Quantum Fluctuation as an Escape Hatch for Atheists (or Not)

Peter Atkins

The beginning of the physical universe via the Big Bang has always been a thorn in the flesh for atheists. And as a result atheists have come up with many alternatives to explain it away because, as atheist scientist Hawking once remarked, that “Many people do not like the idea that time has a beginning, probably because it smacks of divine intervention.”

One attempt to explain how we got a universe from nothing comes from atheist Peter Atkins who argues that regardless of the universe’s overwhelming immensity and diversity, it is “an elaborate and engaging rearrangement of nothing” (1). Atkins then espouses the quantum fluctuation hypothesis within which “space-time generates its own dust in the process of its own self-assembly” (2).

However, in New Scientist David Darling critiques this idea; he writes: “What is a big deal – the biggest of them all – is how you get something from nothing. Don’t let the cosmologists try to kid you on this one… “In the beginning,” they will say, “there was nothing – no time, space, matter or energy. Then there was a quantum fluctuation from which…” Whoa! Stop right there. You see what I mean? First there was nothing then there is something. And the cosmologists try to bridge the two with a quantum flutter, a tremor of uncertainty that sparks it all off. Then they are away, and before you know it they have pulled a hundred billion galaxies out of their quantum hats” (3).

As evidence Darling’s point is informative. Atkins’ view holds to a beginning with nothing but then, as the philosopher Keith Ward captures, requires “an exactly balanced array of fundamental forces, an exactly specified probability of particular fluctuations occurring in this array, and an existent space-time in which fluctuations can occur” (4). Essentially, there was never nothing since quantum fluctuation is something; it thus doesn’t answer the question of how we got the universe from nothing.

However, Atkins continues by saying that “time brought the points (non-spatiotemporal entities) into being, and the points brought time into being” (5). However, this is problematic. One ought to respond by asking how a cause can bring about an effect without already being in existence? Again Keith Ward illustrates the fallacy in Atkins’ statement:

“If time brought points into being, time must already have existed before the points. And if the points brought time into being, they must have existed before time. But to say that two things have each existed before the other is a simple contradiction. Since contradictions convey absolutely no information, the cosmic bootstrap turns out to be vacuous. Far from being an ultimate explanation, it says nothing at all” (6).


1. Daily Telegraph, 6 April 1998.

2. Atkins, P. 1992. Creation Revisited. p. 143.

3. Darling, D. New Scientist. p. 49.

4. Ward, K. 1996. God, Chance and Necessity. p. 40.

5. Atkins, P. ibid.

6. Ward, K. ibid. p. 49.



  1. I’m struggling with the point of this article. There is no debating the fact that Physics has not yet explained how the universe came to be. That is a matter of intense study. The questions you are posing are valid ones, but are presented in such a way as to lead the reader to the conclusion that the universe MUST have had some other agent as its first cause. In so doing, this article appears to be just another incarnation of the “God of the Gaps” argument. And as usual, those inferences routinely fail to answer the question of where their God of the Gaps came from, or if he is claimed to have “always existed”, how that can be.

    You failed to note that many physicists believe that matter DID exist before the big bang, but was compressed into an infinitesimally small volume (the mother of all black holes).

    And even if that’s not the case, you reduce an incredibly complex topic to the level of an eighth-grader, and in so doing, distort any theories beyond all recognition. Non-Physicists want to believe that ALL of Physics operates with the same sorts of rules as were demonstrated by Isaac Newton. But Physicists have known for a century that Classical Physics simply doesn’t work well (or at all) when dealing with phenomena at the scale of the universe, or at very small scales (i.e. subatomic or quantum levels).

    Science hasn’t yet answered the question of how the universe began. But give them some time – It’s a hard problem.

    • A few replies:

      1- To say that the universe must have a cause is not the God-of-the-Gaps. It’s simply the claim that the best explanation is, as the Kalam argument goes, “that the universe had a cause.” No God of the gaps committed here.

      2- You write “You failed to note that many physicists believe that matter DID exist before the big bang” – I don’t recall many, in fact Stephen Hawking, of all people, would disagree: “[A]lmost everyone now believes that the universe, and time itself, had a beginning at the big bang.”

      3- “you reduce an incredibly complex topic to the level of an eighth-grader.” Einstein replies: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

      4- I don’t disagree with your conclusion: “Science hasn’t yet answered the question of how the universe began. But give them some time – It’s a hard problem.”

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