Getting Some-thing From No-thing

Bookmark and Share

May 1, 2014 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose, Earth, Universe & Time, Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Ted Davis. You can read more about what we believe here.

Getting Some-thing From No-thing

The old Hebrew idea of creation from nothing is back in the news. Not long ago astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss, a self-described “antitheist”, wrote a book proclaiming that “revolutionary developments in both cosmology and particle physics over the past 30 or 40 years” have “made it clear that there’s a plausible case for understanding precisely how a universe full of stuff, like the universe we live in, could result literally from nothing by natural processes.” Thus, “we don't need a creator”.

This is a truly stunning claim. It would have shocked the first scientists—the ancient Greek philosophers—who insisted that “nothing comes from nothing”. But it pales in comparison with this: “the question why is there something rather than nothing is really a scientific question, not a religious or philosophical question, because both nothing and something are scientific concepts, and our discoveries over the past 30 years have completely changed what we mean by nothing” (quoting the same interview, but the bold italics are mine).

Is Krauss seriously suggesting that the laws of quantum mechanics—which he takes as a brute given, from which he allegedly derives the universe—amount to “nothing”? It’s a preposterous claim, not to put too fine a point on it. But, don’t take my word for it. Listen to David Albert (who is, like Krauss, not a believer in God), an expert on the philosophy of quantum mechanics—the relevant field, in this instance. Deftly exposing Krauss’ astonishing naivety in nine terse paragraphs for the New York Times, Albert concluded that none of Krauss’ ideas “amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing”.

When someone like Krauss—an excellent astrophysicist, to be sure—presents himself as an expert on “science and religion,” without knowing the first thing about the second part of that phrase, let alone philosophy, you have to take it with a large grain of salt. Far better to read what Ted Peters has to say here about “the bare logic” of creation from nothing. Enjoy!

The Bare Logic of Creatio Ex Nihilo

Suppose for a moment [that] we disregard the historical stake Christian theology has in the doctrine of creation out of nothing and ask about the bare logic of the concept. What do we find?

The fundamental axiom is that the creature is entirely dependent upon the creator in the act of creating. The creative act begins with nothing, yet something created is the result. But more than the created product is the result; so also is the relationship of creator to what is created. The asymmetrical relation whereby the creator becomes the creator and the created becomes dependent upon the creator is established in the event of creation. Prior to the act of creating, God is not yet a creator. He becomes a creator God only by creating a creature. The act of creating is the hinge on which swings the mutually defining terms of creator and creature. This may lead eventually to the notion that, in a certain sense, the creation has a determining effect upon the creator. Just how we understand God to be the creator will depend upon the actual course of events which the history of the creation takes. The fundamental axiom—that the creature is dependent for its existence upon the creator—does not necessarily preclude a temporal reciprocity whereby the creator may also be affected by the history of creation.

Next, the movement from nothing to something is puzzling. To be nothing (no-thing) is to be indeterminate. To be something (some-thing) is to be determinate. To be determinate is to exist in spacetime. The act of creation signals a shift from the indeterminancy of nothing to the spacetime determinancy of the things which constitute the universe. This leads to the question: is the event of creation itself a temporal event? At first, it would seem that it must be temporal, because for one thing to have a determinate effect on another thing they both must share a single spacetime continuum. But if space and time are themselves the result of the creative act, then the creative act itself cannot be subject to the same spacetime determinancy. So, perhaps it is better to speak of the creative act itself as eternal rather than temporal. By “eternal” here we do not mean simple everlastingness but rather supratemporality. As eternal, God’s act of creation is tangential to time and related to time, yet it is not subject to determinancy by time save in the sense already mentioned—that is, in the reflexive sense that the eternal creator is so defined as a result of the existence of temporal creation. In short, the event of creation marks the transition from eternity to time.

Painting of St. Augustine
Sandro Botticelli, St Augustine in His Study (1490-94), Uffizi Gallery, Florence. The greatest Christian theologian of the first millennium, Augustine of Hippo wrote about creation in two works, Confessions and On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis. Basically, Augustine taught that God created time along with the universe. Nearly thirteen centuries later, Isaac Newton held the contrary view that time and space (but not the physical universe) must be co-eternal with God: how else could we make sense of the claim that God is present “always” and “everywhere”?

If we explore the notion of eternity a bit further, we note how the concept of eternity need not necessarily imply that creation from nothing must occur in a single instant, in a single moment or all in a flash. To say so would presuppose that eternity is subject to measurement by a temporal continuum, which is just what we tried to avoid by introducing the concept of eternity in the first place. This has three implications. First, the concept of eternity stretches us to the limits of our language. We cannot literally speak of the point of origin as the first “moment” or the act of creating as an “event.” We cannot make sense out of talking about what God was doing “before” the event of creation, as Augustine has already observed. Such terms are already time-dependent. There is no way to speak univocally about the point of origin at which eternity had a determinate impact on temporality. [See Augustine, Confessions, book 11, chap 12, where he treats the question, “What was God doing before He made heaven and earth?” As Peters points out in a footnote, “Thomas Aquinas acknowledges that for Aristotle the world is eternal and that good arguments can be raised against the idea that the world has a beginning in time. Nevertheless, Christians should hold that the world is created—i.e., it has not always existed—as an article of faith based on revelation.”]

A second implication of this is that we might not have to confine creatio ex nihilo to the onset of the whole of the cosmos at the temporal beginning. A higher level of abstraction, what the apologists wanted to stress was that the world is utterly dependent upon God and, conversely, God is utterly independent of the world. In principle, one could say the world is infinite in time as long as it can be shown that the world is dependent for its being on the activity of God. To depict creatio ex nihilo as an act of creation at a singular temporal moment is one vivid way of making this otherwise more abstract point.

Thirdly, the concept of ex nihilo may be relevant for understanding newness within the ongoing course of intracosmic events. As we will see later [in a future column], Fred Hoyle can use the idea of ex nihilo to describe what happens within the flow of natural events. Thus, the idea could in principle have some value for interpreting ongoing newness as well.

Perhaps now, considering what we have just said about the limits of language, we should ask about the nature of eternity. It seems that we might not to define “eternity” as everlastingness. Everlastingness simply means more time, an infinite temporal succession. But if by “eternity” we wish to refer to the transition from indeterminate nothingness to determinate spacetime events, then it cannot in any simple way be subject to the temporal continuum. Eternity—along with God’s power to create—must be able to survive the termination or elimination of spacetime.

There is another way to look at this logic. Let us ask: need one assume there was an agent prior to creation? Need one assume that there was a divine being before the creator-creature relationship was established? Could we work simply with the notion of a primordial nothingness as the ground of both creator and creature? <SNIP> The creator’s character derives from the character of the world [that has been] created. But according to the logic of creatio ex nihilo, we cannot actually know the ground of being. What we can know is the creation relation, which only conditionally applies to the creator-ground relation. Thus, the ontological ground is never an object of knowledge. Nothingness is not an object to be known. <SNIP> It would be closer to the logic of creatio ex nihilo, in my judgment, to identify the “transcendent ground” with the event (difficult as it may be to use the word “event” here) of creating. It is nonsense to identify the ground with nothing. The nihilo in ex nihilo functions as a complementary idea to the fundamental axiom that all created things are utterly dependent upon God their creator. <SNIP>

The theologian’s stake in this is to seek an understanding of the cosmos which has consonance with the Christian experience of divine redemption. It is this which sent the patristic theologians in the direction of creatio ex nihilo and to its accompanying notions of a point of origin, temporal history, and consummate eschatology. Let us now turn to contemporary conversations in the natural sciences, where we shall find that these ancient Christian notions are by no means rendered unintelligible by the emerging and reigning scientific cosmology.

Looking Ahead

Peters gets down to brass tacks in the next excerpt, exploring the consonance of creatio ex nihilo with thermodynamics and cosmology. In the meantime, he’s given us much to think about. Your comments are invited.

References and Credits

Excerpts from Ted Peters, “On Creating the Cosmos,” in Physics, Philosophy and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding (1988), ed. Robert John Russell, William R. Stoeger, S.J., and George V. Coyne, S.J., copyright Vatican Observatory Foundation, are reproduced by kind permission of Ted Peters and Vatican Observatory Foundation. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.

Editorial Policy

Most of the editing for these excerpts involves removing the odd sentence or two, or in some cases entire paragraphs—which I indicate by putting [SNIP] or an ellipsis at the appropriate point(s). I also insert annotations where warranted [enclosed in square brackets] to provide background information, often citing information from Peters’ own footnotes when it’s important for our readers.

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.

< Previous post in series Next post in series >

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 2 of 2   « 1 2
Ted Davis - #85376

May 9th 2014

Eddie and Roger,

Please end this exchange now. It’s clear to all that you have basic disagreements that don’t need further delineation. And, please don’t resume the same type of conversation on another thread. When you have ideas to contribute to the larger conversation, of course, they are most welcome.

Eddie - #85378

May 9th 2014


I acknowledge the gentle reprimand (which could have justly come sooner, as Roger and I were not accomplishing anything constructive), and will comply, both on this thread and elsewhere.

I do have a comment to contribute to the larger conversation, one I meant to make at the very beginning.  I thought that your introductory remarks about Krauss were just excellent.  The equivocation regarding the word “nothing” employed by Krauss and Hawking has long irritated me.   And as you have pointed out, getting straight the meaning of terms like “nothing” is the kind of activity that philosophers are specially trained to engage in. 

The only thing I’d add is that I don’t think it is just philosophical incompetence that causes Hawking and Krauss to make statements like this.  While a philosopher will certainly catch such overclaims, it doesn’t take much philosophy to do so.  After all, the scientist you quoted who corrected Krauss was (presumably) not a philosopher.  All one has to do is be attentive to the normal meaning of words, and be intellectually honest.  I suspect that there is some intellectual dishonesty going on here.  It strikes me as consciously manipulative of these writers to count on the public to read the word “nothing” in the traditional way while they mean “nothing” in quite a different sense (i.e., a “quantum vacuum” which is not “nothing.”)

Surely this is a point on which ID and TE folks don’t differ, and could get together.  I wonder if some public debate couldn’t be arranged some day in which an ID and TE person together would go up against Krauss etc. on such matters.  It would be refreshing change from debates in which ID and TE people are set against each other.  I think the atheists have benefited from the strategy of “divide and conquer” as ID and TE folks have hammered away at each other.  Maybe nothing can be done about that at the moment in biology, but in physics and cosmology, perhaps a common front is available.

Ted Davis - #85380

May 11th 2014

Actually, Eddie, David Albert is indeed a philosopher, not a scientist. He is as described: a genuine expert on the philosophy of quantum mechanics. That is one particular area in which physicists have traditionally accepted the fact that philosophical matters do impinge on scientific matters. For example, the text used in my QM course 40 years ago, by Dicke and Wittke (the alliteration sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?), had a whole chapter on philosophical interpretations of the mathematics. So, someone like Krauss ought to know better.

The suggestion you’ve made about some co-operation among proponents of ID and TE is, interestingly, one that I’ve made myself a number of times over the years to individuals who might be able to arrange such things. This goes back a long way before my association with BioLogos, incidentally, so please don’t read too much into this. The only thing I will say directly about BL, relative to this paragraph, is that some important people associated with iD have told me they appreciate the fact that I’m doing columns for BL, my various criticisms of ID and the ID movement not withstanding.

Eddie - #85381

May 11th 2014

I stand corrected, Ted; I read one of your sentences too quickly, and thought Albert was a physicist who specialized in quantum mechanics.  But we aren’t disagreeing on the larger point, i.e., that physicists need to be responsible in their public speech about the philosophical and theological implications of their mathematical and empirical discoveries.  Krauss is not being responsible; he is using his prestige as a physicist to push for a certain reductionist world view.

And this is all too common these days, not just among physicists but among biologists and others, and of course among philosophers who are not themselves scientists but like to lean on the results of science and employ them selectively in order to promote atheistic, materialistic, and reductionist philosophies.

It is interesting how cultural fashions change.  In the period of, say, 60 to 100 years ago, whenever scientists made public pronouncements on philosophical or religious matters (which was not that common, as scientists and academics back then generally shunned popular attention, unlike scientists and academics now who often seek it), they were often religion-friendly pronouncements.  They were not often strictly orthodox Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu formulations of religion, but they were in a broad way religion-friendly, even when the scientist involved was more or less secular in his personal life.  Thus, you had people like Bohr and Heisenberg and Einstein and Lecomte du Nouy writing about physics or cosmology or biology in a way that might be called spiritual, and which showed some affection for the insights either of Eastern religion or of the mystical or metaphysical aspects of Western religion.  Nowadays, however, the most prominent scientists in the public eye on the subject of science, religion, and philosophy, seem to be pushing for a “science has destroyed religion” view:  Dawkins, Coyne, Weinberg, Stenger, etc.  And even those scientists who are willing to from a pragmatic alliance with religious people (e.g., E. O. Wilson, who offers to work with religious people on ecological issues where atheists and religious people have some common ground), make it clear that they don’t think that religious beliefs are actually true.  

It is true that there has been some pushback from a few Christian scientists, some of them more obviously accomplished scientists (e.g., Francis Collins and John Polkinghorne) and some who are arguably lesser scientists (e.g., Ken Miller), who have tried to argue for a harmony of religion and science; but these are explicitly Christian scientists; in the past period I was talking about, even scientists who did not strongly identify with Christian religion or any orthodox religion, seemed more religion-friendly.  “I teach science at an Ivy League or Oxbridge school” and “there may be profound truth about nature in the religious teachings of the world” weren’t seen to be in conflict, even by non-Christian or non-observant-Jewish scientists.

The sociology of this is interesting.  Whereas in the mid-20th century there were few explicitly Christian scientist-popularizers, and few explicitly atheistic and materialistic ones, but several broadly religion-friendly ones, now the “moderate” group seems to have dropped out of sight, and things seem to have polarized, with the atheist scientists and the Christian apologist scientists coming to the fore.  What are the causes of this new aggressiveness and this new polarization within the scientific community?  Is it something in science itself that has changed in the past 50-60 years, that make the polarization necessary?  Or is it some set of non-scientific factors in the university culture, or the general culture, that is operating here?  This would be a useful subject for a sociologist of science or sociologist of knowledge to write about.

Ted Davis - #85385

May 12th 2014

In general I agree with your analysis in the last two paragraphs here, Eddie. I would add two glosses:

(1) In the period (roughly) from World War One through the 1950s, many of the prominent scientists who functioned as public intellectuals had been raised as Protestants, often of a traditional kind. Many of them also became as adults either very liberal Protestants (who did not believe in the Incarnation and Resurrection, for example) or vague theists, but they understood from their own experience and that of their friends that the Judeo-Christian tradition (to borrow a term often used in that period by Christians and Jews alike, including the president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC) proclaimed moral teachings that transcended science and were still of great relevance to the citizens of a modern democracy. Thus, the public conversation was not nearly as polarized as we now find it. At the same time, the conversation among Protestants was actually (IMO) even more polarized that we find it today, b/c Protestants were faced with a grim choice: accept the science and abandon core beliefs (such as those I identified in this paragraph), or defend the core beliefs and reject evolution (not however the age of the earth; that came in the 1960s and later) and higher biblical criticism. There was no middle ground on those issues.

(2) In the past few decades we’ve seen the emergence of three groups that were either relatively quiet or almost invisible in the earlier period. On the one hand, we have the very vocal “New Atheists,” who (as I believe you’ve pointed out elsewhere) are a kind of poor imitation of the old atheists coming out of the Enlightenment. A second group is probably much larger, but less visible: traditional Christians who are also top scientists who accept evolution, and top theologians who accept traditional beliefs alongside evolution. Francis Collins is just one of many examples; I’ve often pointed out several others in this venue.The third group is Ken Ham and company: traditional Christians who entirely reject evolution and many other parts of modern science, particularly the historical sciences in general. This group is like the fundamentalists of the earlier period, except that they go much further by rejecting all of the historical sciences, whereas Bryan and other fundamentalists had no quarrel with geology (for example). For this group, Collins and company are just as bad as Dawkins and company: both (in their opinion) reject the Bible as revelation and are undermining Christianity.

The general strategy of Coyne, Dawkins, and other New Atheists is of course to try to drive out the moderates. They know that if they can do this (they can’t), they will win the battle with the YECs simply on the basis of overwhelming evidence against the YEC view. They can’t win the intellectual battle with the moderates—who are just as competent scientifically as they are, and who are actually in many cases more sophisticated in their philosophical perspectives (as this column illustrates for one case)—so, they try to “shame” them off the world stage, by belittling their intelligence for believing in (say) the Resurrection or the reality of a person that transcends biochemical interactions.

Thus, the ultimate irony: for both Ham and Coyne the word “accommodationist” is a slander. When, in fact, the “accommodationists” are going to win. Hands down.

An interesting alternative opinion comes from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his recent book, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning. He disagrees with my view that Coyne would easily beat Ham, if the moderates are removed. He thinks Ham easily beats Coyne. As he says (p. 295), commenting on Sam Harris’ argument “that the real villains are the religious moderates. Gid rid of the moderates, the argument goes, and we can have a fair fight: scientific atheists versus religious Neanderthals. If Sam Harris knew history, he would know the result of all such encounters. The barbarians win. They always do.”

Roger A. Sawtelle - #85382

May 11th 2014


Now that we have your attention, I would like to ask a simple question.

Is it acceptable on this web page for Edward (aka Eddie) to take upon himself the role of Arbiter of Truth, usually erronously, and not just express disagreement, but to demand that the supposed offender retract his ERROR or to submit to his interogation to prove that he is not a heretic as labeled without evidence by Edward?     


Ted Davis - #85386

May 12th 2014

If I regarded Eddie’s tactics (in this instance) as helpful here, Roger, I would not have intervened. At the same time, I ask you also to move on.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #85384

May 12th 2014


Since we are discussing the philosophy of quantum physics, allow me to quote from this article found in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Relational Quantum Mechanics

First published Mon Feb 4, 2002; substantive revision Wed Jan 2, 2008

Relational quantum mechanics is an interpretation of quantum theory which discards the notions of absolute state of a system, absolute value of its physical quantities, or absolute event. The theory describes the way systems affect one another in the course of physical interactions. State and physical quantities refer always to the interaction, or the relation, between two systems. Nevertheless, the theory is assumed to be complete. The physical content of quantum theory is understood as expressing the net of relations connecting all different physical systems.

(final sentence)

The claim of the relational interpretations is that it is nature itself that is forcing us to this way of thinking. If we want to understand nature, our task is not to frame nature into our philosophical prejudices, but rather to learn how to adjust our philosophical prejudices to what we learn from nature.

This article which I have summarized by using the beginning and the end says that quantum mechanics by going beyond our traditional understanding of nature and physics requires a new understanding of nature and philosophy which it calls relational as opposed to absolute. 

Now it has occured to me that many opponents of Christianity are not so much critics of our faith, but the philosophy that has become entertwined with our faith, namely the philosophy of Aristotle, thanks to Aquinas. 

When they criticize traditional philosophy, which is associated with Christianity, they make some points because it is defective according to the article above. However the critics do not have a effective philosophy and cosmology which can replace the old.

On the other hand most Christains are content rely on traditional philosophy despite its weaknesses so that they do not provide for themselves and others an adequate intellectual foundation for understanding relational Reality, which I find is basic to the Christian faith.

The article above points to a new relational understanding of philosophy and reality that we need, but right now we don’t have the understanding of what a relational reality means.  I have been trying to develop that understanding and I invite those interested in working on this project.         

Ted Davis - #85387

May 12th 2014

Philosophy has moved on substantially since Aristotle, and contemporary Christians who want to engage the issues effectively also need to move on. I don’t mean to imply that one can’t reasonably hold some form of Aristotelian philosophy today—for example, neo-Thomism still has some quite thoughtful adherents—but I do mean to say that one can’t just stick with Aristotle and call it a day.

James Stump - #85392

May 12th 2014

NOTE: comments have been removed from this blog post because they violated our ground rules for commenting.  The offending parties have been notified.  Unfortunately comments that were nested under these are no longer visible.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #85504

May 19th 2014


Thank you for your comments on the future of science and faith debate.

I think that I would agree with the Rabbi more than you or Sam Harris.  If people see the choice as between Knowledge (Science) or Meaning (Faith), I think they will choose Meaning most if not all of the time.  This is the choice that Scientism, Sam and YEC offer.

 Also I think you need to look beyond “White” Christianity to understand the future.  Most Christians are or will soon be non-white.  These Christians are often conservative.   

Black Christianity in the US is not Evangelical nor is it liberal.  It could be an important bridge between these two camps in the US is taken seriously and hopefully a bridge between Western Christianity and Third World Christians.

Also we should not forget about the presence of Islam.  Evangelicals in my judgment are falling to the trap of Legalism.  Islam is Legalism written LARGE.  It is the prime example of what happens when people have the choice between Knowledge and Meaning.

If conservative Christianity becomes discredited, many might turn from one form of weaker Legalism to another purer form.  

The problem is not really scientific, it is philosophical/theological.  We need a better, deeper theology/philosophy to unite both conservative and liberal Christians and even scientists, instead of duking it out where no one will win except maybe the barbarians of all stripes.   

Page 2 of 2   « 1 2