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Skeptical Sunday: A Universe From Nothing

November 1, 2009

A common claim made by theists of all stripes is that everything can’t have come from nothing, therefore God made it. In its purest form this is called the Cosmological Argument for God. It goes something like this:

-Everything has a cause.
-Nothing can cause itself.
-The causal chain cannot go back forever.
-Therefore there is a First Cause that is itself uncaused and started the causal chain.

The Cosmological Argument has some serious problems, namely that its conclusion directly contradicts its premise. (Everything has a cause >< There is something that does not have a cause.) It’s essentially a case of special pleading. “Everything has to follow the rules except this one thing which doesn’t and that’s God.”

Some apologists have tried to get around this by making the alternate version known as the Kalam Cosmological Argument, which goes like this:

-Whatever begins to exist had a cause.
-The Universe began to exist.
-Therefore the Universe had a cause.

They’ll argue these premises at great length (and when we get to Chapter 5 of CFAC we’ll find William Lane Craig doing exactly that), but ultimately the argument still boils down to a case of special pleading. It asserts two sets of items: things that have a beginning, and things that do not have a beginning. The set “things that do not have a beginning” holds exactly one item: God. So despite the rhetorical hand-waving that they can fill pages/hours going over, the Kalam argument is “Everything but God began to exist,” i.e. “Everything has to follow the rules except this one thing that doesn’t.” Special pleading.

Still, the argument seems potent. It’s absurd to think that something could have come from nothing, right?

…Right?

This video comes from a series of science lectures presented as part of the Atheist Alliance International convention that took place in Burbank, CA a couple of weeks ago (I wish I could have gone, but I couldn’t afford the registration this year. Next year I hope to attend this and The Amazing Meeting). Lawrence Krauss argues that, based on what we know about the universe and the laws of physics, the universe not only could have begun from nothing, but that if there had ever been “nothing,” it would have inevitably had to become “something.”

It’s a pretty dense lecture and it’s a full hour of info, I recommend it for background listening while working on other computer-based tasks.

9 Comments
  1. Michael, I’m really surprised.

    When you first received the book, you seemed excited to go through it, and seemed to be excited at the prospect of returning to belief in God. Now, it seems you are so repulsed by the prospect of believing in God that you’ll go to almost any intellectual length to avoid that conclusion.

    Whatever happened to the guy who said “If they’re convincing, you’ll get to see a real-time conversion right here! Won’t that be exciting!”

    • dorkmanscott permalink

      You seem to have this backwards.

      What really happens is that apologists will go to any “intellectual” length to arrive at their foregone conclusion. And then, when confronted with someone who doesn’t go glassy-eyed at their ill-considered but well-presented arguments, retreats into whining “You just don’t WANT to believe!” as a means of protecting themselves from realizing that their arguments hold no water. The way that, you know, you just did.

      See, the thing is I said If they’re convincing, and they’re not. Every argument I’ve encountered thus far in the book — and outside of it — whether the Cosmological and its Kalam variation, or the Watchmaker argument, or the Ontological argument, or the argument from consciousness, or “look at the trees,” is an argument from ignorance, begging the question, ad hoc rationalization, another logical fallacy of some kind, or a flat out lie. If the truth was on their side, they wouldn’t need any of these.

      Entirely apart from the question of whether or not a God exists, if you really think the arguments in Case for a Creator are intellectually solid, you should be embarrassed. They are unsound arguments that would convince no one, other than those who are already convinced and looking for a rationale to claim that their belief is justified by anything other than their personal feelings.

      Tell me, which argument of the ones in this book convinced you of God’s existence when you were unconvinced before? Kalam? The ontological argument? The argument from biological information? Or is the truth, in fact, that you already believed in God for entirely unscientific, personal reasons? That you came across these arguments only after you believed, and because you believed, they sounded sensible?

      If these are not the arguments that convinced you, then why are you sending them my way? Why not make the arguments that actually convinced you, and make them personally and directly?

      For the record, I’m not repulsed by the prospect of believing in God. I’m not repulsed by the prospect of believing in anything. I find most organized religions’ concept of God to be repulsive, but I feel the same way about spiders and serial killers and the Star Wars prequels and I have every reason to accept that all those things exist.

      Now, the idea of WORSHIPPING the kind of petty, cruel, capricious creatures that nearly every religion and mythology calls a god — yes, I am quite repulsed by that. Any god looking for my love and adoration and claiming to be the sole and almighty creator and master of the universe would have quite a bit to answer for before I’d take a knee before him. (One of the lesser gods of the polytheistic pantheons might have a better shot at it — the bad stuff could simply be out of their control.)

      We spent 8 years under the thumb of George W. Bush. He was a horrible President, and I voted for Kerry, but I can’t and don’t deny he was President.

      So I’m sorry, no. As much as it helps you keep yourself convinced that your reasoning is sound and my heart is just hardened to your good news, it’s not that I somehow refuse to believe. It’s that apologetics fail, at every turn, to convince me.

  2. I guess I’ll respond to Krauss as well.

    Einstein said “Scientists make poor philosophers” and Krauss proves this so well. He commits a basic fallacy of equivocation when he describes the universe as coming out of “nothing”

    In metaphysics, “nothing” has a very specific definition. It is: “That which has no properties” Krauss, on the other hand, is taking empty space and calling it “nothing” even though empty space has properties, such as curvature.

    Far from stating anything new in this presentation, Krauss is restating an old quantum fluctuation model of the universe, that originated in 1973. On this quantum model, virtual particles are thought to arise through a release of energy that is locked up in a quantum vacuum. These virtual particles are, by their definition, undetectable, yet that didn’t stop Tyson, like Krauss, from speculating that our universe is a long-lived virtual particle, born out of a mother universe. According to these vacuum fluctuation models, any given point in spacetime has a nonzero chance of birthing a universe. This means that given enough time, these baby universes will begin running into one another. Given an infinitely old mother universe, every point should have spawned a universe by now, and we should be observing an infinitely old universe, rather than the young one we now observe.

    Aware of this problem, Andre Linde invented the chaotic inflationary model, where an expanding universe produces pockets within it that become new universes, which produce packets within them, etc. In 1994, Arvin Borde and Alexander Vilenkin shot down this model, too, in their paper: “Inflationary spacetimes are not past-complete” In it, they show that any inflationary model of the universe that has a potentially infinite future cannot be extended infinitely into the past. To quote their paper: “A model in which the inflationary phase has no end naturally leads to this quesiton. Can this model be extended to the infinite past? This is in fact not possible. In future eternal inflationary spacetimes, such models must, necessarily produce initial singularities.”

    Krauss’ lecture is very informative, but doesn’t really contain any new information. I’d still recommend it if Krauss wasn’t so patronizing toward the religious. If Hugh Ross touted that kind of an attitude toward atheists at an Evangelical Philosophical Society meeting, at least half the room would walk out on him.

    • dorkmanscott permalink

      Krauss isn’t simply regurgitating old information, as you claim. He is also communicating new observational data collected “in the last decade” (a phrase he repeats several times in the talk) that was predicted by and is compatible with the theory. It’s not just hypotheticals and, as you point out, philosophy. He’s saying there’s evidence. That is, after all, how science works.

      To your first point, Krauss mentions toward the end of the lecture that an infinitely old expansionary universe would eventually expand so far apart that each galaxy, and eventually each solar system, would believe themselves to be entirely alone and isolated, as the other stars and star systems would either be dead or so far away as to be impossible to detect. If the “mother universe” that you bring up (and which Krauss, by the way, does not — making this something of a straw-man on your part) were infinitely old, therefore, then it would be so far expanded that another, younger universe spawned at some random location within its spacetime would have every appearance of being the only universe in town. An infinitely old universe is unobservable. Only the youth of our universe makes it observable. He says this quite clearly in the lecture.

      I’m also not sure how the universe not having an infinite past responds in any way to Krauss’ lecture, in which he is saying that all evidence indicates that the universe had a beginning — i.e. is not infinitely old. So if our universe must have a beginning, and Krauss said quite openly our universe had a beginning…what exactly is the point that you are trying to make by bringing it up?

      Krauss’ only point is that this beginning did not require any “cause” but those for which quantum physics can account entirely. This doesn’t mean that this WAS the cause, but it undermines the theologist’s insistence that a god is the only answer and science can’t account for it otherwise.

  3. For any intelligent being after some pondering is obvious that “something out of nothing” is not only possible but the only conclusion. That “original” cause can be matter itself, God or anything else , but at some point we have to invoke “the original cause out of nothing”. That is unless our definition of something and nothing are incorrect and have no physical reality and may be they are indistinguishable after all.
    We can define in geometry a point as being infinitesimally small, however we now know that there is no such thing as energy infinitesimally small or matter infinitesimally small since quantum laws show that at best everything comes in lumps, very small but not infinitesimal, a beam of light can not be cut in infinite parts, you reach a limit (there is no half a photon or quarter of a photon). So concepts that we create in our minds no necessarily have a physical reality. So may be what you see out your window is both something AND nothing.
    The concept God is being pushed farther away as we progress, first he was up in the mountain , later in the clouds , later outside the solar system, the galaxy, the universe… Now God only served to get things going ? the concept of a deity is more and more proven to be unnecessary to explain physical effects.
    However “Krauss’ only point is that this beginning did not require any “cause” but those for which quantum physics can account entirely” is not entirely correct. At present there is no Quantum theory of gravity, and quantum laws can not account for the origin of the universe. The probability laws and quantum effects have time as an essential element to describe them. The “pre” universe (if we can call it) had no time ,and no quantum law.
    There is no full quantum gravity theory in which time is non essential and arises as an after effect.
    And time is at the heart of all the problem. Is our experience of “time” that leads us to think sequentially therefore forcing us to look for the “initial cause”.
    But time might be an illusion as proposed by Rovelli:
    (please see this very light reading article http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19726391.500-is-time-an-illusion.html?full=true)
    And really is hard to swallow but Einstein has already striped time of its special place as proposed by Newton.
    According to Einstein there is not only one time but many different times depending on your choice of coordinates.
    And now after my always ambiguous dissertation may I again propose that if there is anything deserving of the title God is none other than our Universe.
    The Universe spawn into being by itself, is responsible for life , is everywhere, and at present has not only a conscience but many (You Michael got me thinking about it).
    Is really simple, since YOU are made out of the same matter that originated at the Big Bang and thanks to abiogenesis and evolution that matter finally formed YOU, and you are aware of your existence and the existence of the universe, can I argue that the universe is aware of itself thru YOU. YOU are a piece of the universe after all.
    So the the universe is aware of itself and its consciousness can be expressed as the average vector of the sum of all consciousness of intelligent (and no so intelligent) beings that inhabit it.
    I know it some how it bothers you that I use the word God in the context of the Universe and I do not apply it in the classical way, but in reality I am with you and only saying that deities do not exist and the word God is being misused by religious establishment.
    But in any case Jesus was cool by me (I do not agree with Krauss on that point) and as a matter of fact I believe he might have been gay. Well ,we all have our weird thoughts don’t we?

  4. H.S.Pal permalink

    Our universe is a free lunch? Not at all, it is nothing but a myth.

    I
    In his article ‘The other side of time’ (2000) scientist Victor J. Stenger has written:
    “Quantum electrodynamics is a fifty-year-old theory of the interactions of electrons and photons that has made successful predictions to accuracies as great as twelve significant figures. Fundamental to that theory is the spontaneous appearance of electron-positron (anti-electron) pairs for brief periods of time, literally out of “nothing.””
    From here he has concluded that our universe may also come literally out of nothing due to quantum fluctuation in the void, and therefore we need not have to imagine that God has done this job.
    But is it true that electron-positron (anti-electron) pairs are appearing spontaneously literally out of “nothing”? Are scientists absolutely certain that the so-called void is a true void indeed? Because here there is a counter-claim also: God is there, and that God is everywhere. So actually nothing is coming out of “nothing”, only something is coming out of something. Here we want to examine whether scientists’ claim that the so-called void is a true void can be sustained by reason or not.
    There can be basically two types of universe: (1) universe created by God, supposing that there is a God; (2) universe not created by God, supposing that there is no God. Again universe created by God can also be of three types:
    (1a) Universe in which God need not have to intervene at all after its creation. This is the best type of universe that can be created by God.
    (1b) Universe in which God has actually intervened from time to time, but his intervention is a bare minimum.
    (1c) Universe that cannot function at all without God’s very frequent intervention. This is the worst type of universe that can be created by God.
    Therefore we see that there can be four distinct types of universes, and our universe may be any one of the above four types: (1a), (1b), (1c), (2). In case of (1a), scientists will be able to give natural explanation for each and every physical event that has happened in the universe after its origin, because after its creation there is no intervention by God at any moment of its functioning. Only giving natural explanation for its coming into existence will be problematic. In case of (1b) also, most of the events will be easily explained away, without imagining that there is any hand of God behind these events. But for those events where God had actually intervened, scientists will never be able to give any natural explanation. Also explaining origin of the universe will be equally problematic. But in case of (1c), most of the events will remain unexplained, as in this case God had to intervene very frequently. This type of universe will be just like the one as envisaged by Newton: “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.” So we can with confidence say that our universe is not of this type, otherwise scientists could not have found natural explanation for most of the physical events. In case of type (2) universe, here also there will be natural explanation for each and every physical event, and there will be natural explanation for the origin of the universe also. So from the mere fact that scientists have so far been able to give natural explanation for each and every physical event, it cannot be concluded that our universe is a type (2) universe, because this can be a type (1a) universe as well. The only difference between type (1a) and type (2) universe is this: whereas in case of (1a) no natural explanation will ever be possible for the origin of the universe, it will not be so in case of (2). Therefore until and unless scientists can give a natural explanation for the origin of the universe, they cannot claim that it is a type (2) universe. And so, until and unless scientists can give this explanation, they can neither claim that the so-called void is a true void. So scientists cannot proceed to give a natural explanation for the origin of the universe with an a priori assumption that the void is a real void, because their failure or success in giving this explanation will only determine as to whether this is a real void or not.

    II

    Scientists want to prove that God does not exist. Since they want to prove it, therefore they cannot claim that it is already an established fact. So the statement “God does not exist” can be given the status of a theory only and nothing more than that. Therefore its fate will be determined like any other theory of the scientific world. Like any other scientific theory it will have to prove its validity afresh at each and every new instance. So, not by assuming that the void is a real void, and thus not by assuming that there is no God, but by any other means, scientists will have to show that there is no hand of God behind the origin/birth/creation of this universe, and therefore their no-God theory is again validated here. So the scientific community all over the world should realize that the story of the origin of our universe from a vacuum fluctuation is a myth only, not a scientific truth.

    III

    The question is absolutely irrelevant here as to whether scientists have done anything wrong by treating the void as a real void. Also the question is absolutely irrelevant here as to whether God has got any chance to revive. The real question is: the premise from which scientists begin here (that the void is a real void, that particle-antiparticle pairs are appearing practically from nowhere) already contains the conclusion to which they want to reach (that God was not needed to create this universe). From purely logical point of view this is untenable. And therefore, these scientists should rethink again before they declare that our universe is a free lunch.
    H.S.PAL

    • dorkmanscott permalink

      I – This is a long and somewhat rambling argument from ignorance dressed up in an attempt to look scientific. “We don’t know that it wasn’t God, therefore it’s just as likely it was God as not-God.” This is an equivocation fallacy. The two possibilities are not equally likely.

      II – This is a false premise. Scientists do not “want to prove that God does not exist.” Scientists primarily want to understand why things are the way they are. If some kind of superpowerful being existed, every scientist in the world would want to know that. And if there was a god to be proven, you don’t think scientists would love to go down in history as the man/woman/team that proved the existence of god? That’s absurd.

      The problem is that there is no evidence to justify the assumption that “god exists” is an acceptable premise for any examination of reality — as opposed to, say, accepting the premise “gravity exists” as the basis for astronomical calculations. Therefore, scientists must assume that god does not exist and explain things without that assertion as a crutch.

      III – This statement is based on II above, which as I’ve pointed out is a false premise.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Skeptical Sunday: Refuting “Materialism”(?) « Dorkman’s Blog
  2. Re: Materialism and the Reality of God Part 2 « Let No Man Despise Thy Youth

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