Creation ex nihilo – without God (1997)
The first version of this article, which I wrote all the way back in 1997, merely compiled a list of quotes from physicists affirming that something can indeed come from nothing through entirely natural processes, and that the entire universe might be one such thing. I offered the list simply as data, without any attempt at assessing the correctness of the quoted claims, or their relevance to theological debates about the origin of the universe. Afterwards, I studied the matter in greater depth, and developed a line of argument which I pursued in the first entry of my Defender’s Guide to Science and Creationism. However, I neglected to revise the first version of this article; this update rectifies that problem. For this version, I have written straight text, and moved the supporting quotes to a section at the very end, which is referenced throughout.
Can Something Come from Nothing?
To most people, the claim that something cannot come from nothing is a truism. However, most physicists disagree. Against the claim, they often cite what are variously known as quantum vacuum fluctuations or virtual particles. These are particle-antiparticle pairs that come into existence in otherwise empty space for very brief periods of time, in agreement with the Heisenberg uncertainty relations.
[Q1] [Q2] They produce measurable effects, such as the Lamb shift and the Casimir-Polder force.[Q3] [Q4] These particles are not anomalies; they are so common that some physicists argue that if we think of empty space as nothing, then there is no such thing as nothing, because space never is empty—it is always filled with virtual particles.[Q5] In short, if we follow most people in thinking of empty space as nothing, then we have at least one pervasive example of something that can come from nothing.
Can the Universe Come from Nothing?
Virtual particles are constrained to have short lives because they represent an increase in the energy of the universe; Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle affords room for sufficiently short-lived virtual particles, but long-lived ones appearing in a universe such as ours would violate the first law of thermodynamics. One might think, then, that quantum vacuum fluctuations cannot have any relevance for the origin of the universe. On the contrary, some physicists, going back at least to Tryon (1973) believe that the entire universe might be a massive quantum vacuum fluctuation.[Q6] The key feature of the universe that would make this possible would be a total energy of zero. You might wonder how the universe could have a total energy of zero. The answer is that gravitational energy is negative—when summed with the positive energy of the matter in the universe, the two quantities may cancel out.[Q7] [Q8] Neither Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, nor the first law of thermodynamics, place any limit on the length of time a quantum vacuum fluctuation of zero total energy could persist, so the longevity of our universe does not rule out a quantum vacuum fluctuation origin.[Q9] The proposal is not that the entire universe appeared in one shot, but that a quantum vacuum fluctuation served as the seed for a local expansion of spacetime, which would automatically generate matter as a side-effect.[Q10] [Q11]
In these kinds of proposals, the quantum vacuum fluctuations occur in empty spacetime. Other proposals, most notably that of Alex Vilenkin, do not involve a preexisting spacetime at all, and rely upon quantum tunneling rather than vacuum fluctuation.[Q12]
Is the “Nothing” of the Physicists Really Nothing?
Now we come to an objection to all of the above. The objection is that when the physicists quoted refer to “nothing,” they are, in fact, referring to something other than the literal absence of anything. To try to keep things as clear as possible, I will refer to the absence of anything as “nothingness.” So, the contention is that the “nothing” of physics is not nothingness. Quote [Q5] may seem, at first glance, to bear this out. I contend that that is a misreading—Morris is just trying to say that space never is truly empty—but we need not get into an exegetical dispute here, since it is quite true that on Tryon-type models, the universe-producing quantum vacuum fluctuations occur in a preexisting spacetime.
What can one say about this challenge? There are two things to say:
(i) First off, the reason most people affirm the proposition that something cannot come from nothing is because they do not see things coming into existence out of the empty space around them. They are willing to equate empty space with nothingness. Hence, showing that particles do, and universes might, spontaneously arise from empty space, does address the intent behind popular claims that the universe could not have come into existence from nothing. Once one has shown that universes can arise from empty space, not many people will remain so secure about their metaphysical intuitions that they will insist that empty spacetime itself must have come from something.
(ii) Second, even if we do count spacetime as something, this would have no bearing on Vilenkin-type proposals. At this point, critics contend that Vilenkin’s proposal requires quantum mechanics, and that the laws of quantum mechanics are “something.” This is a strange claim, for two reasons: (1) It seems as though the critics wish to reify natural laws, which are not things, but just descriptions of the way things work. It is unclear why one should regard the fact (if it is one) that universes come into existence
from time to time in a manner describable by quantum mechanics, as a thing. (2) If if one does count facts as things, then nothingness is a logical impossibility: if nothing existed, then it would be a fact that nothing existed, meaning that at least one thing (the fact that nothing exists) exists, which would, in turn, contradict the original hypothesis. Consequently, if one counts facts as things, then some fact must obtain; but, if at least one fact must obtain, why should it not be the fact that quantum mechanics applies?
I have not attempted to argue that the universe did come from nothing, or even to survey everything in cosmology or philosophy that bears upon the question of whether or not the universe was created. All I have attempted to do is to argue that an atheistic universe ex nihilo, in both a popular and a technical understanding of nihil, is possible. Even that modest step is bitterly contested by many theists, but modern physics appears to underwrite it decisively.
[Q1] Paul Davies:
In the everyday world, energy is always unalterably fixed; the law of energy conservation is a cornerstone of classical physics. But in the quantum microworld, energy can appear and disappear out of nowhere in a spontaneous and unpredictable fashion. (Davies 1983: 162)
[Q2] Richard Morris:
The uncertainty principle implies that particles can come into existence for short periods of time even when there is not enough energy to create them. In effect, they are created from uncertainties in energy. One could say that they briefly “borrow” the energy required for their creation, and then, a short time later, they pay the “debt” back and disappear again. Since these particles do not have a permanent existence, they are called virtual particles. (Morris 1990: 24)
[Q3] Paul Davies:
Even though we can’t see them, we know that these virtual particles are “really there” in empty space because they leave a detectable trace of their activities. One effect of virtual photons, for example, is to produce a tiny shift in the energy levels of atoms. They also cause an equally tiny change in the magnetic moment of electrons. These minute but significant alterations have been very accurately measured using spectroscopic techniques. (Davies 1994: 32)
[Q4] John Barrow and Joseph Silk:
[Virtual particle pairs] are predicted to have a calculable effect upon the energy levels of atoms. The effect expected is minute—only a change of one part in a billion, but it has been confirmed by experimenters.
In 1953 Willis Lamb measured this excited energy state for a hydrogen atom. This is now called the Lamb shift. The energy difference predicted by the effects of the vacuum on atoms is so small that it is only detectable as a transition at microwave frequencies. The precision of microwave measurements is so great that Lamb was able to measure the shift to five significant figures. He subsequently received the Nobel Prize for his work. No doubt remains that virtual particles are really there. (Barrow & Silk 1993: 65-66)
[Q5] Richard Morris:
In modern physics, there is no such thing as “nothing.” Even in a perfect vacuum, pairs of virtual particles are constantly being created and destroyed. The existence of these particles is no mathematical fiction. Though they cannot be directly observed, the effects they create are quite real. The assumption that they exist leads to predictions that have been confirmed by experiment to a high degree of accuracy. (Morris 1990: 25)
[Q6] Heinz Pagels:
Once our minds accept the mutability of matter and the new idea of the vacuum, we can speculate on the origin of the biggest thing we know—the universe. Maybe the universe itself sprang into existence out of nothingness—a gigantic vacuum fluctuation which we know today as the big bang. Remarkably, the laws of modern physics allow for this possibility. (Pagels 1982: 247)
[Q7] Stephen Hawking:
There are something like ten million million million million million million million million million million million million million million (1 with eighty [five] zeroes after it) particles in the region of the universe that we can observe. Where did they all come from? The answer is that, in quantum theory, particles can be created out of energy in the form of particle/antiparticle pairs. But that just raises the question of where the energy came from. The answer is that the total energy of the universe is exactly zero. The matter in the universe is made out of positive energy. However, the matter is all attracting itself by gravity. Two pieces of matter that are close to each other have less energy than the same two pieces a long way apart, because you have to expend energy to separate them against the gravitational force that is pulling them together. Thus, in a sense, the gravitational field has negative energy. In the case of a universe that is approximately uniform in space, one can show that this negative gravitational energy exactly cancels the positive energy represented by the matter. So the total energy of the universe is zero. (Hawking 1988: 129) [thanks to Ross King for this quote]
[Q8] Paul Davies:
There is a still more remarkable possibility, which is the creation of matter from a state of zero energy. This possibility arises because energy can be both positive and negative. The energy of motion or the energy of mass is always positive, but the energy of attraction, such as that due to certain types of gravitational or electromagnetic field, is negative. Circumstances can arise in which the positive energy that goes to make up the mass of newly-created particles of matter is exactly offset by the negative energy of gravity of electromagnetism. For example, in the vicinity of an atomic nucleus the electric field is intense. If a nucleus containing 200 protons could be made (possible but difficult), then the system becomes unstable against the spontaneous production of electron-positron pairs, without any energy input at all. The reason is that the negative electric energy can exactly offset the energy of their masses.
In the gravitational case the situation is still more bizarre, for the gravitational field is only a spacewarp – curved space. The energy locked up in a spacewarp can be converted into particles of matter and antimatter. This occurs, for example, near a black hole, and was probably also the most important source of particles in the big bang. Thus, matter appears spontaneously out of empty space. The question then arises, did the primeval bang possess energy, or is the entire universe a state of zero energy, with the energy of all the material offset by negative energy of gravitational attraction?
It is possible to settle the issue by a simple calculation. Astronomers can measure the masses of galaxies, their average separation, and their speeds of recession. Putting these numbers into a formula yields a quantity which some physicists have interpreted as the total energy of the universe. The answer does indeed come out to be zero within the observational accuracy. The reason for this distinctive result has long been a source of puzzlement to cosmologists. Some have suggested that there is a deep cosmic principle at work which requires the universe to have exactly zero energy. If that is so the cosmos can follow the path of least resistance, coming into existence without requiring any input of matter or energy at all. (Davies 1983: 31-32)
[Q9] Edward Tryon:
[T]he laws of physics place no limit on the scale of vacuum fluctuations. The duration is of course subject to the restriction ΔEΔt ~ h, but this merely implies that our Universe has zero energy, which has already been made plausible. (Tryon 1973:397)
[Q10] Victor Stenger:
In general relativity, spacetime can be empty of matter or radiation and still contain energy stored in its curvature. Uncaused, random quantum fluctuations in a flat, empty, featureless spacetime can produce local regions with positive or negative curvature. This is called the “spacetime foam” and the regions are called “bubbles of false vacuum.” Wherever the curvature is positive a bubble of false vacuum will, according to Einstein’s equations, exponentially inflate. In 10^-42 seconds the bubble will expand to the size of a proton and the energy within will be sufficient to produce all the mass of the universe.
The bubbles start out with no matter, radiation, or force fields and maximum entropy. They contain energy in their curvature, and so are a “false vacuum.” As they expand, the energy within increases exponentially. This does not violate energy conservation since the false vacuum has a negative pressure (believe me, this is all follows from the equations that Einstein wrote down in 1916) so the expanding bubble does work on itself.
As the bubble universe expands, a kind of friction occurs in which energy is converted into particles. The temperature then drops and a series of spontaneous symmetry breaking processes occurs, as in a magnet cooled below the Curie point and a essentially random structure of the particles and forces appears. Inflation stops and we move into the more familiar big bang.
The forces and particles that appear are more-or-less random, governed only by symmetry principles (like the conservation principles of energy and momentum) that are also not the product of design but exactly what one has in the absence of design.
The so-called “anthropic coincidences,” in which the particles and forces of physics seem to be “fine-tuned” for the production of Carbon-based life are explained by the fact that the spacetime foam has an infinite number of universes popping off, each different. We just happen to be in the one where the forces and particles lent themselves to the generation of carbon and other atoms with the complexity necessary to evolve living and thinking organisms. (Stenger 1996)
[Q11] William Kaufmann:
Where did all the matter and radiation in the universe come from in the first place? Recent intriguing theoretical research by physicists such as Steven Weinberg of Harvard and Ya B. Zel’dovich in Moscow suggest that the universe began as a perfect vacuum and that all the particles of the material world were created from the expansion of space…
Think about the universe immediately after the Big Bang. Space is violently expanding with explosive vigor. Yet, as we have seen, all space is seething with virtual pairs of particles and antiparticles. Normally, a particle and anti-particle have no trouble getting back together in a time interval … short enough so that the conservation of mass is satisfied under the uncertainty principle. During the Big Bang, however, space was expanding so fast that particles were rapidly pulled away from their corresponding antiparticles. Deprived of the opportunity to recombine, these virtual particles had to become real particles in the real world. Where did the energy come from to achieve this
Recall that the Big Bang was like the center of a black hole. A vast supply of gravitational energy was therefore associated with the intense gravity of this cosmic singularity. This resource provided ample energy to completely fill the universe with all conceivable kinds of particles and antiparticles. Thus, immediately after the Planck time, the universe was flooded with particles and antiparticles created by the violent expansion of space. (Kaufmann 1985: 529-532)
[Q12] Martin Bojowald:
Vilenkin’s tunneling condition relies on another effect of quantum mechanics, again a consequence of properties of the wave function. A wave function can often penetrate barriers with its tails, even if those would be too high for a corresponding classical particle…Vilenkin proposed in 1983 that the universe itself might have emerged by such a tunneling process. Our universe would the tail of a pioneering wave function that had once penetrated the barrier of the big bang and its singularity. But from where did the universe tunnel, and from where came the bulk of the wave function, whose tail our universe is supposed to be, before the tunneling process? Vilenkin’s answer, obvious only at first sight: From nothing …
One can hardly attribute physical meaning to tunneling from nothing in a literal sense. Regardless, Vilenkin’s postulate does have sense with regard to the wave function of the universe, endowed by the tunneling condition with certain initial values at vanishing volume. (Bojowald 2010: 222)
Barrow, John D. & Silk, Joseph. 1993. Left Hand of Creation. London: J. M. Dent & Sons.
Bojowald, Martin. 2010. Once Before Time. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Davies, Paul. 1983. God and the New Physics. London: J. M. Dent & Sons.
Davies, Paul. 1994. The Last Three Minutes. New York: BasicBooks.
Hawking, Steven. 1988. A Brief History of Time. Toronto: Bantam.
Kaufmann, William J. 1985. Universe. New York: W.H. Freeman & Co.
Morris, Richard. 1990. The Edges of Science. New York: Prentice Hall.
Pagels, Heinz. 1982.
The Cosmic Code. Toronto: Bantam.
Stenger, Victor. 1996. Inflation and creation. URL:<http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/Cosmo/inflat.html>. Spotted 15 April 2011.
Tryon, Edward P. 1973. Is the universe a vacuum fluctuation? Nature 246: 396-397.
Copyright ©2011 Mark I. Vuletic. The electronic version is copyright ©2011 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Mark I. Vuletic. All rights reserved.