On a typical Sunday morning, I am contemplative, thinking about God, the nature of the world and other ultimate things. I have gotten home from church. The distant rumbling of thunder portends more rain to add to the buckets (more like vats) that came down earlier this morning. (We’ve had an unusual amount of precipitation in the Chicago area for about a year now.)
Though sunlight threatens to break through the clouds, despite the rumblings to the contrary, it’s a good day for reading and thinking.
In that vein, I read an article from Forbes magazine that came up in my Google feed: Ask Ethan: Can We Really Get a Universe From Nothing? Ethan, is Ethan Siegel, a Forbes contributor. He is an astrophysicist, author and “science communicator” according to the short bio at the end of the article.
It just so happens that I spent my Friday evening this week with another astrophysicist, Hugh Ross, a brilliant man who is a Christian, and also a man of science. In fact, it was science that led him to his belief in God. But I digress. (You can hear the story of how science led Hugh Ross to God in his own words here.)
My meeting with Hugh Ross isn’t really relevant to the topic, other than the fact that our conversation got me thinking about science and ultimate things, things that science doesn’t really address (or hasn’t yet answered). Does God exist? Where did the universe come from?
The article suggests an answer to one of those ultimate questions: where did the universe come from? It suggests that the universe didn’t really come from nothing – at least not the kind of nothing that we usually imagine when we think of nothing. It entices the reader with a title that suggests an ultimate answer, but it doesn’t deliver.
When I think of nothing, I think of no (physical) thing, nothing at all, but some modern scientists, like Lawrence Kraus (and many others) mean something different when they talk of nothing – at least when it comes to descriptions of the physical universe and its origin. They don’t really think the universe came from nothing (no physical thing). They believe there was something (some physical thing) that precipitated the universe as we know it.
This isn’t new of course. Science long ago operated on the assumption of a past, eternal universe. That basic assumption was shaken quite dramatically by the Theory of Relativity that ultimately suggested that the universe came from a point of singularity that has gotten popularly characterized as the “Big Bang”.
Einstein didn’t like the implications of what he saw. He even worked an arbitrary fudge factor into his calculations to avoid that conclusion, something he later confessed was the biggest mistake he ever made. For scientists who live on the guiding principal of following the evidence where it leads, this was a stunning admission (the initial inclination to avoid the inevitable conclusion).
But scientists are people too, even great ones like Albert Einstein. Scientists have assumptions and worldviews like other people do, and those assumptions can be rooted very deep.
As the evidence mounted that the implications were unavoidable, Einstein and the other scientists working on these things inevitably conceded the point. Stephen Hawking proved it mathematically, identifying the beginning as the singularity.
But basic assumptions die very hard indeed. For many scientists, like Hawking, who have invested much and relied heavily on those basic assumptions, letting go isn’t easy – even when it’s hard. Even when conceiving of alternatives to the apparently inevitable conclusions seems unavoidable, the inertia of those basic assumptions, like gravitational pull, is persistent.
Stephen Hawking and other scientists toyed dangerously with something akin to conceding the divine, admitting that the universe looks very much like it had a beginning. Hawking would spend the rest of his life trying to prove an alternate to that reality. Multiverses and other competing realities were the products of those efforts.
In reading the article in Forbes magazine this morning, I am reminded of these things. It was a well written article. It was fascinating, and I learned some things. It’s also a reminder of the extreme reluctance to let go of the grip on the physical world that is characterized by a materialist worldview to which many scientist have committed.
Speaking apparently to an audience not as deeply rooted in materialism, the author offered us this look at a scientific description of nothing:
“You very likely think about nothingness as a philosopher would: the complete absence of everything. Zero matter, zero energy, an absolutely zero value for all the quantum fields in the Universe, etc. You think of space that’s completely flat, with nothing around to cause its curvature anywhere.”
As a complete layman, I have to admit that I probably don’t think about these things as a philosopher, so I can’t speak for them. When I think of the nothingness before the Big Bang (which scientists apparently concede since they spend a lot of time talking about it), I think of no physical thing, but that isn’t really “the complete absence of everything”.
To the extent that scientists don’t think about “the complete absence of everything” either, I guess we have that in common. But we differ in the definitions of our “nothing”. Scientists like Einstein (I believe), Krauss and Hawking do not concede there ever was no physical thing.
A materialist cannot imagine no physical thing existing because he is committed to the the concept that the only reality, the only things that exist and ever existed are physical things. They can’t concede a “time” in which no physical thing existed, because to allow that possibility would undo their most basic assumptions.
(I really don’t want to appear too high brow here. We all have to start with basic assumptions and can’t do any legitimate thinking without them. These basic assumptions are the foundations on which all of our thinking depends. And, because we are finite, and can’t know whether our basic assumptions are good ones, we have to take them on what I call faith. I do the same thing with my assumptions.)
Thus the author, a materialist, continues down the path of explaining how nothing really means something:
“If you think this way, you’re not alone: there are many different ways to conceive of ‘nothing.’ You might even be tempted to take away space, time, and the laws of physics themselves, too. The problem, if you start doing that, is that you lose your ability to predict anything at all. The type of nothingness you’re thinking about, in this context, is what we call unphysical.”
Ah, there it is! Evidence of the gravitational pull of the commitment to a physical explanation of the universe. If we start assuming there was really nothing (no physical thing) before the universe as we know it emerged, we can’t do science (can’t predict anything at all).
While philosophers and theologians aren’t dismayed at the prospect that the universe may have had its beginning in some reality that is “unphysical”, scientists aren’t particularly excited about that prospect, especially scientists who are materialists committed to the proposition that nothing but the physical realm exists. It isn’t a particularly compelling thought for a person devoted to materialism.
Science, of course, is the study of the physical world. While, it might be conceivable that such a limitation could be taken philosophically, as we do with the inevitability of death, the inertia that is generated by our worldviews and basic assumptions doesn’t die easily. It’s that same force of commitment to basic assumptions that leads some materialists to claim that philosophy is dead. In this way, they can maintain that science is the study of all there is to be studied.
That assertion would be true if nothing but the physical world exists – an assumption that is the basic foundation of the materialist. But that assertion is, itself, a philosophical one. It’s an assertion that can’t be proven by science (being that science is based on and limited to the study of the natural world). So, it seems, we just can’t get away from that black hole of philosophy that threatens to pull everything into it, despite the strongest gravitational pull of materialism.
In this context, it isn’t really any wonder that the big conclusion of the article (the big bang, if you will) is more of a dud:
“But here’s the kicker: if you have spacetime and the laws of physics, then by definition you have quantum fields permeating the Universe everywhere you go. You have a fundamental ‘jitter’ to the energy inherent to space, due to the quantum nature of the Universe. (And the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which is unavoidable.)
Put these ingredients together — because you can’t have a physically sensible ‘nothing’ without them….”
Well, the truth couldn’t be clearer that we can’t have a physically sensible ‘nothing’ without something. But must we assume a physical something? Why must it be physically sensible?
It boils down to the pesky initial assumption that some physical thing must always exist, necessarily, as the materialist is committed to maintain.
Frankly, the assumption is arbitrary. It’s the same assumption, essentially, as a past eternal universe. Though it seemed to be in its death throes once, with the advent of the Big Bang and singularity, it has risen from the ashes, resurrected to new life. It lives on today by the brute force of people devoted to the assertion.
Indeed, something can’t truly come from nothing, but nothing (no material thing) is still a likely candidate, in spite of the best that science can do. Materialism doesn’t allow for the “unphysical” because of its commitment to the physical, and science is its champion, but, the assumption of materialism aside, something doesn’t necessarily have to mean some physical thing.
If we allow our selves to think out of the physical box, we can imagine a metaphysical thing: a nonphysical reality that could be the explainer and the cause for physical reality. While I don’t have the time (or present energy) to explore outside the box very far, let me suggest some evidence that this is the case: mathematics.
Mathematical equations are abstracts. They can be reduced to written figures on a chalk board, but they are non-material in their essence. They explain physical reality, but they exist independent of it. If no physical reality existed, mathematics would still be true.
Some scientists who are willing to think outside the box are beginning to see this. They say information likely preceded material reality. Information explains it, and information may be the prime cause of it. Information arises abstractly in minds, but it can be demonstrated in physical reality. This sounds an awful lot like a mindful Being, like a Creator/God, but we have to be willing to let that dark matter take us beyond the gravitational pull of the material world to consider it.
Of course, I have only merely scratched the surface of this discussion. We may be missing large segments of reality by limiting ourselves, arbitrarily, to one form of reality (the physical). The study of reality doesn’t have to be limited to the physical box. This is a construct we have imposed arbitrarily on ourselves. Here is a video providing some food for additional thought: