Justifying the Claim that “From Nothing, Nothing Comes” [Ex Nihilo, Nihil Fit].

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According to ancient Greek philosophers matter was uncreated and therefore eternal. The biblical writers of the book of Genesis believed differently and held that the universe hadn’t always existed and was, in fact, created by an all-powerful God at a finite point in the past. Later, another influential thinker, a Muslim philosopher and theologian from the 12th century by the name of Al-Ghazali, engaged Greek philosophy, and argued that the idea of a beginningless universe was absurd. Thus, these questions pertaining to the infinite past and the beginning of the universe have a long history, and they continue to be entertained passionately.

In fact, there was a time when many scientists believed that the universe was eternal. However, this view was challenged in 1929 by astronomer Edwin Hubble who noticed that the universe appeared to be expanding, a fact later confirmed in 1965 by Arno Wilson and Robert Penzias. Wilson and Penzias are two prominent astronomers credited with the discovery of the cosmic microwave background, a discovery which awarded them the Nobel Prize for Physics. It is also true that many have proposed alternative hypotheses hoping to avoid a finite beginning to the universe. However, these hypotheses have been largely rejected whereas Big Bang cosmology has enjoyed broad consensus within the academy (1). This was, however, initially resisted. In 1960, science writer John Maddox was critical since he thought that it gave those who believed in the biblical doctrine of creation “ample justification” for their beliefs (2). Nonetheless, though similar sentiments were expressed by others too the Big Bang ultimately stuck as the model which best explained the data.

The reasons for its acceptance, scientific and otherwise, vary. For example, as Alan Guth and Alexander Vilenkin have demonstrated, our universe is in a state of cosmic expansion and must, therefore, have had a beginning in the finite past (3). According to Vilenkin, we, like many had done before, “can no longer hide behind a past-eternal universe. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning” (4). On top of this, the second law of thermodynamics shows that at some point in the very distant future the universe will end up in a cold, dark state. But if the universe has existed eternally then it should now be in a cold, dark state. But it is not, and therefore must have had a finite beginning. As philosopher William Lane Craig, in The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology, asks, “If, given sufficient time, the universe will suffer heat death, then why, if it has existed forever, as naturalists assume, is it not now in a state of heat death? If in a finite amount of time the universe will inevitably come to equilibrium, from which no significant further change is physically possible, then it should already be at an equilibrium by now, if it has existed for infinite time” (5). Furthermore, philosophically, it is impossible to have an infinite regress of past events (6). It is impossible for an infinite number of things to exist which would suggest that an infinite number of past events cannot exist. The conclusion is that the series of past events must be finite and have had a finite beginning. Thus, according to consensus all physical space, time, matter, and energy came into being at a finite point some billions of years ago.

This fact has been of massive interest to both theists and philosophers of religion (7). It is also arguably one of the areas in which the most dialogue between religion and science is taking place (8). Atheist philosopher Quentin Smith captures this excitement saying that “The idea that the Big Bang theory allows us to infer that the universe began to exist about 15 billion years ago has attracted the attention of many theists. This theory seemed to confirm or at least lend support to the theological doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Indeed, the suggestion of a divine creation seemed so compelling that the notion that “God created the Big Bang” has taken a hold on popular consciousness and become a staple in the theistic component of ‘educated common sense’. By contrast, the response of atheists and agnostics to this development has been comparatively lame” (9).

Judging from their responses and the number of such responses, the Big Bang has clearly been a thorn in the flesh for atheists and philosophical naturalism. Lewis Wolpert honestly concedes that “there’s the whole problem of where the universe itself came from,” and then asks “How did that all happen? I haven’t got a clue” (10). Stephen Hawking, an atheist himself, suggests that “Many people do not like the idea that time has a beginning, probably because it smacks of divine intervention” (11).

The problem here is that the naturalist needs to be able to explain how we got everything from nothing. After all, if the universe comes from nothing in the true sense of absolute nothingness (no time, space, matter), then what was it that resulted in such a precise and finely tuned explosion? On the naturalist’s view, the entire universe came into being out of absolute nothingness and ultimately for no purpose or reason. It just exists because it exists. Alternatively, for the theist, that the universe had a finite beginning in the past is accepted because it makes sense. The universe exists because a Creator, who itself exists necessarily by virtue of its own nature, desired to create it and all that exists within it. Philosopher of science, Professor John Lennox, explains that “From the Christian point of view, the question is solved because there wasn’t nothing. There was God who’s non-physical. God is spirit, and he caused it all to be, and supports it in being. That makes perfect sense” (12).

But, to return to the initial question, why suppose that “From Nothing, Nothing Comes?” This was a philosophical expression first argued by the Greek philosopher Parmenides, and it is one that I contend we have reason for accepting today.

Firstly, we ought to accept it because the alternative just doesn’t make sense. The alternative would essentially have us believe that things could pop into being uncaused out of nothing. After all, if the universe could just pop into existence out of nothing then why can’t other things? In one of his informative presentations defending the Kalam Cosmological Argument, philosopher William Lane Craig explains that “suppose something could come into being from nothing. If that were the case then it is inexplicable why just anything and everything doesn’t pop into being out of nothing. But no-one here tonight is worried that while you’re listening to this debate a horse may have popped into being uncaused out of nothing in your living room, and is there defiling the carpet right now as we speak” (13). Even the famous 18th century skeptic and philosopher David Hume saw the absurdity of such a proposal, “But allow me to tell you that I never asserted so absurd a Proposition as that anything might arise without a cause” (14). So, why believe that nothing cannot give rise to something? Because common sense demands it.

I also believe that Craig makes a further good point, namely, that on what grounds is nothing discriminatory? Why, for the proponent who believes a universe can come into being from nothing, is it only limited to the universe? Why not other things like chairs, tennis balls, or trees? Craig asks, “Why is it only universes that can come into being from nothing? What makes nothingness so discriminatory? There can’t be anything about nothingness that favors universes, for nothingness doesn’t have any properties. Nor can anything constrain nothingness, for there isn’t anything to be constrained!” (15). The obvious commonsensical answer to the question is because nothing has never created anything, or brought anything into being.

Further, nothing, in the absolute sense, has no causal power. So, if a Creator as a causal agent is excluded, then the only two alternatives are an eternal universe or that the universe came into existence without a cause. As observed the evidence suggests that the universe is not eternal and had a finite beginning. Where the latter is concerned, it is logically impossible for nothing to give rise to anything because nothing is the absence of anything and therefore has no causal powers. According to Professor Glenn Siniscalchi, “Nothing is the complete absence of being” and therefore “has no causal power” (16). it simply cannot bring anything into being.

So, can nothing bring anything into being? Well, yes, if one believes in magic as Craig whimsically remarks, “To claim that something can come into being from nothing is worse than magic, when you think about it. When a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, at least you’ve got the magician – not to speak of the hat!” (17)

References.

1. Kragh, H. 1996. Cosmology and Controversy. p. 318-319.

2. Maddox, J. 1989. Nature. p. 425.

3. Vilenkin, A. cited in “Why physicists can’t avoid a creation event,” by Lisa Grossman (2012).

4. Vilenkin, A. 2006. Many Worlds in One: The Search For Other Universes. p. 176.

5. Craig, W. In The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology (2010). p. 603.

6. Craig, W. 1980. The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz. p. 285.

7. Harris, J. 2002. Analytic Philosophy of Religion. p. 128.

8. Harrison, P. 2010. The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion. p. 9

9. Smith, Q. 1991. “Atheism, Theism, and Big Bang Cosmology,” in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy. p. 48-66.

10. Wolpert, L. 2007. The Hard Cell. p. 18.

11. Hawking, S. 1988. Brief History of Time. p. 46.

12. YouTube. 2014. QUANTUM PHYSICS IS NOTHING John Lennox 9-2014. [5:15-5:30]

13. YouTube. The Wit of Dr. Craig – Part 7 “A random horse from nowhere defiling your carpet.” Available.

14. David Hume to John Stewart, February 1754, in The Letters of David Hume.

15. Craig, W. 2015. On Guard for Students: A Thinker’s Guide to the Christian Faith. p. 52.

16. Siniscalchi, G. 2016. Retrieving Apologetics.

17. Craig, W. Excursus: Natural Theology: Existence of God. Available.

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One response to “Justifying the Claim that “From Nothing, Nothing Comes” [Ex Nihilo, Nihil Fit].

  1. Science appears to confirm that the Universe was created from nothing PHYSICAL, but that does not mean that it was created from nothing at all. It is quite obvious from the Bible that it was initially created from, and by means of, God’s Spirit through the Word, who became Jesus.
    It’s a great shame that it appears so difficult for many people to believe that the Spirit realm actually exists, that it is where Jesus himself currently resides, and it is into that realm that human beings can subsequently be “born again” as “sons of God” – which is the sole reason we were created in the first place.

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