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Austin Cline

Something from Nothing?

By February 9, 2012

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It's common for religious theists to ask "how can something come from nothing?" This question is typically part of an argument designed to show that "something" can only come from "something" and therefore a Big Bang without a God is impossible. This argument, however, depends upon faulty understandings of what "nothing" really is.

Fortunately, science already has better information for us -- it's just up to these religious theists to pay attention.

"There is no barrier between nothing and a rich universe full of matter," [Frank Wilczek of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] says. Perhaps the big bang was just nothingness doing what comes naturally. This, of course, raises the question of what came before the big bang, and how long it lasted. Unfortunately at this point basic ideas begin to fail us; the concept "before" becomes meaningless. In the words of Stephen Hawking, it's like asking what is north of the north pole.

Even so, there is an even more mind-blowing consequence of the idea that something can come from nothing: perhaps nothingness itself cannot exist.

Here's why. Quantum uncertainty allows a trade-off between time and energy, so something that lasts a long time must have little energy. To explain how our universe has lasted for the billions of years that it has taken galaxies to form, solar systems to coalesce and life to evolve into bipeds who ask how something came from nothing, its total energy must be extraordinarily low.

That fits with the generally accepted view of the universe's early moments, which sees space-time undergoing a brief burst of expansion immediately after the big bang. This heady period, known as inflation, flooded the universe with energy. But according to Einstein's general theory of relativity, more space-time also means more gravity. Gravity's attractive pull represents negative energy that can cancel out inflation's positive energy - essentially constructing a cosmos for nothing.

"I like to say that the universe is the ultimate free lunch," says Alan Guth, a cosmologist at MIT who came up with the inflation theory 30 years ago.

Source: New Scientist, July 23, 2011

It probably seems counter-intuitive to think of something coming from nothing, but it shouldn't. After all, what basis do you have to form any reliable intuition about what "nothing" is really like and whether it can produce "something" or not? None. We don't have direct, personal experience with a true quantum vacuum that would allow us to be certain what such a "nothing" should or should not be like.

True, we do have experiences with states that seem like "nothing" -- like an empty room, for example, or the emptiness of space. But those are not the true, absolute "nothing" of a quantum vacuum. So why shouldn't something be able to arise naturally out of nothing? What is there, exactly, that would prevent something arising out of nothing?

You'll find lots of theists who simply assume and take for granted that something can't come from nothing, but they'll never be able to explain how or why that's the case. They don't have a shred of evidence that it's true. So don't let them use it as an unchallenged premise in an argument.

Comments
February 9, 2012 at 2:30 pm
(1) Tige Gibson says:

This is totally the wrong approach. There is a very simple and sufficient answer to this question that does not involve spouting an eye-glazing scientific explanation:

“Why does this question not apply to God?”

It is a case of special pleading, like most Christian claims. This is the the proper response because it points directly at the fundamental problem, that True Believers are hypocrites who consider themselves and their claims exempt from criticism (privileged).

Presenting this response forces the Christian to deal with their cognitive dissonance on the matter. It is precisely this cognitive dissonance that causes Christians to suppress their own tendency to think about these sort of questions when it comes to matters of their own belief. Hypocrisy and special pleading are reactions to cognitive dissonance and inability to see the irony of their own claims or to recognize irony, sarcasm, and parody when it is used by others to mock them are symptoms of this condition.

Having the psychological disposition of the person you are addressing in mind makes it much more effective to get them to put up or shut up.

February 9, 2012 at 3:36 pm
(2) Karen says:

I would argue it’s fair to say something from nothing is counter-intuitive, because this scientific concept of nothing is fundamentally different from our day-to-day experience of what that word means. It’s sort of the same problem as the day-to-day experience of what we call theory — which often doesn’t even qualify as hypothesis — and scientific theory, a concept built on a body of solid evidence.

Speaking as a geologist, not a physicist, I find it difficult to get my head around the scientific concept of nothing. That doesn’t mean the physicists aren’t right, it means my understanding, or perhaps imagination, is lacking.

But at least I’ve been trained in scientific thinking: if I don’t understand, I know to ask questions and learn, not to dismiss. Asking people without that training to deal with nothing is asking a lot.

February 9, 2012 at 6:56 pm
(3) Lary Nine says:

As I have argued breathlessly with my son, both “nothing” and “infinity” are useful abstractions yet logically they are both demonstrably non-existent in any sense of either idea…as we are coming to understand the cosmos. I think that the mathematics must exist that confirm this counterintuitive amateur insight which I arrived at using only language, logic and philosophy 101.

February 9, 2012 at 6:59 pm
(4) Lary Nine says:

I left a comment and clicked “Say It!” It disappeared and I did not, as is my habit, copy & save it briefly in case it did so. Damn.

February 10, 2012 at 5:33 pm
(5) Richard says:

Theologians and other religiosos are fond of asking why there is something rather than nothing, and then jumping to “great mystery” and then concluding that you need a god to explain this. But if you have ever tried seriously to imagine nothing, it seems to me not so obvious that nothing is the default condition and that you need a god to alleviate the problem.

February 11, 2012 at 4:09 pm
(6) Ron says:

The atheist leaves his/her mind open to new discovery’s and information regarding the matter of something from nothing, while the theist does not.

February 14, 2012 at 11:28 am
(7) Rob W. says:

This is a good and interesting article with interesting comments. I’ve participated in and listened to and read a lot of debate / discussion regarding such issues, and I’ve heard (and said) a lot of b.s. I’ve also heard and read a lot which I found enlightening from both religious and secular thinkers. I suspect that there must be lots folks like me who feel caught in the middle. Just as in politics I am neither a right-winger nor a left-winger, so in religion I am neither an atheist nor a fundamentalist. I often tell people that I have an “agnostic faith.”

I recently walked into a local synagogue, and a fellow Jew announced, “The Atheist is here!” I said that I didn’t think the word “atheist” fit me, but that “skeptic” certainly does. It is interesting to note that he and one of our rabbis have both said that “G-d is the Ultimate Nothing.” That statement seems relevant to this article.

I’m at the point now where I think that trying to argue that G-d exists per se is probably misguided and futile. Yet I’m becoming a more religious Jew rather that less so. It’s ironic and maybe paradoxical. As another local rabbi said, “We Jews believe in G-d. We just don’t believe He exists.” Centuries ago Rambam taught that Jew should believe that G-d exists, but not literally. The question posed by Tige G. is key.

February 22, 2012 at 2:31 am
(8) VER says:

What I under stand about the statement that ” nothing comes from nothing ” refers to matter or physiical world. Even the Big Bang theory has to come from somewhere specially such enormous size. I cannot imagine a tiny spark without a cause much more big bang. And what is interesting is that as I review the statements made at the start ” perhaps” and “probably” were used to express uncertainty. And ” perhaps and ” probably” with our finite minds we may not truly get to the bottom of it. Its hard to imagine out of an enormous explosion came out order in our solar system alone. Reminds me of Nagasaki & Hiroshima. Just in case, please pardon my limited knowledge I just look on the obvious. Thanks and have a nice day.

May 7, 2012 at 5:30 pm
(9) Taro says:

Nothing is without the ability to do anything. But if there is a never-ending amount of things to “Not Do”, it can’t get around to not doing all of them meaning something would have to occur.

February 19, 2013 at 10:46 pm
(10) ken says:

the physicality of this world and what we have studied shows cause and effect. you cannot have en effect (the universe) without some cause.

February 24, 2013 at 3:47 pm
(11) Austin Cline says:

the physicality of this world and what we have studied shows cause and effect. you cannot have en effect (the universe) without some cause.

Prove it.

Provide evidence that a universe must have a cause. Hint: you can’t use anything happening inside a universe as “evidence” because none of that is predictive of how universes originate.

April 30, 2013 at 9:44 pm
(12) AverageJoe8888 says:

Present “Facts”: 1) The something from nothing is using the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle. 2) Physicists themselves say that the present laws of physics would not apply at the Big Bang since conditions were totally unknown.

Questions:
How could the Uncertainty Principle exist before the Big Bang? Where and what physical laws were there during this nothingness period? Where did the physical laws come from?

Comment and (Rhetorical) question: The analogy to “laws” is an interesting one. Human laws are created. To extend this analogy into the physical world, is there a creator for the physical laws? :)

Thanks for reading and thinking.

May 1, 2013 at 2:18 pm
(13) Austin Cline says:

The analogy to “laws” is an interesting one. Human laws are created. To extend this analogy into the physical world, is there a creator for the physical laws?

No, because the word “laws” was only ever applied to the natural world in a metaphorical sense and is not even used anymore except in those cases where the use has become so ingrained that it can’t eliminated.

That’s why we talk about the old “Law of Gravity,” but not “Law of Relativity” – it’s the Theory of Relativity.

May 1, 2013 at 9:34 pm
(14) Averagejoe8888 says:

OK. Let us call them “theories” instead of “laws”. Theories are formulated or invented, so where did the theories of the universe today come from? How were they established? Regardless of semantics, there are rules of behavior so how are the rules established? Why must it work out in the math? BTW, math is an invention, a tool, that is used to help understand this part of the universe. Which leads to the thought that it is quite conceivable that math could be quite different from another part of the universe, with quite different theories.

I still like to draw attention back to the important question: How could the Uncertainty principle (in fact any physical theories or laws) exist the way we know them at/during/before the Big Bang? Conditions then are completely different/unknown including physical theories(?).

Thanks for reading.

May 2, 2013 at 6:34 pm
(15) Austin Cline says:

OK. Let us call them “theories” instead of “laws”.

OK. That destroys the attempt to compare them to human laws and, as a result, the attempt to use them to argue that there must be a “lawgiver” in nature just as there is in human society.

Arguments from analogy like this are weak and you just tipped this one over completely.

Theories are formulated or invented, so where did the theories of the universe today come from?

Observation.

How were they established?

Testing.

Regardless of semantics, there are rules of behavior so how are the rules established?

They aren’t rules of behavior.

Why must it work out in the math?

It doesn’t have to. A theory can be wrong.

May 10, 2013 at 10:18 am
(16) chris says:

Austin, So it seems the scientific response to answering the question of the possibility of creating something from nothing, is simply to redefine the definition of nothing as being the component parts of something. Pretty tidy, but how were the component parts of something (aka nothing, meaning particles and antiparticles) created?

May 12, 2013 at 7:55 am
(17) Austin Cline says:

Austin, So it seems the scientific response to answering the question of the possibility of creating something from nothing, is simply to redefine the definition of nothing as being the component parts of something.

No. Try re-reading.

May 10, 2013 at 12:41 pm
(18) chris says:

Austin, who created the offsetting sets of particles present in ‘nothing’ (matter and antimatter or particles and antiparticles) that are the constituent parts that make up the ‘something’ that is created from this ‘nothing’ (that apparently is something after all)?

May 12, 2013 at 7:54 am
(19) Austin Cline says:

Austin, who created the offsetting sets of particles present in ‘nothing’

Why do you think they were “created”?

December 11, 2013 at 4:47 am
(20) Checkmate says:

For those who place their religious beliefs in “something coming from nothing, I offer you my congratulations. You have just re-written logical and critical thinking along with mathematics. In other words, zero + zero, or zero times zero equals the universe.

Dr Hawkins must explain where gravity came from, and who created it.

Again, it is totally impossible for something to come from nothing. Nothing is nothing, and is completely incapable of creating something.

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