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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Monday, January 06, 2014

Can You Get a Something from a Nothing?

In my debate against Richard Carrier, I argued that the beginning of the universe pointed toward the existence of God. I had said, "The most fundamental law of science is 'Out of nothing, nothing comes.' We simply do not see things popping into existence for no reason. Every parent understands this axiom when they find crayon marks on the wall or mud scraped across the floor. A child's response of 'no one did it, it just appeared' would be rightly rejected as silly."

This seems pretty common-sensical to me. One cannot get a something from a nothing. In fact, the word "nothing" can be broken apart to show that it means "no-thing." But Carrier replied to my point with this statement:
Oh yes, "out of nothing, nothing comes" is another one. If there is absolutely nothing, then there are no rules governing what will happen. So the idea that "only nothing can come from nothing" is a rule. That's something; that's not nothing. If you really have absolutely nothing then anything can happen. Nothing governs what's going to happen. If we start with nothing, we have no idea what could occur. As physicists will tell you, like Victor J. Stenger in The Fallacy of Fine Tuning, nothing is inherently unstable. So if we did start the universe with nothing, we could actually expect something to come out of it because the probability of nothing remaining nothing is rather low and because there is nothing governing what will happen.
There are a lot of problems here. First, let's look at what we mean when we use the word "nothing." When I say the universe began to exist, I mean that all matter, energy, space, and time came into being where they had previously not existed at all. In fact, when philosophers talk about the concept of nothing, it is generally understood to mean a state that is devoid of all properties. If there is nothing, then there are no physical things that can act and there are no laws of nature by which the non-existent entities would be able to act.

But Carrier seems confused on this. He first states, "The idea that 'only nothing can come from nothing' is a rule. That's something; that's not nothing." Well, that's not really accurate. The idea isn't a rule, but a description. It is another way of saying there are no laws and nothing upon which actions could even take place. But then, he goes on to say, "If there is absolutely nothing, then there are no rules governing what will happen… If you have absolutely nothing, then anything can happen!" Well, using Richard's own criteria, that would be a rule. That means you haven't started with nothing!

The idea that nothing is inherently unstable is a real science-stopper. Imagine people saying, "Well, I we had nothing and now we have this new chemical because anything can happen!" or "We don't know how that came into existence. It must've simply popped into existence because nothing can produce anything!" This is not a reasonable answer. It sounds more like magic than anything else.

So, I find this response problematic on several levels. First, Carrier argues that nothing is a great way to get something. I think that is a terrible answer and he needs to explain why we should accept it for the beginning of the universe then turn around and reject it for any other scientific question. Secondly, if "out of nothing, nothing comes" is considered something, then 'If you have absolutely nothing, then anything can happen" should also be considered something. As such, Carrier hasn't started with nothing and he needs to explain how his "rule" came into existence.


  1. Nothing from nothing is pretty common-sensical, as you say, but the Big Bang is an extreme case that defies all common sense. It's very risky to assume our everyday common sense applies to the Big Bang. If that's what you base your argument on, you're not going to convince me.

    Just think about quantum theory. They say things pop into existence out of nothing, for no reason at all. Are you disputing quantum theory? I just don't see where your confidence comes from when you use "nothing comes from nothing" like a kind of trump card.

  2. The quantum theory has a key difference than would the time before the beginning of the universe. Right now, with these things that are 'popping into and out of existence' we have the entire universe surrounding us as well as many laws. Empty space (like in outer space, devoid of atoms or molecules) is also not nothingness. Laws and rules DO exist now, while they didn't exist in a state of pure unadulterated nothingness before the beginning of the universe. To try and observe them both as the same situation is foolhardy.

    Nothingness is a very difficult concept. This is not common sense being applied to the big bang, it is common sense being applied to whatever existed before the big bang. To say that the big bang did not follow our common sense, to say that it contradicted one of the most supported scientific facts, is to say that it is 'unnatural' or could be better defined as 'supernatural'.

    Nothingness is not a something by definition. If it is something, then it is no longer nothing. If it is something, then where did that something come from? If at any point 'something' existed in an existence not bound or limited by our natural laws, it is technically classified as supernatural.

    "Nothing comes from nothing" is indeed a trump card. However, others try to turn the phrase into something it isn't, or try to redefine nothingness despite common sense and the concept of nothingness itself. Some people just don't care for trump cards it seems, which wouldn't be expected from a scientist. Instead they mask their agenda towards supporting naturalism rather than science itself by coming up with preposterous explanations that serve no purpose other than 'making sure I have at least an answer because the general audience believes my words blindly'.

    Nothing comes from nothing. This is common sense and abides by the laws of nature. To answer with "Well, maybe it didn't work that way somehow!" is not a valid refutation. Just because the big bang is 'bigger' doesn't mean it can defy the laws of nature. Now that I mention it, where did the laws come from anyway? If it existed before the big bang, then what created the laws, but if the big bang caused them to come into existence, then the big bang was not bound by natural laws and was therefore supernatural.

    Just curious, I wonder where your confidence comes from when you use "Well, maybe it didn't work that way for some reason!" like a kind of trump card.

  3. I'm not trying to refute the idea that nothing comes from nothing. I'm just saying there's no reason to believe that this common sense idea applies to the Big Bang. I admit I don't know the answer one way or the other, but it's obvious that our everyday experience here on Earth is radically different than the conditions at the time of the Big Bang.

    Time is the same for everyone here on Earth, and that's common sense, but if you travel close to the speed of light, your time slows down, relative to Earth. It's clearly wrong to apply common sense notions of time to really fast spaceships.

    And when you talk about the Big Bang, things get much weirder than that! The more you read about modern cosmology, the more confused you get.

    1. You aren't referring to something from nothing. You are claiming that the big bang allowing something to come into existence would be the same thing as 'something from nothing', when in reality it is merely 'something from the big bang'.

      Starting with the big bang is not starting with nothing. What caused the big bang to being, or to exist?

  4. Anonymous6:41 AM

    I have not listened to the debate with Carrier; but I believe that it is a mistake for Christians to invoke the Big Bang to support belief in the Christian God. Not only does such an argument misrepresent God's transcendent relationship with his creation--specifically, it confuses cosmology with the creatio ex nihilo--but it plays right into the hands of the atheists (e.g., Lawrence Krauss). I recently wrote a series of blog articles on this question which you and your readers may find of interest:

  5. Lenny wrote: "This seems pretty common-sensical to me."

    This is your problem. Quantum mechanics, and things on the very large scale and very small scale, do not work like things in our medium scale that we experience. For example, one can say that an electron orbits the neutron/proton like a planet orbits a star, but it is an over-simplification and not reality.

    Your logical fallacies involved here, at least two:
    1. Composition/Division:
    2. Personal incredulity:

  6. Except, quantum mechanics, is a thing. This article deals with complete nothingness: no laws, no matter, no energy, no properties, nothing.

    Things on the very large scale and very small scale still happen for reasons, even if we might not know what those reasons are yet. To claim that since we don't know how they work, therefore they MUST be able to begin existing out of nothing is an even greater personal incredulity.


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