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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Much ado about Nothing: Robert Spitzer vs. Stephen Hawking on the creation of the Universe

Edit: Please excuse the weird formatting, I've tried as hard as I can to fix it and nothing seems to work.


(A caveat: I have not read either of Hawking’s or Spitzer’s recent books, so my critique of Spitzer’s argument is based only on his blog post.)

In his blog post “The curious metaphysics of Dr. Stephen Hawking”, Fr. Robert Spitzer offers some criticisms of Stephen Hawking’s recent book The Grand Design. I agree with some of his criticisms, but not with others. First, a point of agreement. Fr. Spitzer addresses the following quote from Hawking’s book:

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.”

Fr. Spitzer points out—rightly, in my view—that if the law of gravity is to account for the creation of the universe, it must exist, and hence the creation of the universe is not really “from nothing”. Furthermore, I agree with him when he says,

“[…] these thinkers [i.e., Parmenides and Plato] use the term “nothing” to mean “nothing” (i.e. “that which there is no such thing as”). Nothing should not be thought to be a vacuum or a void (which is dimensional and orientable – where you can have more or less space); and it is certainly not a physical law.”

If we understand the term ‘universe’ broadly, as including physical laws, then indeed we cannot explain why the universe exists by reference to such laws, nor can we use physical laws to explain why there is something rather than nothing, for they must exist in order to explain, and so we would only have explained the existence of “something” by the existence of “something else”.

However, Fr. Spitzer does not merely criticize Hawking’s claim. He also makes the following argument for the thesis that “only nothing can come from nothing”, which he hopes will show that the physical universe must have a transcendent cause:

But let’s go back to Dr. Hawking’s underlying assumption, namely that there are reasons to think that something came from nothing – namely, reasons for a beginning. How have philosophers and metaphysicians traditionally responded to this question? With what many term the first principle of metaphysics, “From nothing only nothing comes.” If you take nothing literally – that is if one acknowledges that there is no such thing as nothing, then one cannot attribute anything to nothing. One cannot attribute characteristics, actions, powers and so forth to nothing. In this absence of everything, one can only conclude that “only nothing can come from nothing.” What does this mean?

It means that if the physical universe had a beginning (a point at which it came into existence” then prior to that point it was nothing. And if it was nothing then it could not have created itself (because only nothing can come from nothing). So what does that imply? The very reality that Dr. Hawking wants to avoid, namely, a transcendent power which can cause the universe to come into existence.”

Now we have come to the point where I must disagree. If one is committed to the thesis that there is no such thing as nothing, it is of course true that one cannot attribute anything to “it.” But that is not to say that there is some mysterious metaphysical somewhat which we have decided to call ‘nothing’, and which somehow “is” without being a “thing” or without having any attributes. Instead, to say that there is no such thing as nothing is just to say that there is no object which is not the same thing as some object, and/or that there is no object which does not have attributes, where the word ‘object’ applies not only to physical objects, but to everything that exists.

While I doubt that Fr. Spitzer holds the view that “nothing” is a mysterious metaphysical somewhat, the phrasing of the passage I quoted above does suggest it. For he says, “if the physical universe had a beginning (a point at which it came into existence” then prior to that point it was nothing. And if it was nothing then it could not have created itself (because only nothing can come from nothing).” That suggests that there is something that the universe was prior to its beginning—namely “nothing”! But if one rejects the “metaphysical somewhat” conception of “nothing”, one should say, more perspicuously, that prior to the beginning of the universe it was not the case that anything existed. Furthermore, if it was not the case that anything existed, it also was not the case that anything existed which could have created the universe. That being so, it follows straightaway that the universe could not have created itself, there being no universe around to do the creating. If this is what Fr. Spitzer means, then I think he is surely right. But then he has not really shown that “only nothing can come from nothing”, only that the universe could not have created itself from nothing. There remains another possibility which he has not yet foreclosed, which is that the universe had a beginning without being created by anything. We may say that nothing caused the universe to come into existence, not in the sense that its coming-into-existence was caused by a mysterious metaphysical somewhat called ‘nothing’, but rather in the sense that it came into existence without having any cause at all. Fr. Spitzer may have other arguments to show why the universe must have a transcendent cause, and for all I know he may be right that it has one. I only take myself to have shown that the thesis that “only nothing can come from nothing” isn’t going to do the trick.

5 comments:

Ron Krumpos said...

In "The Grand Design" Stephen Hawking postulates that M-theory may be the Holy Grail of physics...the Grand Unified Theory which Einstein had tried to formulate, but never completed. It expands on quantum mechanics and string theories.

In my e-book on comparative mysticism is a quote by Albert Einstein: “…most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of all religion.”

E=mc², Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, is probably the best known scientific equation. I revised it to help better understand the relationship between divine Essence (Spirit), matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). Unlike the speed of light, which is a constant, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. In this hypothetical formula, basic consciousness may be of insects, to the second power of animals and to the third power the rational mind of humans. The fourth power is suprarational consciousness of mystics, when they intuit the divine essence in perceived matter. This was a convenient analogy, but there cannot be a divine formula.

Steve said...

I think you're right, and unless you have additional assumptions you could say the universe exists brutely and without cause or explanation.

I think he has an additional assumption, which isn't quite explicit there. It can take the form of saying any finite or limited thing must have a cause or a dependency on something else. (Or my preferred version would be one which asserts that the universe is contingent and all contingent things have a such a cause, dependency or explanation.)

Jason Zarri said...

Hi Steve,

I agree that Spitzer needs that assumption, but apart from the principle "only nothing can come from nothing" he has not given any reason to think that that assumption is true. In fact, I don't know of any good arguments for it, and personally I think it is false.

Peter said...

dear Jason,
Ultimately faith has to have primacy over reason, because reason is a tool (i.e., organum), even if a very valuable one.
Now my argument revolves around the relationship of consciousness and nothing. Love, life, and thought do not occupy space and are invisible to the senses. You describe nothing "there is no such thing as" or "no such object as." But consciousness is not an object or a thing, nor a physical law.
If you take the position of an epi-phenomenalist, then you would argue that consciousness could only exist if matter in the form of an organism existed. But from a position of faith one could argue that a consciousness created something from nothing, especially if that consciousness is the source of continuous creation out of eternity.
Of course, faith believes that creating something from nothing is the work of God.

Anonymous said...

Wow, when it comes to avoiding God, people try hard, very, super damn hard to remain stupid. Take note, God capital "G". What we seriously mean by God here is the "Absolute Cause". I just can't believe people asking evidence for a comment like "only nothing can come from nothing." That's like asking, prove green is green or white is white! Ahh, I really love Benjamin Franklin's quote: "We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid." This applies mostly to atheists who call themselves "intellectuals." Centuries before Jesus' birth, it was written in the Psalms: "The fool says in his heart, there is no God". (by tom noda of the Philippines)