The Wonder Of The Universe

04/24/2012 03:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2012

"Why is there something rather than nothing?" This simple-sounding question has been at the heart of discussions about the existence of God as long as there have been such discussions.

Physicist and popular author Lawrence Krauss offers his answer in his new book, "A Universe from Nothing." Actually, what he has provided is yet another recycled non-answer.

Here is Krauss with a summary of the central argument, taken from an April Fool's Day opinion piece in the LA Times.

"Most surprising of all, combining the ideas of general relativity and quantum mechanics, we can understand how it is possible that the entire universe, matter, radiation and even space itself could arise spontaneously out of nothing, without explicit divine intervention. Quantum mechanics' Heisenberg uncertainty principle expands what can possibly occur undetected in otherwise empty space. If gravity too is governed by quantum mechanics, then even whole new universes can spontaneously appear and disappear, which means our own universe may not be unique but instead part of a 'multiverse.'"

Krauss's argument is the same one that Stephen Hawking made in "The Grand Design," where he writes in a précis:

"In The Grand Design...we discuss how the laws of our particular universe are extraordinarily finely tuned so as to allow for our existence, and show why quantum theory predicts the multiverse-the idea that ours is just one of many universes that appeared spontaneously out of nothing, each with different laws of nature."

Such arguments have been around for decades, ever since we discovered that the laws of quantum mechanics allow particles to temporarily pop into existence out of what we call the "quantum vacuum." In the peculiar world of quantum mechanics -- a world that Einstein went to his grave rejecting as nonsensical -- you can never actually remove everything from a vacuum. You can take out all the material particles -- the protons and electrons -- and remove all the energy -- the photons -- but what remains is not nothing, but rather what is called the "zero-point" field.

The zero-point field -- the closest we can get to "nothing" both in our laboratories and in our theories -- is an active place with lots of stuff happening. Photons and particles pop in and out of existence, following precise laws originally discovered by the great German physicist Werner Heisenberg.

This quantum vacuum is the "nothing" that speculative thinkers like Krauss, Hawking and others invoke in their enthusiasm to answer the question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" The theological agenda is such discussions is clear: They want to dismantle the perennial argument that a "necessarily existing" God can be reasonably inferred from the "contingently existing" universe we live in. Put another way, there must be an eternal being to account for the appearance of temporary things like our universe.

In my new book "The Wonder of the Universe: Hints of God in a Fine-Tuned World" I look more closely at this question. Can science explain -- or "explain away," as the case may be -- the traditional Christian idea of creation ex nihilo (creation out of nothing)?

Central to the idea of creation ex nihilo is a definition of nothing. And historically the discussion of this perennial doctrine was driven by concerns about the freedom of God in the act of creating. Did God -- as the Genesis creation story seems to suggest -- create by imposing order upon a pre-existing world -- by driving back chaos? Were God's intentions constrained by the properties of things that already existed so that God was not completely free to create the world God wanted? Or did God create freely, with no pre-existing matter, rules, laws, patterns, beings acting as constraints?

Is the "nothing" of Krauss and Hawking then, the same as the "nihilo" of Thomas Aquinas? The answer is most certainly no.

Let us make the reasonable but not certain assumption that our universe began its existence as a fluctuation in the quantum vacuum. At this "moment of creation" our universe possessed a deeply rational set of interlocking physical laws that specified what was possible in the billions of years to follow: Charge and energy would be conserved; gravity would rule at great distances; there would be two nuclear forces, both short range; particles would naturally form into atoms and molecules according the laws of quantum mechanics and electromagnetism. This profoundly rational set of physical laws is certainly not "nothing." Getting a universe out of these laws is manifestly not creation ex nihilo. These laws cry out for explanation.

I do not suggest in "The Wonder of the Universe" that the existence of our universe offers a proof of the existence of God. And, even if it did, the deity inferred from such an argument is more similar to Aristotle's "Unmoved Mover" than the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Such observations about the nature of the world as we understand it, however, might be described as "hints" of God -- indicators that a theistic worldview is consistent with and even finds support in our understanding of the ways things are.