Can we imagine the universe spontaneously emerging from absolute nothing? I would have thought that the answer would, obviously and logically, be no, once nothing is understood as it was defined and understood in classical philosophy. But apparently some physicists believe that they can conceive of something coming forth from nothing.
Lawrence M. Krauss, the author of A Universe from Nothing, invites us to think of nothing in this way: picture the universe—now eliminate space, time, particles, quantum fields, and laws of nature. Ethan Seigel takes the same approach: “No matter, no radiation, no energy, no spatial curvature.”
From this nothing, avers the physicists, the cosmic singularity that became our universe may have spontaneously emerged. If you’re interested in this scientific topic, take a look at Siegel’s articles “Can You Get Something for Nothing?” and “The Physics of Nothing“; also see Krauss, “Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete?” and “The Consolation of Philosophy.”
“Nothing,” proclaims Krauss, “is the most important part of the universe.”
Yet as interesting as all of this is, it has nothing to do with nothing. As David Hart notes, all such cosmological theories, while stimulating and entertaining, are irrelevant to the fundamental existential question, Why something rather than nothing?
It does not really matter whether the theoretical models they propose may one day prove to be correct. Without exception, what they are actually talking about is merely the formation of our universe by way of a transition from one physical state to another, one manner of existence to another, but certainly not the spontaneous arising of existence from nonexistence (which is logically impossible). They often produce perfectly delightful books on the subject, I hasten to add, considered simply as tours of the latest developments in speculative cosmology; but as interventions in philosophical debates those books are quite simply irrelevant. As a matter of purely intellectual interest, it would be wonderful some day to know whether the universe was generated out of quantum fluctuation, belongs either to an infinite “ekpyrotic” succession of universes caused by colliding branes or to a “conformally cyclic” succession of bounded aeons, is the result of inflationary quantum tunneling out of a much smaller universe, arose locally out of a multiverse in either limited constant or eternal chaotic inflation, or what have you. As a matter strictly of ontology, however, none of these theories is of any consequence, because no purely physical cosmology has any bearing whatsoever upon the question of existence (though one or two such cosmologies might point in its direction). Again, the “distance” between being and nonbeing is qualitatively infinite, and so it is immaterial here how small, simple, vacuous, or impalpably indeterminate a physical state or event is: it is still infinitely removed from nonbeing and infinitely incapable of having created itself out of nothing. (The Experience of God, pp. 96-97)
As close to nothingness as the scientific notion of nothing may get, it still ain’t nothing if it can generate something.
Ex nihilo nihil fit.