Science & Faith
8/24/13 at 07:42 PM 52 Comments

“Something Can’t Come from Nothing”: Is it More Reasonable to Accept or Reject this Principle?

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What can we learn from the large volume of comments under my post about whether the Mathematical Laws of Nature Create Everything from Nothing?

Hraefn, responding to MGT2 (who was supporting my claim that “something can’t come from nothing”) wrote:

Your repeated queries as to "how do you get something from nothing" is simply an argument from personal incredulity. Logically fallacious, and thus "illogical". Theoretical physics is very often counter-intuitive.

MGT2 replies:

Counter-intuitive does not mean illogical. Theoretical physics may be counter-intuitive in some respect, but it is never illogical.

As I teach in my Reasoning course each year, we should realize that “illogical” is a subset of that which is unreasonable. Illogical is a label for an argument that breaks one or more rules of logic (and neither MGT2 nor Hraefn breaks any logical rules in the comments section to my post). To argue in an illogical manner is one way to be unreasonable. But one may construct a logically valid deduction that has one or more premises that are unreasonable. That would be a case of being logical, but unreasonable. Just in case anyone wants to dispute this, I should point out that the atheist author (Lewis Vaughn) of the critical thinking textbook I use in my Reasoning course (pictured here) agrees with me. All the informed theists and atheists that I know share common ground here.

Now let’s get to the main point of today’s post. Hraefn and SkepticNY are being quite unreasonable in their recent comments in the following manner: They think that it is more reasonable to reject than to accept the widely held principle: “something can’t come from nothing.” Notice, I'm not making any claim about either side in this dispute having (or not having) a “proof.” I’m simply asking my atheist friends to think about which is the most reasonable alternative … to reject or accept the principle: “something can’t come from nothing.” And I really do appreciate you guys taking the time to interact on my blog. You are among my atheist friends. I think you guys are reasonable about many things (e.g., I suspect you believe in all the laws of logic, as do I), but your rejection of the principle “something can’t come from nothing” is not one of the items about which you are thinking reasonably. Let me explain.

Ever since Plato in his cosmological book called the Timaeus, the vast majority of people who have thought (and wrote) carefully about ultimate origin questions and the nature of reality have agreed with Plato that “something can’t come from nothing.” Even the average person who has not studied philosophy, when presented with the principle that “something can’t come from nothing,” will have this very clear thought that this is at least more likely true than not true. How do we make sense of this widespread epistemic situation?

Some things are known to be true because they are self-evident. The laws of logic are self-evident, once you have taken the time to study them. For example, the deductively valid form of argument known as modus ponens is self-evidently true, namely:

Premise 1: If P then Q.
Premise 2: P is true.
Conclusion: Therefore Q is true.

It is illogical to accept the two premises and reject the conclusion. To do so is to break a rule of logic. You can’t prove the basic rules of logic by some other rational means (this includes philosophy, science, or any other rational enterprise). You just simply know that they are true by rational reflection upon them.

“Something can’t come from nothing,” like the laws of logic, seems to present itself to the human mind as self-evidently true. Curiously, when this law is incorporated into an argument that terminates in the conclusion that God exists (or God likely exists), then many atheists have questioned the first principle of “something can’t come from nothing.”

Nothingness is the complete absence of anything whatsoever. There are no powers, no potentialities, and no specified constraints within nothingness that would make it possible for nothingness to give rise to something, regardless of whether you consider “nothingness” at the tiny metric of the quantum (subatomic) level of reality, or at the ordinary-sized level of dogs and people (which we obviously don’t see popping into existence from nothing). No physicist has ever been able to experimentally observe something (no matter how small or large) come into existence from absolutely nothing as precisely defined above.

Some physicists such as Stephen Hawking have claimed you get a universe from nothing, but this is not a scientific discovery. Rather, it is a physicist making an unreasonable philosophical claim. His authority as a prominent scientist intimidates many people into believing his claim, but this is not a reasonable way to respond to the otherwise admirable person of Stephen Hawking. As Oxford University professor John Lennox is fond of saying: "Nonsense remains nonsense, even when talked by world-famous scientists."

Back to comments on my recent blog:

MGT2 asks Hraefn:

So your contention is that "something can arise from nothing."

Hraefn replies:

No. That is the contention of a number of prominent scientists, including at least one theoretical physicist.

Hraefn, you seem to be offering merely an argument from misplaced authority. Quote the primary experimental literature in which this claim (something can arise from nothing) is made and backed up by experimental evidence. Don’t bother quoting a popular level book (lacking the relevant footnotes to the primary literature) by a physicist (regardless of how popular he or she may be) in which the word “nothing” is used in an imprecise manner to describe the quantum vacuum. Nothingness is the complete absence of anything whatsoever. Nothingness has no powers, no potentialities, and no specified constraints that would make it possible for nothingness to give rise to something at the quantum level of the physical world (or at any other level of reality).

“Something can’t come from nothing” has been a guiding principle that has constituted some of the background knowledge of countless discoveries throughout the history of science up to the present moment. When something new seems to appear in the physical or biological world, then scientists get to work and try to discover the cause or causes of this event. Despite the stability of this principle as a foundational premise of science through the ages, leave it to the latter day atheists (when faced with its theistic implications that have intensified since the rise of big bang cosmology) to reject this fundamental principle for no good reason.

Rejection of “something can’t come from nothing” in the hope of getting “a universe for free (uncaused)” is worse than belief in magic. With magic, at least you have the alleged magician with certain supposed causal powers. I’m no fan of magic, but I’m even less sympathetic toward those who claim that that it is more reasonable to reject than accept the principle: “something can’t come from nothing.” I can see why many atheists might be tempted to make this move, but is there any good reason to do so? I have not heard any here, or anywhere else.

If you think otherwise, then cite the URL, publication, or whatever (and at least summarize the case for us). Don't just invoke the authority a few celebrity scientists and expect the rest of us to believe your conclusion without any good reasons actually presented. Even Dawkins’ audience laughed at him when he invoked generic academic authority without actually giving good specific reasons for his conclusion that the universe came from “literally nothing.” (If you are new to my blog, you might want to watch this melodramatic remix of Dawkins and his audience).

For a large collection of podcasts and articles in which Bill Craig interacts with prominent physicists and atheist philosophers, go here. Note especially the bibliographies at the end of his major articles, which include citations to the works of major personalities in the world of physics and philosophy. Craig has even interacted with such high profile scholars in refereed publications such as this anthology of essays: Craig, W.L. and Smith, Q, Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993). I especially benefitted from reading this essay by Craig today (but start with the podcasts linked above because they are intended for a broader audience).

Flashback: I remember taking modern physics (including quantum mechanics) at Cal Poly State University many years ago. Since then I have kept up with many of the more recent developments in physics. There are many wonderful, surprising, and counter-intuitive things we have learned about the tiny subatomic world, but none of these well confirmed discoveries have ever suggested that it is more reasonable to reject than accept the principle: “something can’t come from nothing.” My expertise in history/philosophy of science, coupled with a conversancy with the relevant aspects of modern physics, leads me to conclude that those who reject this principle in the name of science are making unreasonable philosophical moves while inaccurately claiming the authority of science.

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