The doctrine of creation ex nihilo – the belief that God created the universe from nothing – seems to be very popular within Christian apologetics. In fact, apologist William Lane Craig not only subscribes to this doctrine, but he uses it to support his famous Kalam Cosmological Argument. Quoting philosopher Anthony Kenny, Craig commonly states in his debates that “a proponent of the Big Bang theory, at least if he is an atheist, must believe that the universe came from nothing and by nothing.” But as we shall see, modern cosmology certainly does not support Craig’s claims.
. . . But how can this be? Doesn’t Craig quote many physicists who also state that the universe began from nothing?
To begin with the above mentioned statement by Anthony Kenny – a quote which Craig uses nearly every time he presents his Kalam argument – we can dismiss this on the grounds that it’s nothing more than a bald assertion. The quote is taken from a 1969 book titled The Five Ways (p. 66) in which Kenny gives no explanation or justification for this claim. And because Kenny is a philosopher, not a physicist or cosmologist, I’m not inclined to simply take his word for it.
THE STANDARD BIG BANG MODEL
However, Craig does quote physicists Frank Tippler, John Barrow, Paul Davies and Fred Hoyle who make similar claims that the universe came from “nothing.” Now, I wont take the time to deconstruct each quote (especially since I’ve already done this here, here and here), but in a nutshell, each statement by these physicists refers to the Standard Big Bang model.
If you remember your high school science, you may know that if we use the Standard model to extrapolate to the beginning of the universe then we can come to the conclusion that the universe began in the form of a singularity. Now, a singularity has zero volume – which seems to be the reason why all the above physicists refer to it as nothing – but a singularity also has infinite density, infinite pressure, and infinite temperature. So how do these scientists marry these three properties with the concept of “nothing?” As far as I can tell, they don’t.
William Lane Craig, however, has indeed tried to argue that the concept of infinite density is synonymous with nothing, but the attempt was so horrible that I shall simply skip it (but you can read a post I made on this subject by clicking here).
Note: Craig sometimes will instead argue that there was nothing prior to the singularity (and that therefore the singularity came from nothing), but even ignoring the fact that the Standard model does not state anything like this, his argument requires you first believe in a tensed theory of time whereas most physicists hold a tenseless theory of time (i.e. the idea that time is a 4th dimension). This will probably be covered in a future post.
But perhaps there’s an even bigger objection to these above physicists using the Standard model to describe the origins of the universe: the current consensus of contemporary physicists and cosmologists (which is not represented by Craig’s sources) is that the Standard model cannot be extrapolated that far back. As Steven Hawking famously wrote in A Brief History of Time (p. 50), “It is perhaps ironic that, having changed my mind, I am now trying to convince other physicists that there was in fact no singularity at the beginning of the universe—as we shall see later, it can disappear once quantum effects are taken into account.” — that was written in 1989.
Now, let’s fast forward to 2010 where theoretical physicist Ethan Siegal writes, “[T]he idea that our Universe started from a singularity was a very good one back when we thought that the only important things in our Universe were matter and radiation, but now that we know about inflation, there is no reason to believe that our Universe ever had a singularity in the past.”
In fact, there is great doubt that the Standard model can even tell us anything about where the universe came from. Physicist/cosmologist Alan Guth puts it quite clearly in the preface to his book The Inflationary Universe where he writes, ”Despite its name, the big bang theory is not a theory of a bang at all. It is really only a theory of the aftermath of a bang. The equations of this theory describe how the primeval fireball expanded and cool and congealed . . . But the standard big bang theory says nothing about what banged, why it banged, or what happened before it banged.”
OUR CURRENT UNDERSTANDING OF COSMIC ORIGINS
So what do we know about the origin of the universe? Well, not very much. I recently wrote to astrophysicist Randy Kimble (of NASA’s excellent site Ask An Astrophysicist) who told me that “we have no current understanding of the very beginning.”
However, there are at least two ideas which currently are heavily lauded within physics. The first of these is Steven Hawking’s no-boundary proposal which states that the universe simply had no beginning (A Brief History of Time, p. 136). Rather, Hawking equates time to the surface of the earth: it is finite yet it has no beginning. In other words, there is a limited amount of area on earth for us to travel, just as there is a limited amount of time in the universe, but try as we might, we will never find a “beginning” or “end” of the earth nor will we find a “beginning” or “end” of time. Clearly, this doesn’t help with the apologist claim that the universe came from nothing.
The second idea about the origin of the universe is a bit more useful to the proponents of doctrine of creation ex nihilo: Alexander Vilenkin’s “tunneling from nothing” hypothesis. Simply put, Vilenkin’s model is a variation on Edward Tryon’s “vacuum fluctuation” model, but instead of the universe appearing within a background of space, the universe appears from an empty geometry (i.e. “nothing”).
As Vilenkin’s colleague Alan Guth explains, “Putting [general relativity and quantum mechanics] together, one can imagine that the universe started in the total empty geometry – absolute nothingness – and then made a quantum tunneling transition to a nonempty state. Calculations show that a universe created this way would typically be subatomic in size, but that is no problem . . . Vilenkin was able to invoke inflation to enlarge the universe to its current size” (The Inflationary Universe, p. 275).
But perhaps calling this creation from “absolute nothingness” is a bit confusing. As Guth points out, Vilenkin’s “absolute nothingness” is “mathematically well-defined, and can be used as a starting point for theories of creation” (p. 273).
In fact, Vilenkin himself seems to dislike the terminology. He writes in his book Many Worlds in One (p. 181), “[T]he state of ‘nothing’ cannot be identified with absolute nothingness. The tunneling is described by the laws of quantum mechanics, and thus ‘nothing’ should be subject to these laws. The laws of physics must have existed, even though there was no universe.” So, the concept of “nothing” painted by Vilenkin’s hypothesis is very different from the concept of “nothing” as preferred by Craig which seems to be synonymous with the absence of all material reality.
In light of this, perhaps we should amend the aforementioned Anthony Kenny quote, which so often used by Craig, to something like, “a proponent of the Big Bang theory . . . might or might not believe that the universe came from nothing – depending on how you define the word.”