Friday, July 01, 2005

Nothing Comes from Nothing

While I was hunting down that Hawking quotation for my previous post, I ran across a book review of Kitty Ferguson's The Fire in the Equations. The author of the review is an excellent writer Stephen M. Barr, University of Delaware physicist.

As I might have expected... Barr very clearly (more clearly that I have) untangles the muddle of something and nothing that befuddles scientific atheists.

Another class of ideas involve explaining the Big Bang as a quantum event. In quantum mechanics one can have particles being "created out of the vacuum." That is, there can be transitions from a state with no particles to a state with one or more particles. By analogy it has been suggested that spontaneous transitions can occur from a state with "no universes" to a state with one (or more) universes.

Whether this makes sense as physics is not yet clear. But if it does, will it give us creation ex nihilo without God? Only if one equivocates about what "nothing" and "universe" mean. A quantum state without any particles or even without any "universes" is not nothing-it is a quantum state.

Perhaps the distinction can be illustrated with an analogy. There is a difference (if not a spendable one) between a bank account with no dollars in it and no bank account at all. To have a bank account, even one with a momentarily zero (or negative) balance, requires having a bank, an agreement with that bank, a monetary system, a currency, and banking laws. Similarly, to talk about states with various numbers of "universes" requires having a quantum system with different possible "states," and laws determining the character of those states and governing the transitions among them. The term "the universe" should really be applied to this whole system with its laws, and not, as is misleadingly done in such discussions, to "space-times" that are coming into and going out of existence.

Hawking had it right: having equations that describe a "universe" (or anything else) coming into being does not mean that these equations must be describing anything real. Having a story about fairies does not mean there are fairies.

Barr concludes with a classic quotation:

The Latin apologist Minucius Felix, writing around 200 a.d., said, "If upon entering some home you saw that everything there was well-tended, neat, and decorative, you would believe that some master was in charge of it, and that he himself was superior to those good things. So too in the home of this world, when you see providence, order, and law in the heavens and on earth, believe there is a Lord and Author of the universe, more beautiful than the stars themselves and the various parts of the whole world." The greatest contribution of science to the "search of God" has been to bring into fuller view the grandeur of this providence, order, and law.

This is just common sense: you can't get something from nothing. Or, as that soulful street-sage Billy Preston sings,

Nothin' from nothin' leaves nothin'
You gotta have somethin'
If you wanna be with me

This ain't rocket science....

Stephen M. Barr, "The Gods of the Physicists," First Things 65 (August/September 1996): 54-57.

Kitty Ferguson, The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion, and the Search for God (Grand Rapids Michigan: Eerdmans, 1994).

Minucius Felix, Octavius, chapter 18. [The ancients were masters at rheortic, weren't they?]

Billy Preston (and Bruce Fisher), "Nothing from Nothing," Kids and Me (1974).

Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003). [In case you're interested in reading more by Barr, this book is great!]


Alrenous said...

You can't stop there. Keep going! What does a state of no bank account imply?

True nothing includes no law regarding ex nihilo.

True nothing has no need to conform to common sense; it doesn't even conform to logic, as by definition logic doesn't exist in a state of true nothing. We can't even say, 'doesn't yet exist' because time has no meaning in a state of true nothing.

In other words, nobody has yet successfully described an ex nihilo event. It may even be indescribable...but even the ancient Greeks knew that the opposite of Cosmos was Chaos. And what is a state where A=A is not true, but sublime Chaos? (And how would they get that right if there was nothing there for our minds to grasp?)

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