic vehicle, Homo sapiens, of something which is almost certainly beyond me, and may be beyond anyone, namely a total explanation for absolutely everything and anything. Plausibly, some vital ingredient and/or interpretational principle is missing from our efforts. It isn't clear whether any of the finite number of possible mind/brain states which anyone, anywhere, might ever instantiate could embody such knowledge.

Yet perhaps our pessimism is misplaced. In a nutshell, it seems incoherent to suppose that it's the case that nothing could have been the case. This may be because the notion of unactualised possibility is of purely epistemological significance. But it may be because there simply isn't any sense one can extract from the notion of nothing whatsoever being so in the first instance. Thus if what were the case had been - is? - minimally 0 - an acausal, non-spatio-temporal condition or state of affairs - then its strict equivalence, modelled on the surprisingly rich mathematical properties of zero, to a plenitude of other states of no net substantive contribution would strictly and trivially entail their subsistence too - since they amount to exactly the same thing under another description. In setting out to formalise and make rigorous one's hazy notional alternative to something existing, namely "nothing", we may be groping towards some account of why the intuitive dichotomy is ill-conceived.

In doing so, we may find that our sense of astonishment at the existence of the world is misplaced. Perhaps the world is a disguised implication of our intuition that it's "natural" for there to be nothing at all. For once the conceptual revolution needed to turn The Zero Option from philosophical wordspinning into a mathematically rigorous and mature TOE has been achieved(?), the inescapable necessity of the zero ontology may even appear obvious to a future superintelligence. In principle, after all, the zero explanation is supremely and elegantly simple to the point of triviality. Perhaps we have marvelled at the existence of the world in the past simply because we have misconstrued what was the case - which in fact is the very opposite of a state of affairs where marvel would be called for. A sense of surprise would be appropriate only if we discovered something that didn't cancel out, a "substantive" property. But this is a supernatural impossibility - I'm hypothesising. It would be a miracle. Hence its notional discovery would merit very great surprise indeed.

So summarising: the existence of the world is inexplicable only if there is an alternative. But the intuitive alternative - i.e. the hypothetical inexistence of any properties at all - is unintelligible. Explicating this supposed alternative invariably entails ascribing different properties, derived from one's pre-theoretic intuitions about dark timeless voids, dreamless sleep etc, rather than no properties. Thus the otherwise natural candidate for "default condition" isn't viable as it stands. But critically, a scenario analogous to the absence of any properties, namely a universe with no net properties (no net energy, spin or charge, nor anything derivable therefrom), is intelligible; and it inherits the role of natural default condition. So assuming both 1] the notion of an absence of any properties at all is cognitively meaningless, and 2] the existence of any substantive properties is (or rather would be) inexplicable, then perhaps the zero ontology simply has to subsist or be the case.

Yet why, then, does any(every)thing - 0 - "subsist"? Is any notion of "non-subsistence", no properties at all as distinct from no net properties, simply incoherent - a contradiction-in-terms? Merely relabelling, or more charitably first reconceptualising and then relabelling, the notion of existence might seem just to shift the problem, not solve it. For dissolving the spectre of an infinite regress of explanations was touted as one of the virtues of this whole approach at the outset. So what is it that enables 0, zero net properties, to be the case or subsist, as distinct from not being the case? How does the "cancelling out" of the universal quantum superposition occur? Why is it necessary? Must it obtain on pain of any substantive property existing? Why? Presumably, on this account, what each of us apprehends is in some small way a part of the cancellation process, as are we ourselves. But here the details are vague precisely where they are most interesting. What is the link between 0, the quantum vacuum, and knot/superstring/M-brane theory? Even if mathematics is homomorphic, or in some sense identical, to what subsists, including the fabulously diverse textures of what-it's-like-ness, how in practice can the latter be decoded from the former? How is the ultimate, and ultimately the only(?), variable of what-it's-like-ness itself bound up with the subsistence of 0? Does something akin to The Zero Ontology offer a viable research program - or is the "null hypothesis" of existence a delusive dead-end?

As an out-and-out qualia-freak, I've advocated a radical idealist monism. Values of what-it's-like-ness and its patterns is all that there is. Numerically encoded, they cancel to zero too. The universal QM formalism describes symmetry transformations of subjectivity which is interconverted but ubiquitously conserved. Yet if so, why should what-it's-like-ness be the fire in the equations? One or two tricky puzzles remain.

E-mail Dave

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