In a punchy book review in Sunday's NYT, philosopher David Albert takes down physicist Lawrence Krauss:
Lawrence M. Krauss, a well-known cosmologist and prolific popular-science writer, apparently means to announce to the world, in this new book, that the laws of quantum mechanics have in them the makings of a thoroughly scientific and adamantly secular explanation of why there is something rather than nothing. Period. Case closed. End of story....
Albert is having none of it, rejecting the very idea that physics can explain nothing, or how the universe arose from nothing (which for me, and for Daoists, is an odd question: why assume the universe had to come from nothing?):
...It happens that ever since the scientific revolution of the 17th century, what physics has given us in the way of candidates for the fundamental laws of nature have as a general rule simply taken it for granted that there is, at the bottom of everything, some basic, elementary, eternally persisting, concrete, physical stuff. Newton, for example, took that elementary stuff to consist of material particles. And physicists at the end of the 19th century took that elementary stuff to consist of both material particles and electromagnetic fields. And so on. And what the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all there is for the fundamental laws of nature to be about, insofar as physics has ever been able to imagine, is how that elementary stuff is arranged. The fundamental laws of nature generally take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of that stuff are physically possible and which aren’t, or rules connecting the arrangements of that elementary stuff at later times to its arrangement at earlier times, or something like that. But the laws have no bearing whatsoever on questions of where the elementary stuff came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular elementary stuff it does, as opposed to something else, or to nothing at all.
He is aware that quantum physics poses a somewhat different understanding of the "elementary stuff," describing it in terms of relativistic quantum fields. But, Albert argues, the same problem applies:
...Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.
Thus, Albert contends, we cannot explain nothing using relativistic quantum field theory.
To press a bit further, it seems like he is saying we cannot explain nothing in reference to something. That is, the purported nothing cannot exist without reference to something. Nothing, then, cannot really exist independent of something and, therefore, the scientist's quest for explanation is rendered impossible, since the thing to be explained (the explanandum - in this case "nothing") cannot be analytically and temporally separated from the thing used to explain (the explanans - in this case "something").
I haven't studied that far into the philosophy of science to know if the explanation of "nothing" poses a fundamental problem. From Albert I surmise that physics is inadequate to the task and that leaves room for religious and metaphysical speculations regarding nothing. Nothing, perhaps, is the limit of science.
But it is territory where Daoism dares to tread, at least the Daodejing. Think of this excerpt from passage 2:
All heaven knows beauty is beauty only because there's ugliness, and knows good is good only because there's evil.
Being and nonbeing give birth to one another, difficult and easy complete one another, long and short measure one another, high and low fill one another, music and noise harmonize one another, before and after follow one another....
That line - "being and nonbeing give birth to one another" - seems to get at Albert's point. If we want to understand nothing, we can only do so by reference to something. Passage 11 also suggests this sort of mutually constitutive relationship of something and nothing:
Thirty spokes gathered at each hub: absence makes the cart work. A storage jar fashioned out of clay: absence makes the jar work. Doors and windows cut in a house: absence makes the house work.
Presence gives things their value, but absences makes them work.
What is not there - the hole in the middle of the wheel; the emptiness in the center of the jar; the space within the house - gives definition to what is there.
And maybe that is the difference: scientists seek to explain, they want to analytically isolate things, declare one an antecedent and the other a consequent, and that's perhaps where a limit is reached when encountering nothing. X might logically yield -X but -X is still framed in terms of X. It is not really absence or nothing, which by definition would seem to be unrepresentable. It is a negation. Nothing is more than (less than?) negation.
But this is a problem only if explanation is the goal. If we are simply looking to describe, which is more in keeping with the correlative sensibilities of Daoism (and most classical Chinese thought) then there is less to sweat. We can't explain nothing. We can't really understand it. We can only get a general sense of it in relation to something. There is no certainty in our understanding of it. And physics really can't explain it to us....