A Universe from Nothing

(This is a version of a talk given to the Atheist Society in Melbourne, Australia, on 08 March 2016.)

This talk covers more than the title suggests. It is about one of the arguments between Atheists and people who believe in God – how did the material universe come to exist.

Believers will say that God created the world. The reply to that is to ask what created God. This then leads to claims about God not needing to be created. But if God didn’t need to be created, why should the material world have needed to be created?

I can see only three possible answers for both God and the universe.

  • one or both arose out of nothing;
  • or one or both always existed
  • or, for some reason that is beyond our present understanding, one or both of the universe and God exist but neither of them arose out of nothing and neither always existed.

Each of these possibilities raises perplexing issues, and theologians and scientists have spent an enormous amount of time pondering the first two. I will now discuss the first two possible answers and then I will try to see what can be said about a situation that is beyond our understanding.

So now, did the universe arise from nothing?

To answer that, we need to look at what is meant by nothing. Nothing is considered to be the absolute absence of anything; the absolute absence of existence. I think that for anything to exist it must have at least one identifiable characteristic. I think we can say that nothing can have no identifiable characteristics whatever. And the characteristic of having the potential to become something or to do something is itself more than nothing.

Is nothingness an identifiable characteristic? And if so, does this characteristic make it something? I would say it is not identifiable. The idea of Nothing having the characteristic of Nothingness is just one of the paradoxical propositions that we can dream up. It is a play on words and it does not invalidate the concept of nothing.

What could it mean to say that the universe arose from nothing? It might mean that at some moment there was nothing and then at another moment there was the universe. But if there had been nothing, there could have been no moments of time. If there had been such a thing as time, then there would have been more than nothing. There could be no change from nothing to something because there would have to be a before and an after, both of which are aspects of time.

So the idea of anything arising out of nothing is a logical contradiction. Further, the idea of something arising out of nothing is inherently unable to be tested. But despite all this, some scientists have developed theories to show how they think the universe could have arisen out of nothing.

Some of these scientists are leaders in their fields, so I can’t just dismiss what they say without even mentioning their theories. So I will now give a quick outline of how they think the universe could have emerged from nothing..

According to a mainstream idea in physics, time and space and the universe all began with the big bang. Without time there could be no before, and no now, and no after. And without space there could be no place for anything to be in. So this idea clearly assumes that the universe arose out of nothing. So how do the scientists who believe that time and space and the rest of the universe all arose at the big bang explain the occurrence of the big bang itself?

Several years ago the eminent physicist Stephen Hawking apparently justified this idea by referring to the gravitational force. The gravitational force on Earth is a result of the mass of the earth, and it is greater than the gravitational force on the moon because Earth has a greater mass than the moon. A larger mass produces a greater gravitational force. Hawking’s justification was based on the fact that time “slows down” under the effect of the force of gravity – the stronger the force the slower the passage of time. There is very good evidence for this and it is part of the general theory of relativity.

According to Hawking, at the big bang (it is tempting to say ‘at the time of the big bang’) when all the mass and energy of the entire universe was contained in an extremely small volume, the gravitational force was great enough for time to stand still. The next step of this argument is to claim that since time was standing still there was no such thing as time, so the universe appeared without there being a previous time. Therefore, since there was no such thing as a period before the big bang, there was nothing before the big bang.

I once saw a video on UTube in which Hawking gave this explanation, but when I tried to find it in 2015 it seemed to have disappeared. Perhaps he had changed his mind. But Hawking and his co-author Leonard Mlodinow wrote in their book The Grand Design, published in 1910: “Because there is a law such as 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.”

This argument avoids the question of where the law of gravity and all the mass came from to produce the gravitational force that made time stand still. I will come back to that shortly.

A more recent argument appears in the 2012 book by Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. This explanation implies that the universe does not start at the big bang: amazingly, it starts somewhat later. According to Krauss’s theory, the material world started very small, at subatomic size, and then developed through a series of stages. And it has another difference from Hawking’s approach. I think that by nothing Hawking actually meant nothing, and I think that Krauss meant something that scientists refer to as free space or the quantum vacuum. One way of describing free space is that it is what occupies the parts of the universe that are not occupied by matter. People sometimes call it “empty space”.

But free space is not empty and it is very different from nothing. Free space has properties that determine the speed of light and the speed of gravity. And free space contains an amount of energy that produces quantum phenomena, such as pairs of subatomic particles continually springing up for a fleeting existence and then ceasing to exist. These very short-lived particles, which might be, for example, an electron and a positron, annihilate each other when they interact, which is almost immediately. According to Krauss’s theory, the universe began when one particle somehow remained in existence and the other one just subsided into the vacuum. Over time the number of such occurrences became enough to build a universe.

But until the universe was created there could be no free space, because it is an integral part of the universe. Without the universe, and the processes that we call quantum mechanics, including Krauss’s process of growing a universe one particle at a time, could not begin. So Krauss’s universe started to exist after it already existed.

Perhaps Krauss might say that there was already a quantum vacuum before the big bang. Some cosmologists would say that there probably was, but that is because they think “our” universe arose from something much greater than nothing.

(Apart from all this, I think Krauss’s book is very good.)

If, alternatively, Hawking and the others had meant that the universe arose out of some already existing different kind of entity, with the potential to change into what we call the universe, then they would need to explain the beginning of that first entity. In other words, we are back with the original problem.

Another version of the material world arising out of nothing is that it arises out of mathematics. Mathematics, it is argued, is independent of the material world. The idea also implies that mathematics provides an intrinsically true description of the universe. But, even assuming that mathematics can be used to describe all possible aspects of the universe, there is a vast difference between a description and the thing described. Pure mathematics is just a lot of interconnected concepts that are represented by symbols. These mathematical concepts have specific properties and relationships that we, or some of us, are familiar with.

Through the observation of the world around us, it is possible to see some similarities between the processes of the universe and the relationships between the mathematical concepts. So we can put meanings to these mathematical concepts and their symbols to produce applied mathematics. But pure mathematics, without these meanings, cannot describe, let alone create, the universe, irrespective of whether we think mathematics is the same as nothing.

And without observation of the world around us we would probably never have developed mathematics of any kind. In fact, the similarity between the basic mathematical concepts and the processes of the material world is, of course, not a coincidence; the rules of mathematics were derived, or copied, from our familiarity with physical processes.

And there is argument about whether mathematics is a human creation or an intrinsic aspect of the universe. But in either case it is just part of the universe and not the origin. If it is independent of the universe, mathematics cannot be nothing because it has many characteristics and components.

So it seems that the universe did not arise from nothing.

But there is still another idea that tries to get around the issue of how the universe could have arisen out of nothing. This idea is that the universe itself is nothing. It is included in, among other places, the book A Brief History of Time, by Hawking, where he says that the total mass plus energy of the universe is zero. Hawking is by no means the only physicist to have held this view. This claim is explained by saying that the universe is pervaded by a negative gravitational energy which exactly cancels out all the mass and all kinds of energy, such as heat, radiation, and nuclear energy.

So, according to this argument, the universe equates to nothing: it was nothing at the big bang and always has been nothing.

You might think it is absurd to say that the universe, which includes us, is nothing, and I would agree. Actually, there are a few absurd aspects about modern physics with enough supporting evidence for physicists to be able to accept them. However, the idea that the universe equates to nothing is not one of them.

There really is such a thing as gravitational energy. If you drop a heavy object, the greater the height you drop it from the greater amount of energy is released as it falls and impacts on landing. And to get it to a greater height requires greater energy. And this is just an example of the gravitational energy that pervades the universe.

However, this claim that the universe adds up to nothing is in contradiction with most of what cosmologists believe about the universe. It is in contradiction with another of Hawking’s statements in A Brief History of Time, where he describes a possible collapse of all the mass of the universe under its own gravitational forces into one huge body. It is also in contradiction with his description, mentioned earlier, of the immense gravitational field at the beginning of the universe when time stood still.

Right from the big bang there has been both the mass of the universe plus the energy required for its expansion, and these two do not cancel out; they add together. The universe is a lot more than nothing. But, even if the energy balance did come to zero as claimed, there is still plenty of stuff that has all sorts of identifiable characteristics, so there would still be more than nothing.

There is no logical way that a theory based on nothing could be compatible with the assumed characteristics of the material world.

The question of the origin of the universe is now regarded to be one of the great scientific mysteries. Some physicists say that it is pointless to try to look back further than the big bang. But that doesn’t answer anything.

There are suggested theories that the universe is a part of some larger entity, or that it evolved from a series of developments beginning with some simple miniscule universe.  But that just returns the issue to the how these entities began.

When we investigate the universe, we take note of such things as time and space and matter and causal processes that we have carefully observed, and we use rigorous thinking to cross-check our observations. And we conclude that there is only a specific group of characteristics that the universe is allowed to have. These are the things that we regard to be scientifically possible. In other words, there are hypothetical characteristics that we think are impossible, such as the creation or destruction of mass/energy. But such constraints become irrelevant when we consider the nature of God. The supernatural, it is said, possesses endless powers and possibilities that are denied to the material world.

However, no matter what powers and possibilities we might think God possesses, including being able to arise out of nothing, God could not have had them if there was nothing. This is because there would be no God or any attributes of God if there was nothing. So while there may be argument about whether God exists and what God can do, there is no more reason to believe that God could arise out of nothing than there is for a universe to do so.

So now we come to the second alternative. If it is not possible to show how either the universe or God could arise out of nothing, did either the universe or God always exist?

Let’s start with our universe. One of its characteristics is that differences of most kinds seem to try to balance out: “water finds its own level”, temperatures tend to equalise unless some external energy is introduced to push them apart, and batteries tend to get discharged. These are examples of the second law of thermodynamics, which is regarded to be a governing aspect of the universe.

Some, perhaps most, cosmologists assume that the universe will continue to expand, and to become increasingly uniform in temperature and to reach a stage where everything is at its minimum energy potential. The closer it gets to that minimum condition, the less it will be able to change.

So if the universe always existed, which means that its past must have been infinite in time, by now it should have already reached that ultimate state of stagnation. And, of course, it hasn’t. This scenario is based on the assumption that the force that is causing the expansion to continue indefinitely.

But if the force that continues to make the universe expand should eventually be completely used up, then, when the expansion stops, the force of gravity will bring all the matter in the universe together into one coherent mass. As mentioned earlier, this possibility is advocated by Stephen Hawking. In a universe that has always existed, by now it should have already reached this stage, which it hasn’t.

But some cosmologists think that when the cycle of expanding and contracting is completed, all of the matter that has slammed together will “bounce” and start expanding again, as seems to have happened after the big bang. Then the universe will go through the same process again and will eternally continue through the sequence of expanding contracting and bouncing. This could have been going on for an infinite period of time, that is, the universe would have always existed.

There are a few things wrong with this scenario. While the bounce might seem to have some similarity to the massive gravitational collapse of a star, giving rise to a supernova, the inflation and expansion following the big bang was very different from the scattering of the remnants of an exploded star. After the big bang it was space that expanded, not material that was flung off in all directions. And when the cosmic matter was being attracted together after the cessation of the expansion of the universe, since space is filled with energy that is not affected by gravitation, space would remain in its expanded size.

If, for some reason, there was actually a series of bounces, at each bounce there would be the generation of very high temperatures, whose energy would be converted to radiation, which would successively diminish the gravitational energy of the universe. After an infinite number of bounces there would be no bounce left and the material mass would remain, like a universe-sized black hole.

Also, it seems that our present universe started with the big bang about 13.7 billion years ago. So if there was an infinite past, the big bang was not the beginning. The evidence suggests that our present universe began in an enormously hot and energetic condition, occupying minimal space. This raises the question of how this could have happened. To account for the the big bang, we would need to work out the physics of some previous, possibly larger, universe that would have already existed for an infinite amount of time and had managed to produce the big bang.

Cosmologists have already been trying to do this. However, calculations involving infinity quickly get you nowhere. So for the purpose of their calculations, the cosmologists assumed that the pre-existing universe was not infinitely old, but just enormously older than our universe. Their conclusions suggest that if the unimaginably old finite universe was anything like our present universe, accumulations of matter like the big bang would be extremely unlikely. (See, e.g., From Eternity to Here by Sean Carroll.)

If there were a universe that was infinite in space and time, and if the laws by which it operated were like those of the universe that we know, then we would expect it to be mostly empty space sprinkled with particles and a few larger objects. But any objects, no matter how big they once were, would have completely dispersed an infinite time ago, just as cosmologists think our universe eventually will.

So, since our universe has not completely dispersed, any universe that always existed would have had to operate under laws that were incompatible with our current cosmology and our understanding of the laws of physics.

And we could say nothing realistic about an infinite universe that operated under laws that were different in some unknown way from the laws that we are familiar with.

So we can’t say how the universe could have always existed.

So now, let’s try God.

Did God always exist? Two things are said about God’s durability: God is eternal, that is beyond or independent of time, and/or God and time are both infinite. Is either of these feasible? This depends on what we mean by time. We think of time as some kind of succession of events, so that there is a before, a now and an after. If there were no such thing as time there could be no change from one condition to another, at least in material terms.

Might things work differently for God?

God being beyond time would mean that our ideas about time and change refer merely to our concepts about of the material world and that God, being supernatural, is not constrained by such worldly limitations.

But what can we actually know about God existing, let alone having existed for an infinite amount of time? And how could we know it? We may attribute certain phenomena or occurrences to be actions of God, and draw conclusions about God, such as being kind or judgmental or able to do miraculous things. But we have no evidence or any other certain way of knowing about any of God’s characteristics, such as whether God actually exists and how long God has existed. If it is suggested that we can know through divine revelation, which revelation do we accept and how can we justify any belier that it is authentic? We can neither confirm nor deny any statement about God.

To me this looks as if we have reached a stalemate in the game of infinities. And as discussed earlier, the same applies to the universe or God arising from nothing – a stalemate of zeros.

So it seems that there is no reason to believe or to disbelieve that either God or the universe arose out of nothing or that either God or the universe always existed.

And this seems weird. So is my argument wrong? After all, we think that we, and the universe, do exist.

There is a similar kind of weird uncertainty about quantum theory, and there’s a joke that the answer to anyone pointing this out is “Shut up, and calculate”. This is because there is evidence for the weirdness of quantum phenomena, and scientists feel there must be some logical process, or some different kind of logic, that we have yet to discover.

Many things that a few centuries ago would have seemed absurd and inherently incapable of being tested have since been identified and demonstrated by modern science. Some scientists hope, or expect, that some things that would look quite absurd to us now will be commonplace in some future science, and that will remove the uncertainty about quantum theory and/or the origin of the universe. Other people might have a similar hope about new evidence to justify belief in the existence of God. In the meantime, this is just speculation for both sides of the argument.

But no matter what any new theories might show, and although science relies on observation and reason, all that this actually tells us is how we interact with the universe. This is not the same as knowing the actual nature of what underlies our observations and reasoning. And this applies also to any interactions people may say they have with God. In both cases it is a bit like knowing how we interact with our computers but (except for a few technologists) not knowing anything about what is happening inside the consoles.

So does this mean that we may never find out the how the universe, or God, came to exist? I don’t think there is any guarantee that we will.

We could just accept that it is all beyond our present understanding. That is a very unsatisfying answer for both Atheists and Supernaturalists. It casts doubt on both of their justifications. On the one hand, if science is unable to provide an explanation, then that leaves the door open for the existence of the supernatural. But, on the other hand, how can anything specific be said about God if God is so mysterious or so different from the very familiar kinds of things that are attributed to him – if “him is still the appropriate word?

As an Agnostic, I reserve my judgment and keep looking for loopholes in the logic and in the science. At this stage, all I can think of about the logic is that there is something wrong about our concepts of nothing, and infinity, and knowing, and perhaps about space and time.

If any new scientific discoveries and their associated concepts took us too far from our present concept of the material world, then how close might that be to a description of the supernatural, which I presently define as being intrinsically different from the material universe?

What we can know about the universe is limited to what can be learned from the small part of it that can be detected as electromagnetic and gravitational waves. This may seem to be an enormous amount of information, but cosmologists think it relates to only a small part of the total universe. And even with what we know, there are things we just don’t understand.

For those of you who are not Agnostics, your own arguments about the beginnings of either the material world or something beyond it might be sufficient for your particular beliefs, whether or not they could explain the existence of anything.

It’s up to you to make your own decision.