"The Universe Created Itself" and Other Nonsense

3:36 PM James 16 Comments

As a student of the philosophy of science, I am fascinated by how scientific theories are marketed to the public.  In the past couple of years, a growing number of physicists - including Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss - have begun to claim that science can now explain how the universe got here - it created itself, out of nothing.  In my assessment, this is an embarrassing case of false advertising.

The belief that the universe created itself is increasingly in vogue among many scientists - especially scientists who also happen to be atheists.  For instance, in 2010, the Discovery Channel premiered a new TV show, "How the Universe Works."  In the first episode, titled "Big Bang," theoretical physicist and outspoken atheist Lawrence Krauss makes the following statements:
The philosophers in ancient times used to say, "How could something arise from nothing?"  And, what's amazing to me, is that the laws of physics allow that to happen.  And it means that our whole universe, everything we see, everything that matters to us today, could have arisen out of precisely nothing.
Krauss has a book scheduled for release in 2012, titled A Universe From Nothing, with generous endorsements from Richard Dawkins and other prominent atheists.  The subtitle of the book is "Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing."

Likewise, Stephen Hawking (also an atheist) released a new book, The Grand Design, in 2010.  In it, he and his co-author Leonard Mlodinow claim that the universe created itself from nothing.  Says Hawking:
--> Bodies such as stars or black holes cannot just appear out of nothing.  But a whole universe can… Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing… Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.   It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.Clearly, the "universe-created-itself" argument is a growing trend among atheistic scientists; and they are quick to add that science has now eliminated the need for a Creator.  With people like Dawkins jumping on the bandwagon, expect to hear more atheists parroting these claims in the coming years.  Unfortunately, Hawking's and Krauss' claim that the universe created itself exposes an embarrassing level of philosophical ignorance - a kind of metaphysical blind spot - on their part.  And this blind spot inevitably leads them to exaggerate the reach and success of their theories.

Both Hawking and Krauss commit an equivocation - they give the word "nothing" a misleading definition.  Although there's been some debate, philosophers have not typically understood "nothing" to be simply empty space, or a vacuum (as Aristotle argued, and as science has shown, even empty space is definitely something).  Rather, philosophers have generally understood the term "nothing" to refer to non-being, or the total absence of some thing.  Hence, Parmenides' (ca. 500 BC) famous claim that nothing cannot exist; because if nothing existed, it would then be something.

Krauss and Hawking unquestionably lead their audience to believe they are referring to "nothing" in the same way that philosophers always have.  In their attempts to answer the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Krauss refers to what "philosophers in ancient times used to say," and Hawking claims, "Traditionally these [questions of why there is something rather than nothing] are questions for philosophy..."[1]  Hawking and Krauss suggest that what has historically been a philosophical question can now be answered by science.  Sadly, they don't even fully understand the question.

The question, "Why is there something rather than nothing," was made famous by German philosopher Martin Heidegger in the 1930s, when he characterized it as the most fundamental question of metaphysics.  Philosophers understand this question to mean "Why does anything exist?" or "Why is there being rather than nonbeing?" or "How did it come about that something has being?"  Hawking's and Krauss' answer is essentially the same:
Quantum fluctuations lead to the creation of tiny universes out of nothing. A few of these reach a critical size, then expand in an inflationary manner, forming galaxies, stars, and, in at least one case, beings like us.[2]
They propose that there is an eternal vacuum (i.e. empty space) of fluctuating quantum energy that periodically spits out universes. This, according to Hawking and Krauss, is why there is something rather than nothing. But, is this vacuum of "quantum fluctuations" really "nothing?" No, it's definitely something. An article on "Nothingness" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:
Historians of science wonder whether the ether that was loudly pushed out the front door of physics is quietly returning through the back door under the guise of [empty] “space”. Quantum field theory provides especially fertile area for such speculation. Particles are created with the help of energy present in “vacuums”. To say that vacuums have energy and energy is convertible into mass, is to deny that vacuums are empty. Many physicists revel in the discovery that vacuums are far from empty. Are these physicists using ‘vacuum’ in a new sense?[3] [emphasis added]
Yes, they are.  This "nothing" (i.e. "quantum fluctuations") that Hawking and Krauss speak of presupposes a number of things that are not “nothing.”  It presupposes (1) quantum entities, (2) energy, (3) processes of change and, supposedly, (4) some set of laws or forces with causal powers to govern it all.  That is definitely something.  In fact, it’s a lot of somethings.  And those "somethings" sound remarkably similar to things we find in our present universe.

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Thus, when Hawking, Krauss, and others claim that science can now answer the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” they are being misleading.  They are not answering the question as philosophy has traditionally understood it – “Why is there being rather than nonbeing?”  They are instead making a flagrant equivocation.  They are equating "something" with "nothing."  And so, contrary to their grand claims, science cannot explain how something could come from nothing.  At best, it could merely explain how something might have come from something else, which is anticlimactic and unimpressive.

If Hawking and Krauss truly understood the concept of "nothing" on the philosophical level, perhaps they wouldn't exaggerate and mislead their audience; perhaps they would be more honest in their advertising.[4]  But, for scientists who are bent on denying a Creator, they don't have a lot of options.  If they were to claim that the universe created itself from a literal nothing, then they would be guilty of spouting absurdities.  As the Escher drawing above illustrates, in order for the universe to create itself, it would have to exist before it existed, which is nonsense.  Apparently, for Hawking and Krauss false advertising is better than nonsense.  To me, one is no better than the other.


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Endnotes


1. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010), p. 5

2.  Ibid., p. 187

3.  Sorensen, Roy, "Nothingness", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nothingness/. section 10.

4.  It's really no surprise that they don't fully understand the philosophical nature of the question when you consider that both Hawking and Krauss think philosophy is useless.  In the opening page of The Grand Design, Hawking states:  "Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead.   Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.  Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge."  Likewise, in this video (at 20:25), Krauss lumps philosophy together with religion and describes them as "useless."  In these superficial remarks, Hawking and Krauss cavalierly dismiss the thousands of years of philosophical investigation that all their "scientific" assumptions rest on.

16 comments :

  1. Even a third grader understands that something cannot come from nothing (well, the REAL nothing). It's amazing (and sad) that human hearts can be so unbelieving in Christ that they create these kinds of arguments and that so many brilliant minds jump on the bandwagon. And you're right James, in this context, absurdities and "false advertising" are identical. For the real answers, consult your Bible!

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  2. The "real question" is: Where the vacuum energy comes from? And philosophy isn't bad at all when is based on science.

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  3. First person is a moron. How did God come from nothing then? If you say he always existed then why couldn't certain universal laws exist?

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  4. Hi Wilty, good question. You're right, I would say God has always existed; he has no beginning. However, saying that universal laws exist (or have always existed) won't help you much. The very idea of universal laws of nature is a theological one in the first place; it's no more rational or scientific to believe in laws of nature than it is to believe in God. They are practically the same thing. Read my blog post on the regularity of nature (Reason To Believe in God #3) to see why.

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  5. Universal laws could be merely variable levels of strength of forces such as gravity, electromagnetism, etc. Say there is a multiverse in which many of these universes exist, and this multiverse has always existed. An infinite amount of time births infinite possibilities, including a universe suitable for our version of life. I still see no reason to believe that an omniverse or multiverse couldn't exist indefinitely while God can. Especially if God represents infinite energy (he must if he is omnipotent) and the omniverse would, by definition, encompass all energy in existence, which could manifest in different fashions indefinitely. If a God could exist for an infinite amount of time, why not an omniverse/multiverse? Especially if time could be looped at an omniversal level, or even just defined differently than in our universe or observed differently at a higher dimension. If something had to create everything in the first place, then why is God exempt from these rules? Why don't we try to posit universal models that could exist infinitely rather than taking the easy way out and saying "God did it."? Just a thought from a high school student.

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  6. Hi Anonymous high school student, I'm glad to see you are thinking through these issues! You make some good points and bring up great questions! But, some of what you say is based on misunderstandings.

    First, you're right that there is no incompatibility with an infinite multiverse and God - both could exist together. However, the infinite multiverse would still be *contingent*, and would therefore require an explanation outside of itself (see my 16 Reasons To Believe In God #2, on the contingency of the universe).

    Second, based on scientific observations, mathematical proofs, and philosophical arguments, the multiverse could not be past-eternal. Physicist Alexander Vilenkin has proved mathematically that even the multiverse must have had an absolute beginning (see my 16 Reasons #1, on the origin of the universe). So, there is not an infinite amount of time to birth infinite possibilities - there has only been a finite amount of time to birth a finite number of possibilities. It also raises the question of what brought the universe/multiverse into existence in the first place. Since there was no time, space, or matter "before" the universe/multiverse existed, whatever caused it to come into existence must be a spaceless, timeless, and non-physical entity. I think God is a pretty good candidate.

    Third, I've never said *everything* requires some type of cause for it's existence, only things that *begin* to exist require a causal explanation. If God never began to exist, because he is eternal, then he doesn't require a cause. Nor is God a contingent entity, so he doesn't require an explanation outside of himself.

    Fourth, I'm not merely asserting "God did it." What I'm doing is showing that there are good reasons to believe God exists - I"m showing that belief in God is rational; perhaps more rational than not believing in God.

    Lastly, you're right that universal laws of nature could be nothing more than the coincidental strengths of the forces of nature. But that would not explain why those forces are so extremely fine-tuned for our existence. The fine-tuning of the universe (see my 16 Reasons #4) is an additional clue that points to God's existence.

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  7. To address the universal laws, I would point out that an infinite number of universes would proffer infinite possibilities, leading to one in which we exist, especially if multiple infinite dimensions exist. Also, the assertion that it must be a God that created the omniverse seems a bit flawed, if not in its logic then by its hasty temperament. I am agnostic, not fully atheistic, so I would be open to the possibility of a God. However, as I see it now, science (especially theoretical physics) is still in its infancy. To insert a deity into a field which we understand little about seems quite hasty, and to say that it is most likely a God is a tad bit fallacious, considering the fact that you see no other possibilities yet ignore possible explanations in the future. It could be a God. I'm just saying that, with various theories that encompass cyclical time, a possible hierarchal order to universes that is much larger than we imagine, parallel dimensions etc, there seems to be a nascent and exponentially expanding selection of theories that would explain the universe in a different fashion, having as little as or more evidence than a deity. Also, have you any evidence that this deity must be conscious? Or could this spaceless, timeless entity be more of a force, form of undiscovered energy, or impossible to understand "thing"? I'm no expert on the matter. Just a high school student glad to discuss universal origins with someone in the field rather than a local young earth creationist.

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  8. Hi Anonymous (I wish I knew your first name, at least), thanks for taking the time to comment further. For a high school student, you have officially impressed me! :-)

    I'd like to challenge a few things you said. First, I didn't *assert* that it must be a God that created the multiverse. I said the entity that caused the universe to come into being must be timeless, spaceless, and immaterial (yet unfathomably powerful), and that God fits that description. If that is logically fallacious, as you said, then please tell me, what logical fallacy am I committing?

    Second, there is very good, widely accepted evidence (scientific, mathematical, and philosophical) that the universe/multiverse is *not* infinite, but finite. So, why should I believe in infinite universes, when all the scientific evidence points to a finite universe? Just because there are possible theories that posit cyclical time and infinite universes is not a good reason to believe them. I'd need a compelling scientific/rational reason to believe these alternate theories over the most well-tested and widest accepted theory, which says the universe is finite.

    Yes, I do think there is good reason to believe the deity is conscious and personal, I've written about it on my blog.

    I'm glad you're trying to be open minded on this matter. I'd encourage you to slow down a bit, and explore each question more deeply, one at a time (e.g. is the universe infinite or finite? Is the cause of the universe conscious or just a force?, etc.). That's what my blog series "16 Reasons Why I Believe In God" is designed to do. Here's the Introduction:

    http://philo-logos.blogspot.com/2012/08/16-reasons-why-i-believe-in-god.html

    Start there and let's continue our dialog through each article. These are important questions that deserve your time, thought, and open mindedness. And the world needs gifted, thoughtful young people like you!

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  9. Thank you. While your fallacy doesn't have a textbook name, such as an ad hominem or as verecundiam, I was merely suggesting that the logic was fallacious by nature, as it concluded that God is the best answer without leaving space for future discoveries, almost along the lines of the faulty logic behind a false dichotomy but not really. And your evidence points to a finite universe regarding size, which you use as an rebuttal to my assertion regarding infinite numbers of universes, or even an infinite hierarchy of multiverses, multi-multiverse, etc (if you understand what I'm trying to say).


    At certain levels of existence, it shouldn't be a problem to find some force that is timeless yet isn't a God, as time is fairly relative and could be a negligent force, especially at higher dimensions or beyond a universe altogether. Immaterial isn't a problem either, especially when Einstein's "e=mc^2" is accounted for, with mass-energy equivalence and such. Spaceless? Well it merely must take up no space (obviously). I see absolutely no reason as to why some sort of force couldn't fit all of these qualifications, whether accounted for or unaccounted for by modern physics, that doesn't necessitate a deity.

    I will review the other articles when I get the chance. But the assertion that a timeless, spaceless, omnipotent deity existed ubiquitously yet nowhere, does not constitute logic or deductive reasoning to me. It seems that a God just so happens so happens to fit the qualifications that you've created for it.

    Onto another argument. This God, to create such entities as our universe, must have had some sort of energy, obviously. Therefore, energy must have exsted in a timeless, spaceless, and immaterial fashion. If God is nothing but energy, then why cannot other energies hold these qualities without taking the form of a deity? And if God is energy plus other abstract qualities, why could this energy not exist alone? Energy, which is comparable to matter I may add, under Einstein's theory.

    Also, to assert that that which exists must be created based solely on the assumption that everything around us that exists has been created seems to me a fallacy of composition.

    I've found a link that expertly refutes this argument which apparently was designed by Craig. I would relay its counterpoints, but it would be a waste of time.

    http://www.strongatheism.net/library/counter_apologetics/craigs_unsupported_premise/

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  10. Hi Anonymous, like I said, you need to slow down a bit and think more carefully about what I'm saying and what you're saying. If you'd like to dialog with me, then you need to actually engage and rebut things I'm saying, not things I'm not saying.

    I never claimed God is the best explanation to the exclusion of future discoveries. What I've said in my articles (if you would read them) is that the origin of the universe is one of many good reasons to believe in God. Also, the evidence for the finitude of the universe that I referred to is not only regarding its size, but also time. Please read what I've actually said (my articles, and the evidence cited in them) before accusing me of fallacious reasoning.

    I didn't "create" any qualifications for God, nor have I committed the fallacy of composition. God is an explanation that makes sense of more than just the physical properties of the universe, but of many other facts and phenomena of human experience (e.g. reason, laws of logic, evil, etc.) that I'm currently writing about.

    I'm afraid I don't have time or energy to respond to accusations about things I haven't said or claimed, so I'm going to insist that your next post be after you've actually read one of my articles and then thoughtfully responded to it, otherwise it won't be published. Sorry, bud. I hope to hear from you again.

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  11. When scientists say that the universe can simply come out of nothing without any divine intervention, they think of the universe in terms of its energy only. In the book ‘The Grand Design’, page 281, scientist Stephen Hawking has written that bodies like stars or black holes cannot just appear out of nothing, but a whole universe can. What Hawking meant to say here was this: As the total energy of a whole universe is zero, so it can come out of nothing. But stars or black holes cannot, because their total energy is not zero. But universe means not only its energy universe means its space-time as well. Do these scientists think that the total space-time of the universe is zero, and therefore, the entire space-time of the universe can also appear out of nothing?

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  12. Hi uckitrakar, thanks for your excellent question!

    As far as I can tell, physicists such as Hawking and Krauss do believe the entire space-time of our universe can appear out of "nothing." But, the "nothing" they are referring to is a quantum vacuum that exists as part of a larger multiverse. If my understanding is correct, within the vacuum of the multiverse, quantum fluctuations allow little "space-times" (i.e. universes) to spontaneously appear, like bubbles. Some of the these space-times expand into a full universe like ours. Others implode back in on themselves.

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    1. These scientists are treating this quantum vacuum as nothing, and they are claiming that the entire space, time, matter and energy of our present universe have spontaneously appeared from that quantum nothing. Scientists remain quite logical in their argument when they show that the total matter and energy of the universe are zero. The totality of both of these two should always remain zero if they have actually originated from nothing. We expect from the scientists that they apply the same kind of logic to the entire space-time also, because as per them the total space-time of our present universe has also appeared from nothing. So by the same kind of logic the entire space-time of our present universe should also always remain zero. As the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, so the pertinent question will be: How does the total space-time of an ever-expanding universe always remain zero?

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    2. Thanks for appreciating my points. I want to add just one more line:
      If science cannot give any satisfactory answer to this question, then the naturalistic world-view of modern science will prove to be inadequate for explaining the real world.

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