Creation out of…Physics?
by Joshua Scott
In proposition 6.44 of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein expresses a sense of existential wonder in his characteristically aphoristic style: “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.” I imagine many of us have felt this way, if only fleetingly, amidst the mundane distractions of everyday life. For me it was first as a churchgoing young man, wondering why God exists and where God came from. But the question never went quietly into the shadowy recesses of my imagination, for as many have likewise found in themselves, the ultimate “why” question is a beckoning that persists.
I’ve little doubt that being confronted with this apparent incomprehensibility has played no small role in alluring philosophers and theologians to write reams on the mystery of existence. And for most of history the methodologies indigenous to those disciplines were the ones brought to bear on the question. But a recent spate of literature approaches the topic from a different vantage—one replete with a robust set of investigative tools and an impressive track record indeed. Who are these intrepid new explorers? Physicists.
Regarding the ultimate origin of things it is popularly imagined that science and Christian theology offer a competing pair of explanations: it was either the Big Bang or God. Aside from being a tremendous oversimplification, neither option even rightly addresses the ultimate existential question. The Big Bang theory describes an early cosmological epoch, not some primordial event which accounts for itself and everything else. In fact, it is unable to extrapolate further back into history due to, among other things, the intractable problem of combining quantum mechanics and general relativity (for e.g., see: https://www.mpg.de/7513900/quantum-gravitation-Big-Bang). On the other hand, merely positing God as an explanation is neither illuminating nor intellectually satisfying. Nor is it really an explanation. After all, why God rather than something else? And if God is responsible, how do we account for God’s existence in the first place? So it seems that if there is a clash of origin accounts then it must lie elsewhere.
The Christian story of the beginnings of the world is sometimes encapsulated with the theological phrase creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing). The overall picture of reality implied by this sort of theology is one characterized by an ontological dualism, viz. there is God and then there is everything else—the latter having been brought into being by the novel creative activity of the former. Suffice it to say, this understanding is not acceptable to physicists (qua physicists), as a being possessing the properties Christianity traditionally attributes to God is not amenable to investigation using the tools of science. Hence, physics as such has nothing to say about whether or not God exists or played any role in the creation of the universe. Still, some have thought it may be possible to make use of the creatio ex nihilo concept within a wholly naturalistic framework.
One of the many counterintuitive conclusions physics has produced in the last century is that what appears to be empty space is anything but. As quantum field theory tells it, all points of space and time are permeated by fields—the arrangements and interactions of which ultimately give rise to all other physical phenomena we observe. Even vacuums are constituted by this complex structure. Therefore, to refer to these vacuums as “empty space” is either a misleading use of language or a denial of what our best scientific theories tell us. Indeed, the quantum vacuum is roiling with energy, producing virtual particles which are constantly popping into and out of existence. This is the foundation of those speculations which might be classified as naturalistic variations on the theme of creation out of nothing (for e.g., this has been explicitly acknowledged by physicist Lawrence Krauss, whose book A Universe from Nothing carries the decidedly Leibnizian subtitle Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing). Speaking generally, the typical story here is analogous to the one describing the production of virtual particles. Out of the hum of quantum fluctuation inherent to a vacuum our universe emerges spontaneously. Add a heaping spoonful of cosmic inflation and you have the possibility for a universe exhibiting the longevity and large-scale structure of the one we find ourselves inhabiting. But could this explanation, even if accurate, do the work of explaining why there is anything at all? No. It doesn’t even begin to.
The situation here ought to look familiar as this sort of thesis suffers from the same problem as those which merely posit God as an explanation. In fact it’s almost as if one has merely resolved to replace the word “God” with the word “field.” We’re immediately moved to ask “why this arrangement of fields rather than something else or nothing at all?” In other words, it’s not at all obvious that this kind of explanation represents a closure against any deeper philosophical or theological inquiry. And just deeming it a brute fact (for instance) would rightly invite accusations of arbitrariness. Especially in light of the none-too-subtle magicking of a provisional scientific conjecture into a final metaphysical thesis.
The hastiness makes one wonder what is motivating the whole thing. Is it to stave off so-called “religious” explanations? Admittedly this kind of psychologization may seem uncharitable but it is far from wild speculation. Lawrence Krauss seems quite absorbed with the possibility of positioning “science” as an epistemological sine qua non, [un]necessarily putting it into conflict with every other approach to knowing (and he’s far from alone here). And although this seems to be self-refuting for the same reasons logical positivism was self-refuting—namely the claim “science is ultimately the only authoritative method of understanding” evades justification via empirical-scientific methodology—such projects march onward.
But one failure, spectacular as it may be, does not mean the project for a naturalistic version of creatio ex nihilo is completely dead. As Etienne Gilson famously warned, “philosophy always buries its undertakers.” In the meantime it merits asking how well the Christian story fares. As has previously been established, it simply will not do to invoke God as the final bulwark against reality’s collapse into nothingness without further justification. The question of “why God?” persists. Perhaps it’s best to reexamine what we mean by “the ultimate existential question.” It is typically formulated as: why is there something rather than nothing? Yet this seems to take as given that nothingness is a valid alternative in the first place. It could well be the case that nothingness can never obtain at all. Whether it can or not, it doesn’t seem warranted to merely assume it from the outset. Instead, as philosophers such as William Vallicella have suggested, perhaps the question ought to be modified to something like, “why are there any contingent beings at all?” After all, although many things happen to exist, their existence doesn’t seem necessary (e.g. if my parents had never met then I would not exist). The implication here is that there must be some necessarily existing thing that accounts for those things which exist only contingently. In the classical Christian understanding it is God who plays this metaphysical role.
Some objections are immediately obvious. One could ask why we need invoke a necessary being when we can explain any particular state of the universe by reference to some antecedent state. Perhaps there’s even an infinite past, which means there’s always some earlier state which accounts for successor states. However this strategy does little to evade the problem of contingency. Indeed, even if reality were such as it describes, there’s no explanation as to why there should be an infinite procession of states rather than something else entirely, or even why they’re there at all.
Even if one does accept the existence of a necessary being, it could be asked why it should be God rather than something else. But as Shakespeare’s Juliet famously says, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The language itself here is not as important as delineating necessity from contingency—which does the work of showing why the question “what accounts for God (or whichever name you prefer)” is indicative of a category mistake rather than some further avenue towards ultimate reality. That said, it’s certainly the case that more work must be done to connect the attenuated God of metaphysics with the theologically rich God of Christian tradition. That, however, is beyond the scope of this essay.
Perhaps this is not an altogether satisfactory answer. I freely admit this wouldn’t be an unreasonable assessment of what I’ve had to say here about the Christian story. But this was never primarily meant to be a defense of that view. Instead my aim is more modest: to show why physics cannot, on its own, suffice as a means to address the ultimate nature of reality. Indeed, what circumscribes physics in the first place are certain empirical methodologies, laden from the outset with a variety of epistemic values particular to the scientific enterprise. None of which can simply be taken as providing some clear inroads towards answering the question: “how do the conclusions of research programs in the physical sciences link up to reality per se?” To put it in more germane terms, determining what physics may be telling us about the existence of the world is not and cannot be a task suited to physics.
There is a certain cast of mind which, upon discovering that the empirical sciences cannot address the ultimate existential question, would say so much the worse for that question. To some extent I sympathize. There is a sense of clarity and even indisputability to those answers which are well attested by experiment and observation. But if there is anything I have learned in the course of being attentive to that childhood sense of wonder, it is that the desire for certainty can be its own kind of bondage. This is the pathos of scientism and every other kind of fundamentalism. Indeed, the specter of the skeptic can never be finally exorcised. The alternative may not be wholly satisfying but it frees us to reckon more honestly with the limits and scope of our knowing.
Joshua Scott is a native of central Kentucky and therefore an obligate fan of basketball and bourbon whiskey (though he’s nonetheless burdened with a stubborn skepticism towards thoroughbred racing). He is currently wrapping up his undergraduate studies in electronics and network security at Eastern Kentucky University.
In his free time Josh is an enthusiast practitioner of omphaloskepsis (of the innie school).