Much Ado About Nothing

In my blog series on scientific evidence for God, I’ve initially focused on the origin of the universe. I defended the Kalam cosmological argument and argued that since currently known physics shows that the Universe had to have a beginning there must be a transcendent cause possessing some attributes of the classical understanding of God (as a spaceless, timeless, and immaterial being) Thus, the Kalam provides good reasons for believing in theism over atheism – I claim it provides epistemic support rather than constituting a deductive proof because we cannot prove the premises beyond the shadow of a doubt.

I appreciate the comments and interaction thus far! John raised another good question recently about whether the quantum vacuum could have appeared from nothing and I responded briefly:

Even if our entire universe fluctuated into existence from the quantum vacuum this would not be a defeater for the Kalam unless one could also show that the quantum vacuum is eternal. If spacetime had a beginning, as currently known physics[1] indicates, then so did the quantum vacuum and thus a transcendent spaceless, timeless cause of the Universe would still be required. But if the quantum vacuum itself could emerge from absolutely nothing then the materialist/naturalist would have a path to creating a universe without a god.

I promised to blog in response to this important question, so here it is.

Is it possible for the quantum vacuum to emerge from absolutely nothing?

By “nothing” I mean simply the usual English definition of “not anything.” The concept of “nothing” defined in this way has no properties and thus no potentiality to bring about something. A widely accepted tenet of philosophy is that “out of nothing, nothing comes.” The quantum vacuum is certainly not nothing because it has properties and ones that can be modelled quite accurately using mathematical equations! The quantum vacuum is best thought of as the lowest energy state in spacetime. Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal of the UK, explains:

Cosmologists sometimes claim that the universe can arise ‘from nothing’. But they should watch their language, especially when addressing philosophers. We’ve realised ever since Einstein that empty space can have a structure such that it can be warped and distorted. Even if shrunk down to a ‘point’, it is latent with particles and forces – still a far richer construct than the philosopher’s ‘nothing’. Theorists may, some day, be able to write down fundamental equations governing physical reality. But physics can never explain what ‘breathes fire’ into the equations, and actualised them into a real cosmos. The fundamental question of ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ remains the province of philosophers.

Too bad Lawrence Krauss didn’t heed Rees’s warning. Krauss wrote a book entitled “A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing.” The book’s subtitle references this great question of philosophy about which contemporary philosopher Derek Parfit exclaims: “no question is more sublime than why there is a Universe: why there is anything rather than nothing?”

In the comments section of a critical blog written by ardent atheist Jerry Coyne, Krauss ironically admits his book doesn’t live up to its subtitle “I may not be focusing on the classical question that has bother philosophers, but I don’t think I ever claim to.” But Lawrence, you made that the subtitle of your book! So when pressed even Krauss seems to be backing away some from claiming that the Universe can be created from a state of nothingness prior to the existence of a quantum vacuum. Other times he does seem to be claiming this but even Coyne criticizes him for “a bait-and-switch.” Krauss is equivocating between different definitions of nothing in his argumentation.

Whatever Krauss might be claiming there is no basis for claiming that the quantum vacuum can originate from a state of absolutely nothing. There is no physics of non-being. No scientific experiment has ever been performed in the absence of space and time and thus there is no scientific basis for extrapolating from ‘not anything’ to the physical world.

For a more detailed critique of Krauss by those much more knowledgeable and articulate than myself please read this blog by cosmologist Luke Barnes – here is an excerpt:

Krauss repeatedly talked about universes coming out of nothing, particles coming out of nothing, different types of nothing, nothing being unstable. This is nonsense. The word nothing is often used loosely – I have nothing in my hand, there’s nothing in the fridge etc. But the proper definition of nothing is “not anything”. Nothing is not a type of something, not a kind of thing. It is the absence of anything.

Barnes also has a follow-on blog that is quite helpful where he states:

if something can some out of nothing, then anything and everything can and should come out of nothing at all times and places. This, then, is the empirical evidence we would need in order to believe that the universe could come out of nothing.

I also highly recommend this scathing review of Krauss’ book by philosopher/physicist David Albert that appeared in the NY Times. Here is an excerpt from Albert:

[Physics has] nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those [quantum] fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.

But don’t Christians also claim in a creation from nothing?

Note that when theists speak of “creation ex-nihilo” they are referring to creation out of nothing physical. The Christian view is that God is an eternally existing necessary being and so there was something causally before the Universe began (but not temporally since there was no time!)

Note that there are also independent reasons for thinking that a necessary being such as God must exist – for example in the Leibnizian cosmological argument. I chose not to get into that argument because my series of blogs focuses on science and that is a philosophical argument that doesn’t even depend on the universe having to have a beginning. So in the Christian view, God created the Universe out of nothing physical. While that sounds very mysterious to us, science itself has shown us that all of space, time, matter and energy came into being in the finite past. There is nothing physical or natural left to appeal to as a causal explanation. Thus, by deduction we’re left with a supernatural cause – a cause beyond nature.

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[1] By “currently known physics,” I mean the well understood physics of General Relativity and physics associated with semi-classical spacetime. Because no one knows the correct version of quantum gravity, it is possible that new details concerning quantum physics could permit a past eternal universe. Aron Wall has published some good arguments for why one should not expect any new discoveries in quantum physics to overturn the current understanding that the universe had a beginning. Vilenkin has also argued along these lines as well.

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22 replies
  1. John Moore says:

    You quoted Luke Barnes saying “If something can come out of nothing, then anything and everything can and should come out of nothing at all times and places.”

    His reason seems to be because “nothing” has no attributes that might shape or limit what comes out of it. But I think the limiting factor is in the nature of existence rather than in the nothing it came from.

    A thing like a tiger is made up of many complex parts, so it can only arise through a long and complex development process. After all, a complex thing like a tiger is really many small parts in combination. For a tiger to appear from nothing, all those small parts would have to appear simultaneously, which is extremely unlikely. On the other hand, when our universe appeared, let’s say it was just one single event.

    Indeed, it looks like our universe started out extremely simple. It seems to have been a singularity, like a zero-dimensional, perfectly simple dot of pure energy.

    How about this idea: The thing we call causality is the process by which a complex thing develops from simpler things. If our universe started out completely simple, then it makes no sense to say it was caused!

    I think this is actually a standard idea in Christian theology, because God is ultimately simple, right? And the universe is contingent because it’s made of parts. But what if our universe was not made of parts when it first came into being?

    Reply
    • Terry L says:

      >>Indeed, it looks like our universe started out extremely simple. It seems to have been a singularity, like a zero-dimensional, perfectly simple dot of pure energy.

      From the descriptions of the big bang I’ve read, it certainly sounds like infinity poked a hole the size of a point into finitude and stepped inside.

      >> If our universe started out completely simple, then it makes no sense to say it was caused!

      Not certain I follow your logic here. You’ve described the initial state of the universe as simple… but to have state, it must exist. Therefore something with perfect simplicity is not “nothing”.

      >>But what if our universe was not made of parts when it first came into being?

      I’m not aware of any philosophical, scientific, or theological arguments for this condition. How did you arrive at this thought?

      Reply
  2. Stephen B says:

    Why is there something rather than nothing? Well, is one intrinsically more likely than the other? There’s an infinite number of ways of there being something, only one way of there being nothing. From that perspective, perhaps nothing is actually a lot less likely than something!

    Reply
    • Terry L says:

      >>There’s an infinite number of ways of there being something,

      I don’t think so. There are potentially an infinite number of configurations of something, but only one way of there being something. Namely, at least one single particle has to exist! After that, every other particle you add, in any configuration is just another configuration of “something”.

      Even were this not the case, I think it’s a non sequitor. By your logic, it seems a universe a quadrillion times the size of our own would be at least a quadrillion times more likely to exist than our own. This hardly seems likely.

      Reply
    • Terry L says:

      >>The apologist has NOT proved the universe had a beginning…

      You’re right… it wasn’t the apologist, it was the scientist!

      >> because it didn’t.

      Your argument here is with science, not theism.

      Reply
    • John says:

      Robert — how could it NOT have a beginning? You cannot think that “it has just always been here” — who or what caused the matter to be created?

      Reply
      • Loren says:

        John, I find it interesting that you assume there must be a beginning in regards to creation. If a deity was to create what we call creation, who created him/her. Where is the true beginning? Does it lie with the creation or with the creation of the deity that created creation? No matter how it is reasoned, it is assumed that there is a force that existed before all, that was not created, and that force created all. So, by your reasoning, there is no beginning because that force has always been constant. Correct me if I am in error.

        Reply
        • Terry L. says:

          >>Does it lie with the creation or with the creation of the deity that created creation?

          The error is in assuming the Creator has a creator. Theism has long recognized that God must be eternal to be God at all.A created god would require the existence of an even more powerful (and still eternal) God.

          What moved the unmoved mover? The question itself is meaningless, because by definition, something unmoved has no mover. It’s a logical impossibility. Who created the creator of all? It’s a meaningless question!

          Stephen below suggests that matter could be eternal… but that goes against the scientific evidence. We have evidence that the universe (time, space, matter and energy) did come into existence. Therefore it is irrational to claim an eternal universe. It requires abandoning some of the best established scientific laws that we know.

          Reply
          • Stephen B says:

            “We have evidence that the universe (time, space, matter and energy) did come into existence”

            In its current form.
            My point stands.

          • Terry L says:

            Are you arguing that our universe came from another form of time, space, matter, and/or energy? What evidence do you have to support your “point”?

      • Stephen B says:

        Matter can neither be created nor destroyed. So why think it had to be created? Why imagine that ‘nothing’ was even an option? If there was at one point ‘nothing’, what did God make all the ‘something’ out of? If something coming out of nothing IS possible, why complain about the atheist position? If ‘it’s always just been here’ is impossible, why make the same claim for God? If God created time itself, how did he create it when creation itself requires time?

        Many questions!

        Reply
        • Allen Hainline says:

          Thanks Stephen for these questions – it affords an opportunity to summarize and explain some aspects of the Kalam argument…
          > Matter can neither be created nor destroyed. So why think it had to be created?
          Going backwards in time we find that matter hasn’t existed forever or so I’ve argued based on observational and theoretical physics.
          You seem to be referencing the first law of thermodynamics – matter/energy cannot be created or destroyed (I’ve generalized it since matter can be transformed to energy and vice versa). The key question we’re trying to explore is whether or not any events seem to be inexplicable by the laws of physics. If we discover such an event (e.g, the origin of the Universe out of nothing physical), that is evidence for a cause beyond nature – a supernatural cause.
          > Why imagine that ‘nothing’ was even an option?
          The Kalam argument doesn’t start off with any assumption concerning whether or not nothing could have existed. It just points to the concept of something coming into existence as requiring a cause and then points to the scientific evidence that once there was nothing physical and then a Universe came into being.
          > If there was at one point ‘nothing’, what did God make all the ‘something’ out of?
          Skeptics sometimes say they would believe in God if there were evidence for a miracle – we have this in the origin of the Universe. Why then reject this as evidence for God because it looks impossible if we assume that everything can be explained by natural causes?
          > If something coming out of nothing IS possible, why complain about the atheist position?
          The argument is that since creation from nothing is impossible, the creation of the universe must have had a transcendent cause – there was something non-physical that brought about everything physical. The atheist, not the theist is the one stuck with believing in creation of the entire Universe from nothing at all. The theist argues that this is impossible so there must be something beyond nature – something quite consistent with God (a spaceless, timeless, immaterial being).
          > If ‘it’s always just been here’ is impossible, why make the same claim for God?
          The Kalam advocate doesn’t assume that something couldn’t exist eternally but points the evidence that the Universe hasn’t actually existed forever. Premise 1 claims that whatever begins to exist has a cause so if the Universe existed forever, then the Kalam argument concedes that it wouldn’t in that case need a cause – but since it did begin to exist it does need a cause. If the skeptic can show that God began to exist, He would also need a cause. Instead the Kalam gives us a transcendent cause that existed before time began.
          > If God created time itself, how did he create it when creation itself requires time?
          We may not be able to answer all questions about how God did things but we have evidence that time, space, matter and energy began. If there was a first physical event, we cannot posit a physical cause to that event – else that would be the first physical event. We’re simply deducing some of the properties of God based on the evidence … William Lane Craig has pointed out that a cause can be simultaneous with its effect – thus, God creating time (and matter-energy etc.) could simultaneous with producing the effect.

          Reply
          • Stephen B says:

            “Skeptics sometimes say they would believe in God if there were evidence for a miracle – we have this in the origin of the Universe. ”

            Then it’s a shame God’s hidden this miracle – Ok I’ll say ‘stuck’ this miracle, in case you say it’s not hidden – literally as far back as it could be in the past, at a point when the normal rules of physics break down anyway. I’d say that’s a funny use of miracle anyway. Most people think of miracle being when we know what the rules are supposed to be in a situation and then they’re suspended – water into wine, gravity suspended etc. no-one knows what rules should exist around the Planck Epoch.

            “William Lane Craig has pointed out that a cause can be simultaneous with its effect”

            You’re being charitable to say he’s ‘pointed it out’. He’s certainly CLAIMED it, but I’m not at all convinced that it makes sense.

            “but since it did begin to exist it does need a cause.”
            Are you sure, Allen? I thought that all we can say is that the Big Bang was the start of the universe in its current form, and it starts the point when we can currently say anything about the universe.

  3. moose says:

    “much ado about nothing”—-even if god exists, it is much ado about nothing–if god exists–so what? what about it? who is god? what is god?, what is god all about? nobody knows, we just have religions that think they know all these things

    Reply
  4. Allen Hainline says:

    > “Are you sure, Allen? I thought that all we can say is that the Big Bang was the start of the universe in its current form, and it starts the point when we can currently say anything about the universe.”

    Nothing I’ve been claiming assumes that the Big Bang wasn’t preceded by something else. I agree that we don’t know for sure that there wasn’t something prior to the Big Bang although these theories are speculative and if General Relativity were a complete theory, then the Big Bang would be the beginning. That is why I’ve appealed to the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem and referenced Aron Wall’s and Vilenkin’s other peer-reviewed publications to make the case that as Vilenkin says “all the evidence says that the universe had a beginning.” His context is certainly not just the Big Bang in his statements along these lines.

    Reply
  5. Toby says:

    “”By “nothing” I mean simply the usual English definition of “not anything.” The concept of “nothing” defined in this way has no properties and thus no potentiality to bring about something. A widely accepted tenet of philosophy is that “out of nothing, nothing comes.””

    So the usual definition of nothing is not actually an accurate description of anything in this universe. Because if you ask “what is in this box” anywhere in the universe and answer, “nothing” it’s not a correct answer. It’s colloquially correct, but physically wrong. This argument is based on an idea of nothing that can’t be demonstrated. This version of nothing may not comport with any reality.

    “If something can come out of nothing, then anything and everything can and should come out of nothing at all times and places.”

    This is stupefying. Did whoever originated this thought not have the follow-up consideration that perhaps because of current physical conditions are not the same as physical conditions at the time of the big bang that this couldn’t happen again? Otherwise it just seems like misleading trickery.

    ““William Lane Craig has pointed out that a cause can be simultaneous with its effect””

    And can examples of simultaneous cause and effect be given? Ones that don’t use things existing eternally like a ball sitting on a cushion forever. Are there any examples of simultaneous cause and effect in this universe or is this special pleading? Explain how a cause does not precede an effect.

    Appeals to Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem are all well and good, but it may not actually describe our universe. Sean carroll says of the theorem “The definition of “singularity in the past” is not really the same as “had a beginning” — it means that some geodesics must eventually come to an end. (Others might not.) Most importantly, I don’t think that any result dealing with classical spacetimes can teach us anything definitive about the beginning of the universe. The moment of the Big Bang is, if anything is, a place where quantum gravity is supremely important. The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin results are simply not about quantum gravity.”

    Vilenkin says of nothing: “In quantum physics, events do not necessarily have a cause, just some probability. As such, there is some probability for the universe to pop out of “nothing.” You can find the relative probability for it to be this size or that size and have various properties, but there will not be a particular cause for any of it, just probabilities. I say “nothing” in quotations because the nothing that we were referring to here is the absence of matter, space and time. That is as close to nothing as you can get, but what is still required here is the laws of physics. So the laws of physics should still be there, and they are definitely not nothing.”

    Reply
    • Terry L. says:

      So the usual definition of nothing is not actually an accurate description of anything in this universe.

      Correct. Even empty space is not nothing, as it has the properties of length, width, and height.

      But theist don’t claim that nothing existed before creation. The claim is that nothing that is of our universe existed… no time, space, matter or energy as we know them.

      This argument is based on an idea of nothing that can’t be demonstrated. This version of nothing may not comport with any reality.

      We know that the universe is still expanding… but expanding into what? It is illogical to say that the universe is of infinite volume. But the best answer we have to what is beyond the universe is… nothing! Not even space!

      But assume for a second that this is true… in that case, you’re left with eternally existing matter. This runs afoul of the laws of thermodynamics, as any and all usable energy would have been used up an eternity ago.

      Did whoever originated this thought not have the follow-up consideration that perhaps because of current physical conditions are not the same as physical conditions at the time of the big bang that this couldn’t happen again?

      In an eternity? Are you claiming that evolution can happen in a mere 4B years or less, but that a given set of physical conditions could not happen again in infinite time?

      Are there any examples of simultaneous cause and effect in this universe or is this special pleading?

      Special Pleading does not apply when conditions are different. Comparing events in this universe with the creation of our universe itself is a sufficiently different condition, I’d say! That’s not a defense of simultaneous cause and effect… I have a hard time understanding that myself. But it does at least open the door to the possibility.

      Appeals to Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem are all well and good, but it may not actually describe our universe.

      Actually, BGV works across the theoretical multiverse, according to Vilenkin himself if I remember correctly. I don’t have the source for this in front of me, and it’s late. I can look it up later if you want…

      I say “nothing” in quotations because the nothing that we were referring to here is the absence of matter, space and time. That is as close to nothing as you can get, but what is still required here is the laws of physics. So the laws of physics should still be there, and they are definitely not nothing.”

      But Toby, to claim this as possible, you’re going to have to give up your materialism! You’ve argued with me at length that matter is all there is! If methodological materialism is true, and nothing exists apart from matter, then the laws of physics could not be “there” (whatever “there” would mean in the absence of space.)

      How can the laws of physics exist if there is nothing physical on which they can work? Why would such laws exist, when there was no assurance that there would ever be any matter to which they would apply?.

      Reply
    • Allen Hainline says:

      > This version of nothing may not comport with any reality.
      Nothing simply means “not anything” – anything physical, including the quantum vacuum corresponding to the lowest energy state of spacetime, is not nothing. Thus, if we have evidence that the quantum vacuum is not eternal to the past and we’re confronted with a Universe coming into existence it looks about as much like a miracle as anything could. There is nothing left in the toolkit for the naturalist to appeal to for bringing about such an amazing effect.

      > “If something can come out of nothing, then anything and everything can and should come out of nothing at all times and places.” This is stupefying. Did whoever originated this thought not have the follow-up consideration that perhaps because of current physical conditions are not the same as physical conditions at the time of the big bang that this couldn’t happen again? Otherwise it just seems like misleading trickery.
      That would be cosmologist Luke Barnes, with a PhD from Cambridge. He is quite aware of the difference. I suggest you read his blogs I referenced:
      http://letterstonature.wordpress.com/2011/04/01/of-nothing/
      http://letterstonature.wordpress.com/2011/04/16/more-sweet-nothings/
      Barnes is not the first to make these types of claims – if things like universes can arise from absolutely nothing then that would mean that they are not dependent on anything to come into being. If there are no pre-conditions or constraints, why wouldn’t they be coming into existence more often? Since a universe is a very general set of matter-energy, why don’t we see other entities arising as well? If the Universe is eternal and universes can arise without any cause, why don’t we have an incredibly density of universes colliding with each other? Quantum cosmologist Chris Isham has pointed this out as a problem for quantum creation theories. Few, if any, physicists think that universes can be created from absolutely nothing – even Krauss backed down from such a claim when pressed.

      > And can examples of simultaneous cause and effect be given?
      An example of simultaneous cause and effect is Quantum Entanglement – here is the Wikipedia description “a measurement made on either of the [quantum entangled] particles apparently collapses the state of the entire entangled system – and does so instantaneously, before any information about the measurement could have reached the other particle (assuming that information cannot travel faster than light).”

      > Appeals to Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem are all well and good, but it may not actually describe our universe.
      As I mentioned BGV applies if the Universe has on average expanded. Everything we know about our universe indicates that it has not only had an average expansion (i.e. it’s bigger now than it originally was) but that it has expanded during every nanosecond of its history.) Its trickier than you think to avoid this assumption. The Hubble constant H is the parameter corresponding to the expansion of the Universe. If H==0, Vilenkin has argued on very general grounds that in an eternal universe quantum fluctuations would have already driven H away from 0. If H<0, that corresponds to a contracting universe. An infinitely old universe with an average contraction rate at first blush would seem to have already collapsed to a giant black hole or something. Here is cosmologist George Ellis pointing out 2 significant problems this type of model:
      “The problems are related: first, initial conditions have to be set in an extremely special way at the start of the collapse phase … and these conditions have to be set in an acausal way (in the infinite past). It is possible, but a great deal of inexplicable fine tuning is taking place; how does the matter in widely separate causally disconnected places at the start of the universe know how to correlate its motions (and densities) so that they will come together in a spatially homogeneous way in the future?? Secondly, if one gets that right, the collapse phase is unstable” It’s possible that there might be new physics to come to the rescue but the Kalam is well-supported by the physics that we know. Until someone can propose a model for an eternal universe that is physically tenable. Carroll himself tried creating such a model but backed away from depending it in his recent debate. I have already pointed to various peer-reviewed publications by Wall and Vilenkin that support my claims. Aron Wall happens to be blogging about this topic of whether or not the Universe has a beginning and this may be more accessible to our readers than the physics literature. Here is part 1 of 5:
      http://www.wall.org/~aron/blog/did-the-universe-begin-i-big-bang-cosmology/

      Reply
  6. Stephen B says:

    Terry l: “Are you arguing that our universe came from another form of time, space, matter, and/or energy? What evidence do you have to support your “point”?”

    I don’t know where the universe came from, and neither do you. I’m not sure anyone does. If someone makes an argument along the lines of “Because our universe didn’t exist before the Big Bang, God must have created it”, then it is THEY making the assumption. I don’t know if any other universe existed before the Big Bang, neither do they. All we can say is that the universe in its current form started with the BIg Band, a singularity before which we know very little (if anything) about.

    All the above is as far as I know, by the way. I’m not a cosmologist. In fact I’m happy to be corrected by someone who’s not a cosmologist either. But as far as I’ve read, the above appears to be the case.

    Reply

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