Something and nothing

September 17, 2010

Stephen Hawking, who has been summering at the Perimeter Institute not far from where I live, has recently co-authored a new book of popular science called The Grand Design. I have not read it, but I have been intrigued by some of the responses to it that I have seen. The commentary has generally circled around a claim that Hawking makes, to the effect that modern cosmological theories have done away with the need for a Creator. He writes:

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.”

(Out of context, this may sound like an odd thing to say. Briefly, the ‘gravity’ to which Hawking is here referring is a theory of quantum gravity in which quantum fluctuations of space-time could produce a universe like ours.)

By now we are quite accustomed to hearing churchmen and scientists make statements that reveal their misunderstanding of one another’s domains, and Hawking’s claim has nothing, apart from the fame of Hawking himself, to distinguish it in that regard. It so happens, however, that several interesting rejoinders to Hawking have appeared, and they have seemed to me worthy of notice.

A good explanation of why Hawking is not making sense comes from William Carroll, writing at The Public Discourse, who clarifies what is meant, in Christian theology, by ‘creation':

Creation is not primarily some distant event. Rather, it is the ongoing, complete causing of the existence of all that is. At this very moment, were God not causing all that is to exist, there would be nothing at all. Creation concerns the origin of the universe, not its temporal beginning.

To be fair, among the most famous lines in all of Scripture is the very first: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, and to speak of a beginning, especially in a passage structured by the passing of days, is naturally to speak of a temporal beginning. Christians have always done so, and denial of the eternity of the world is a mainstay of Christian belief. But to speak of creation in the beginning is not to preclude the ongoing creation of which Carroll speaks. Creation refers to an act by which things are given being, and the theological point of the doctrine of creation is to affirm that the universe does not have its being from itself — not in the beginning, and not now.

This kind of claim takes place on a plane that is distinct from the plane of explanation accessible to the natural sciences. In consequence, to say that God is Creator does not mean that there does not exist a correct scientific description of the origin and evolution of the space-time manifold that we call home. The two levels of explanation are complementary:

To say that God is the complete cause of all that is does not negate the role of other causes which are part of the created natural order. Creatures, both animate and inanimate, are real causes of the wide array of changes that occur in the world, but God alone is the universal cause of being as such. God’s causality is so different from the causality of creatures that there is no competition between the two, that is, we do not need to limit, as it were, God’s causality to make room for the causality of creatures. God causes creatures to be causes.

Therefore to say, as Hawking does, that a scientific theory of cosmological origins contradicts the religious concept of a Creator is simply a non sequitur.  By the same token, Christians must be careful about drawing theological conclusions from empirical cosmological data.  Even if God is the ultimate origin of all material reality, it does not follow that the Big Bang is that ultimate origin.

The most puzzling thing about Hawking’s position, however, is what on earth he means by ‘nothing’ in his statement above. His ‘nothing’ seems suspiciously like ‘something’. Stephen Barr, a particle physicist and commentator on issues in religion and science, unpacks Hawking’s ‘nothing':

The “no-universe state” as meant in these speculative scenarios is not nothing, it is a very definite something: it is one particular quantum state among many of an intricate rule-governed system. This no-universe state has specific properties and potentialities defined by a system of mathematical laws.

In other words, the ‘creation from nothing’ that Hawking is attempting to describe is, from his point of view, a physical event like any other, governed by a pre-existing physical order. It does not really get at the questions of origins at all. The really interesting question, even if Hawking’s theory were right, would be where that pre-existing order came from.

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5 Responses to “Something and nothing”

  1. Ron Krumpos Says:

    In “The Grand Design” Stephen Hawking postulates that the M-theory may be the Holy Grail of physics…the Grand Unified Theory which Einstein had tried to formulate and later abandoned. It expands on quantum mechanics and string theories.

    In my e-book on comparative mysticism is a quote by Albert Einstein: “…most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of all religion.”

    E=mc², Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, is probably the best known scientific equation. I revised it to help better understand the relationship between divine Essence (Spirit), matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). Unlike the speed of light, which is a constant, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. In this hypothetical formula, basic consciousness may be of insects, to the second power of animals and to the third power the rational mind of humans. The fourth power is suprarational consciousness of mystics, when they intuit the divine essence in perceived matter. This was a convenient analogy, but there cannot be a divine formula.

  2. Vince Says:

    I remember studying Aquinas, being, essence, and the idea that God is necessary to continually impart being to everything in the universe, including the universe itself. But how do we know our minds and words aren’t playing tricks on us? That is, supposing the universe had always existed, why do we need a cause for its perpetual existence? When we say that the universe “has being” how do we know that this is real and not a product of our language? Why can’t the universe, along with its constituents, just be? Why must a supernatural being continually impart being? I guess I don’t quite understand what it means for something to “have being” or “have existence” so that something external to it must “provide the existence”. It’s like existence is being used as a property of something. Take that property away, and it ceases to exist. How do we know this isn’t some kind of trick of language. If the universe was eternal, why must it “have existence” as though it were a property of it that must be explained by positing the existence of a supernatural being to continually impart “existence”.

    I don’t know if I’m making any sense. :)

  3. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Vince. Those are good, hard questions. Let’s see if I can make any sense. No guarantees.

    The usual reason for saying that material things cannot have their being from themselves is that material things come into and pass out of existence all the time. Since nothing can be the cause of its own existence (else it would already have to exist), anything contingent relies on something else to bring it into being. To argue that the universe — understood in the largest sense of the word — just is is to argue that it is not contingent, but necessary. What in our universe could qualify as this ‘necessary being’? We can immediately dismiss chairs and planets; we know that they are mutable. Elementary particles, too, come into and out of existence. The most basic physical reality, according to our current understanding, consists of space-time and quantum fields. All indications are that the space-time in which we live sprang into existence, or at least radically altered its character, at some finite point in the past. To say that it is necessary is, to me, unconvincing. Quantum fields cannot exist apart from space-time, so they inherit whatever contingency space-time carries. Suppose one puts faith in a theory like the one Hawking presents, in which our universe — understood in the narrower sense now — was produced as a quantum fluctuation within a pre-existing entity. That entity, too, had a nature and a history (about which, incidentally, we know nothing), and was either itself necessary or relied upon some other entity.

    Keep going like this. Eventually you will arrive at some supremely basic entity that just is, and that is the ground of the being of all other things. This entity grounds being not just in the past, at our origins, but right now, always. Everything that happens happens only in virtue of the fact that deep down the ontological ladder there is this thing.

    Now, what prevents us from saying that this ontological foundation is God? Not God comprehensively, but that aspect of God which an argument like this is able to discover. It seems to me that when we say that God is Himself necessary, and that he gives being to all things always, we are saying that when you probe far enough down into the nature of being you find Him.

    That, at least, is the best answer that I can come up with at the moment. I don’t deny that this account of things has some perplexities about it. For instance, God is immaterial, but physical reality is material. But what is materiality anyway? The more one learns about elementary particles the more mysterious and elusive materiality becomes. Are the equations that describe M-theory material? Is it possible that as one digs deeper into the nature of things one crosses the line between materiality and immateriality? I don’t know, but it seems possible to me.

    I am afraid that is the best I can do with the limited time that I have this evening.

  4. Adam Hincks Says:

    A very superficial but perhaps insightful response to Vince’s question is to point out that if “existence” is a “trick of language”, it is a very deeply ingrained one, and it would behoove us to explain why. Thus, for example, what exactly did you mean by, “Take that property away, and it ceases to exist.”?

  5. Vince Says:

    I guess I was confused as to why things that already exist can’t just keep on existing without some external cause. Why must we argue that it exists, therefore it HAS existence. That is the trick of language I was referring to: If it exists (verb), we can say that is has existence (noun). Let’s form a new word, a noun, associated with the verb that means ‘to exist’. Since it’s a noun, it can be possessed. But the thing cannot possess its “existence” by itself. Therefore, an external agent must be responsible, etc.

    That’s what I meant.

    I was also thinking about a kind of response from the physics side. If something’s energy-momentum tensor was independent of time, then it must keep on existing just by mathematical consistency. For if it suddenly didn’t exist, that would violate time independence.

    OK, I’m done. :) Craig, and Adam, thank you for your response.


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