The Science of Nothing

A review of Lawrence Krauss’ book A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing.

Why is it so important for believers to affirm that in creating all that is God does not work with or use anything at all—nothing, that is, other than his own omnipotence? When the doctrine of creation out-of-nothing was being formulated in the early Church, it seemed obvious to the Church Fathers that the opening of Genesis stood out in stark contrast to the prevailing philosophical and scientific view that the universe is eternal. A Platonic Demiurge, for example, or an Aristotelian Unmoved Mover, would work with already existing stuff to bring order and/or motion to the world. Such a god would not be the complete cause of all that is, would not be the sovereign Lord of the universe. To emphasize that God, revealed in the Bible, was such a complete cause of existence meant that creation had to be “out of nothing.” What this meant was that God did not use anything at all—no pre-existent matter, no primal chaos—in his creative act.

For the Church Fathers, creation out-of-nothing also countered any temptation to think that matter was evil and not created by God. All that is comes from God, and all that is, is good. There are not, as the Manicheans thought, two first principles, one supremely good, the other supremely evil. Systematic reflection in the Christian tradition (and in Jewish and Muslim traditions as well) on what it means for God to create involved difficult questions about the intelligibility of something’s coming from nothing, given the fundamental premise that it is not possible to get something from nothing. It also involved discussions about the relationship between a created universe, generally identified as one that is temporally finite (i.e., with a beginning), and the well-established scientific view that the universe is eternal. It would not be until the 13th century that the doctrine of creation would find its fullest expression (and its most able defender) in Thomas Aquinas.[1] 

For Thomas, God’s act of creating the universe is not primarily some distant event. Creation is the on-going, complete causing of all that is. To be created means to have a relationship of complete dependency, of everything that one is, upon God as cause. Were God not causing something to be, it would not be at all; it would be nothing. Creation is not a change from “nothing” to “something.” God does not take “nothing,” as it were, and change “it” into something. Although Thomas accepted as a matter of faith, solemnly defined by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), that the world had a beginning, he defended the intelligibility of a universe, created and eternal. Whether the universe is eternal or not concerns the kind of universe God creates. An eternal universe would be just as much dependent upon God’s creative act as one with a temporal beginning. So Thomas thought, for example, that the universe described by Aristotle is still a created universe. 

Thomas had no problem affirming the ancient truth that from nothing, nothing comes. He recognized that this was a first principle of all the natural sciences. All change proceeds from some existing thing or condition. God’s creative act, however, is not a change. God’s causality is so different from that of any of his creatures that he is able to call forth into being the complete reality of all things. Such a calling forth is not a change in something. If creation were a change, it could not be the complete causing of all that is. Creation, thus, is a concept in metaphysics and theology; it is not a subject for the natural sciences. When human beings create things (e.g., works of art, literature, music), we use already existing things; we are not the complete causes of what we create. It is important to recognize that when the verb “to create” is predicated of the activity of creatures it means something quite different from what it means when it is said of God.

All of the above is a reminder of the rich philosophical and theological heritage associated with centuries of reflection on the doctrine of creation out-of-nothing. In every age, developments in the natural sciences serve as a source of reflection about the world and its origins. We ought not to be surprised that recent speculations in cosmology have been the occasion for some to call into question, if not to deny, the view that there is a Creator. The temptation has been to think that if cosmology can explain the origin of the universe then science itself has eliminated the need for God. This temptation is part of an even broader commitment to a “totalizing naturalism” according to which the natural sciences themselves are fully competent to explain all that needs to be explained about the universe and its inhabitants.

Writing more than 15 years ago, Peter Atkins, a physical chemist at Oxford, in an essay titled “The Limitless Power of Science,” claimed that science must be able to account for the “emergence of everything from absolutely nothing. Not almost nothing, not a subatomic dust-like speck, but absolutely nothing. Nothing at all. Not even empty space.” We see the same confidence in Atkins’ new book, On Being (2011), in which he addresses what he calls “the big questions of existence.” Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design (2010) remark that just as the universe has no boundary, no edge, so it has no beginning. Time itself emerges in an already existing universe. Without a beginning, there is nothing for a creator to do. 

It is in the tradition of Atkins, Hawking, and others that a new book by Lawrence Krauss has appeared: A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012). The book has been widely cited in the popular press and Krauss, director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, is somewhat of a media personality. In fact, the book grew out of a lecture he gave in 2009 to the Atheist Alliance International, which has been viewed on YouTube more than one million times. There are many books describing the variety of current cosmological theories and, in a way, Krauss does not add to our knowledge in this area. What causes us pause is the provocative way in which he moves from these theories to draw all sorts of philosophical and theological conclusions. In a culture heavily dominated by the authority of science, we need to be especially wary of scientists who use (or rather misuse) that authority to make claims which are well beyond their own disciplines. The very title of his book suggests a scientific alternate to any philosophical or theological account of creation.

Offering a striking landscape of ever-deeper senses of “nothing,” beyond that even of vacuums and empty space, Krauss concludes: “We have discovered that all signs suggest a universe that could and plausibly did arise from a deeper nothing—involving the absence of space itself—and which one day may return to nothing via processes that may not only be comprehensible but also processes that do not require any external control or direction.” He is aware of philosophical and theological objections to any attempt to relate his sense or senses of nothing with the “nothing” central to the traditional doctrine of creation out-of-nothing. Nevertheless, he writes:

Some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine “nothing” as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe. But therein, in my opinion, lies the intellectual bankruptcy of much of theology and some of modern philosophy. For surely “nothing” is every bit as physical as “something,” especially if it is to be defined as the “absence of something.” It then behooves us to understand precisely the physical nature of both these quantities. And without science, any definition is just words.

When it comes to understanding how our universe evolves, “religion and theology have been at best irrelevant. They often muddy the waters, for example, by focusing on questions of nothingness without providing any definition of the term based on empirical evidence.” As Krauss said in an interview on National Public Radio in January: “the question of why there is something rather than nothing is really a scientific question, not a religious or philosophical question, because both nothing and something are scientific concepts, and our discoveries over the past 30 years have completely changed what we mean by nothing.” Krauss goes well beyond what most physicists would claim when he says: “the distinction between something and nothing has begun to disappear, where transitions between the two in different contexts are not only common, but required.” Indeed, he has a whole chapter in his book on why nothing is unstable. In a way, of course, he is right. The “nothing” he attributes to various cosmological theories is really something.

Krauss recounts ever more evanescent examples of the “nothing” out of which some have thought physical reality has emerged. He notes that increasingly “empty space” (which pre-modern thinkers might have thought of as nothing) has come to be seen as a source of energy. Empty space, “this simplest version of nothing,” is now recognized as the source of something “precisely because the energetics of empty space, in the presence of gravity, are not what common sense would have guided us to suspect before we discovered the underlying laws of nature. … Empty space endowed with energy can effectively create everything we see.” He recognizes here that it would be “disingenuous” any longer to call empty space nothing: empty space is a “boiling brew of virtual particles that pop in and out of existence.” Nevertheless, this scenario, such a popping into existence, is still a kind of change; we do get something from something else. Remember that creation is really not a change at all.

Krauss thinks that “empty space” is only “the tip of a cosmic iceberg of nothingness.”  Were we able to have an adequate quantum theory of gravity, “then the rules of quantum mechanics would apply to the properties of space and time, not just to the properties of objects in space and time.”  He thinks that the “absence of space and time” is a “nothing” which is at the very frontier of quantum cosmology.  For him this is a radically new sense of “nothing,” a sense which, at least in principle, is within the possibility of scientific discourse. Of course, all this Krauss admits is highly speculative. However, even within these speculations, Krauss’ views remain consistent with the ancient principle that from nothing, nothing comes. For the “nothing” in the title of his book turns out to be really something, even though it is very different from anything of which we presently have experience. 

There are fundamental confusions in Krauss’ analysis. In defense of his understanding that something comes from nothing, he tells us that the principle “out of nothing, nothing comes,” is a “metaphysical rule” which he denies. The principle, however, is not a principle of metaphysics, it is a principle of all the natural sciences. Recognizing its truth requires a good understanding that all change comes from a prior something—and this is really what Krauss himself admits, even though he calls this prior something, “nothing.” As we have seen, when thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas defend the doctrine of creation out-of-nothing, they do not contradict the first principle of the natural sciences; they recognize that creation is not a change at all.

Krauss offers a series of answers to the comment in the subtitle of the book: why there is something rather than nothing. But the radical sense of nothing he suggests is hardly radical enough for philosophers and theologians. Krauss’ “nothing” out of which space and time emerge is really in the category of something, although it may be nothing like anything we observe. According to the doctrine of creation, something does not “emerge” from a cosmic nothingness. When Krauss says, as I have already quoted, that the nothing discussed by theologians and philosophers is not “any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe,” he is absolutely correct. Since he thinks that only accounts of reality found in the natural sciences are really worthy of rational attention, he simply dismisses those accounts of “nothing” which are not scientific; as he says, everything else is “just words.” The desire to separate the natural sciences from the alleged contamination of the “word games” of philosophy and theology is not new; now, as always, it reveals an impoverished philosophical judgment.[2]

By Lawrence M. Krauss
Free Press, 2012
224 pages

[1] For a discussion of Thomas Aquinas’ views on creation, see Steven E. Baldner and William E. Carroll, Aquinas on Creation (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1997).

[2] For an earlier discussion of Krauss’ work, see my “Landscapes of Nothingness,” Public Discourse, February 29, 2012.

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About Prof. William E. Carroll 2 Articles
Prof. William E. Carroll is Research Fellow in Philosophy, Theology, and Science in the Aquinas Institute, Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford.