Sunday, March 15, 2009

Something out of nothing

This week in the 5th grade the students and I talked about whether the universe began at some point or has always existed. This is often a somewhat delicate discussion, because it can easily slide into religion and raise what especially in public schools can be thorny issues. But in this conversation, the students quickly seemed to get where philosophy ends and religion begins.

We started by wondering whether everything always has to have a beginning, or whether, as one student phrased it, "the universe has just always been there."

"It can't have always been there!" one student exclaimed. "Everything has to have a beginning."

"But how could it begin?" other students responded. "What would it begin from?"

"Well, I think God created the universe," said one student.

"Okay," I said, "but where did God come from, or did God always exist?"

"Not everyone believes in God," another student stated.

"Well, if you ask the question as where did God come from or did God always exist, or ask it as where did the universe come from or did it always exist, isn't it the same problem?" I asked.

"I see," replied a student. "The question really is about what was the beginning, or did there have to be a beginning, whether it's God or universe."

We puzzled about how there ever could have been nothing, from which something began, and, equally curious, how there could just always have been something, without that something ever beginning.

"I think the universe is like a circle," one student ventured. "It just goes round and round, and there's no ending or beginning."

"But is there anything outside the circle?" a student asked.

This led the students to speculate about multi-universes and parallel universes. One student suggested that there might be dinosaurs walking past us in a parallel universe, imperceptible by us, and wondered whether the existence of parallel universes would mean that the universe really was a circle. The students concluded that we would still end up with the same question -- how was it possible for something to have always existed? And if the universe, circle or not, at some point began, how could something come from nothing?

"What is nothing, really?" one student wondered.

"Can you imagine nothing?" I asked. "Let's close our eyes and imagine all the objects and other people in the room are gone, then the floor and ceiling disappear, then the building and everything outside it, and then space itself. Can you imagine that?"

We tried and the students concluded that no, imagining no space was impossible.

"I don't think you can imagine nothing," one student reflected. "When you imagine, you have to imagine something. If you try to imagine nothing, you imagine blackness, but that's still something."

"What really is nothing?" another student asked.

We decided that nothing was just the absence of something, and talked about whether because when we think or imagine, we always think or imagine something, imagining nothing isn't possible for us -- and if it isn't, does this mean that nothing isn't possible or just that nothing is impossible for us to conceive? This was the liveliest part of our discussion. The students were fascinated by the mysteriousness of this concept, nothing, that they had always taken for granted.

"I just thought of something! Maybe nothing is just clear," a student suggested. "You can see objects through nothing, because nothing is transparent."

"But just because we can't see something doesn't mean there's nothing. We look at the air and it looks transparent to us because we can't see all the particles and chemicals in it, but they're there."

"I think nothing is blackness. When it's really dark and there's no moon, and you can't see anything at all except the darkness, that's nothing."

"It's not! It's still blackness, and that's something. It feels like nothing because everything we're used to seeing isn't there, but blackness is something."

"Does nothing really exist? Maybe it's just an idea, but there is no such thing, really."

The students were very clear about the problem: it's impossible to imagine nothing because imagination by definition requires imagining something, but what is the relationship between our inability to imagine nothingness and the question of whether nothingness is possible?

"I don't think you can ever solve this problem," concluded a student who had been quiet for most of the discussion. "This is the kind of philosophy problem that just gives you a headache after a while."

"I like those kind of problems!" another student declared.

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