There Are No Stupid Questions
While Hume has me in a philosophical bent, let me ask a question of my own. Can you prove to me that the universe exists?
It sounds like a trivial question. Shouldn’t the keyboard under my fingers, the photons smacking into my eyeballs, or my ability to think about myself suggest an obvious answer?
But think about it a little more. That keyboard is not the universe, but something that exists within a universe. The same can be said for those photons and even my thoughts. In fact, at no point in my life will I ever interact with the universe, I will only deal with the things contained in it.
We can’t say the same about my keyboard, those photons, or the thoughts bouncing around my skull. I can verify my keyboard exists by looking at it, test my eyes’ ability to detect light by comparing where it says my hands are to what my body has to say about the matter, and hook myself up to a brain scanner and watch the activation patterns of my neurons change over time. These aren’t absolute proofs of existence, true, but by combining multiple lines of evidence I can push my uncertainty down to an arbitrarily low level.
As this simple question demonstrates, the universe is qualitatively different than any physical thing. It is an abstract container, which can only be properly described by referring to the things within it. And yet Cosmological wants us to treat it the same as any other physical object. The sloppy nature of language hides this conflict from us, making the proof seem more rational than it actually is.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
All that would be bad enough, but so far all I’ve discussed is theory. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was also some hard physical evidence that the Cosmological proof fails?
There might be, but it’s going to take a little explaining.
Remember the phrase “you can’t get something from nothing?” Imagine we’re able to break that rule, exactly once. Something would pop out of nowhere, and set off a chain of causes, moves, and so on. This would form its own hierarchy that might intersect the primary one at some point, but would still lead back to separate single “mover.” Applying the Cosmological proof to this tree would result in two gods, one per tree. This is a bit of a problem if you only believe in one god.
Polytheists would be fine with it, but even they have limits. The highest number of gods I’ve heard of is in the 300 million range, for Hinduism, but this seems to be an estimate of historical and forgotten gods instead of the number actively worshipped. Nonetheless, once we get into the trillions of trillions of gods it becomes difficult to keep a straight face. If this exception can happen with no limit, those numbers are easy to reach.
So if we could find some way to get “something from nothing,” we’ve again broken Cosmological. I can think of two: the Casimir Effect has been well-demonstrated but only goes half-way, while Dark Energy is probably a clean break but needs further study to prove this.
Bring two metal flat metal plates really close together, to within a few thousand widths of an atom, then attach a force gauge to at least one. You’ll measure a force tugging the two together, even if there’s no electric or magnetic fields to draw them together, and everything is in a complete vacuum. What’s creating the Casimir Effect is likely virtual particles popping out of empty space unevenly.
Wait, empty space is creating particles? It’s strange, but true. To explain how, I have to tackle a much more fundamental problem: energy.
Philosophers had long thought there was some sort of force or fluid driving life. From the time of Gottfried Leibniz in the 1600’s to the work of Lord Kelvin in the late 1800’s, this definition became more and more abstract:
There is a fact, or if you wish, a law, governing all natural phenomena that are known to date. There is no known exception to this law—it is exact so far as we know.  The law is called the conservation of energy. It states that there is a certain quantity, which we call energy, that does not change in manifold changes which nature undergoes. That is a most abstract idea, because it is a mathematical principle; it says that there is a numerical quantity which does not change when something happens. It is not a description of a mechanism, or anything concrete; it is just a strange fact that we can calculate some number and when we finish watching nature go through her tricks and calculate the number again, it is the same.
(The Feynman Lectures on Physics, 1961)
The best metaphor I can think of is money. It used to be a physical thing, a solid coin or token you carried, but in my time it’s been reduced down to a few magnetic disturbances on a computer hard drive in some far-off land. You could exchange some “cash” for tea, chocolate, or a good massage. Likewise, by selling tea or giving a massage you can earn some of this abstract quantity back. Just like energy, money only becomes useful when it’s transformed into an action or something material.
Also like energy, it’s a positive quantity; you cannot have less than zero dollars, and once you reach zero dollars you’re stuck until someone gives you a donation. Forces can front you some funds; if you hold up a ball above the surface of the Earth, it has some money/energy “stored” thanks to gravity, and once you let go it hurriedly starts converting that into motion. The two Relativity theories say that matter itself can also supply some currency, like in a nuclear reactor or radioactive decay.
In empty space, where forces like gravity and magnetism are absent and matter doesn’t exist, you’d expect the bank balance to be firmly at zero. This makes sense; otherwise, you could use empty space to do some useful work, by creating something out of nothing.
There’s another possibility, though. Canada used to have “Vagrancy Laws” which mandated that every citizen must carry a certain amount of change on their person. On the surface, both lead to the same results since you can’t spend below your limit, whether it’s zero or a greater amount. There are some subtle differences, though. For instance, you could temporarily go below the legal amount when consolidating your change at the bank, or during a private card game. If you had no cash on you, however, both scenarios would be impossible. This doesn’t have to break the law, though, so long as you always end up above the limit while in public.
Werner Heisenberg added a key feature to Quantum Mechanics in 1926. His “Uncertainty Principle” states that there are limits to how defined some quantities could be. If you knew the momentum of a particle very well, for instance, you couldn’t be very precise about its location. This perpetual uncertainty is not the fault of the experimenter, but built right into the fabric of the cosmos.
The Uncertainty Principle applies to empty space, too. Thus a perfect vacuum cannot have an energy level of zero, because then you would know its value with certainty. In fact, not only must it contain some energy, but that energy must fluctuate too lest it be known with certainty. So while every other physical theory we know of views an empty void as, well, an empty void, Quantum Mechanics views it as a perpetually churning, frothing hotbed of action.
Just like in our metaphor, a non-zero minimum energy has some side-effects. The twin Relativity theories point out that energy and matter are interchangeable, so the fluctuations in a perfect vacuum wind up creating “virtual” particles that live for incredibly short periods of time before popping back out of existence. These don’t have to play by the rules of normal matter, leading to such oddities as negative energy and time travel. The kind and strength of these particles depends on the size of the void, and this leads to the Casimir Effect. The tiny distance between the two metal plates constrains what particles can pop out of the vacuum, yet the open space behind the two plates does not. The pressure of the interior particles can be less than or greater than those of the outside, depending on the exact distance, and thus the two plates are forced together or apart.
This sounds like a clear violation of the Conservation of Energy, but remember the money analogy. If everyone has the minimum amount of cash, then everyone’s equally poor and no work can be done. Likewise, all that virtual particle action averages out to a minimum value, which cannot be borrowed against.
Does it make sense to call this an “empty void,” then, if it isn’t empty?
This is where “something from nothing” begins to break down. If we call this void “nothing,” then it clearly is creating “something” in the form of matter and forces. It’s tempting to declare it to be “something” and dodge this bullet, but then what can we call “nothing?” If no such thing exists, then the “something from nothing” argument is meaningless since there must always be something!
There is a way around this counter-argument, though. If we redefine “something” as anything above this minimal vacuum energy, then the contraction goes away. Since these virtual particles are exactly at the minimum, we can dismiss them as averaging out to nothing in the long run. I’m not certain the Casimir Effect can be waved away so easily, but some physicists like Robert Jaffe think it can be explained without needing to invoke virtual particles. This would mean the void is not producing force, and thus not producing “something.” The Casimir Effect is very small and difficult to study, so it could take some time to sort out who’s right.
Or, we could look for the answer in the stars.
The calculations of Edwin Hubble and others before him have been tested, re-tested, and verified via other means. Physicists and astronomers are convinced the universe is growing in size. On this grand a scale, the only force that can effect expansion should be gravity; the weak and strong forces have no effect here, and all charged particles average out to zero electromagnetic force. Gravity may be the weakest force on the block, but it only pulls; over long distances, this adds up and has the effect of pulling the universe back together. We should see the rate of expansion slowing down over time, as a result.
Instead, it is accelerating. Two competing teams first discovered this around 1998, and other observations have backed them up. Something within the universe is pumping out extra force and energy that is pushing everything away from everything else, and yet the source of this isn’t visible from our lonely planet. The prime suspect behind this “Dark Energy” is the energy of empty space, as I just described above. These virtual particles create a force or pressure that drives matter apart, and more virtual particles are created as the size of the universe increases. It’s a tidy explanation, which also vindicates the Casimir Effect as I described it.
It isn’t a perfect explanation, though. For one thing, the energy of empty space is at least 1050 times greater than Dark Energy’s observed value, and could even be a staggering 10120 times too strong. It also leads to problems in the early universe, where this energy suddenly turns into an attractive force, and there are some observations related to the density of our cosmic neighbourhood that further muddy things up.
Still, it’s the best explanation we have right now. And no matter what the true answer is, we know that we have something currently within our universe that’s creating energy out of nothing, in clear violation of the “something from nothing” assertion.
Yet again, we find the Cosmological Proof amounts to nothing.
 That last one depends on my counter-arguments for the proof from Mathematics, specifically the section on dualism. Feel free to skip ahead, if you’re feeling sceptical.
 Feynman may have gotten this wrong. I’ll get to the details shortly.
 Yes, some Canadian citizens owe more than they own due to credit and loans, but for this metaphor I’m ignoring those messy details.
 That portion was repealed in 1972. In theory, it was to ensure each citizen could call someone to get out of trouble. In practice, it was used to punish the poor and homeless.
 Hubble would make a good subject for a book. He was a handsome, charismatic athlete who hung out with Hollywood stars, yet still lied to fluff up his resume and seems remarkably ignorant of the theories his data was supporting or refuting.