Much Ado About Nothing, or When Does Nothing Become Something?

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.”

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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.

(Go to “When Making Makes No Nuttin’ Difference”)

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11 Responses to Much Ado About Nothing, or When Does Nothing Become Something?

  1. whitefrozen says:

    Ed Feser really took Krauss to task on his blog some time back. I find this kind of pop-science to be pretty lame.

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  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    David Albert took Krauss to the woodshed in his New York Times review. Krauss responded by calling Albert moronic.

    Clearly Krauss has redefined “nothing,” yet he seems reluctant to admit that the nothing of physics is not identical to the nothing of philosophy.

    A question for anyone who is conversant with this stuff: is Krauss’s “nothing” equivalent to the QED vacuum? Albert seems to think that is what Krauss is saying, but Krauss denies this. 😕

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    • William says:

      Yes, and it seems that Krauss speaks of his “nothing” only in reference to the something around it or in contrast to it when he calls it the most important “part” of the universe or when he asks us to picture the universe without this or that. He’s still thinking of a universe being there, with “nothing” being its main constituent.

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  3. tgbelt says:

    Any of you read Albert’s book on QM & Experience? Good?

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  4. Lawrence M. Krauss is a professor at my school!

    Sorry, just wanted to point that out.

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  5. 22logical says:

    This is from my blog post “The ‘big bang’ is the widely accepted theory of the beginning because scientists have traced our expanding universe back to it’s starting point as an infinitesimally small and exquisitely hot speck. This even sits well with many religious theologians who simply say, “Call it what you will, but God initiated it”. And for many, “God caused the big bang” is a perfectly reasonable and satisfying response. The problem is, of course, that one is forced to immediately ask “From where did the creator come?”. If the answer is that ‘he has always existed’, then we have, from a causality standpoint, an answer that is no more satisfying than a universe that springs forth from nothing. A creator that has always existed is an entity that somehow exists without a cause. So this answer does not solve the causality issue whatsoever, in fact it makes the issue much more complex and we all know that when looking for practical solutions, any answer that confounds things by asking more questions than it answers, is usually wrong. It is therefore much more reasonable to assume that the universe did not need anything to cause it to spring forth, it was quite capable of creating itself by itself, thus we have what is today termed ‘spontaneous creation’ (Stephen Hawking’s term I believe, and in 2010 he first put forth the theory of spontaneous creation as to why there is something rather than nothing).”

    You have to admit that it is much easier and more palatable to believe our universe sprang into being from natural causes and the physical laws governing this universe than to believe that an infinitely complex and powerful supernatural being spontaneously sprang into being or has simply always existed without cause.

    Some people have the strange notion that science is somehow in competition with religion when in actuality science is mankind’s venture into finding the truth about his reality. Of all the institutions on this planet, religion should be the first to embrace the truth and not be afraid of it and yet to many religious leaders, science is all but Satanic. Science avoids the supernatural because there is nothing to see, feel, touch, measure or gather empirical evidence about, so for all practical purposes it is irrelevant to our reality.

    Science has found that our existence is not dependent on there being a god, not that god didn’t do it. Does this simple truth scare you?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Welcome, James, to Eclectic Orthodoxy. Let me respond to your comment, paragraph by paragraph:

      Paragraph 1: I too find the the kind of argument that you present in your first paragraph unsatisfactory and unpersuasive. If that were the only reason to believe in God, I wouldn’t believe in him either.

      I also agree with you that science and Christian theology do not conflict, when both are properly understood. (I do not say “religion,” as I’m sure there are religions do in fact in conflict with science.) The respective domains of each are different. Science has to do with the empirical, physical order of reality; theology with the transcendent order, namely, God. If I want to know about quarks or neutrons, I do not call a theologian, I call a physicist. Likewise, if I want to know about God, I do not call a physicist or any other scientist, for God lies outside of his field of study. His science cannot speak to God, one way or the other.

      Paragraph 2: I actually have to agree with you here, too, as I do not believe that God is “an infinitely complex and powerful supernatural being.” Perhaps such supernatural beings exist (I don’t know), but they are not what Christians have classically referred to as “God” (see David Hart’s article “God, Gods, and Fairies“). God, as confessed by Christians, is not a being, however large and powerful. God is Being or Beyond Being.

      Paragraph 3: We do have an argument with regard to your third paragraph. You write: Science has found that our existence is not dependent on there being a god, not that god didn’t do it.” Science has found no such thing, because it cannot do so and can never do so. Why? Because God utterly transcends the world and cannot be detected or measured by any empirical means whatsoever (see my articles “God in Science” and “Exorcizing the God of the Gaps“). We are talking about two different orders of reality. Now you may deny the existence of a transcendent, infinite order of reality; but what you cannot properly claim is that science has disproven the existence of such an order of reality. It can’t do so. God is not an item within the universe. This is why David Hart can rightly state, referring to the the various cosmological theories of the temporal beginning of our universe: “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.” Re-read the passage from Hart that I quoted in this article. He’s absolutely right. The hypotheses of Hawkings and Krauss may turn out to be correct, and yet they would still remain irrelevant to the question of God. There is a radical and infinite difference between the nothing of physics and the nothing conceived by Christian metaphysics.

      Finally, you ask, “Does this simple truth scare you?” Answer: no.

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      • 22logical says:

        Thank you for your kind response Aidan, you are my first communication on this site and your courtesy is very welcoming. To further your analogy, no I wouldn’t call a TV repairman to fix my toilet, but if I call a handyman, perhaps he can do both. I am a handyman in that sense, right now I tutor a girl at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in ‘Systematic Theology of The Old Testament’. I am as firm about my belief in science as the most devout Christian ever born, however, I don’t preach science–science has no need to preach itself to anyone because it makes no promises. This girl’s professors are aware of who I am and what I believe in, they also know that I have no interest whatsoever in “converting” her or anyone else. In reality, how we got here iis not all that important of a question once we fully realize that we are all here and there is no going back.

        In a nutshell, Christianity says that it knows all about how we got here and what’s ahead for us (Genesis-Revelation). It goes on to state that if you believe what they believe and jump through certain hoops, then, regardless of your behavior on Earth, you are promised a blissful and eternal existence after you die. Now, you can polish up this statement with with revere and glorious words, but in 50 words or less this is Christianity–no offense. (My thought is that if you need revere and glorious words to make it believable then it is suspect.)

        Science is a method of systematically studying what we see around us and interpreting the data empirically into laws and facts of nature and into logical theories. Science tries to figure out how we got here and what’s ahead, but it makes no promises of a happy ending. Science does not promise that you can live forever, in fact it somewhat infers that you might want to make the best of what little sentience you’re lucky enough to have in this universe. This is the doctrine by which I live Aidan, sentience is a fleeting phenomena for each of us and the only sin, in my book, is to waste it.

        Life is hard and no one escapes from this life unscathed–I just don’t believe religion can remedy or appease that with ‘the ultimate promise’.

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