Being and Time from Nothing

Maybe I’m losin’ it. During a phone call last week, my daughter said she was reading something by Heidegger. I didn’t remember him. I asked if he was the guy in the mid-1800s who said: “I stick my finger into existence…” She said she didn’t think so; that Heidegger published in the 1900s. Then worse for my ego: she informed me that she had my copy of Heidegger’s book!

So this week, I spent some time on the internet trying to refresh my memory about the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1880–1976), “counted among the main exponents of 20th century Existentialism.” And so, at least I got the existentialist-link right by remembering Kierkegaard, i.e., the fellow who said:
I stick my finger into existence and it smells of nothing. Where am I? What is this thing called the world? Who is it that has lured me into the thing, and now leaves me here? Who am I? How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted?
Wikipedia states: “[Heidegger’s] best known book, Being and Time, is generally considered to be one of the key philosophical works of the 20th Century.” That’s probably the book that my daughter has, but since it wasn’t easy to retrieve (she lives in a different city), I searched on the web and found excerpts of his essay with the similar title: “On Time and Being”.

Upon reading that essay, maybe I got a hint about why I didn’t remember him. For me, Heidegger is similar to Kant: his writing is damn near impenetrable, awash in speculative ruminations (“chewing the cud”). While reading Heidegger, I find myself frequently saying to myself: “Spit it out, fella’! What are you trying to say?!”

So, feeling a little better about my memory but wondering if I might have missed something, I looked up some of his “famous quotations”. I thank those who hoed through Heidegger’s rows and rows of verbiage (similar to Kant’s) to find a few morsels that others might be able to finally sink their teeth into!

For this post, my plan is go through a few Heidegger quotes, try to respond to some of his dangling questions, and try to point out where I think he went wrong, starting with his:
Making itself intelligible is suicide for philosophy.
What a crazy attitude for a philosopher to take! Yet, my experience with his and Kant’s writings suggests that at least they chose to avoid suicide, opting instead for long, slow, drawn-out deaths!

In his 1935 book What is Metaphysics? Heidegger asks:
Warum ist überhaupt Seiendes und nicht vielmehr Nichts? Das ist die Frage.
Wikiquote gives the translation:
Why is there Being at all, and not much rather Nothing? That is the question.
But a translation that’s more common on the web is:
Why are there beings at all, instead of nothing? That is the question.
By ‘Being’ apparently Heidegger means essentially ‘existence’; so, another translation could be: “Why does anything exist, rather than nothing?”

Well, since elsewhere I’ve addressed that (very old) question in some detail (and by the way, certainly it’s not a “Heidegger original”), therefore, here I’ll try to be brief. And the briefest answer is that the question is wrong: in fact, there’s nothing here!

If that answer seems silly, then I’d encourage you to go through a detailed inventory: you’ll probably quickly agree that the net electrical charge in the universe is zero (from Coulomb’s “law” also known as the principle of the conservation of electrical charge), you’ll probably also agree that the net linear (and angular) momentum in the universe is zero (from Newton’s second “law”, also known as the principle of conservation of momentum, applied to a closed system with no net momentum initially), and if you’ll think about it for a bit, you’ll see that the total energy in the universe is also zero (from the first “law” of thermodynamics, again applied to a closed system that before the Big Bang had no energy, and with Einstein’s recognition that mass is a form of energy, i.e., E = mc^2, and with Dirac’s recognition that space, itself, is “brim full” with negative energy). Below, I’ll comment a little on the possibility that the total entropy of the universe is also zero.

Now, if the idea that there’s nothing in this universe seems to make some sense but not much (because it sure feels like there’s something here), then welcome to the club! Below, I’ll sketch a resolution to that dilemma and suggest how what-we-perceive as something might have come into existence. Then, I’ll use that “resolution” to address the above quotation from Heidegger as well as some of his other quotes.

To start the resolution, surely the reason why we have the impression that there’s something here in this universe (when in reality there’s nothing) is because we’re accustomed to recognizing only what we commonly call ‘positive’ energy, especially mass but also all the other forms of positive energy, including heat (or thermal energy), mechanical energy, gravitational energy, electromagnetic energy, chemical energy, nuclear energy, and so on. Simultaneously, though, we ignore (unless someone calls our attention to it!) all the negative energy that’s everywhere around us (and even inside us – even inside every atom and nucleus), namely, space, itself. Worse, not only are we normally oblivious to all the negative energy around us (and even in us), we have the audacity to call it empty space!

When Dirac first saw that space was “brim full” of negative energy (when he modified the Schrödinger equation of quantum mechanics so that it would be invariant under the Lorentz transformation), he wrote that he didn’t understand what the result (for a free electron) meant; i.e., that he didn’t understand the meaning of ‘negative energy’. Actually, though, that shouldn’t have been much of a surprise, because if you’ll think about it for a bit, I expect you’ll conclude that we also don’t know what ‘positive energy’ is!

In reality (and about reality), the statement ‘energy exists’ is probably the most foundational statement that can be made: it can’t be rephrased in more fundamental terms. Maybe in a thousand-or-more years from now people will be able to say ‘gluck glicks’ (or similar) and show how ‘gluck glicks’ implies ‘energy exists’, but for now, ‘energy exists’ must be taken as an irreducible, base statement – meaning, that’s all we know about it; so, get over it!

Still, Dirac discovered something new, namely, that whatever energy is, it can be both positive and negative – whatever that means! For his discovery, he shared the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics (with Schrödinger) – in particular, for his prediction (subsequently confirmed) that if a hole were to appear in the sea of negative energy that we call ‘space’ (or ‘the vacuum’), then the hole would appear as what has subsequently been called an ‘antiparticle’.

For example, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Dirac wrote:
We now make the assumptions that in the world [or universe] as we know it, nearly all the states of negative energy for the electrons are occupied, with just one electron in each state, and that a uniform filling of all the negative-energy states is completely unobservable to us. [Italics added] Further, any unoccupied negative-energy state, being a departure from uniformity, is observable and is just a positron.
Subsequently, Dirac’s result has been generalized for other ‘negative-energy states’ (not just for electrons), and data supporting his idea that if a hole develops in space, then we observe the hole as an antiparticle has been overwhelming confirmed for a huge variety of antiparticles.

If it’s then appreciated that space (or the vacuum) is brim full of negative energy (and as Dirac said, all the negative-energy states are then unobservable to us, because they’re filled uniformly), then returning to the old question (repeated by Heidegger) about how something could have been created from nothing (viz., ex nihilo), we can see the answer using the simplest possible mathematics. Thus, Something, say S, could have been created from Nothing (say, Zero) via 0 = S – S. That is, Nothing (Zero) can yield any type of Something (e.g., energy) – provided that it’s exactly balanced by the negative of that Something.

Such seems to be what occurred to create our universe. It’s proposed that “originally” there was “totally nothing”. [I put those words in double quotation marks, because if you’ll think about them for a while, you’ll conclude (correctly) that they can’t be defined, since we have no experience with such “things”.] It’s assumed that the “original total-nothingness” could engage in fluctuations (similar to well-known fluctuations of quantum-mechanical systems). The original “total-nothingness” could fluctuate as much as “it wanted”, provided that, in all such fluctuations, equal positive and negative “things” that were created were exactly balanced, so that in total, there was “always” still nothing present.

It’s assumed that in one such fluctuation, however, some symmetry was broken. Possibly the fluctuation was in some “unknown stuff” that we now call ‘energy’, which not only led to a positive and negative energy pair but also, for some unknown reason, what we would now call ‘the positive-energy fluctuation’ somehow ‘congealed’ or ‘got tied in a knot’ (maybe as the first particle or maybe as the first string of positive energy), “refusing” to rejoin with its negative-energy counterpart. Once the symmetry was broken, “all hell broke lose”, leading to the Big Bang. And now, ~13.73 billion years later, here we are pleased with our existence on this ‘positive side of existence’ (as blobs of positive energy), while all about us (and even within us) is the ‘negative side of existence’, i.e., the negative energy, which we call ‘space’ or ‘the vacuum’.

Incidentally, for all we know, similar symmetry-breaking fluctuations in “total nothingness” might be quite common (and not just symmetry-breaking energy fluctuations). If so, then “outside our universe”, many other ‘verses’ (meaning ‘turns’) could exist – which needn’t be made of the same “stuff” (energy) or have the same number or even the same type of dimensions, and so on. But since humans will almost certainly never know if that’s so (although, maybe in a million-or-more years from now, someone will see how to get communications outside our universe!), then speculations about ‘multiverses’ seem rather pointless.

Anyway, with the above “resolution” (which, of course, may be wrong), maybe the following four statements will make some sense.

1) Alan Guth (of MIT, famous for his Inflationary Theory of the universe) stated: “It’s said that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. But the universe is the ultimate free lunch” – in the sense that we got a whole lot (i.e., the universe!) for nothing – or better, from nothing.

2) Edward Tryon (of the City College of New York, who in 1973 published the first estimate, from data, that the total energy of the universe is zero) wrote the following [to which I’ve added the notes in “square brackets” and the italics]:
If it is true that our Universe has a zero net value for all conserved quantities [such as electrical charge, momentum, and total energy], then it [our Universe] may simply be a fluctuation of the vacuum [i.e., the original “zero” or “total nothingness”], the vacuum of some larger space [which stretches the meanings of the words ‘vacuum’ and ‘space’] in which our Universe is imbedded. In answer to the question of why it happened, I offer the modest proposal that our Universe is simply one of those things [that] happen from time to time.
3) Sung Kyu Kim (Physics Dept., Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota) entertainingly summarized with:
In the beginning, there was nothing – but nothing is unstable. And nothing borrowed nothing from nothing, within the limits of uncertainty, and became something. The rest is just math.
And then 4), there’s the famous statement by Einstein:
Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, [then] wearing stripes with plaid comes easy.
In fact, such ideas can be found in Ancient Chinese philosophy. On the one hand, there’s the idea of yin and yang (“the principle of polarity in Chinese cosmology, in which the opposite poles eventually blend and become one another in cosmic connectedness”), and on the other hand, there’s the Tao (described by Lao-tzu in ~600 BCE as: “The Tao that can be spoken of, is not the true Tao; the name that can be named, is not the true Name”). Thus, if Einstein had been asked, “What is the ‘nothing that is something’ into which the universe is expanding?”, perhaps he would have answered, “The Tao.”

And I admit that one reason that I added the previous paragraph is because it really “gets to me” to have the dumb clerics of monotheism repeat the familiar line from Robert Jastrow (astronomer, author, and founder of Goddard Institute for Space Studies):
For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.
It’s somewhat unfortunate that Jastrow used the phrase “faith in the power of reason”, since any scientist’s faith is not in reason but in the scientific method (which is much, much, more powerful than reason!), but it’s even more unfortunate that Jastrow used the word ‘theologians’. It wasn’t theologians (i.e., those who study “theo” = “god”) who were sitting at the top of the mountain; the clerics of monotheistic religions, in particular, are still tangled in thorny thickets, back in the jungle at the base of the mountain; instead, those sitting quietly at the top were Zen masters. And another reason for the previous paragraph is to mention that perhaps the interested reader will begin to understand why this blog and my book use the term “Zen of Zero”.

But that aside, let me get back to Heidegger (who started out studying theology, then switched to philosophy, and who seems never to have studied any science – although I saw that he did go for some walks with Heisenberg). Two other (connected) quotations from him are:
Being and time determine each other reciprocally, but in such a manner that neither can the former – Being – be addressed as something temporal nor can the latter – time – be addressed as a being.

Time is not a thing, thus nothing which is, and yet it remains constant in its passing away without being something temporal like the beings in time.
Those two statements contain quite a few misunderstanding about ‘time’ and ‘being’ (or better than the word ‘being’, I’ll use the word ‘energy’). Below, I’ll comment on and try to straighten out some of his misunderstandings.

First, consider Heidegger’s statement “time is not a thing, thus nothing which is…” That’s a weird way to put it, leading to my first response: “Well, yes and no.” Time is usually considered to be a coordinate, a locator, as is position. So, what response would be appropriate to the statement: “Position is not a thing, thus nothing which is…”? In some sense the statement is correct, but in other ways, it’s not. For example, if I told you that my daughter is in Detroit, that locates her (at least fairly well) for you, but then, where are you – and relative to what: lines of latitude and longitude on the Earth? But the location of the Earth is what and relative to what? So, maybe the best response to Heidegger’s “time is not a thing, thus nothing which is…” is to say: “So what?”

But going further into the above statements by Heidegger, it becomes apparent that he has some fundamental misunderstandings both about ‘time’ and ‘energy’. To try to show you what I mean, since in the above quotations he’s now talking about not just ‘existence’ but also ‘change’ (implied with his introduction of ‘time’), I’ll start by extending what I claim to be the fundamental principle of reality: not only that ‘energy exists’ but even ‘energy exists and can change’. (Maybe all of that will someday be contained in ‘gluck glicks’!) In any case, starting from that fundamental principle and realizing that we commonly describe ‘change’ by using ‘time’, now consider Heidegger’s statements, starting with
Time is not a thing, thus nothing which is, and yet it remains constant in its passing away without being something temporal like the beings in time.
It would have helped if he had mentioned what ‘time’ he was referring to, there being at least three different meanings for ‘time’, sketched below.

1. Every-day Time. Not much need be said about every-day (household-variety) time, since we use it “all the time”, but bear with me for a bit, to remind yourself what we do. Although the fundamental feature of reality seems to be that ‘energy changes’, many other things change as well, and we use ‘time’ as a convenient tool for quantifying and comparing such changes. To that end, we characterize any change by comparing it to some standard, such as the number of swings of the pendulum of a grandfather clock, the number of times the Earth spins on its axis, the frequency of vibration of some electromagnetic energy, etc. We can play lots of games with the resulting comparisons of changes. For example, if the digits of my age (in years) are added together, then the sum is always the same as the sum of the digits in my daughter’s age. Behind such usage is Newton’s (outmoded) idea that “absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external, and by another name is called duration”, and it’s generated a lot of stimulating poetry, such as Ralph Hodgson’s:
Time, you old gipsy man,
Will you not stay,
Put up your caravan
Just for one day?
2. Time in Applied Science. Associated with attempts to change thermal energy into mechanical energy, a second meaning of ‘time’ was developed especially by many 19th century engineers and scientists (Watt, Fourier, Poisson, Carnot, Mayer, Thompson, Joule, Helmholtz, Kelvin, Clausius, and many others, including Boltzmann and Gibbs). Although no doubt the first caveman who handled a burning stick quickly learned that heat flows from hot to cold, Fourier was the first to describe the idea quantitatively, and Carnot was the first to see some of the resulting limitations of changing thermal into mechanical energy. Cutting an amazingly difficult, century-long intellectual achievement down to a few words, I’d put it this way: time is not just a convenient tool for quantifying and comparing changes, it provides an indication of the usual direction of most changes.

Thus, in our macroscopic world (in contrast to the microscopic world currently described by quantum mechanics), things usually change in a preferred direction: heat normally flows from hot to cold, and typically because of friction, energy is usually lost (in the sense that the energy, as electromagnetic thermal-energy, goes roaring off toward the edge of the universe, at the speed of light). More formally, the normal direction of change is that all available states (both locations and energy states) become populated as uniformly as is consistent with applied constraints, or stated more concisely, the entropy of any closed system always increases. As Eddington said: “Entropy is time’s arrow.”

In fact, it then makes sense to talk of different ‘times’ for different systems. In closed systems, for example (i.e., those that don’t interact with their environments), entropy increases (or better, it never decreases) and time advances until such systems reach their equilibrium state, i.e., when change no longer occurs – which then means, for them, ‘time’ stops. In open systems, in contrast (i.e., those that can exchange, e.g., energy, with their environments), their ‘time’ can either increase (increasing entropy by, e.g., adding energy) or decrease (decreasing entropy by, e.g., decreasing their energy or, e.g., by increasing their ‘order’). Thus in some cases (e.g., when a youngster is sent to clean up his room), an open system’s entropy can decrease, as if its ‘time’ goes backwards – but rest assured that in a while, its ‘time’ will again increase and the room will be just as messy as it ever was, only to reach equilibrium when it’s in a maximum state of disorder, maximum entropy – which usually takes a kid no more than a few hours!

Thus, we normally find that the entropy of most systems (and their ‘time’) increases. For example, we get old, deteriorate, and have less energy. As another example: because of the tides on Earth caused by the Moon (and the resulting loss of thermal radiation to space), the Earth’s rate of spin is slowly decreasing (and since in a few billion years the Earth will stop spinning, it’s recommended that, before then, humans should find a better place to live). Many poets have summarized such entropy increases, for example, there’s T.S. Eliot’s: “This is the way the world ends… not with a bang but a whimper.” When there are no more changes, when everything is uniform, when the system attains equilibrium, then its ‘time’ stops.

3. Time in Modern Physics. In physics, time has always been “just” another coordinate (similar to the usual spatial coordinates). As the physicist John Wheeler reportedly said (although the source isn’t certain; it might have been Woody Allen!):
Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once. 
Space is what prevents everything from happening to me.
In any case, ever since Einstein and Schrödinger, such coordinates locating ‘events’ in space-time have become quite weird – maybe especially the time coordinate. Thus, as Einstein showed, observers traveling at different speeds won’t agree on time durations (nor on spatial differences), and time-durations change with changing locations near any mass.

Yet, the idea continues that if a system reaches a state of equilibrium, then for it, its ‘time’ stops. For example, if you could ask an electron that’s whizzing around its nucleus, “What time is it?”, his meaningful response (or hers, as the case may be) would be: “Whaddya mean by ‘time’? I’ve gone round and round that stupid nucleus down there umpteen quadzillion times, and nothing ever changes.”

In fact, that’s 'doubly weird', because although an electron seems to be accelerated as it 'goes around' a nucleus (its centripetal acceleration resulting from the force between the positively charged nucleus and the negatively charged electron), it doesn’t radiate energy. Yet, when an electron is accelerated in the macroscopic world (e.g., accelerated in an antenna), then the electron produces an electromagnetic wave that goes roaring off toward the edge of the universe. So, something is wrong about the extrapolation of our macroscopic model to the microscopic world: either the electron isn't accelerated as it 'goes around' a nucleus or in some cases (some energy states), an accelerated electron needn't radiate energy.

To get an electron in an atom or molecule to radiate energy, the first step is to bounce it up to a higher energy state, e.g., via a collision with another atom or molecule or with a photon of light. Interestingly relative to links between energy and time, uncertainties (δ) in the lifetime (τ) and energy (E) of the ‘excited state’ are related via δE δτ ≥ h/2π, where h is Plank’s constant, similar to the familiar uncertainty in the momentum (p) and position (q) as given by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (δp δq ≥ h/2π). And when the electron does terminate its uncertain lifetime in an excited state by emitting electromagnetic energy, then for the emitted photon (heading off toward the edge of the universe at the speed of light), time stands still. That is, whereas ‘time’ (or any information) can’t travel faster than the speed of light, then in the 'rest frame' of the photon, there's no such thing as 'time', i.e., for light (viz., electromagnetic energy), there is no past or future, it’s always ‘now’.

For nondissipative systems (e.g., frictionless systems such as all quantum mechanical systems), time is merely a convenient ‘marker’ whose origin and even whose direction is immaterial: Schrödinger’s equation is invariant under time reversal - meaning that its predictions are the same no mater if 'the parameter time' runs backwards or forwards. In fact, Noether’s theorem states that, for energy to be conserved, then time must have translational symmetry (i.e., there’s no meaningful origin of time), which then intimately links time to energy.

Further, if energy is negative (e.g., in ‘the vacuum’), then there are suggestions that time goes in the opposite direction from the direction with which we’re familiar. For example, rather than interpret a positron as a hole in negative-energy space, it can be interpreted as an electron going backwards in time. Further still, if the interpretation is correct that time in ‘the vacuum’ goes backward, then it might finally resolve some of the many perplexing features of quantum mechanics (e.g., as Einstein complained, quantum mechanics seems to permit information to travel faster than the speed of light).

Time going backward in space would be consistent with the entropy of the universe being a constant (namely, zero), if space (or the vacuum) has not only negative entropy but also increasingly more negative entropy as the universe expands. And if the entropy of the universe is zero, then there is no such thing as ‘time’ for the universe (maybe that’s what Einstein meant when he said “time is an illusion”) – but we who are stuck in ‘the positive side of reality’ (i.e., we positive-energy beings) apparently are stuck with entropy usually increasing (e.g., our aging).

So, then, what’s to be made of Heidegger’s: “Time is not a thing, thus nothing which is, and yet it remains constant in its passing away without being something temporal like the beings [energy] in time”? I don’t know! His statement doesn’t conform to the ideas of Eddington or Einstein. Thus, Heidegger’s statement “Time is not a thing” is incorrect, if change is considered to be a fundamental feature of the universe and, in particular, if time is related to entropy increase. As for his “yet it [time] remains constant in its passing away”, that’s inconsistent with both Einstein’s and Eddington's ideas, suggesting that Heidegger is stuck with Newton's idea about time.

Next, adding his proposed distinction between time and ‘being’ (or ‘energy’, including the mass-energy known as humans) consider Heidegger’s:
Being and time determine each other reciprocally, but in such a manner that neither can the former – Being – be addressed as something temporal nor can the latter – time – be addressed as a being.
In some sense, he’s correct that “being [energy] and time determine each other reciprocally” (in the sense of Noether’s theorem, which is applicable only to nondissipative systems), but his statement that “neither can the former [energy] be addressed as something temporal” is wrong, as is his “nor can the latter – time – be addressed as [energy]”, not only in the sense that energy degradation is the most common form of entropy increase (which is the fundamental concept of time in our macroscopic world) but also in the sense that without energy (e.g., “before” the Big Bang) there would be no time. Therefore, by the way (trying to “clean up” what I wrote earlier), the concept of “before” the Big Bang is meaningless: without energy there was no time; therefore, there was no “before” (and similarly, without momentum, there is no meaning for location, so if there’s no momentum in the “nothing” that’s “outside” our universe, than there’s no meaning to “outside”).

So anyway, maybe I’m not losing it! Maybe I don’t remember Heidegger, because for me, he said nothing memorable. Yet, I wholeheartedly agree with his:
If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life – and only then will I be free to become myself.
But since Heidegger was a student of Greek philosophy, I think he should have credited Epicurus (341–270 BCE), who said essentially the same:
[It follows that] death is nothing to us. For all good and evil consist in sensation, but death is deprivation of sensation. And therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not because it adds to it an infinite span of time, but because it takes away the craving for immortality. For there is nothing terrible in life for the man who has truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in not living… [Death should not] concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.
I’d even add: would that all Christians, Muslims, and Mormons would consider what Epicurus said. If they understood it, they’d immediately junk their religions in the trash and put a lid on their clerics!

Yet, even Heidegger apparently didn’t understand it, since in his interview with Der Spiegel on 23 September 1966, published posthumously on 31 May 1976, he’s quoted as saying:
...philosophy will not be able to effect an immediate transformation of the present condition of the world. This is not only true of philosophy, but of all merely human thought and endeavor. Only a god can save us. The sole possibility that is left for us is to prepare a sort of readiness, through thinking and poeticizing, for the appearance of the god or for the absence of the god in the time of foundering Untergang [downfall] for in the face of the god who is absent, we founder. Only a God Can Save Us.
Of course it’s easy to agree that “philosophy will not be able to effect an immediate transformation of the present condition of the world.” Perhaps the only thing that could “effect an immediate transformation” would be communications from extraterrestrial beings (or if another 'verse' bumped into ours!). But for Heidegger to say that “only a god can save us” displays a horrible lack of faith – in humanity and in the scientific method.

And with that thought, maybe I see why I couldn’t remember who Heidegger was. I wouldn’t be surprised if, years ago, I said to myself: “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about; forget about him.”

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