I was mulling over whether to post a piece on dark energy and the idea of ‘creation from nothing’, when our colleague Marcelo Gleiser (Dartmouth) did just that, with this insightful piece. For comparison, here is my take on the issue, as it appeared in the Diocese of Edinburgh magazine.
The idea that the universe was created ‘from nothing’ by God has long been a Christian response to sceptics. Even though science has won much of the territory over which theology once reigned supreme, theologians have been able to rest secure knowing they have the exclusive rights to ‘nothing’. Quite simply, the laws of physics can’t explain ‘nothing’ because they’re a ‘something’ in themselves: they must be created ‘from nothing’. Hence, God comes into the picture, the ultimate ‘no-thing’, and the ultimate no-fail explanation for why there’s something rather than ‘nothing’.
This hasn’t always convinced everyone though. When Napoleon challenged Laplace for not mentioning God in his new book on astronomy in the early 1800’s, Laplace famously replied: ‘Sir, I have no need of that hypothesis.’ And a new book by cosmologist Lawrence Krauss has produced a remarkable new challenge to the theological idea of ‘nothing’. Richard Dawkins calls this book the ‘knockout blow’ against theology – ‘Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages.’
One of the strangest recent discoveries in physics is that of ‘dark energy’, a mysterious and invisible form of energy which (it is hypothesised) must fill all of space in order to explain why our universe appears to be expanding at an accelerating rate. And there’s a lot of it: current estimates claim that dark energy makes up about 70% of the total energy of the universe. Quite simply, empty space (‘nothing’ in Krauss’s view) is bubbling-over with potentiality. Which is why, according to Krauss, not only is it not surprising that something came from nothing at the Big Bang, but something was always going to arise from nothing, sooner or later. No need for God at all then. Ever.
Krauss has not gone un-challenged. A scalding review in the New York Times by the philosopher David Albert reiterated the familiar point that the laws of physics had to come from somewhere. Krauss responded with poorly-considered invective against philosophy (‘moronic’, ‘hasn’t advanced in two thousand years’) which illustrated how not only dark energy, but passions too, are bubbling-over.
Krauss’s complaint is that the theologians and philosophers keep moving the goalposts. A century ago, he claims, no one would have blinked if he’d defined ‘nothing’ as purely empty space. But now that we know that empty space is full of creative energy, from which universes can burst into being, theologians insist it’s no longer ‘nothing’, but a ‘quantum vacuum’. And what if we go further, and define ‘nothing’ as the absence of space and time altogether? Again, this would have been uncontroversial once. But now we know that even space and time can spontaneously appear from the laws of physics, so the theological definition of ‘nothing’ has retreated yet further.
Krauss has a point. If the theological ‘nothing’ is too elusive, then it begins to look rather like a disguise for God, the ultimate untestable hypothesis which Krauss abhors. He’s forcing theologians to be more precise about ‘nothing’. But Krauss has his blind spots, not least of which is the practically-divine status he accords physical law, an idea which (ironically) derives from the pre-modern world of Greek philosophy. Krauss has metaphysical (i.e. untestable) beliefs every bit as much as the rest of us, but it’s not clear that he wants to own up to them. Tellingly, when Krauss was asked in an interview where the laws of physics came from, he basically shrugged his shoulders and explained that he isn’t interested in that kind of question because it isn’t open to science.
Forget ‘nothing’ then, what this particular skirmish in the phoney war between science and religion reveals is that it’s important to critics of religion like Krauss that the only beliefs worth having are those you can verify by testing. Or at least, that’s what the critics say. When pressed, they expose many of the same kinds of untestable presuppositions and vague hunches which have reassured humans since the dawn of time. Belief in ‘nothing’, whether you say it comes from physics or God, requires faith.