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.