Creation ex nihilo

0. Introduction

I have recently come across a blog written by Richard Bushey, which has lots of typical apologetical arguments summarised by the author. As such, it is an interesting place to look around to find typical bad arguments to straighten out.

Here I want to look at one in particular, not because there is anything original about it, but really because there is nothing original about it. The post is an example of the sort of regurgitation of arguments made by people like William Lane Craig that one often encounters on the internet. Here is the post, entitled ‘Can a universe emerge from absolutely nothing?‘. In it, Bushey explores the idea of the creation of the universe ex nihilo (or ‘from nothing’), and rehearses some of the common arguments for why this isn’t possible.

  1. Setting

The setting for the topic discussed in the post is ultimately the cosmological argument (probably specifically the kalam cosmological argument popularised by William Lane Craig, on which I have written before). The idea is that one of the arguments put forward to prove the existence of God is that the existence of the universe requires a causal explanation, which could only be God, as a necessarily existing being. The response to this that Bushey is addressing here is to basically call into question whether the universe requires causal explanation. As he explains:

Many people seem to take it for granted that things do not just appear with absolutely no cause. But it would be quite convenient for the atheist if it were the case that this were a possibility. Atheism would then be able to deflect one of the seminal arguments for the existence of God. We need to be able to provide some justification for thinking that universes cannot emerge from absolutely nothing.

Bushey offers five distinct points, and I want to look at three of them (I have nothing to say of any note about quantum vacuums, and am happy to grant that God doesn’t need a cause to exist, at least for now). The three points I will address here are labelled by Bushey as:

a) ‘Nothing’ has no causal powers.

b) What if universes could come from nothing?

c) A good inductive conclusion.

      3. ‘Nothing’ has no causal powers

As the title of this section suggests, Bushey is arguing here that the reason the universe has to be caused by something, such as God, is that nothing is itself not able to cause anything. As an intuition pump to get you in the mood to agree with him, Bushey offers the following examples:

If your co-worker was taking a day off, the boss would naturally ask, “Who is going to cover your shift?” If the coworker said, “Nobody,” the boss would be concerned. ‘Nobody’ has no causal powers. They cannot perform the function of the job because ‘nobody’ designates the absence of somebody. Similarly, if I said that “There is nothing to eat,” my stomach would be empty. If I said that there was nothing that could stop the invasion of a particular army, I would be expressing that the military force would go unchallenged. 

Now we have the idea of what it means to say that ‘nothing’ lacks causal powers. ‘Nothingness’ cannot play the role of a co-worker, satisfy an empty stomach, or impede an oncoming army. Nothingness can’t do anything. Given that primer, here comes the beef:

So when atheists tell us that a universe could emerge from absolutely nothing, or attempt to provide accounts of how nothing could have produced the universe, they are expressing an incoherent thought. If ‘nothing’ designates the absence of anything at all, then it follows that there are no causal powers. If there are no causal powers, then it lacks the capacity to produce universes.

Given that nothingness cannot fill-in for an absent waiter’s shift in a cafe, it seems perfectly reasonable to extend this to think that it cannot manufacture universes either.

So, what is wrong with this? Well, we might already be suspicious of the first example. The boss might be concerned with the fact that nothingness has no causal powers, but I would suggest that it is more likely that he is really concerned about the lack of something to fill in which has the relevant causal powers. And these are not two ways of saying the same thing. It is not like the co-worker said ‘Don’t worry boss – nothingness will fill in for me’, to which the boss replied ‘Oh no, not bloody nothingness again! It’s complete lack of causal powers always ends up causing me grief when it comes time to tidy up at the end of the evening!’ By saying that nothing (or nobody) is going to fill in for you at work, you are saying that there is no thing about which it is true that that thing is going to fill in for you at work; you are not saying that there is this thing called ‘nothing’, about which it is true to say that it is going to fill in for you at work. We must keep these two subtly different understandings entirely distinct when we think about this, or else we are led down a garden path of confusion by Bushey here.

Consider Russell’s treatment of negative existentials in On DenotingI might want to express the fact that I don’t have a sister by saying ‘my sister does not exist’. On face value, we might think that the best way to think about the semantic value of such a phrase is as a referent about which it is true that she doesn’t exist; as if I refer to a non-existent entity. However, says Russell, far better would be to think about it like this: we are simply saying that for all the things that do exist, none of them are my sister. The propositional function ‘x is my sister’ is false for all existing things.

Let’s apply this to the boss example. Is the boss worried that a) there is a non-existent entity, who has no causal powers, filling in for a shift, or is he worried that b) for all the things that there are with the relevant causal powers, it is false that any of them is filling in for the shift? I see no reason at all to suppose that the best way of reading that situation would be by stipulating a), and every reason to suppose that it would be b). Unless Bushey has some additional argument as to why this reading is not acceptable, we at least seem to have an unproblematic rendering of this example here.

Let’s apply this to the universe example. If an opponent of the cosmological argument (who may or may not be an atheist) suggested that maybe nothing caused the universe to exist, which of the following would be be better to render this as:

a) Before the universe existed, there was nothingness, and that caused the universe to come into being.

b) For all the things that there have ever been (in any sense whatsoever), none of them caused the universe to exist.

Again, I see no reason to think that a) would be the intended meaning of such a suggestion, and every reason to think that it would be b). When someone says that ‘nothing caused the universe to exist’, they just mean the propositional function ‘x caused the universe to exist’ is false for all values of x, not that there is a value of x, called ‘nothing’ about which it is true.

Even saying that ‘nothing lacks causal powers’ is already wrong. ‘Nothing’ isn’t a thing. It is shorthand for ‘it is not the case that there is a thing’, i.e. the negation of an existential quantifier: ¬∃. So, taken literally, the phrase ‘nothing lacks causal powers’, would be rendered as follows (where ‘Cx’ is ‘x has causal powers’):

¬∃x (¬Cx)

Using nothing but the definition of the universal quantifier, we can prove the following equivalence in classical logic:

(¬∃x (¬Cx))  ↔  (∀x (Cx))

This just shows that the phrase ‘nothing lacks causal powers’ logically just means the same as ‘everything has causal powers’. Reifying ‘nothing’ to the status of an abstract object, with no causal powers, is just to misuse language; a crime which is unforgivable when there is a logically straightforward, and existentially unproblematic, analysis available.

4. What if universes could come from nothing?

Bushey has another go at providing some reason for thinking that the universe could not have come from nothing. This time he picks up on another well rehearsed argument from William Lane Craig. The idea this time is that if someone wants to hold that the universe might have come into being out of nothing, then why think that only universes could come into being out of nothingness? Here is how Bushey puts it:

Suppose for a moment that it were true that things could appear without any cause at all. If that were the case, then our rational expectations for the universe would seem to be unjustified. It would become inexplicable why anything, and everything did not emerge without a cause at all. This point was charmingly made by Dr. William Lane Craig in his debate with Dr. Peter Slezek. He pointed out that nobody is concerned that as they are sitting in this debate, a horse may have appeared uncaused out of nothing in their living room and is currently defecating on the carpet as we speak.

The idea seems to be that if we grant special exemption to universes being able to come from nothing, we would be rationally compelled to extend this to cover everything. We should expect random things popping into existence all the time, yet we don’t. We implication is that we don’t have this expectation because we know that things require causes to come into being, and cannot come into being in the absence of causes.

So, should we give a special pass to universes? Isn’t that special pleading if we do so? I say it isn’t, and that again there is a subtle but powerful misunderstanding about nothingness which is driving this line of argument.

Take the idea of a horse just appearing in front of you and defeacting on the floor. We know this isn’t going to happen (setting quantum probabilities to one side). But why do we know this? I say that the reason for this isn’t because we know that things cannot come from nothing. That idea isn’t even relevant. If you are at home in your front room wondering if a horse is about to suddenly appear, that isn’t an example of nothingness! What you know is that the relevant causal properties of what exists around you isn’t sufficient to produce a horse. You know that a horse cannot be produced by this particular type of something.

Let’s turn to the idea of the universe. Given the understanding gained from section 3 above, we do not have to think of ‘nothingness’ as preceding and causing the existence of the universe. We could just say that there is no thing (in any sense) that preceded and caused the universe. The beginning of the universe is the beginning of everything. So, the context which was not conducive to a horse popping up in front of you in the previous example has no counterpart here. There is no ’empty space’ into which the universe pops. There is no ‘nothingness’ waiting to be filled with a universe.

Could an infinite empty void of nothingness suddenly give rise to a universe? I don’t know. Could the universe simply be all that there is? I don’t see why not. Pointing out that horses don’t suddenly appear in front of us randomly is completely irrelevant.

5. A good inductive conclusion.

This last point is quite similar to the previous one, and has a similar root of misunderstanding with it. Here is Bushey again:

Common experience indicates that things have an explanation. They do not just appear, uncaused, out of absolutely nothing. The entire project of science is predicated upon this premise. Science is the search for causes within the natural world. If we were to establish the premise that things appear without a cause, then the project of science would be wholly undermined. Scientists who searched for causes of natural phenomenon would be engaging in a fruitless endeavor. It may just be that their specimen emerged without a cause. Why does a fish have a particular gill? Perhaps it appeared, uncaused, out of nothing.

It is quite easy to spot the error here. Take the fourth sentence in that quote: “Science is the search for causes within the natural world”. I don’t think this is the best definition for science one could find, but it is particularly bad that it is the one Bushey uses in this context. If science is the search for causes within the natural world, then there is no reason to think that it applies to things beyond the natural world. Just because things in the universe behave a certain way, doesn’t mean that the universe itself has to display those behaviours. Say everything in the sea floats, would it follow that the sea floats? If there is no causal explanation for the universe, which simply is all that there is, it would not follow that things that actually exist could not be described by science, or that we would have no reason to think that every particular fact in the universe had a causal explanation.

6. Conclusion.

There is no reason provided in Bushey’s post to think that the universe has to have a cause. One should resist the temptation to reify nothingness into an amorphus blob lacking in certain properties. Don’t slide from a failure of reference to an existent thing, to a successful reference to a non-existent thing. The universe didn’t pop into existence from a pre-existent state of nothingness. It just has a finite past.

At least, maybe it does. I don’t know whether the universe was created or not. Maybe a loving personal god made it in order to teach me about morality. Maybe it popped into existence from a pre-existing state of nothingness. Maybe it is just all there is. My point is that you don’t get to prove the first of these by undermining the second, given that there is a coherent third. That would be a fallacy of false dichotomy.

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