Friday, May 21, 2010

Ex nihilo

There's nothing that ever came from something in its entirety. Everything is ultimately creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing). Every state is unique since if it weren't unique it wouldn't, properly speaking, be a state at all (a distinctly recognizable configuration of things). Some states may resemble one another so closely that they appear to in fact be the same. But the temporality of existence implies that even such semblance is but that, semblance. So if every state is unique, then newness comes out of nothing. That which was not, that which was nothing, now in fact is something (it has come into being).

However, when we say "nothing comes from nothing" (ex hihilo nihil fit), we are probably implying that everything has an efficient cause. Every distinct state is proceeded by some other state, without which the distinct state would not have come into being. But if everything has a cause, then what caused the very process of causation itself? We could say "God", but what does saying "it is God" mean? Does it not have any meaning? Or does it simply mean "I don't know"? If the latter, then why not simply say it? Saying it is God seems to imply we understand what in fact caused causation itself (which we don't).

Or we could say that causation is eternal. But then the very axiom that everything has a cause must be put into question! We must instead separate everything into two categories, that which comes from something and that which does not (the eternal, the universal, the uncaused). As we have deepened our investigation into the microcosm, what once seemed firm, unbreakable, possibly even eternal, has proven to be of only fleeting existence. What we once perceived as the very substance of matter can decay. And matter and energy are aspects of the same thing. We could say that one comes of the other. But what does come of mean? Emerge out of? Does one, then, exist in the other?

In software engineering I'm confronted with emergent behavior on a daily basis. Such behaviors are ways that the system as a whole acts because of the way the components interact. The behavior is not apparent in the behavior of any one single part of the system. For example, imagine a procedure that moves an element across the screen horizontally (it increases or decreases the value of X in a pair of X,Y coordinates). And another that moves it vertically (it affects the Y value). If I apply one or the other procedure, the element will behave as predicted within the procedures themselves (it will move vertically OR horizontally). But if I apply both simultaneously, the element will move diagonally.

Diagonality can bee seen a composite of the two (the element moves horizontally AND vertically). But we can only predict in exactly what direction the element will move by looking at BOTH procedures. The point I'm trying to make is that looking at any single procedure will tell us nothing about the actual movement of the element. The direction in which the element moves can only be understood when we analyze the interplay of the two procedures. It's important to note that a separate procedure is not required for each cardinality of the screen (which would require a very large number of procedures to move a an element around the 0,0 to 1024,764 coordinate space of the screen).

In physical space we have the same phenomenon of emergence. In physics we talk about the forces acting on an object. And to predict how an object will act, we have to analyze the interplay of all forces affecting the object. The behavior of the object does not emerge out of some singular process. Its behavior exist only in the space between the components and not in the components themselves. Analyzing gravity alone tells us nothing about the course of a football. The motion of the ball does not exist in gravity. Nor in the forward motion of the athlete's foot. Nor in the wind that blows across the field and the elasticity of its substance. The motion exists only in the interplay of them all. Although a result of each individual force, the motion is unique, distinct and something entirely new. The football's motion does not come from them but from between them. From the negative space, the nothing, that we can only see when we look at them as a whole. And ultimately, ex nihilo.

Inside the procedure MOVE X (which moves the screen element left or right), Y exists only as a constant. The existence of Y might be a hint that it's possible to move the element up and down. But it presumes that someone analyzing MOVE X knows what the tuple X,Y (which is being passed in and out of the procedure) represents. Any assumption of the nature of Y is pure conjecture. The quantity X, by the very nature of MOVE X, is known to be at least a variable. The name of the procedure hints to us that it's a positional variable. The quantity Y, on the other hand, might not represent positionality at all. Perhaps it's intensity (how dark the dot is). It's irrelevant how unlikely it is that it's not a definition of position in a Cartesian space. As we move away from the function of the procedure, we venture further and further into conjecture. The whole system cannot be unfolded from MOVE X.

Clearly, one state does not exist in the other like some infinite fractal. If it did, we would be able to extrapolate the motion of the screen object from the application of a single procedure. In terms of efficient cause, the best we can do is to say that this preceded that which came before such. One class of states seems to invariably be followed by another class of states. And after extended observations, distinct patterns emerge. And causality seems established. And laws are postulated. But how firm are they? Can they, like the atom, be broken asunder, or are the eternal, absolute and infallible? Is it just our understanding of them that is incomplete? Are they perfect and of divine nature?

It would seem more consistent to assume that nothing is impervious to decay and creation. That nothing is eternal, universal and perfect. And that even causation, the laws of nature, are subject to this fundamentally destructive and life giving principle. Where did it come from? From nowhere, ex nihilo, from the simple truth that something came into being, proven by our very own awareness of our existence, the act of writing and reading this here.

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