I almost stumbled into a theological debate the other day (pre-pandemic). It was at a family gathering , and I was under strict orders from the wife to keep things light. A young in-law (undoubtedly trying to set me up) commented that he was taking a required course in theology. He was an incoming freshman at the University of Dayton (Ohio), a Catholic school. Surprisingly, he said he liked it; he appreciated its logic and its abstract thoughtfulness.
An older in-law chimed in saying that he too took that course many decades ago. He is a graduate of U.D. and slightly religious, but mostly he is a very practical man, a successful business owner and a person not inclined to obtuse thinking in any form. Yet, one idea from the course had stuck with him all these years, he said: “that in the beginning there was nothing, and now there is something. God was necessary to get something out of nothing.”
Trying to follow directions, I declined to respond directly to that idea. Instead, I suggested other theological arguments were also of interest, like the argument for God —as the Grand Designer— from the Intricate Design exhibited in the world. Even the “ontological proof” is a curiosity, but that is where the discussion pretty much ended.
So where do Things come from, in this largest and basic kind of way?
“The vast majority of life is gravity and electromagnetism pushing around electrons and nuclei,” contends physicist Sean Carroll in his widely read book, The Big Picture, On the Origins of life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. Here, I will try to provide an answer that goes beyond Carroll’s four components. After all, “people”, “color”, “jet airplanes”, all sorts of “living things”, and “the Sun” —to name just a few— also seem to exist, and somehow “come from” gravity and the others.
But getting these macro objects from such a micro world is itself quite a leap, it seems. The way we talk about, and see, and even have feelings about, these familiar concrete things is very different from such rather dry abstractions as “electromagnetism.” I must admit that when I am trying to get along with my wife, I don’t think of gravity or electrons at all! (Maybe I should, for God knows, I have tried almost everything else!)
The Traditional Answer
The traditional problem does not involve electromagnetism, of course, but it maintains the same flavor. Some Magic must be imposed upon some very inferior substance or even nothing at all — “The Void.” A divinity must intervene. Some ‘breath’ (the Greek noumena) must be added to “the dust.” Some ‘spark’ must be applied; a spark like a common earthly spark —in some ways— but much more potent due to its immaterial character. You need to add some ‘spirit’ to matter; some supreme being must be at work, it is said.
Concerning “something from nothing,” the answer I could have given my theistic relative is this: “You have painted yourself into an intellectual corner. In common experience and scientific research, we never discover the predecessor of a thing to be nothing, or the working components of a thing to be nonexistent (no insides!). Yet this is how you have framed your problem —“How from nothing, something?” It is little winder that you need to go fishing and come up with an equally baffling idea for an answer, God.
So, “there is no something, from nothing,” and that is a satisfying answer suitable for any free-wheeling family get-together. But what of More from Less? If there are processes inside of processes, and cycles on top of cycles, these may come together (sometimes) in a new way and create a new thing and new qualities and abilities emerge in that object. “‘Emergent’: important word that,” says noted biologist and commentator Richard Dawkins.
In other words, from a world of gravity and electromagnetism, now we have a world with Color, Language and Flight. Where did they, and all the rest, come from? Is there some deep mystery that needs more than a physical explanation for us to understand it? Is it “a leap” as unlikely as ‘getting blood from a turnip,’ as the old saying puts it?
Getting More from Less
No, it is not a metaphysical leap, but it is Evolution that does the job. And, in one sense, we do need a special explanatory principle. Evolutionary Theory is how we explain the origin and existence of complexity; it is how we explain “Climbing Mount Improbable,” says Dawkins.
“The basic Darwinian motif” is “in the beginning there was some relatively unstructured and unsophisticated raw material; mutations of one sort of another occurred; and out of this emerged something novel,” contends Dan Dennett, philosopher and cognitive scientist. This novel thing will be more structured. It will be the outcome of a more sophisticated organization, a more designed “raw material.” That is how to get more from less: Enhance the design!
The new qualities or abilities may be as humble as the combination of two atoms —hydrogen and oxygen— that are usually characterized as gasses, combining to form a liquid, water. This leap from gas to liquid does not shock us, though maybe it should considering it is a precursor of more startling things to come.
For example, it seems that the proper combination of six inanimate chemicals can lead to life. To add insult to injury, for those confounded by that apparent fact, five of those components can be purchased at your local hardware store (and in the right proportions) for around $100. The sixth can be attained by distilling urine!
Of course, as in the case of all Emergent Qualities, the ‘magic’ is in the recipe. It is like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. At this moment, various biochemists around the world are working to put those six basic components of life back together to recapture in a laboratory what apparently occurred 4 billion years ago deep in the ocean near a volcanic vent.
So, we have ‘many things under the Sun’ because New Things with new Qualities have Evolved and Emerged. We all have a pretty clear intuitive sense of what this means, though firming it up theoretically is harder, that will be the job of subsequent passages. The following passage will attempt to show how intuitive this succession of evolved occurrences really is and one of the basic rules by which Emergence and Evolution occurs.
Let us end with a list of Emergent Objects; places where new abilities and qualities occurred, as formulated by the noted physicist Sean Carroll. To his credit, he is one of physic’s most forthright advocates of the idea of “Emergence” and of the different “Levels” at which we can consider “the same” object———–
For after all, I am…a 21st century American, a person, a biological organism (a composition of 11 major organ systems), a collection of single cells, an assemblage of biochemicals, an ongoing inorganic chemical reaction, an object with a given mass, density and inertia, …and finally Carroll’s “gravity and electromagnetism pushing around electrons and nuclei.” Gee, isn’t that swell!
Sean Carroll’s list of Emergent Transitions:
—Protons and Neutrons out of Quarks and Gluons (in the early universe); Atoms out of Electrons combining with Nuclei (several hundred thousand years after the Big Bang); the first Stars; origin of Life; Multicellular Organisms from the merger of individual single-celled organisms; Consciousness from neural activity; origin of Language from sounds and signs; original invention of Machines and Technology. (List from previously mentioned book, page 102.)
So you can’t get Something from Nothing, but you can get More from Less. In the following section, we will consider some of the “rules,” or it might be better to say “logic,” of Evolution and Emergence.
It is amazing the number and variety of things, qualities and abilities that exist in this world. It is time to close the gaps between all the different ways we experience and understand this diversity. What ways do we have to hold it all together? Surely the ideas of Emergence and Evolution are important to that effort.