Something from Nothing

I happen to be born in a odd little cusp of time.  When I was in high school, cheap and affordable electronic calculators first became available.  In my sophomore year simple four function LED display Texas  Instrument calculators were available; by the time I reached college the TI 55 was available – a relatively cheap scientific programmable calculator.  I expect that I was one of the first classes of engineers to graduate with no knowledge of how to operate a slide rule.  It is a pity, and I actually feel a bit of loss.

I remember that with one calculator purchase a small booklet was included that was intended to give an introduction to descriptive statistics and how you could use your new calculator in the application.  It really was my first serious introduction to statistics, and while I did not entirely understand it, I was intrigued by the inclusion of a story about the black swan fallacy.  Most are familiar with the premise, based on inductive reasoning: all swans that have been observed are white, therefore there are no black swans.  Hopefully most people see the flaw in the reasoning, for no matter how many white swans are seen, it is still possible that a black swan exists.  This story serves to illustrate the concept that ‘one cannot prove a negative’.

I was listening to a podcast the other day and a similar failure of logical reasoning occurred, but a bit more subtle.  Person A put forth the proposition that “something cannot come from nothing”.  Person B would not accept that claim.  Person A then claimed that B believed something could come from nothing, but that is not what B claimed.  Without evidence to support the claim that something cannot come form nothing, we must accept the possibility that something could come from nothing.  Just like we must accept the possibility that while we have never seen a black swan, one could exist.  Unfortunately Person A could not wrap his head around that concept, and insisted that Person B believed that something could come from nothing.

Of course the bigger question is “what is nothing?” but I will leave that for Lawrence Krauss and another day.

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