Landscapes of Nothingness

 
 

The fundamental question of why there is something rather than nothing is a metaphysical and theological question—and with respect to such a question the natural sciences necessarily have nothing to say.

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Is the ancient adage—that from nothing, nothing comes—true? Must there always have been something, existing in some way, in order for there now to exist anything at all? Ancient Greek scientists and philosophers, from the pre-Socratics to Plato, Aristotle, and on to the Stoics, would all affirm that something cannot come from nothing—at least if we properly understand what we mean by "something," "come from," and "nothing." Embracing this principle, the ancients all agreed that the universe must be eternal; there could be no absolute beginning, "before" which there was nothing. In seeming contrast to the universal principle that from nothing, nothing comes, Jews, Christians, and Muslims were and are pressed with the need to make sense of their belief that God is the source of all that is; God does not work with some pre-existing stuff to create the universe, since if there were such material it would not be created by God, and, hence, God would not be the cause of all that is. Thus, making sense of "creation out-of-nothing" became an important task for thinkers in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. That task included profound reflections on what it means for God to create and how "to create" is fundamentally different from "producing a change in and among things."

As Thomas Aquinas notes: creatio non est mutatio (creation is not a change). It is true, Thomas would say, that all change requires a pre-existent something which changes: from nothing, nothing comes, that is, if "to come" means to change. The principle is a first principle of the natural sciences, which have as their subject the world of changing things. If the natural sciences are competent to explain everything that needs to be explained, including why there is something rather than nothing, then the first principle of the natural sciences would be a first principle for all explanations. One cosmologist, Lee Smolin, in Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, comments that the universe "cannot have been made by anything that exists outside of it, for by definition the universe is all there is, and there can be nothing outside it." Accordingly, "the first principle of cosmology must be, 'There is nothing outside the universe.' . . . The first principle means that we take the universe to be, by definition, a closed system. It means that the explanation for anything in the universe can involve only other things that also exist in the universe." We need to recognize, however, that there are different senses of "first principles"—some are first with respect to a limited area of investigation (e.g., the natural sciences), and others would be "first" in a kind of absolute sense, referring to all categories of explanation.

If one thinks that existence itself does not need an explanation, that it is simply a "brute fact," then one would have to conclude that the very notion of creation as cause of existence is meaningless. A first principle of metaphysics, however, concerns the source of being or existence as such, and this principle requires only an omnipotent agent cause as origin of all that is. The Creator is the complete and continuing cause of whatever exists, and to create, so understood, does not call into question the truth of the principle that all change begins with something which undergoes the change. Nor does the first principle of change call into question the intelligibility of creation out-of-nothing. Creation is a relationship of absolute dependence; it is not a change. Whether the universe as a whole has a beginning or not concerns the kind of universe that is created, not the more fundamental issue of whether it is created. An eternal universe would be just as much a created universe—and created out-of-nothing—as one which had a temporal beginning. Were God not causing an eternal universe to be, and to be eternal, it would not be at all.

Confusion about creation as a philosophical and theological notion, and about the relationship between explanations of God as cause of existence and the appropriate autonomy of the natural sciences to explain change in its varied forms, continues to pervade much of current discourse about the implications of evolutionary biology and cosmology for religious belief. Here one could point to several of the books written by Stephen Hawking, and especially his most recent one, The Grand Design, which he co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow. When that book was published in September 2010, I wrote an analysis for Public Discourse of the errors concerning creation found in it. Here, however, I should like to focus on nothing—that is, on the various senses of nothing about which scientists, philosophers, and theologians speak—and the danger which follows from a failure to keep distinct these different senses. It may seem strange, but my task here is to make crucial distinctions about nothing.

A good locus for this analysis is the new book by the American theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012). The book has been widely cited in the popular press, and Krauss, director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, is somewhat of a media personality. In fact, the book grew out of a lecture he gave in 2009 to the Atheist Alliance International, and it has been viewed on YouTube more than one million times.

Offering a striking landscape of ever deeper senses of "nothing," he concludes: "We have discovered that all signs suggest a universe that could and plausibly did arise from a deeper nothing—involving the absence of space itself—and which one day may return to nothing via processes that may not only be comprehensible but also processes that do not require any external control or direction" (183). Krauss is aware (but I am afraid only dimly so) of philosophical and theological objections to any attempt to relate his sense of nothing with the "nothing" central to the traditional doctrine of creation out-of-nothing. Nevertheless, he writes:

Some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine 'nothing' as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe. But therein, in my opinion, lies the intellectual bankruptcy of much of theology and some of modern philosophy, for surely 'nothing' is every bit as physical as 'something,' especially if it is to be defined as the 'absence of something.' It then behooves us to understand precisely the physical nature of both these quantities. And without science, any definition is just words. (xiv)

When it comes to understanding how our universe evolves, he says, "religion and theology have been at best irrelevant. They often muddy the waters, for example, by focusing on questions of nothingness without providing any definition of the term based on empirical evidence" (xvi).

Attempts to speak in quasi-scientific terms about the nothing prior to our universe are not new. Several years ago, one cosmologist, Andre Linde, suggested that “at some moment” billions of years ago, “a tiny speck of primordial nothingness was somehow filled with intense energy with bizarre particles.”One wonders at what greater size this “primordial speck” would be “something” rather than “nothing”! Other cosmologists have used insights from quantum mechanics to offer accounts of the Big Bang itself. They speak of the Big Bang in terms of "quantum tunnelling from nothing," analogous to the way in which very small particles seem to emerge spontaneously from vacuums in laboratory experiments. Alexander Vilenkin, one of the proponents of this explanation, noted that the "nothing" in his account is a "state with no classical space-time . . . the realm of unrestrained quantum gravity; it is a rather bizarre state in which all our basic notions of space, time, energy, entropy, etc. lose their meaning.” Describing these speculations in his book The Inflationary Universe (1997), Alan Guth appropriated traditional theological terminology in a chapter called: “A Universe ex nihilo.”

Many think that to explain the Big Bang as the fluctuation of a primal vacuum eliminates the need to have a Creator. But the Big Bang "explained" in this way is still a change and, as we have seen, creation, properly understood, is not a change at all. Similarly, the "nothing" in these cosmological models which speak of "quantum tunnelling from nothing" is not the "nothing" referred to in the traditional sense of creation out of nothing. This is true even in the case of recent theories which speak of space, time, and the laws of physics, themselves, emerging from an even deeper nothing than "empty space" or some primal vacuum. The various senses of "nothing" in current cosmological reflections may very well be nothing like our present universe, but none of them is the absolute nothing, the sheer absence of any reality whatsoever, central to what it means to create; they are only that about which the theories say nothing. Creation "out-of-nothing" does not mean that God changes "nothing" into something; rather it is a way of affirming that it is God alone, and nothing else, who is the cause of absolutely everything that is. Thus, one could speak intelligibly of a universe's coming "from nothing," its being created, and also accept the principle that all changes proceed from a prior something.

Lawrence Krauss, however, simply rejects any appeal to notions of "nothing" which are beyond the explanatory domain of the natural sciences. As he said in an interview on National Public Radio in January: "the question of why there is something rather than nothing is really a scientific question, not a religious or philosophical question, because both nothing and something are scientific concepts, and our discoveries over the past 30 years have completely changed what we mean by nothing." Krauss goes well beyond what most physicists would claim when he says: "the distinction between something and nothing has begun to disappear, where transitions between the two in different contexts are not only common, but required" (183). Indeed, he has a whole chapter on why nothing is unstable. In a way, of course, he is right. The "nothing" he attributes to various cosmological theories is really something. The distinguished French physicist, Étienne Klein, author of Discours sur l'origine de l'univers (2010), observes that, contrary to Krauss's speculations, we do not have the conceptual tools to try to explain how something can come from nothing; indeed, "that which pre-exists our universe is never nothing," since all change starts from a prior something.

It surely is the case that contemporary physics offers various accounts of how something comes from the "nothing" (or perhaps the nothings) to which some physical theories refer. But since these various "nothings" are really something, the ancient principle of the natural sciences remains true, despite clever ploys to equivocate about what one means by nothing. It also remains the case that the fundamental question of why there is something rather than nothing is a metaphysical and theological question—and with respect to such a question the natural sciences necessarily have nothing to say. Simply stipulating that it is only the natural sciences that properly speak to the origin and evolution of the universe, as Krauss does, is a kind of summary dismissal of metaphysics and theology as legitimate areas of discourse. As we saw, for Krauss: "without science, any definition is just words." One wonders what scientific evidence supports such a claim! The desire to separate the natural sciences from the alleged contamination of the "word games" of philosophy and theology is not new; now, as always, it reveals an impoverished philosophical judgment.

William E. Carroll is the Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Science and Religion at Blackfriars Hall and a member of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Oxford. He is author of Creation and Science; Galileo: Science and Faith; La Creación y las Ciencias Naturales: Actualidad de Santo Tomás de Aquino, and co-author with Steven E. Baldner of Aquinas on Creation.

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