Getting Some-thing From No-thing

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

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 toDavid 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, Confessionsand 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, asAugustine 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.


About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.