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Nothing and Everything

Br Joseph A’Hearn, LC

Richard Dawkins and I have something in common: we have both read A Universe from Nothing, by physicist Lawrence Krauss. Krauss invited Dawkins, a renowned atheist, to write the afterword to his book, released in 2012. Although Krauss did not invite me to share my thoughts as well, I do want to point out some fundamental philosophical misunderstandings in his book in order to help those who are not as well versed in physics and cosmology to understand this threat (or lack thereof) to theism.

The book attempts to answer the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” His approach is typical of a materialist, invoking science to answer a philosophical question. “In science we have to be particularly cautious about ‘why’ questions. When we ask, ‘Why?’ we usually mean ‘How?’ If we can answer the latter, that generally suffices our purposes.”[1] Krauss rewords the question in order to avoid two aspects that he sees as implicitly suggested in “why” questions: purpose and progression, as if there were a reason for everything and “as if we were the pinnacle of creation.”[2] Krauss paints a bleak future, in which “nothingness will once again reign.”[3] He finds “a universe without purpose or guidance” to be “invigorating.”[4] What can I say? I most certainly don’t. Perhaps for now we may agree to disagree, while I address the concepts of nothing and everything. Then we will revisit this question. (For the sake of clarity, whenever the word nothing is emphasized in any way, it refers to the philosophical concept of nothing, as opposed to the way we use the word on a daily basis in English.)

First of all, nothing needs to be understood correctly. “By nothing,” Krauss says, “I do not mean nothing, but rather nothing—in this case, the nothingness we normally call empty space.”[5] Recent physicists have discovered that space, apparently empty, actually has quantum fluctuations that can give rise to the sudden appearance of particles. So what? Empty space is not nothing; it’s something, namely, empty space. Krauss would disagree: “Surely ‘nothing’ is every bit as physical as ‘something,’ especially if it is to be defined as the ‘absence of something.’”[6] Yes, empty space is a physical reality, yet it is by no means nothing. Because empty space exists, it is something. It is permeated by fields, such as the gravitational field, and may also contain virtual particles, which may receive enough energy to become actual particles. In all our experience, something has always come from something. Krauss seems to understand empty space as something, but he insists on calling it a version of nothing. “By analogy,”[7] then, he attempts to “extend this argument to the case where space itself is forced into existence.”[8] If empty space is something, however, his analogy does not work.

On the other end of the spectrum, Krauss has a reductionist view of everything, which, he claims, comprises the universe. “After all,” he says, “traditionally the notion of universe has become synonymous with ‘everything that exists.’”[9] Krauss assumes that all things which exist are physical. He cannot seem to understand the notion of there being anything else: “The central problem with the notion of creation is that it appears to require some externality, something outside of the system itself, to preexist, in order to create the conditions necessary for the system to come into being.”[10] The real problem is with his artificial concept of the universe. He heaps “everything that exists” together, but does not acknowledge that there could be distinct ways of existing. For example, galaxies, thought, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization all exist. Krauss, whether he is aware of it or not, is packing much more into the idea of universe than the way most people understand it. I would venture to say that the majority of people understand “universe” as the material universe, namely, all existing matter, energy, and space-time considered as a whole. This does not mean that nothing else could exist. It just would not be part of the universe. In this way there really is no problem with requiring “some externality.”

A separate objection Krauss has is that he sees no “difference between arguing in favor of an eternally existing creator versus an eternally existing universe without one?”[11] If the universe can explain itself, we have no need for God. But can the universe explain itself? Many cosmologists today are turning to some version of a theory of a “multiverse, either in the form of a landscape of universes existing in a host of extra dimensions, or in the form of a possibly infinitely replicating set of universes in a three-dimensional space as in the case of eternal inflation.”[12] There are probably other versions of the multiverse theory out there, as well. Ultimately, it does not matter what theory we want to talk about, because it comes down to something deeper. Whatever exists, exists; and whatever does not, does not. Why should anything exist anyway? Why is there something rather than nothing? At last we have come around to face this question. Because there is something rather than nothing, something has to exist by necessity. Could this be the universe, or could it only be God?

If the universe is the ultimate necessary being, then it can explain its own existence and could not have been otherwise. First of all, although the universe has some principles of unity and is considered as a whole, it should not be considered as one thing; it is rather a collection of material things. Our experience tells us that the material things which comprise the universe are contingent, which means they do not explain their own existence and could have been otherwise. For example, if I were to ask, “Why is there a dandelion growing in the parking lot?” the answer “Because it’s a dandelion!” is insufficient. One must recognize that it grew from a seed that had ended up in the little crack in the asphalt. And where did that seed come from? Another dandelion. What about that dandelion? We could go back further, and eventually, if only we knew the answer for sure, we might come to say that the first dandelion evolved from a different species of living thing, and that the first living thing came from organic compounds, and we could keep going back all the way to the Big Bang. Why was there a Big Bang? “Because it’s a Big Bang!” is not a sufficient answer. Could we find anything that sufficiently explains its own existence? No material thing, for that matter. Thus all material things are contingent. They could have not existed at all. If there were no matter, no energy, and no space-time, there would be no material universe.

If the universe exists, whether it had a beginning in time or not, it is because something non-material brought it into existence. This non-material thing would have to be non-contingent, too. It would have to explain its own existence. The very essence of this being must be to exist—or better yet, to BE. This is God, who out of nothing created the material universe—creatio ex nihilo. That is why there is something rather than nothing. Why does God exist? Because he’s God! If we understand what it means to be God, then we can see that he explains his own existence.

More questions should now arise. What is God? If he exists and is all-good and all-powerful, then why is there evil in the world? Is the God who created the universe the same as the God the Christians believe in? These are questions well worth answering, but they would be topics for another discussion. The question Lawrence Krauss wanted to answer was “Why is there something rather than nothing?” We have seen that he customized the key terms of that question and then set out to answer a different question entirely.  Facing the original question with all honesty, I have found a different answer. It would deserve an entire book, but for now let this treatment suffice.

[1] Krauss, Lawrence M., A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, Free Press, New York 2012, 143.

[2] Ibidem, 179.

[3] Ibidem.

[4] Ibidem, 181.

[5] Ibidem, 58.

[6] Ibidem, xiv.

[7] Ibidem, 163.

[8] Ibidem, 162.

[9] Ibidem, 126.

[10] Ibidem, 171.

[11] Ibidem, xii.

[12] Ibidem, 176.

Br Joseph teaches humanities at the Legion’s novitiate and college of humanities in Cheshire, Connecticut.

Photo credit:   Skiwalker79 on Flickr

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