I was relaxing one evening when the quietness of the house was destroyed by the sound of a thunderous crash upstairs. Leaping to my feet, I yelled, “What was THAT?”
“Nothing!” was the reply that floated down the stairwell from a person not yet old enough to realize that there are few adults indeed who find such an explanation satisfying.
Strangely, using “nothing” as an explanation has recently been suggested for something much more impressive than a thundering roar on the second floor. I refer to the origin of the entire universe—the biggest crash of all, as it were.
During the course of the 20th century, scientists discovered something that poses a serious philosophical problem for atheism. Cosmologists observed that the entire universe is expanding. The consensus, working backward in time, is that it had a beginning which, of course, raises the question, “What caused THAT?”
Strangely, using “nothing” as an explanation has recently been suggested for something much more impressive than a thundering roar on the second floor.
There appears to be no escape from the reality of a beginning for physical reality, both scientifically (1) as well as mathematically. (2) Although Steven Hawking died an atheist (so far as I am aware), he had the insight to state, “A point of creation would be a place where science broke down. One would have to appeal to religion and the hand of God.”(1)
A point of creation would be a place where science broke down. One would have to appeal to religion and the hand of God. – Hawking
Why did he say that?
Logic requires that just as a woman cannot give birth to herself, so nature could not have given birth to itself. Instead, logic demands that it must be something non-natural, i.e., supernatural. (3)
In an effort to avoid the logical implications foreseen by Hawking, atheist physicist Lawrence Krauss published a book A Universe from Nothing. (4) In it, he attempted to explain how the universe might have come out of something he describes as “nothing”. Some mistakenly understood Krauss’s “nothing” to be absolutely nothing at all, when his “nothing” is actually “something”. So let’s look at both options to see if either works as an explanation for the origin of the universe.
A. Krauss’s “nothing”
There are at least three issues with Krauss’s mathematical theory. (Note: if you go cross-eyed when things get too technical, skip down to “Bottom Line” immediately after (3).)
Krauss makes it clear that his idea is “speculative”. This does not make his idea wrong or false, but it does disqualify it from being science, which must be testable, verifiable, or falsifiable. A skilled writer can use imagination combined with words and rules of language to produce an excellent work of literary science fiction. In the same way, a skilled theoretical physicist can use imagination, combined with mathematics, to produce mathematical models that are fascinating works of mathematical science fiction. Unfortunately, some areas of modern science, especially cosmology, fail to distinguish between fictional mathematical models and reality. (5,6) The criterion of testability is essential here, and Krauss’s “speculative” idea falls into the category of mathematical science fiction.
Krauss states that his version of “nothing” is “unstable”. But in quantum mechanics, in order to have instability or a change in the state of a system, there must be a time variable somewhere in the equations so that a change in the state of a system is possible. One can call it something else, but whatever one calls it, it is simply time (t) by another name. As quantum cosmologist Don Page puts it, “without time and time evolution, it also appears to be an oxymoron to say, as the title of Chapter 10 (in Krauss’s book), that ‘Nothing is Unstable’.” (7) Time is not “nothing”; it is an essential component of nature. If you have time, you have nature. What we really want to know is what caused time (i.e., nature) in the first place.
As Page also points out, “the laws of physics (both the dynamical laws and the quantum state) are here being implicitly assumed to exist, and it certainly seems unfair to dismiss them as ‘nothing’.”(7) In an interview with Steve Paikin, Krauss suggested that maybe the laws of physics spring into existence with the universe. (8) Perhaps it was a slip of the tongue that so easily happens in an interview, but what he suggested is a logical impossibility. Just as it is logically impossible for a woman to give birth to herself, in the same way, it is logically impossible for a speculative theory that depends upon certain laws of quantum mechanics, to, itself, bring those required laws into existence so that it can then work.
To me as a fellow scientist, it appears Krauss has instead swung far wide of the goal, striking only the air with his philosophical speculations that do not address the truly deep questions of existence. Don Page, quantum cosmologist
Bottom Line: Krauss’s “nothing” still requires the existence of laws of physics, and of time, essential components of nature. It fails, therefore, to provide a rational explanation for how time and the laws of physics he a priori needs for his speculation, came into existence in the first place. Don Page closes his review of Krauss’s book by stating, “To me as a fellow scientist, it appears Krauss has instead swung far wide of the goal, striking only the air with his philosophical speculations that do not address the truly deep questions of existence.”
B. Absolutely nothing at all
At the close of a lecture I gave to a university audience, a student, upon seeing the logical implications of the beginning of nature for the existence of a non-natural/supernatural reality, suggested that maybe “absolutely nothing at all” did it. I marvel at how some people so badly want to avoid the existence of God that they feel compelled to appeal to the “nothing” explanation.
“Absolutely nothing” means there are no premises, rendering a rational explanation impossible.
To clarify, they are suggesting that there was absolutely nothing at all and then, “Poof!” the universe just popped into existence. I see at least two serious problems with this suggestion.
It is irrational. To clarify, a rational conclusion is supported by some sort of explanation — some premises upon which a conclusion can be inferred. When someone suggests that “nothing” caused the universe to exist, they are asserting a conclusion (the universe) with no rational explanation. “Absolutely nothing” means that there are no premises, rendering a rational explanation impossible.
An even larger problem is that “absolutely nothing” has no causal powers. “Absolutely nothing” cannot do anything at all; it is the total and complete absence of potentiality, of axioms of mathematics and logic, and of causal abilities. To say that “nothing” can cause something means that we are no longer talking about “nothing” but of something that has causal powers.
The Point: “Absolutely nothing” completely fails rationally and philosophically as an explanation for the origin of nature. It is more rational to propose there is something out there that can make stuff happen, including producing a universe that is incredibly fine-tuned to support life.
Bottom Line: Nature had a beginning. There are only two logical possibilities—either something natural or something not-natural (i.e., supernatural) brought nature into existence; there is no third option. Just as a woman cannot give birth to herself, so it is logically impossible for nature to have brought itself into existence. When we only have two possible options (i.e., no third option), and one of the options is logically impossible, then the other option, no matter how much one may not like it, is necessarily true. The origin of the universe (i.e., nature and physical reality) logically requires a supernatural cause and foundation. (3)
An even larger problem is that “absolutely nothing” has no causal powers. “Absolutely nothing” cannot do anything at all …
Physical reality began at some point in the past, and it was caused by something supernatural (i.e., not composed of space, time, matter, and energy and not controlled by laws of physics). Furthermore, the incredible fine-tuning of the universe suggests that the supernatural foundation of the universe is a mind that has as a purpose for the universe regarding life. That suggests that life really does have a meaning or purpose that is not simply made up by the individual. We have been brought into existence for a purpose. What is it? I have addressed this question in another article you may find fascinating.
Postscript: What about God creating the universe “ex nihilo” (out of nothing)? To answer, God did not take some “nothing” and make stuff out of it. When Christian theologians, philosophers, and scientists use this term, what they mean is that God did not need to use anything other than himself to create and sustain the universe.
Talk to an online mentor: If you would like to interact with an online mentor about what the purpose of life might be you can do so here.
Additional reading: I have written a short article (a two-minute read) on how we can know with certainty that there was a beginning.
1. Lisa Grossman, ‘Why physicists can’t avoid a creation event’, New Scientist, January 2012.
2. Kirk Durston, ‘Did Time Have a Beginning? — My first brush with infinity’.
3. Kirk Durston, ‘What Caused the Universe?’.
4. Lawrence Krauss, Universe from Nothing, Atria Books, 2013.
5. Ellis & Silk, ‘Scientific method: Defend the integrity of physics’, Nature, 2014.
6. M. Buchanan, ‘When does multiverse speculation cross into fantasy?’ New Scientist, 2014.
7. Don Page, ‘Mistaken about nothing’, review of Krauss’s book.
Republished by permission of the Kirk Durston website.