In PART 1 of this short series I discussed what I believe is the outline required to tackle this seemingly profound question that is believed to have such grave consequence to our beliefs. We established that we could really only deal with this question in the real (non-supernatural) realm. To proceed however we need to be on the same page when we talk about Nothing. Without this, it’s probably impossible to reach an agreement on any discussion points that may follow. So…..
What Is Our Definition of Nothing?
This may seem like a trivial, perhaps even stupid question, but I assure you it is of paramount importance to the discussion. When we say the universe cannot originate from nothing, in a conversation that is tackling the real world – we necessarily have to define what a state of nothingness is. The reason is simply because “Nothing” has had a rich history of evolving. Open air may have been considered nothing (prior to the first gust of wind?). More recently an absolute vacuum may have been Nothing but of course radiation, light and so on can readily be found there. Fast forward to modern physics and today we discover that even empty space has energy thereby (I suspect) making that also an inappropriate definition of nothing! Because I suspect that most readers are operating on [what I would call] a philosophical definition of nothing, something akin to “Pure Nothingness”, I will attempt to use an extreme definition of nothing that will be acceptable to traditional (particularly theistic) perspectives.
Nothing: “The complete absence of anything we have ever observed or will ever observe.”
Again if you feel this definition is not comprehensive enough, comments are your friend.
For a scientific treatment of Nothing, that is, to understand what some working physicists currently understand about what Nothing may or may not be I recommend Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe From Nothing as a potential starting point.
Ok so now that we know what Nothing is, let’s reexamine our premise that the universe cannot come from it. The immediate question that any sensible person might ask here is: “How do you know?”
If pure philosophical nothingness is our definition of Nothing, where in our universe can we find this? If there is nowhere in our universe where Nothing occurs, quite aside from asking why we think it “exists” , the question becomes, how can we make any claims about what can or cannot come out of it?! At best we can only say we believe that this is true but cannot make ANY assertions about it, at all. But!….. I’m sipping a mezzo skinny vanilla chai latte right now at Starbucks (the classic Chai not the Oprah Chai) which generally makes me feel generous. So while you ponder that point I will go ahead and say ok, let’s assume that we have somehow proven that in fact we cannot get a Universe out of this Nothing. This doesn’t quite resolve the issue, rather it leads to the next point: How do we know that our Nothing is what “existed before” our Universe came to be?
How do we know that our “Nothing” is what existed “before” our universe?
For the time being and for simplicity’s sake I am ignoring the rather bizarre paradox implied by the notion of the existence of Nothing; as well as the fact that time is a property of this universe and “before the Universe” may not even make sense.
The often unquestioned implication of not being able to construct a universe from Nothing is that Nothing is what existed before the coming into being of the universe (philosophical “before” not physics “before”). I am going to assume that even theist readers of this article do not reject well established scientific theories such as the Big Bang Model which is currently accepted by most (if not all) respected theist thinkers and philosophers. The big bang theory describes the history of the universe up to a very early point in its existence – something of the order of 10-43 s! As far as I am aware we do not have a clear picture of what the causal factors of the universe may have been. My point here is that even if the notion of before our universe makes sense – we have absolutely no idea of what was there before. We have no reason to believe that it was any form of nothing much less our completely imaginary philosophical Nothing!
Thus, even if through my latte induced generosity I concede that Universes cannot come out of Nothings, there is absolutely no evidence that such a Nothing existed “before” our universe! In fact our whole approach to this question is based on intra-Universe precedence. What I mean is that (before the big bang model confirmed it) we thought the universe had a beginning because things in our universe have beginnings. We assume the universe cannot come from Nothing because things in our universe do not come from Nothing(s). Following this logic why is it not equally improbable that since there is not a Nothing (as we have defined it) within our universe there should not be a Nothing “outside” our universe? Thus transforming any statements such as “Our Universe cannot come from Nothing therefore <Fill in some consequence of your choice>” into the rather dull and obvious “The universe did not come from nothing, because Nothing doesn’t exist.” More accurately, Nothing has not been demonstrated to exist anywhere; merely saying we can conceive of Nothing is in no way enough to posit its existence. We can conceive of a great many things that we readily would agree do not exist!
In the next and final post in this series I will introduce the Existence Paradox and explain why I believe this whole question is quite likely inconsequential to us finding real answers about our origins.