Much ado about nothing?

By Emily Morter/Public domain via Unsplash

The Freedom from Religion Foundation has a monthly ad in Scientific American, and the one for March 2017 featured a statement by physicist Lawrence Krauss.  “Lack of understanding is not evidence for God. It is an evidence of lack of understanding, and a call to use reason to try and change that.”

It isn’t hard to guess one target. We might think of the Intelligent Design Movement and its appeal from putative lacks understanding of some biological phenomena to a God, aka “The Intelligent Designer.”  But Krauss speaks for “freedom from religion”, and his argument is not against just one or another religious or quasi-religious claim but religion in general. It’s a common narrative. Primitive people invented gods and religion to explain storms, the growth of crops and other things they didn’t understand, but now we have science.

That was probably a factor in the development of religion long ago, though not the whole story. But today many scientists are religious believers and understand the difference between scientific explanations and theological doctrines.

A scientist faced with an experiment’s puzzling result won’t be content to explain it by saying, “God did it.”  She may believe that in an ultimate sense God did do it, but the scientific question is, “How — through what natural processes — did God do it?” Many theologians would endorse Bonhoeffer’s statements in his prison letters: “We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.”

Science is our attempt to understand the physical world and Christian theology is, in a classic phrase, faith (in the God revealed in Jesus Christ) in search of understanding.  “In search of” is key. The faith is in one sense unchanging, but our understanding of it, in the context of our knowledge of the world, changes. (At least it should.) The significance of the phrase I’ve emphasized there will be seen to be critical later.

This is standard stuff with attempts to understand today’s world today. But what about questions of origins – the really big ones like the origin of life on earth or the origin of the entire universe? Can we speak in the same way about them?

We don’t yet have a satisfactory scientific explanation of how life began, but there is neither a theological nor a scientific reason to think that there is none. I dealt with that in last November’s Covalence and won’t pursue it further now.  The origin of the cosmos is a question of a different sort.

That the universe seems to have begun “in a hot, dense state … nearly fourteen billion years ago” is now common knowledge for fans of a popular TV show and nearly all scientifically literate people. But questions immediately arise. Where did that hot, dense stuff come from? Was there something before that “big bang” with which cosmic expansion started? And there’s the old philosophical question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Many theoretical models have been proposed to in some sense “go beyond” the big bang — cyclic cosmologies, inflation, the multiverse, imaginary time, etc. (My first published physics paper was in this area.)

Since I began with Krauss, I’ll focus here on the arguments in his suggestively titled book A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing (Free Press, 2012). The book has good aspects but our concern here is the claim that science can explain creation out of nothing, thus obviating any need to appeal to a divine creator. The book’s anti-religious emphasis is clear and has a seal of approval in Richard Dawkins’ afterword.

To understand Krauss’s argument we can start with Einstein’s E = mc2. Energy and mass m are basically the same thing. There is a single law of conservation of energy, and no separate law of conservation of mass as in pre-relativity physics. Thus an expanding universe containing massive particles can have zero total energy because the kinetic and rest mass energy can be just cancelled by the negative gravitational potential energy. (There are tricky aspects of the energy concept in general relativity but they can be bypassed here.)

But where do those massive particles come from? The “vacuums” — the lowest energy states — of quantum fields describing particles like electrons and quarks are not simply “nothing.” Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle says that in them “virtual” particles with energy (E) can exist for a short time (t) if the product of E and t is less than Planck’s quantum constant h divided by 2 pi.  ll other conservation laws have to be obeyed so that, e.g., negative and positive virtual electrons must be together. Sufficiently strong electric fields can impart enough energy to members of a virtual pair in their short life to pull them from the vacuum and make them real particles.

Under certain conditions gravitational fields could do something similar, as with the “Hawking radiation” theorized to come from black holes. We can imagine that in the intense conditions of the very early universe gravitational fields could have pulled particles from the quantum vacuum, giving rise to the material content of the expanding universe. So something — material particles — can come from nothing.

This sounds like the old bait and switch trick. Because of gravitation, space can have energy and the quantum vacuum. In spite of that name it isn’t nothing, and something — particles — can emerge from it, something can come from nothing.

But Krauss’ argument is a bit more subtle. As a good modern physicist, he knows that space devoid of material particles isn’t literally “nothing.” It contains energy and quantum fields. Krauss accuses philosophers and theologians of changing their definitions of “nothing” to dodge his arguments, and the crux of the matter is made clear at the bottom of p.149.

“However, I suspect that, at the times of Plato and Aquinas, when they pondered why there was something rather than nothing, empty space with nothing in it was probably a good approximation of what they were thinking of,” he writes.

If “with nothing in it” means “devoid of material particles,” the statement is probably true for Aquinas. So what? Must theologians today continue to understand the physical world as their predecessors did in the thirteenth century! Instead of charging modern theologians with changing their definitions, they ought to be congratulated for taking developments in science seriously.

The Nicene Creed from the fourth century begins by stating belief “in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible” (in the old translation). No attempt was made to specify what things were visible and invisible. Probably if Athanasius had assimilated a good introductory general physics course and then been told that apparently empty space could contain energy, he would have said, “Okay, that’s one of the things invisible the creed refers to.”

Krauss is wrong about Plato. In one of Plato’s dialogues, Timaeus, the creative activity of his demiurge consists of adding form to pre-existent unformed matter.

Early Christian apologists such as Justin Martyr adopted that idea from Plato. It wasn’t until around the end of the second century that belief in creation from absolute nothingness became standard for Christians. God was held to have created both matter and form or, as we could put it today, matter described by laws of physics which themselves are God’s creation.

Nothing I’ve said here is, or claims to be, a proof that God is the creator of the universe or a drop dead answer to the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

An atheist can answer that question as Bertrand Russell did: “The world as a whole just is, that’s all. We start there.”  That seems to me more satisfactory than playing games with the word “nothing.”

We’ve looked here at issues related to scientific cosmology, but the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo has wider implications.  For a detailed treatment Ian A. McFarland, From Nothing: A Theology of Creation (Westminster John Knox, 2014) is good.

George Murphy received his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins for work on general relativity in 1972.  He taught at Westminster College (PA), The University of Western Australia and Luther College and did research for eleven years before entering Wartburg seminary. Ordained in 1983, he has served as a pastor in Lutheran and Episcopal congregations. His first article on theology and science was published in 1977 and he has since published six books and numerous articles and continues to speak and lead workshops in this area. His most recent book, Models of Atonement: Speaking about Salvation in a Scientific World (Lutheran University Press, 2013), discusses ways of understanding the saving work of Christ in an evolving world.

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