Much ado about nothing

ShultzAdvocates of the first cause argument often rehearse the contention by the Greek philosopher Parmenides (c. 520 – 450 BCE) that you can’t get something from nothing. Parmenides never encountered nothing—nobody ever has—so I don’t know why he considered himself an expert on the topic. Aristotle’s retort to Parmenides was essentially, “Well, alrighty then, P-boy. If the universe can’t come from nothing, then there must never have been nothing. Therefore the universe is eternal.”

Most Christians actually do believe that the universe came from nothing (ex nihilo). But it didn’t come from nothing all by itself, which they, like Parmenides, would deem impossible. A universe coming from nothing is, however, perfectly fine by Christians if it was facilitated by God.

I have never understood how adding God to the equation solves the problem of ex nihilo creation. As the philosopher Felipe Leon remarked, “Saying that ex nihilo creation of concrete objects is possible with enough power is like saying that barfing up a missed lunch is possible with a sufficiently strenuous dry heave.” Nevertheless, the challenge Christians present to skeptics is to explain the appearance of the universe out of nothing if there were no god.

For this discussion, we will overlook the fact that there’s no evidence whatsoever that nothing exists or ever has. The concept of nothing, like the concept of an actual infinite, has never been observed and can never be observed. It’s a fiction. Whether such fictional entities as nothing and infinity might really exist in nature is perhaps a suitable topic for debate, but in the meantime these entities exist only as hypotheticals in our imaginations. They are intriguing fictions.

Astrophysicists point out that a universe (or universes) arising from nothing is to be expected as the result of quantum fluctuations. Gravity, which pulls matter together, appears to perfectly offset dark energy, which pushes matter apart. This means that the universe contains zero net energy. It therefore does not take an expenditure of energy to generate a universe.

The Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza is uncomfortable with such strange ideas as quantum fluctuations creating something from nothing and the universe containing zero net energy. The physicist Lawrence Krauss addressed the something-from-nothing mystery, “Nothing isn’t nothing anymore in physics. Because of the laws of quantum mechanics and special relativity, on extremely small scales, nothing is really a boiling, bubbling brew of virtual particles that are popping in and out of existence in a time scale so short that you can’t see them.”

Krauss went on to explain the reason for believing nothing is really something, namely that about ninety percent of the mass of a proton is contained in the spaces between the quarks that compose it. In direct response to D’Souza’s distaste for zero net energy, Krauss said, “determining the total gravitational energy of objects being carried along by the expansion of the universe is not subject to arbitrary definition any more than the geometric curvature of the universe is a matter of definition.”

Despite Krauss’s efforts, I remain baffled. One thing, however, is crystal clear. What theologians mean by “nothing” is not what physicists mean by “nothing.” Using the same word for two disparate ideas is a recipe for confusion. When theologians and Christian apologists like D’Souza refer to nothing, they mean sheer nothing. What the physicists are talking about is a quantum vacuum.  That’s not sheer nothing.

Though physicists have provided scientific evidence for the quantum vacuum, there is, as yet, no evidence that the theologians’ sheer nothing exists, or ever did. Sheer nothing resembles infinity in that it has never been confirmed in the physical realm and is difficult to conceive.

D’Souza rejects the consensus among physicists as though it were idle speculation or perhaps even lunacy. That’s his prerogative. But if it is lunacy to envision a universe spontaneously sprouting from a quantum vacuum, then to envision a universe sprouting from sheer nothing, as the product of the intangible will of a formless and infinite being, is lunacy on steroids (as well as crack cocaine, LSD, and methamphetamines).

The emergence of the universe from a quantum vacuum is a single hard-to-conceive yet scientifically defensible event, whereas D’Souza’s god is a collage of inconceivable attributes that, through inconceivable means, mediated an inconceivable and scientifically indefensible event. Like the nineteenth century belief in a luminiferous ether, omnipresent but undetectable, the God-ether contributes nothing to our understanding of reality.

D’Souza repeatedly insists that “the world cannot be without some ultimate explanation.”  His demand for an explanation falls on receptive ears. We are all profoundly motivated to discover an explanation for the cosmos. Even the atheist—especially the atheist—longs desperately for an explanation. We Homo sapiens have survived largely because we are innately programmed to seek explanations. I can’t imagine any evolutionarily cogent reason why this curiosity would ever get switched off or why we would ever be content to accept that no deeper explanation exists.

But we must be careful about what conclusion we draw from our instinctive compulsion to explain. An irrepressible hunger for an explanation plus an absence of evidence upon which to construct a plausible explanation does not add up to a divine explanation. It instead culminates in a severe case of frustration, the kind that plagues every inquisitive mortal until he either dies or becomes sufficiently sloppy in his reasoning that he fancies that he has solved the mystery. The invention of a god to fill this gaping hole in our causal explanations is as close as we will ever get to creating something from nothing.

The contention that you can’t get something from nothing brings to mind the famous question posed by Martin Heidegger and other philosophers: why is there something rather than nothing? In this context nothing means sheer nothing, not the physicists’ quantum vacuum.

It’s a tough question. Obviously, if there were nothing, we wouldn’t be here puzzling over why there is nothing rather than something, though that question would be just as inherently puzzling and, logically speaking, no less demanding of an answer.

That said, I do not know the answer to Heidegger’s question. Nor am I convinced that anyone else does.  The Christian, Jew, or Muslim may insist that he or she has the answer: God. But even if God were somehow demonstrated to be the answer to why the universe, multiverse, and quantum vacuum exist, that answer wouldn’t double as the answer to Heidegger’s question. After all, it fails to explain why there is a god. Those religionists who reflexively fling Heidegger’s question at atheists are unwittingly throwing a boomerang. Heidegger’s question ought to evoke humility in everyone, regardless of his or her opinions about the existence of God.

Then again, maybe the proper response to Heidegger’s question is not a humble silence, but rather a dismissive sneer. Heidegger’s question presupposes that sheer nothing could be an option. Maybe it is an option, but maybe not. As mentioned earlier, sheer nothing is a fiction.

But it’s not merely a fiction; it’s also an incoherent fiction. As explained by Oxford philosopher Bede Rundle, the proposition that there ever could be a time when there exists absolutely nothing entails the existence of time, which is not nothing. Therefore, the proposition that there ever could be a time when there exists absolutely nothing is self-contradictory.

If nothing exists at any moment in time, that entails the existence of spacetime. According to physicists, there’s no such thing as empty space, since it’s brimming with virtual particles. To simultaneously insist that “nothing can exist” and “nothing cannot exist anywhere or any time” sounds paradoxical, if not certifiably insane.

Astrophysicists and cosmologists, probing the mysteries of where our universe came from, have only recently begun to formulate tentative and partial solutions. As remote as the current state of science is from answering all our deepest questions, there is no reason to presume that any person or institution knows more on these topics than does science. Religions, in particular, have a dismal track record on the topics of cosmology, geology, and human origins.


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