There’s Nothing, And Then There’s NOTHING

Question from Cherry:
I’ve heard the theory from Krauss about how you get something from nothing, but if you don’t have multiverses, laws, quantum mechanics, vacuums, particles, empty space, energy, matter, infinite singularity, or potential how can something come into existence? I’ve heard the whole thing about when antimatter and matter cancels itself out or positive and negative cancel out and then you have nothing, but if that pops back into existence it couldn’t have been long gone, it had to have just changed form and I’m not referring to nothing as a zero vacuum or being unstable. I’m referring to nothing as NO THING existing. If you START at the beginning with nothing I listed above existing, I don’t see how it could pop into existence. Say your hand is absolutely no thing existing and you want a chicken egg to pop into it, or like and unborn child that is not conceived, it doesn’t come into existence unless someone makes it happen. It just can’t appear because if you have nothing, nothing can make it. and don’t say it was in a zero vacuum. Again, I’m NOT referring to Krauss’ definition of nothing. I’m saying if you START with the absence of anything, nothing, like the examples I gave, then tell me how something can come into existence?

Answer by SmartLX:
I honestly don’t know. This does not matter, for three reasons.

1. To take the lack of an answer as an argument that it’s impossible without a god is an argument from ignorance; just because the explanation is not known does not mean there is no possible explanation. This particular fallacy has been coming up a LOT.

2. We don’t know that we did start with nothing, either in the way Krauss means or in the way you mean. Even if it’s completely impossible for something to come from nothing, this doesn’t necessitate an extra entity like a god until we establish that there ever was actually nothing. The simpler explanation, working solely from the ordinary law of conservation of matter and energy, is that there was always something.

3. God isn’t nothing. To posit that God started the universe and then immediately say God didn’t have to come from anywhere or anything is to make two assertions where one will do: that the universe didn’t have to either. Divine creation is not a simpler explanation, it’s just the one that meets the religious criterion that a god be necessary to the process at some point. I often say that any restriction you place on the universe to necessitate a god must immediately be broken to allow for a god.

The World of Leftover Energy

Question from Andrew:
Why do atheists like Stenger say that the universe can be eternal, when this does not hold?

Stenger argues that the universe can be eternal, non-created, extrapolating the law of conservation of energy-mass before the planck time, he says that because we do not see a violation to this law, the universe can perfectly be eternal.

But this is a fallacy as William Lane Craig exposed once. If the energy were eternal there would be no useful energy right now, it would have become useless, complete entropy an infinite time ago, and because we do not see this, the only conclusion is that the universe and the energy began a finite time ago. Where we Christians think, the best explanation is the creation by God.

Answer by SmartLX:
Even according to you, Stenger only said the universe can be eternal, not that it definitely is. If it isn’t, then God is only one possibility among who knows how many: spontaneous emergence (more on that in a sec), a previous universe, a deistic rather than theistic (let alone Christian) god and so on.

Anyway, there are at least three straightforward ways in which there can still be useful energy now after an eternity of existence. There might be others, but even one possible way is enough to keep someone like Craig from ruling out the possibility entirely.

1. There is infinite or potentially infinite energy as well as infinite time.
Our universe as we see it has existed for a finite amount of time since the Big Bang with a certain amount of matter and energy, but what if that only contained one portion of the available material of an endless universe or multiverse? Or can matter emerge regularly and spontaneously from the quantum foam as much as it likes, as long as the same amount of antimatter accompanies it and the total amount of “positive” energy stays constant? As Lawrence Krauss says, something can come from nothing if “nothing” is unstable.

2. The energy is periodically reclaimed.
Entropy doesn’t destroy energy (hence Stenger’s point), it only ends up radiating it towards the edges of the universe where it’s no use to anyone. If Big Bangs are regular rather than one-off occurrences, then there’s a long-standing hypothesis that the universe is first drawn together in a Big Crunch. The new singularity contains not only all the matter and energy of the crushed universe, but all the space as well. Whatever was lost to entropy is dragged back to a mathematical point, just like at the point of our own Big Bang, and the cycle can begin again.

3. The amount of available energy decreases exponentially.
The less energy there is, the slower it dissipates, the way a gush becomes a trickle when you tip out a bucket of water. Say that every billion years, the amount of available energy decreases by half. If so then a billion years ago there was twice as much, and two billion years from now there’ll be a quarter as much, but there will never, ever be none. It will approach zero (or, importantly, a non-zero constant) asymptotically, which is to say it will get closer and closer without ever reaching it. Perhaps the amount of energy we’re used to seeing in the world is practically nothing compared to the intense heat, light and motion that was everywhere in times gone by, with the universe in a state of near-saturation (perhaps asymptotically again). Without past reference points from before the Big Bang, which are probably impossible to attain, you can’t make a judgement that there can’t be this much energy now.

One final point: be very careful about expressions like “the best explanation” when discussing cosmology. If quantum mechanics have taught us anything, it’s that reality can be counter-intuitive, and the truth might well strike one as ridiculous. If there’s evidence for a claim then it’s a supportable claim, but if all it does is sound right then it’s worthless.

Thermodynamics (it’s not what you think)

Question from Anon:

I’m engaged in a discussion with a Christian friend of mine who has presented this syllogism to me:

“1. Simply put, if there is no external cause of the universe, then the universe is either eternal or self-created.

2. But, it is cosmologically ridiculous and anti-scientific (i.e. against laws of thermodynamics) to propose that the universe is either eternal or self-created.

3. Therefore, the premise that there is no external cause of the universe must be false (i.e. there must be an external cause for the universe’s existence, e.g. God)”

I believe he is applying the law where it can’t be applied, but I’ve never extensively studied science in college so I’m not really sure.

My rebuttal was that the universe was not necessarily a closed system and he responded with this:

“I have to remind you that my academic background has required me to not only understand, but apply, thermodynamics. [He has an engineering degree.] I know what the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics means and it clearly eliminates the concept of an eternal universe. If there is any misunderstanding on my part, it is in what you mean by ‘the law of the universe.’ Further, whether the universe is a closed system or not is irrelevant, since the concept of a closed system is theoretical, i.e. we have never actually observed a closed system.”

Thanks and I hope you can sort this out for me.

Answer by SmartLX:
Well, it’s not the usual creationist argument that evolution breaks the 2nd Law simply by producing order, so at least it’s a change.

He’s got one thing right, the universe is unlikely to be self-created. We don’t know of anything that is, or even what that would mean if it were true. For an entity to be the reason for its own existence would require an exception to the idea that an effect follows its cause. Rather than call this ridiculous, however, I’d just say that time would have had to behave non-linearly near the beginning. It’s strange to consider, but it hasn’t been ruled out as far as I know.

To set up the next option a bit, an eternal universe would need to be one where multiple Big Bangs happen in sequence. We have to work from the scientific fact of the Big Bang to achieve a plausible eternal model, especially after Borde, Guth and Vilenkin successfully ruled out the leading eternal models that didn’t involve singularities.

Your friend’s thermodynamic objection to an eternal universe is that any process that’s already been running forever should have run down by now, because no process is perfectly efficient. There are at least two scenarios in which this is averted (possibilities only, mind you):
– The singularity that immediately precedes each Big Bang reclaims all of the matter and energy in the universe by bringing space itself back to a central point. This includes all of the “lost” energy that radiates from decaying systems and is normally declared unusable, so in the end nothing is truly lost and the universe really is perfectly efficient.
– Extending upon your friend’s response, not even the universe itself is a closed system. It receives energy from an outside source, such as other universes. If there is an infinite number of these as some have hypothesised, they can keep a universe such as ours going indefinitely. (If one takes “universe” to mean everything that exists, in other words the whole multiverse, then the idea is available that it may contain infinite matter and energy, and never have to run down for this reason instead. It’s all a matter of perspective, and to some extent semantics.)

As an afterword on eternal universes, it’s worth asking your friend exactly how he exempts his eternal God from the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. I hold it to be true that whatever constraints you place on the universe to necessitate a god, you immediately have to break them to allow for the god, usually by way of special pleading.

Moving on to the third option, it’s telling that your friend’s syllogism uses “e.g.” and not “i.e.” to invoke God. God is an example of an external cause, not the only possible one. The alternative suggested by the above is a concurrent or previous universe, which is part of a great many theories out there. I would love to hear your friend’s reasoning that starts from the external cause at the end of the syllogism and arrives at the Christian God, because at a glance it’s far from a logical step. (The following isn’t a scientific argument, but additional universes seem a more plausible thing to posit than a god because at least we know there’s such a thing as a universe. If your 5-acre cabbage patch has been devoured and you find one fat little rabbit in the corner, you don’t suppose that Bigfoot ate the rest; you wonder where all the other rabbits are hiding.)

Finally, there is a fourth option not covered by the syllogism: that the universe simply came into being without being created, that the common straw-man concept of “something from nothing” actually happened. Something like this is put forward in Lawrence Krauss’ new book A Universe from Nothing; specifically, that the precursor to the universe in certain models could be thought of as “nothing”. Even if you don’t accept this as quite the same thing, it at least advances another alternative external cause to compete with God.

Most of the options are essentially still on the table, despite your friend’s attempt at an argument by elimination. Even the option he wants to be left with doesn’t help the case for God very much, if at all.

Cloudy With A 15% Chance of God

Question from Anonymous:
To whoever receives this message,

I was raised from birth as a Muslim, but as I began to study science, the stories that are told- such as Noah’s ark, Jesus, Moses etc.- seemed, well, improbable. I’m on the verge of becoming an atheist but there’s a couple of questions which I can’t seem to answer using scientific thought, I am after all only a second year university student. I feel as if I can’t just quit my religion without being at least 98% certain that there is most likely no God (I understand God can’t be entirely disproven, much in the same case the flying spaghetti monster can’t be either 😛 ). I’m hoping you’re able to.

The first is:

1. How could the universe begin if there was no creator that has been around since the beginning of time?
– Because if you can deny the creator, you can’t deny that at the very least energy would have had to have been around and had to have existed since the beginning of everything, and in this case:

Would energy be God? Can energy be God? Does this mean energy cares about what human beings do?

2. Life ceases to make sense, there is no drive, does this mean there is no point in life ultimately?
-I understand from an evolutionary perspective it is imperative we believe there is a reason to live. Humans are very reliant on being self centered and believing that everything must be about them. But I don’t like the idea of everything- this temporary struggle- to be about nothing.

3. Can you explain in terms of evolution how a new sexually producing species can be formed- in the sense that once the mutation occurs to cause a change in the species inside of a member of a population, how a male and a female version of the same different ‘evolved’ species (that has become reproductively isolated) is able to ‘come about’ at the same time in order to allow a continuation of this new, evolved species?
^ If I’ve explained that right, this is really dependent on chance and perhaps increases the likelihood of a God-like influence on the construction of a new species.

At the moment I’m at a 60-85% sure point that God doesn’t exist– it varies depending on the day, as I’m sure you would understand if you have been brought up on another faith, it is rather hard to get rid of that part of you which stubbornly doesn’t want to change no matter what the facts are.

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I truly appreciate it. Oh, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve never known anyone with such a specific threshold for the probability of the existence or non-existence of a god (other than those futilely seeking certainty). Perhaps we should all be as demanding of reality, and employ this brand of aggressive curiosity.

Anyway, let’s see if we can help you out.

1. It’s possible that the universe has always been around in some form, just as the creator god is assumed to have been. Indeed, it’s the simplest inference from the commonly understood law of conservation, which states that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. According to that, matter exists now, therefore it always has, and the Big Bang was just one event in an ongoing timeline. No creator is necessary in this case. As for the matter/energy which may always have existed, we have no reason to suppose that it’s anything like a god itself – that it answers prayers, or cares about humans at all.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that the universe really did emerge from nothing, because quantum physics strongly infer that what we think of as “nothing” is highly unstable and generates new particles all the time. If you want to research this scenario, read A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence Krauss. (If you instead interpret this to mean that the “nothing” is really something, that changes little because it’s still an unintelligent object which renders a creator god unnecessary.)

2. You may not like the idea that we have no divinely bestowed purpose, but how does your personal taste for an idea (or anyone else’s) affect whether it’s true or false? The universe does not owe us comfort.

Evolution has endowed us with a strong survival instinct, yes, but it is not the only reason we have for existing. We give ourselves plenty of other reasons: science, art, the pursuit of happiness, the care of other creatures, each other and so on.

Any divine purpose which has ever been proposed appears to have actually been invented by humans anyway, so I think it’s better to be honest about it. Other theists maintain the vague belief that God has a purpose for them, but they’re not meant to know what it is. What’s the point of that, besides generating an unsupported sense of self-importance?

3. New species do not evolve as individuals, but as populations. The shared genome changes very, very slowly over hundreds or thousands of generations, and beneficial mutations spread across the group through new offspring. Both genders come along for the ride; gender is determined by a single chromosome, and the rest of the DNA is pretty much identical. Once the population has become different enough on average to qualify as a different species than it was before, there are plenty of new males and females around.

Happy new year to you too.