Steven Hawking: Adding up to Zero… 17

“This may sound odd, but according to the laws of nature concerning gravity and motion, laws that are among the oldest in science, space itself is a vast store of negative energy – enough to ensure that everything adds up to zero. I’ll admit that unless mathematics is your thing, this is hard to grasp, but it’s true.”

This is a quote from Steven Hawking (through a narrator) in the video below – starting at 28:19, ending 28:47.

Now the coolest thing about this video is that it’s interactive. You can open a drop-box and jump to any point in the video by clicking on the timeline, which also includes the video’s script, as indicated in this screenshot:

Click to enlarge image

The part of the video that I am going to comment on starts at 25:29 and ends at 27:20. It’s just under 2 minutes long.

To jump to that scene, you need to Watch it on Youtube (then come back and read the rest). Since I quote the script immediately below the video, you don’t need to go to Youtube, but it’s a really good video, so if you have time later you might want to watch the whole thing. The part I’m asking you to watch lasts just two minutes.

Quoting from the script:

“Imagine a man wants to build a hill on a flat piece of land. The hill will represent the Universe. To make this hill, he digs a hole in the ground and uses that soil to build his hill. But, of course, he’s not just making a hill. He’s also making a hole – in effect, a negative version of the hill. That stuff that was in the hole has now become the hill. So it all perfectly balances out.”

The explanation continues: the hill is positive energy, the hole negative energy. It all adds up to Zero.

No need for a God.

And to think... that pile of dirt just moved itself

But wait… there’s a third element involved! What about that dude with the shovel? Where’d he come from?

You don’t need to have a doctorate in math to know that things don’t add up here. The question is not about how to balance things out and get them to add up to zero. The question is about how things got moving in the first place.

If you tell me it’s the big bang, you are begging the question.

All that hard work for nothing!


  1. Good story, I reblogged as well

    This is the problem with not having a grounding in knowledge in the most general sense found in a liberal arts education before entering into the specializations. I’m starting to wonder though whether Hawking is become more vocal on philosophical topics because of his age….

    • Hi Jon. I tried posting this comment over on your blog, my browser is giving me trouble with the “captch” image, so I am responding to you here.

      Good observations both here and @ Battle for the Core of the World.

      One problem I would like to learn how to address is how to explain act and potency from a metaphysical perspective to physicalists. They are not able to recognize the distinction between primary and secondary causation, because of their reductionist approach. If they could see the inconsistency of positing the big bang as a first cause and “unmoved mover,” they might be open to the possibility of a more metaphysical approach. Yet most of them don’t see the inadequacy of their position.

      How does one articulate metaphysical principles to a physicalist?

  2. I think you’re taking the metaphor a bit too literally. From a strictly mathematical perspective, (5-5) is just as valid a way of representing nothing as 0. There are in fact an infinite number of ways to represent zero. So if we take that as being analogous to the nature of existence, then the current state of existence is just as valid a form of nothing as a vacuum, and there’s no reason other than a bias for simplicity for us to presume a vacuum to be a more likely form for nothingness to take.
    Just my 2 cents.
    Also, considering that we came out of this earth and are essentially formed out of dirt and water, manmade dirt piles actually are moving themselves in a very roundabout sort of way. Just saying.

      • Mathematically yes and also actually. if we take a negative particle or energy and let it meet with its positive equivalent then they turn to nothing, gone forever. In that sense the universe could very well be a state of nothing.

      • Dave I understand what you mean, but the point of the whole theory is that we are simply perceiving the Universe as something because of the nature of it all.

        If you have $500 in your bank account and you have a $500 gas bill, you have something, but really you have nothing once you put it all together.

        That’s the simplistic beauty of it, but of course no one should in their right mind say that the universe is simple, regardless of whether you are secular or religious, physicist or mechanic. It’s a complicated place and regardless of one’s beliefs, humans don’t understand it all and may never.

  3. I think you mistook the man with the shovel for his own part in the Universe.
    It is not a metaphor for humans living in addition to a Universe that equals zero. It’s just a visualization.
    We are part of the universe and by that nature there is enough antimatter and negative energy for each one of us to also zero us out as well.
    The Universe, as a whole, including us, is all zero in the end.

    I think the question you raised was good, but I believe it may have been founded on a misinterpretation of the metaphorical visualization of the universe (Hill and hole)

    • Thanks for the observation, Joshua.

      I suppose that my point about the man with the shovel only goes so far as to suggest that Hawkins’ example (hill and hole netting out at zero) introduced a third element, which happens to be an agent who apparently remains unaffected by the laws of the universe that Hawkins is considering. His analogy can work inasmuch as hill and hole cancel each other out with respect to laws of conservation of mass and energy, if and only if we ignore the guy with the shovel. If Hawkins had left him out of the analogy, it would have been less interesting, more abstract, harder follow, and would have ultimately left us asking, “What, precisely, causes the flux between something and nothing in the universe?” Hence, the question of agency. Well, Hawkins, wittingly or not, supplies the agent in his example.

      Scientifically, we do not and perhaps we never will have the answer to this fundamental question about that agency. Working theories that might suggest a viable resolution aside, it not only remains unanswered, it actually surfaces because of the illustration he presents us with.

      In other words, I’m not knocking Hawkins’ example entirely. It is clear, simple and easy to follow and understand. But if we take it as it is, it apparently does not settle the question of a universe that does not need a god, precisely because of the way he framed it, which seems inevitable because of the type of example he used.

      I think your example of $500 in the bank faced with a $500 utility bill (@Dave) illustrates that a reasonable person in this situation should conclude that his finances equal out at zero. But… he still has to pay the bill. And if we think about it, there are more than one way to settle the account, all of which necessarily include agency, because funds don’t just transfer themselves.

      • A great counter-response.
        I think once we get to this level of understanding, or misunderstanding as it is, we come back to that age old conundrum of trying to explain something that in our lifetimes we can no truly know one way or the other.
        If it so happens that there is nothing or there is God, or there is something else entirely, we likely won’t know until we pass on from this world and experience whatever lies in wait.

        This brings up something that I have thought for a long time.
        I am a non theistic person (I won’t say Atheist because that has it’s own ritualistic way of living) but I contend that God and science do NOT have to be opposites of each other. Both can coexist and that’s just the beauty of being a human.

      • I like your response and can’t see a point where I disagree — I strongly agree with what you say about humbly accepting the limits to our human understanding and about God and science. Thanks a lot for your thoughtful comment!

  4. The video later states, however, that the man who did this does not exist. The hole dug itself of its own accord. This is because quantum physics demonstrated that it is quite possible for sufficiently small particles to materialize or disintegrate out of thin air for no reason at all without violating any known laws regarding causation or conservation of energy. This is because these particles are so small that they contain less than one quantum of energy, and therefore, from the perspective of the laws of nature, do not exist. It is merely a case of good fortune that something eventually materialized that did not exist but contained the necessary mechanism to grow fast enough to become large enough to officially exist before it would have disintegrated.

    However, this still leaves a question unanswered that makes room for a God: the question of the beginning of time. Hawking stated that when the universe was small enough not to exist, it was a black hole, and time did not pass within it. If time did not pass within it, how could it have ever grown large enough to exist? Perhaps more particles happened to materialize inside it, causing it to become more massive. But we’ll probably never know.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ben, and great comment by the way. I want to respond. But that will have to be later — It’s Friday and I’m on my way out the door.

      Thanks for dropping by!

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