Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ex Nihilo

An article at Space.com promotes the exceedingly odd idea that the universe popped into existence from nothing. All the matter and energy we see in the billions of galaxies that fill space, according to the scientists quoted in the piece, all somehow just suddenly came into being ex nihilo. Here's an excerpt:
Our universe could have popped into existence 13.7 billion years ago without any divine help whatsoever, researchers say. That may run counter to our instincts, which recoil at the thought of something coming from nothing. But we shouldn't necessarily trust our instincts, for they were honed to help us survive on the African savannah 150,000 years ago, not understand the inner workings of the universe. Instead, scientists say, we should trust the laws of physics.
Actually what the theory offends is not our instincts but our reason. To believe that sheer nothingness - a matterless, energyless state - could give rise to a universe of matter and energy requires that we suspend our rational faculties and embrace fantasyland. But there's more:
In the very weird world of quantum mechanics, which describes action on a subatomic scale, random fluctuations can produce matter and energy out of nothingness. And this can lead to very big things indeed, researchers say.
With all due respect, this is incoherent. If quantum mechanics acts on the subatomic scale then there must be subatomic particles, or their energy equivalents, in existence. The universe, if it was produced by a "quantum fluctuation" didn't arise out of "nothingness," it arose out of a preexisting quantum matrix.

When these scientists say the universe came from nothing they evidently don't really mean nothing. Nothing is the absence of anything, but these scientists are saying that there really was something. Moreover, they tell us, it's not just the stuff of the quantum world alone which generates the universe. There's more to it:
"The Big Bang could've occurred as a result of just the laws of physics being there," said astrophysicist Alex Filippenko of the University of California, Berkeley. "With the laws of physics, you can get universes."
Well, maybe so, but where did the laws of physics come from and where, exactly, do they exist when there's no universe for them to manifest themselves in? If there's no preexisting matter and energy then there simply would not be any physics nor any laws of physics.

When one reads a little further one finds that "nothing" as these scientists conceive it is actually even more densely populated. Not only does it include the quantum flux and the laws of physics, it also includes time, space, and even minds:
"Quantum mechanical fluctuations can produce the cosmos," said panelist Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the non-profit (SETI) Institute. "If you would just, in this room, just twist time and space the right way, you might create an entirely new universe. It's not clear you could get into that universe, but you would create it. So it could be that this universe is merely the science fair project of a kid in another universe," Shostak added.
So an agent has only to twist time and space and shazaam a universe exists. But where did time, space, and the agent come from? How can any of these exist independently of matter?

The fact is that if something comes into being it must be brought into being by something that preexists it, whether some science fair participant in another universe or whatever. Ultimately, the chain of causation must terminate in something that itself doesn't come into being and thus requires no cause.

One of the scientists in the article addresses this but does so in a rather unsatisfactory way:
The question, then, is, 'Why are there laws of physics?'" he said. And you could say, 'Well, that required a divine creator, who created these laws of physics and the spark that led from the laws of physics to these universes, maybe more than one.' But that answer just continues to kick the can down the road, because you still need to explain where the divine creator came from. The process leads to a never-ending chain that always leaves you short of the ultimate answer.
This simply isn't true. A divine creator, if one exists, has necessary being. That is, if it exists it must exist. It is not the sort of thing that's caused by something else. It might be asked why the laws of physics could not be this necessary being, the uncaused cause which creates the world. There are at least two reasons why:
  1. Physical laws are simply descriptions of the way matter behaves. They're ideas. In the absence of matter and in the absence of a mind they have no existence.
  2. The laws of physics are either eternal or they had a beginning. If the latter then obviously they are not the beginningless something we're looking for. If they are eternal, and they're the ultimate cause of the universe, then we can ask why the universe is not also eternal. An effect will be produced by a cause as soon as the conditions are in place to produce it. If the cause of the universe are the eternal laws of physics then the universe should be co-eternal with the laws that caused it, but as the first quoted sentence above indicates, these scientists believe the universe had a beginning 13.7 billion years ago.
Unless there is an uncaused ultimate cause of the universe the universe would not have had a beginning, but an uncaused cause is exactly what God is. In their struggle to escape the conclusion that a divine cause is the only adequate explanation of the existence of the world, the researchers in the article have defined "something" as "nothing" and then tried to convince us that this is good science. It sounds to me more like very confused metaphysics.