A Universe From Nothing

David Cowles

Nov 30, 2022

I’ll take the wisdom of Yogi Berra over that of Bill Clinton any day: Whatever is, is!

In 2012, renowned physicist and cosmologist, Lawrence Krauss, published A Universe from Nothing. The avowed purpose of the book was to debunk the idea that some sort of transcendent entity (e.g., ‘God’) is necessary to account for the universe as we experience it. Krauss subtitled his book: Why there is Something rather than Nothing.

Of course, this subtitle implies a question that Krauss did not need to spell out for his readers. Anyone who might be tempted to read a book like this is already well acquainted with it. In fact, it was probably the first question serious thinkers ever asked, and it is still as relevant and thought-provoking today as it was 3,000 years ago.


At least since Parmenides (b. 515 BC), Western philosophers, theologians and scientists have struggled with the subtitled question. To answer it, we need to define our terms, but that should be easy: even toddlers know the difference between ‘something’ and ‘nothing’. Or do they?


Is a dream ‘something’? How about an illusion…or a delusion? How about a unicorn? A squared circle? How about virtual particles that we ‘know’ exist but that, according to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, must annihilate one another before they are directly detected (i.e., measured)?


Turns out, Being is not as simple a proposition as we might have supposed; but what about Nothing?


Is empty space nothing? How about a perfect vacuum? What about quantities outside the Planck scale? How about the ‘potential’ my parents and teachers saw in me as a child, but that was never realized?


Krauss offers us three possible definitions of ‘nothing’. He begins with the notion that ‘empty space’ is ‘nothing’ and he shows, convincingly I think that so-called empty space inexorably spawns virtual particle pairs, radiation, and various space-filling ‘fields’:


“Empty space can have a non-zero energy associated with it, even in the absence of any matter or radiation… The gravitational ‘pressure’ associated with such energy in empty space is actually negative… The energy of empty space (nothing) gets converted into the energy of something.”


The problem with Krauss’ argument is that it is a bit too convincing. On closer examination, it turns out that ‘empty space’ is never really empty. It cannot be conceived without its virtual particle pairs, its ‘pressure’ (albeit negative), and its radiation and fields. We do not begin with empty space and then suddenly flip a switch and ‘create’ these constituent phenomena; these phenomena are part of whatever empty space is. ‘Empty space’, then, is clearly not ‘nothing’.


Krauss admits as much: “… It would be disingenuous to suggest that empty space endowed with energy…is really nothing. In this picture, one must assume that space exists and can store energy…”


Actually, though, Krauss’ empty space argument is odd for a quite different reason. Sir Isaac Newton believed that space was a passive receptacle that (logically at least) preceded whatever might populate it. Few, if any, cosmologists believe this today.


Einstein taught us that space and time are aspects of a single reality: 4 dimensional spacetime. Now, modern cosmologists seem to be of two minds, either:


1.    Spacetime is not a primary (substructural) property of cosmos but rather a secondary (emergent) property; or,

2.    Spacetime is an illusion, pure and simple, and does not exist.

A summer 2018 special edition of Scientific American showcases both points of views. The issue is titled A Matter of Time but, as we now know, space and time are aspects of a single 4-dimensional reality, so the same arguments should be applicable to space.


In this issue, Craig Chandler (Is Time an Illusion?) argues that time, if real at all, is an “emergent property” of the cosmos, not its substructure: “Space and time are secondary concepts…”


But Chandler has a foot in both camps: “… Many in theoretical physics have come to believe that time fundamentally does not even exist.”

He synthesizes these views using a ‘block’ model of spacetime: “Spacetime is like a loaf of bread that you can slice in different ways, called either ‘space’ or ‘time’ almost arbitrarily.”


According to this model, spacetime is a 4-dimensional loaf. If you slice it vertically, you get slices of time. Everything that happens at a given ‘moment’, no matter where it happens, is captured by that one slice. On the other hand, if you slice it horizontally, you get slices of space. Everything that happens at a given ‘location’, no matter when it happens, is captured on that one slice. Slicing the loaf diagonally reveals the effects of relativity.


Astonishingly, this apparently 21st century idea is nothing new. The so-called ‘father of Western philosophy’, Parmenides, had essentially the same idea 2500 years ago: “… What-is is ungenerated and imperishable…unbeginning and unceasing…whole, single-limbed, steadfast and complete; nor was it once, nor will it be, since it is, now, all together, one, continuous…” In other words…a loaf of bread.

In contrast, Krauss’ argument seems to rely on the discarded Newtonian model (above).

Krauss grudgingly acknowledges these objections to his theory. But then he asks an even more intriguing question: ‘What if not even empty space is presumed to exist?’ What if we use ‘nothing’ to define the ‘state of things’ (whatever that might mean) before even empty space appears?


“… The rules of quantum mechanics would apply to the properties of space and not just to the properties of objects existing in space… Should one consider the possibility of small, possibly compact spaces that themselves pop in and out of existence? … As Stephen Hawking has emphasized, a quantum theory of gravity allows for the creation, albeit perhaps momentarily, of space itself where none existed before…”

Just as Krauss first argued that virtual matter, radiation, particle fields and negative pressure emerge spontaneously in empty space, now he argues that empty space itself emerges from an even more primitive state of being (or should I say ‘non-being’?).


In this spirit, he titles his tenth chapter Nothing is Unstable. He does not mean by this that everything is stable but rather that instability is ‘ontologically substructural’, i.e., a fundamental characteristic of ‘Being’ itself. It applies to ‘nothing’ as well as to ‘something’. This argument is so challenging that the arguments against it do not come from physics, but from linguistics and philosophy.


Contemporary scientists who dare wade into the waters of philosophy are invariably influenced by three men: A.J. Ayer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and John Austin. (Or if they are not so influenced, they certainly should be.) These three pillars of ‘analytic’ English philosophy (first half of the 20th century) argued that many, if not most, problems of philosophy stem from an imprecise use of language.

While the three men’s views and methods differ widely, they were all laser focused on the way language is employed to frame philosophical problems. Collectively, they argued that terms used to describe everyday events (‘ordinary language’) do not suddenly acquire new and different meanings just because they are applied to cosmic and metaphysical phenomena. Red is red is red.


Let’s apply that insight to Krauss’ assertion that “nothing is unstable”. Something is unstable if it possesses or exhibits the quality known as ‘instability’ (or lacks the quality known as ‘stability’). But how can the quality of instability, or stability, be possessed or exhibited by ‘nothing’? Only an entity that is ‘something’ can possess or exhibit qualities, instability included. There are no disembodied qualities, at least not where I live.


“Look, there goes green arm in arm with damp as usual?” – not so much!


Therefore, the sentence ‘nothing is unstable’ is (in the parlance of analytic philosophy) meaningless.

By stating that “nothing is unstable”, Krauss implicitly acknowledges that his pre-existent ontological reality (‘nothing’) is really ‘something’ after all. But then what could we say about it? Perhaps we could speculate that it is something that exists solely in the mode of pure potentiality; but that is still ‘something’ – all of which works to defeat Krauss’ argument.


Another lion of early 20th century English philosophy, Alfred North Whitehead, built his complex and comprehensive “Philosophy of Organism” around just three undefined terms: one, many and creativity. Perhaps Krauss’ ‘nothing’ is Whitehead’s ‘creativity’, the restlessness that lies curled up, like Kundalini, at the base of Being.

Finally, Krauss offers us a third version of ‘nothing’. This version does not allow for potentiality or quantum fluctuation; it applies the definition of ‘nothing’ in the most rigorous possible way. Krauss rejects this version as ridiculous, and he claims that philosophers and theologians who insist on applying this definition are acting in ‘bad faith’: they’re simply refusing to engage in the debate at any level. In the parlance of the playground, they have picked up their ball and gone home.


However, this is precisely the view of nothing that contemporary Italian philosopher, Emanuele Severino advances. Often called a Neo-Parmenidean, Severino holds that all being is eternal. Whatever is cannot not-be, nor could it ever not-have-been, nor could it come-to-be; it just is:

“… It must be said of everything that, precisely because it is not nothing, it cannot become nothing (nor can it have ever been nothing), and therefore it is and reigns eternal. Everything is eternal.”


Here I’ll take the wisdom of Yogi Berra over that of Bill Clinton: Whatever is, is!


In any event, kudos to Krauss. He dared to take on the toughest of all problems in philosophy and ultimately, he had the courage to admit that he could not prove his hypothesis: A Universe from Nothing.


Bottom line, being is, nothing isn’t, whatever is not can never come to be and whatever is, cannot cease to be. “That is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.” – Keats.


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at david@aletheiatoday.com.

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