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Thinkers Talk about Nothing

The subject was nothing at the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Steve Mirsky reports

Nothing was on the table at the annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate March 20th at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Here’s Hayden Planetarium Director Neil deGrasse Tyson talking with journalist Jim Holt, author of Why Does the World Exist, and physicist Lawrence Krauss, author of A Universe from Nothing.

Tyson: So Jim, when did philosophers start weighing in on this?

Holt: Really with Leibniz in the 17th century. He was the first thinker to pose the question “why is there something rather than nothing.” And by nothing, he meant a state in which there are (sic) no existence at all, there are no entities, there’s no chaos, there’s no space, no time, absolute nothingness. It’s very difficult to grasp in the imagination. If you try to obliterate all of the contents of your consciousness or try to imagine all of the contents of the universe slowly being extinguished, the stars going out, the atoms disappearing, life disappearing, time and space disappearing, even when you try to reach nothingness in your imagination, there’s still the little light of your consciousness creeping under the door. The only times I’ve succeeded in imagining absolute nothingness is during dreamless sleep and once while I was watching professional bowling on television.

Krauss: I think that what Jim has pointed out is exactly it. You’re absolutely right, there are some things that are essentially impossible to get an intuitive conception of. And that’s just a limitation of the fact that we’re classical human beings who didn’t evolve to intuitively understand quantum mechanics. So there’s lots of things in science that are impossible to get any intuitive handle on, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Holt: I completely agree with you. And I think that a state of absolute nothingness, even though we can’t envision it in our minds, it’s logically consistent, it’s a real possibility, and there is a genuine question—why is there a universe rather than absolute nothingness?

—Steve Mirsky

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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