Wednesday, March 21, 2012

More Nothing

I'm still trying to figure out what the problem is that theists have with scientists who talk about a universe originating "from nothing." They say, "It's not from nothing if it's from a quantum vacuum. A quantum vacuum isn't nothing." But creation by God isn't creation "from nothing," either. It's creation from God. So if scientists instead have creation from a quantum vacuum, why is that worse?

In a blog post, (atheist) Richard Carrier puts a different spin on the "from nothing" argument. He says that if we start with truly nothing, then anything can happen. For "of nothing, nothing comes" is a law - and in a condition of true nothingness, there are no laws to prevent anything from happening.

I think this is a mistake. In order for anything to "happen", there must be a time dimension. And time (we know from modern physics) is a physical thing: a property of our universe, not some universal that exists independently of space.

Theists have had more practice thinking about timelessness: after all, God has been considered a timeless being for, well, a long time. William Carroll points out that, theologically speaking, creation is not a change:

As Thomas Aquinas notes: creatio non est mutatio (creation is not a change). It is true, Thomas would say, that all change requires a pre-existent something which changes: from nothing, nothing comes, that is, if “to come” means to change....

The Creator is the complete and continuing cause of whatever exists, and to create, so understood, does not call into question the truth of the principle that all change begins with something which undergoes the change. Nor does the first principle of change call into question the intelligibility of creation out-of-nothing. Creation is a relationship of absolute dependence; it is not a change. Whether the universe as a whole has a beginning or not concerns the kind of universe that is created, not the more fundamental issue of whether it is created. An eternal universe would be just as much a created universe—and created out-of-nothing—as one which had a temporal beginning.
But he fails to see that his point about a timeless God also applies to a timeless quantum state:

Many think that to explain the Big Bang as the fluctuation of a primal vacuum eliminates the need to have a Creator. But the Big Bang “explained” in this way is still a change and, as we have seen, creation, properly understood, is not a change at all.
Wrong: in the vacuum-fluctuation picture, the origin of the universe from a timeless quantum state is not a change. One could say, rather, that the quantum vacuum is the timeless source of our universe of time and space. Just as it would be wrong to consider creation by God as an event that takes place in time, so it is wrong to think about the vacuum-fluctuation origin this way. It is not a change in the quantum vacuum. (It's not clear to me if it's even correct to say the quantum vacuum causes the universe to exist. Does causation require time?) It's a relation of absolute dependence - but not of temporal change.

I think Carrier's point can be better made by saying that "of nothing, nothing comes," if it is true at all, is true as a physical law, and so it is something that applies only to our physical universe. If we begin with the assumption of true, philosophical nothing, then nothing can be said about what can or can't be the case. (Apart from logical contradictions, as Carrier notes.)

Ultimately, Carrier's conclusion is almost correct:

So if something always existed for no reason, and our options are that this something was either God or a simple quantum vacuum, the evidence confirms it was the latter.

Except that, instead of "always existed," we should say "timelessly existed."


  1. Theists have pushed the definition of nothing from empty space to the absence of space to the absence of space and time to the absence of space/time and physical laws to "anything with potential to create something." Science has explanations (largely unproven, but possible) for something arising from all but the last definition of nothing--which also should rule out creation by God, since God can be viewed as a creative potential.

    Nice post. Theists may know nothing, but I'm glad we know something.

  2. Yes, I'm always confused when they say "But the laws of physics aren't nothing!" What does that mean? Are the laws of physics floating around out there somewhere in the world of ideals, ready to invoke a universe into existence?

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. Hmm. You have me worried. It's generally not a good sign when one thinks everyone, from Augustine to "someone on the internet", is wrong... I'll try to argue for that position, and we'll see how this old brain of mine is doing...

    First, the easy (heh!) part - physics. You are correct to criticize Carrier on the fact that time needs to exist for change to occur. However, you are too quick to assert that the quantum vaccum is a timeless entity. That really depends on the model at hand. In eternal cosmic inflation, which I suspect will turn out roughly correct no matter the underlying theory, I believe there is a time stretching beyond the quantum vaccum or "initial" sate. In other models, perhaps time cannot be so simply ascribed, and there you description would fit; Krauss' model appears of this sort.

    However, even that quantum vaccum is still a part of reality and hence there is still "change" in a broader sense; as time is just a direction in a timeless Block Universe [well, roughly], so too is the quantum vaccum just a point connected to some manifold in some way. There is "change" in this broader sense.

    Now - philosophy. Everyone really needs to go back and read their Parmenides. What exists exists, and what doesn't doesn't. Philosophical "nothing" is what doesn't exist. Ex nihilo nihil fit is correct not because it is a physical law but rather because what doesn't exist cannot, specifically, cause anything, create anything, or have any other effect whatsoever - it doesn't exist!

    Contra Carrier, this does NOT mean that when we start with Nothing, then "everything goes". Again, read Parmenides. And think of the modern Block Universe (which is the same thing), in which time exists just as much as space does. If we "start" with nothing, then we have nothing - no time, nothing. It doesn't mean that in the next instant we could have anything; it means that there is no next instant, there is no instant at all, there is nothing.

    Theists also get it wrong, as Grundy says, when they maintain God created the universe out of nothing; for He is not nothing. But the "sophisticated" theology of Aquinas et al that attempts to push God into "the ground of being" rather than "a being" does no better. Read up your Parmenides, dudes. What exists exists. It cannot have a "continuing and complete cause", because causation is merely a pattern in what exists. Causation isn't not magic. It doesn't "support" stuff; it can't - what exists, exists, so what meaning is there to "support"?

    So, where does that leave us? Ah, yes - in reverse chronological order:

    You are mistaken in that the quantum vaccum need not be atemporal, and even if it is it would in a sense be part of a change; and furthermore ex nihilo nihil fit is a sound metaphysical principle, not a law of physics - but it needs to be understood correctly.

    Carrier is mistaken in that if we contemplate a state of philosophical nothing then there is no room for change, because as you say time does not exist; but also because nothing doesn't "allow everything" in the next moment because nothing doesn't allow or do anything - nothing doesn't exist, only things cause things, allow things, or whatever.

    Wiliam Caroll, Thomas Aquinas, and before them Augustine of Hippo, are mistaken in that if god exists it must be a thing, not a "ground of existence"; and because what exists cannot be grounded at all, it simply exists, for if it were otherwise then it would not exist (but that is nothing... did I mention everyone needs to read their Parmenides yet?); causation is a pattern within what exists, not a magical power on top of existence.

    Parmenides is not mistaken at all. Not at all.

    Well, at least I agree with one prominent thinker. Perhaps I haven't lost quite all my marbles yet. Or maybe I have - you be the judge.


    1. That's the first time I've ever seen the sentence "Read up your Parmenides, dudes." :-)

      I haven't read up on my Parmenides, but I'm more inclined to think modern scientists know more about the universe than anyone back in...500 BC? Is that, right? Wow.

    2. Modern scientists know much more about the universe than Paermenides did. But that doesn't change the fact that he knows something that's right, just like the fact that modern mathematicians know much more about mathematics changes the fact that Euclid's proofs are still true.

      Don't learn science from Parmenides. But do learn his basic argument, that is actually correct and thus still holds water after all these years.


  4. Thanks for the good remarks, Yair. I agree with you that all those other guys are wrong, but you're wrong about me being wrong. ;)

    Let me try to elaborate on the picture I'm working with. (By the way, I don't think of this as in any way confirmed scientifically; it's just one possible model based on the underlying QM.) The quantum vacuum is a timeless state. It is connected (causally?) to other states that have space and time. (Space and time are excitations of the vacuum state.) From the internal point of view in one of the spacetime regions, there is time and change. But from the external point of view (block universe view) that takes in all of the different branches with their different times, there isn't any change.

    (Eternal inflation is another model. Since it involves space and time at all points, it is not a quantum gravity vacuum.)

    I'm not sure whether ex nihilo is a sound metaphysical principle or not. Like Krauss, I'm somewhat suspicious about definitions of nothing that are completely removed from operational test. Is it really a metaphysical principle, or is it just an intuition gained from our spacetime-embedded existence?

  5. But from the "eternal" point of view, you might just as well maintain that I am atemporal and unchanging... that's not a valid criteria. The vaccum state is connected, and hence changes, in the only sense that makes sense.

    As for metaphysics - it is useful, like all philosophy, to clarify concepts and thought. When done right, it does. The ExNihilo principle is such a patheticly basic one that physicists really don't need it, but if you think about it they do use it. When they formalize the description of a system, they don't have a part that says "And then ball A gets thrown to the left because Nothing pushed it". They limit causation to what exists. They limit the description of the system to what exists. And that is precisely where the ExNihilo principle is correct - what doesn't exist, doesn't affect us in any way.

    This is not a principle derived from our spatio-temporal intuitions. This is a principle derived from our logical intuitions. It cannot be otherwise for the same reason no description of reality that we'll ever put forward will include square [Euclidean] triangles.


  6. Sorry, I'm still not convinced. (And thanks for continuing to engage me on this - this is how I learn to think more clearly!)

    The very wording of the principle, "Nothing comes from nothing," implicitly assumes a time dimension. For anything to "come from" anything, there must be time in which the "coming" can happen. Likewise, when you write "what doesn't exist, doesn't affect us in any way", you are assuming a time dimension. For without time, there is no possibility of an "affect." (And when you use the laws of physics as an example, you explicitly appeal to our spacetime-derived intuitions. This doesn't sit well with your claim that Ex nihilo isn't derived from those intuitions!)

    In the quantum gravity vacuum state, there is no time, so no possibility of any change, any "coming from", any "affect."

    So if this is a logical, not a physical principle, how do you justify it? (Is this where I need to read Parmenides?)

  7. The wording *applies* the logical intuitions to the causal, and temporal, concepts. I can form a counterpart for mathematics - "No theorem of the axiom-system is proved from Nothing", i.e all theorems are proved from the axioms of the system, from their conditions, from other theorems, or so on - rather than from no proposition at all.

    As soon as you assume some sort of causal relation, so that "comes" has some sense, you must obey the "From Nothing, nothing comes" principle because this relation must be between two things in order to BE a relation. You can just as well apply this truth to any other relation: "In comparison with Nothing, nothing is heavier", "No event is later than Nothing", "Nothing is correlated with Nothing", and so on and so forth. It all just means that you can't treat "Nothing" like it was a thing; you can't hang relations on what doesn't exist.

    In the quantum gravity vacuum case there is no time, and thus no "coming", but - again - if the state is connected to a manifold of other states then it does "change" in this sense and thus the principle applies; and if it isn't connected, then it has nothing to do with our universe anyway.

    The principle is justified by stating the fundamental principle of Parmenides, "What exists exists, what doesn't doesn't", that asserts that one can apply Logic to describe Reality. As soon as one concedes that, one is forced to agree that Nothing is not part of reality, and hence cannot participate in any relation that purports to describe or hold for reality. If one refuses to concede that, then one either refuses to say anything about reality at all, or else contradicts himself.