Can Something Come From Nothing? Faith and Science Communication Breakdown (Part Two)

A great deal of scuttle has been raised these past few years between faith, philosophy, and science over a simple question: Can something come from noting.  Stephen Hawking, in his book (coauthored by Leonard Mlodinow) entitled The Grand Design, argues that it can, leaving no need for a God to bring things into existence.  Many in theology, philosophy, and science have said that Hawking’s claims are not accurate and there is a “rewrite” going on in regard to what it means to create “from nothing” (Ex Nihilo).  In the spirit of my previous post, looking at different understandings of the word “random” in regard to evolution, I will briefly explore the meaning of the word “nothing” as it is used in philosophy, theology, and in Stephen Hawking’s presentation of creation in the book The Grand Design.

thomas-2-sized St. Thomas Aquinas

To begin with, lets understand the philosophical and theological concept of creation from “nothing.”  I believe that many Christians don’t properly understand what this concept means.  Yes, we may have heard numerous times since our youth that God created all things from nothing, but have we taken the time to ask the difficult questions to understand what that actually means?  First of all, does this mean that you begin with a state of being we call “nothing” that is then changed into “something?”  Philosophically and theologically, this simple idea is in error and needs correction.  To claim that there is a “state of being we call nothing” changes nothing into something.  Therefore, nothing is not a state of being, it isn’t a preexisting material we don’t understand, and isn’t a reality outside of space and time.  All of these designations imply the existence of something.  Therefore, creation from nothing is not a “change” from one state to another, but it is the reality that creation happened and is ongoing.  In light of this, the best explanation of nothing is, well… nothing.  Any attempt to identify nothing as a reality violates its very definition and turns “nothing” into “something.”  A nice explanation of this through the eyes of St. Thomas Aquinas can be found in the writings of Dr. William Carroll from the University of Oxford.

Creation, on the other hand, is the radical causing of the whole existence of whatever exists. To cause completely something to exist is not to produce a change in something, is not to work on or with some existing material. If, in producing something new, an agent were to use something already existing, the agent would not be the complete cause of the new thing. But such complete causing is precisely what creation is. To build a house or paint a picture involves working with existing materials and either action is radically different from creation. To create is to cause existence, and all things are totally dependent upon a Creator for the very fact that they are. The Creator does not take nothing and make something out of nothing. Rather, any thing left entirely to itself, wholly separated from the cause of its existence, would be absolutely nothing. Creation is not some distant event; it is the complete causing of the existence of everything that is. (Creation, Evolution, and Thomas Aquinas. William E. Carroll, paragraph 12)

Dr. Carroll goes one…

Creation, thus, as Aquinas shows, is a subject for metaphysics and theology; it is not a subject for the natural sciences. Although Scripture reveals that God is Creator, for Aquinas, the fundamental understanding of creation is accessible to reason alone, in the discipline of metaphysics; it does not necessarily require faith. Aquinas thought that by starting from the recognition of the distinction between what things are, their essences, and that they are, their existence, one could reason conclusively to an absolutely first cause which causes the existence of everything that is. Aquinas shows that there are two related senses of creation, one philosophical, the other theological. The philosophical sense discloses the metaphysical dependence of everything on God as cause. The theological sense of creation, although much richer, nevertheless incorporates all that philosophy teaches and adds as well that the universe is temporally finite. (Ibid.)

To apply this reflection by Dr. Carroll, lets explore a question I get, at times, as a priest: Father, was the Big Bang the beginning of creation?  The honest answer to the question is “I don’t know,” but logic seems to tell me that the deeper answer lies somewhere between “probably not” and “no.”  Why?  Let us explore this by asking another question: Even though we affirm that the Big Bang is not incompatible with the Bible, must we have a Big Bang to affirm God as Creator?  No, we don’t.  There are numerous ways we could comprehend the coming into existence of things that would differ from the Big Bang.  Lets ask another question: If there was something before the Big Bang (literally meaning anything), would this contradict the idea of God as Creator?  Again, no, it would not contradict the idea of God as Creator since we are not bound by faith to say that the Big Bang was the beginning of creation and, in addition to the physical world, we believe in a non-physical, yet created existence that would include the angelic realm.  There are a number of scenarios one can imagine that would include something in creation before the Big Bang that would not contradict faith.  Lastly, if the natural sciences failed to discover a “moment of creation,” would this contradict the idea of God as Creator?  No, it would not contradict the idea of God as Creator since, as we stated before, creation is not a change from “nothing” into “something,” but rather creation is the fact that things have come into existence and is a question of metaphysics and not of science.  To point this out is in no way disrespectful of science since science places limitations upon itself and remains neutral on the question of God and anything non-material (I have reflected on this topic before and invite you to take a peak at my post: Why Do Debates On Faith and Science Almost Always Fail?).

This is a rather brief exploration into the question of the philosophical and theological understanding of creation Ex Nihilo, but it should suffice for the purpose of this blog post.  To delve into the topic more deeply, read Question 46 from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa TheologicaThomas Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles Book 2, Paragraphs 15-21, Aquinas on Creation and the Metaphysical Foundations of Science by William Carroll, or this nice lecture by William Carroll on “Cosmology and Creation.”  The foundational points we can establish thus far are the following:

1. “Nothing” is not a type alternate reality.  If it were, it would cease to be nothing and become something.

2. To speak of creation Ex Nihilo does not mean that we have a “change” in substance from nothing to something.  Creation is not an act of change, but rather the fact that creation happened and is ongoing.

3. Creation Ex Nihilo, as defined by philosophy and theology, does not present itself as a question of science, but is a question of metaphysics, a field of which science itself does not address.

61RD+MeYtsL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_With this as our starting point, we will now look at Stephen Hawking’s book, The Grand Design.  I want to begin by being upfront that I have been a fan of Stephen Hawking’s writing ever since college.  His book, A Brief History of Time, was one of the few books I read multiple times in my youth.  One of the reasons the book spoke so deeply to me was Hawking’s apparent openness to the idea of God in relation to creation.  The quote from Hawking that so gripped me and many others was the last sentence of his conclusion.

… (I)f we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God. (A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking. p. 94 of PDF text)

This sentence alone made me want to reread his text so I could come to this conclusion a second and third time.  It gave birth to the hope that a Theory of Everything (TOE) could also include God and we would finally have a universally accessible and acceptable notion of the truth about the world and about God.  Later on in life, however, I began to learn that this very thought was flawed due to its reduction of everything to a material definition.  In light of this, I shouldn’t have been surprised that Dr. Hawking has now arrived at a thesis that excludes God from the elusive “TOE.”

Because gravity shapes space and time, it allows space-time to be locally stable but globally unstable. On the scale of the entire universe, the positive energy of the matter can be balanced by the negative gravitational energy, and so there is no restriction on the creation of whole universes. Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing… Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going. (The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. p.144 of PDF text)

Now, for good or for ill, most reflections reduce Hawking and Mlodinow’s text to this one quote.  The entire text itself is rather brief, but makes some rather audacious claims such as Hawking’s assertion that “philosophy is dead.”  The irony of this claim by Hawking is twofold: 1) As we saw in the block quote from his work, A Brief History of Time, one of Hawking’s goals was to make his theory accessible to philosopher’s and ordinary people – not replace philosophy; and, 2), Hawking himself provides a philosophical framework that, if analyzed by philosophy, shows itself to repeat basic intellectual errors of the past (material reductionism as the main error).  In order to explore this, we need to understand the core scientific ideas presented in Hawking’s text.  I am not a scientist.  Therefore, I will call upon the help of Dr. Stephen Barr, once again, to explain what Dr. Hawking is presenting as a vision of the universe and how things come into existence.

Dr. Stephen Barr nicely lays out the thought of Dr. Hawking in a piece entitled, “Much ado about ‘nothing’: Stephen Hawking and the Self-Creating Universe.”  Dr. Barr beings by explaining that Hawking’s notion of “creation form nothing” isn’t new to science and can be traced back to a theory of things coming into existence through “quantum fluctuations,” dating back to 1982 in the work of Alexander Vilenkin.  Dr. Barr continues that there are great difficulties that need to be overcome to actually verify that these theories exist in reality and perhaps would be better explained as scenarios of creation.  For an explanation of this idea, here is Dr. Barr’s summary.

If one thinks of a universe as a particular structure, then one can imagine a multiplicity of universes, with universes coming into and going out of existence in various ways. For example, a new universe might split off from an already existing universe in a manner analogous to the way a small balloon can be “pinched off” from a larger balloon. Or one can imagine a universe starting off as a point of zero size (which is, in effect, no universe at all) and then growing continuously to some finite size.

By such processes, the number of universes can change. However, we need to keep in mind the special way in which physicists use the concept of “universe,” for these various universes are really features of a  single overarching physical system call it a “system of universes”. When the number of universes changes, it is because that single overarching system has undergone a transition from one of its “quantum states” to another. Such transitions are precisely governed by dynamical laws (assumed to include the laws of quantum mechanics). These laws would govern not only how many universes there were, but the characteristics of these universes, such as how many dimensions of space they could have and what kinds of matter and forces they could contain.

Some states of the system of universes would correspond to just one universe being in existence; others to two universes, and so on. And there would also be a state with no universe in existence. The dramatic possibility Hawking is considering (and many others before him) is that such a system might make a transition from its “no-universe state” to a state with one or more universes. (Much ado about ‘nothing’: Stephen Hawking and the Self-Creating Universe)

Now, before going on, I want to emphasize the there is nothing in this explanation of the universe that I feel a need to critique from the standpoint of whether or not the science itself is accurate.  In fact, I think it would be fascinating and wonderful if this turns out to be how our universe actually works mechanically.  The question I wish to ask is this: “Does the idea of going from a ‘no-universe state’ to a ‘state with one or more universes’ constitute an understanding of creation Ex Nihilo that not only speaks to, but also replaces that classic philosophical and theological definition of creation from nothing?”  The answer should be clear that, no, this does not represent, replace, or disprove the philosophical and theological understanding of creation Ex Nihilo.  Rather, it reflects the passing of one reality, the “no-universe state,” to another reality, “a state with one or more universes.”  This, alone, violates the philosophical principle that creation Ex Nihilo is not a change, but the “radical causing of the whole existence of whatever exists” to borrow Dr. Carroll’s language from earlier.  Lets look at how Dr. Barr critiques this understanding of creation from nothing.

Physics, by its very nature, cannot answer these questions. And the funny thing is that Hawking himself is perfectly aware of this. Indeed, he said it himself in a previous book! In  A Brief History of Time , Hawking observed quite correctly that any theory of physics is “just a set of rules and equations.” And he asked, “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the question of why there should be a universe for the model to describe.” (Here he was using the word “universe” to mean what I called the “system of universes”: the entirety of physical reality described by the laws of physics.)

Physics scenarios and theories are merely mathematical stories. They may be fictional or describe some reality. And just as the words of a book by themselves can’t tell you whether it’s fact or fiction, let alone have the power to make the world they describe real so with the equations of a physics scenario. As Hawking once understood, equations may turn out to be an accurate description of some reality, but cannot not  confer reality on the things they describe. (Much ado about ‘nothing’: Stephen Hawking and the Self-Creating Universe)

In conclusion, this brief exploration of faith, philosophy, and science sought to demonstrate that Dr. Stephen Hawking’s argument for creation Ex Nihilo is very different from what philosophy and theology present as creation Ex Nihilo.  Further, when exploring the thought of Dr. Hawking and of the philosophical/theological understanding of creation, what we find in the book The Grand Design is not a watershed moment of being able to replace one idea of creation from nothing with another.  Rather, a study of these ideas reveal that Dr. Hawking’s text reflects a classic misunderstanding of what creation Ex Nihilo means.  If this distinction were to be explored in his text, Dr. Hawking’s understanding of creation Ex Nihilo would reveal itself as not reflecting creation from nothing, but rather the coming into existence of things from one state of being to another state of being.  I wish to emphasize that, as I stated earlier, this critique in no way requires us to question the science that Dr. Hawking presents.  It would not surprise me in the least if some day, even with the difficulties mentioned by Dr. Barr in proving this scenario, that his science may be proven correct.  And if it is, it will not present itself as a disproof of God’s existence or a sufficient replacement for the classical understanding of creation Ex Nihilo.

What are your thoughts on this subject?  I deeply appreciate learning from those who are willing to critique my ideas and so I invite you to critique this post, point out its errors, and help me refine my thinking as well.  Have a great week!