A Universe From Nothing

The author claims that the universe (Big Bang) might be explained by postulating that quantum fluctuations are the reason for the genesis of all that we observe. What follows are passages from the book that I found illuminating:


In the interests of full disclosure right at the outset I must admit that I am not sympathetic to the conviction that creation requires a creator, which is at the basis of all of the world's religions. Every day beautiful and miraculous objects suddenly appear, from snowflakes on a cold winter morning to vibrant rainbows after a late-afternoon summer shower. Yet no one but the most ardent fundamentalists would suggest that each and every such object is lovingly and painstakingly and, most important, purposefully created by a divine intelligence. In fact, many laypeople as well as scientists revel in our ability to explain how snowflakes and rainbows can spontaneously appear, based on simple, elegant laws of physics.


Nevertheless, the declaration of a First Cause still leaves open the question, "Who created the creator?" After all, what is the difference between arguing in favor of an eternally existing creator versus an eternally existing universe without end?


Defining away the question by arguing that the buck stops with God may seem to obviate the issue of infinite regression, but here I invoke my mantra: The universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not. The existence or nonexistence of a crator is independent of our desires. A world without God or purpose may seem harsh or pointless, but that alone doesn't require God to actually exist.

A Cosmic Mystery Story: Beginnings

As Lemaitre recognized, whether or not the Big Bang really happened is a scientific question, not a theological one. Moreover, even if the Big Bang had happened (which all evidence now overwhelmingly supports), one could choose to interpret it in different ways depending upon one's religious or metaphysical predilections. You can choose to view the Big Bang as suggestive of a creator if you feel the need or instead argue that the mathematics of general relativity explain the evolution of the universe right back to it's beginning without the intervention of any deity. But such a metaphysical speculation is independent of the physical validity of the Big Bang itself and is irrelevant to our understanding of it. Of course, as we go beyond the mere existence of an expanding universe to understand the physical principles that may address its origin, science can shed further light on this speculation and, as I shall argue, it does.

The Runaway Universe

The origin and nature of dark energy is without doubt the biggest mystery in fundamental physics today. WE have no deep understanding of how it originates and why it takes the value it has. We therefore have no idea of why it has begun to dominate the expansion of the universe and only relatively recently, in the past 5 billion years or so, or whether that is a complete accident. It is natural to suspect that its nature is tied in some basic way to the origin of the universe. And all signs suggest that it will determine the future of the universe as well.

A Grand Accident?

Some particle physicists have now jumped on the anthropic bandwagon in the extreme, perhaps because their efforsts to explain these mysteries according to physical causes have not yet been successful. After all, if one fundamental quantity in nature is actually an environmental accident, whey aren't most or all of the other fundamental parameters? Maybe all of the mysteries of particle theory can be solved by invoking the same mantra: if the universe were any other way, we could not live in it.

One might wonder if such a solution of the mysteries of nature is any solution at all or, more important, whether it describes science as we understand it. After all, the goal of science, and in particular physics, over the past 450 years has been to explain why the universe must be the way we measure it to be, rather than why in general the laws of nature would produce universes that are quite different.


So, after a century of remarkable, truly unprecedented progress in our understanding of nature, we have found ourselves able to probe the universe on scales that were previously unimaginable. We have understood the nature of the Big Bang expansion back to its earliest microseconds and have discovered the existence of hundreds of billions of new galaxies, with hundreds of billions of new stars. We have discovered that 99 percent of the universe is actually invisible to us, comprising dark matter that is most likely some new form of elementary particle, and even more dark energy, whose origin remains a complete mystery at the present time.

Nothing is Something

Newton's work dramatically reduced the possible domain of God's actions, whether or not you attribute any inherent rationality to the universe. Not only did Newton's laws severely constrain the freed of action of a deity, they dispensed with various requirements for supernatural intervention. Newton discovered that the motion of planets around the Sun does not require them to be continually pushed along their paths, but rather, and highly nonintuitively, requires them to be pulled by a force action toward the Sun, thus dispensing of the need for the angels who were often previously invoked as guiding the planets on their way. While dispensing with this particular use of angels has had little impact on people's willingness to believe in them (polls suggest far more people believe in angels in the United States than believe in evolution), it is fair to say that progress in science since Newton has even more severely constrained the available opportunities of the hand of God to be manifest in his implied handiwork.


The Origins Project at Arizona State University, which I direct, recently ran a workshop on the Origin of Life, and I cannot help but view the present cosmological debate in this context. We do not yet fully understand how life originated on Earth. However, we have not only plausible chemical mechanism by which this might be conceivable, but we are also homing in closer and closer every day to specific pathways that might have allowed biomolecules, including RNA, to arise naturally. Moreover, Darwinian evolution, based on natural selection, provides a compellingly accurate picture of how complex life emerged on this planet following whatever specific chemistry produced the first faithfully self-replicating cells with a metabolism that capture energy from their environment. (As good a definition of life as I can come up with for the moment.)

Just as Darwin, albeit reluctantly, removed the need for divine intervention in the evolution of the modern world, teeming with diverse life throughout the planet (though he left the door open to the possibility that God helped breathe life into the first forms), our current understanding of the universe, its past, and its future make it more plausible that "something" can arise of nothing without the need for any divine guidance. Because of the observational and related theoretical difficulties associated with working out the details, I expect we may never achieve more than plausibility in this regard. But plausibility itself, in my view, is a tremendous step forward as we continue to marshal the courage to live meaningful lives in a universe that likely came into existence, and may fade out of existence, without purpose, and certainly without us at its center.

Brave New Worlds

The central problem with the notion of creation is that it appears to require some externality, something outside of the system itself, to preexist, in order to create the conditions necessary for the system to come into being. This is usually where the notion of God - some external agency existing separate from space, time, and indeed from physical reality itself - comes in, because the buck seems to be required to stop somewhere. But in this sense God seems to me to be a rather facile semantic solution to the deep question of creation. I think this is best explained within the context of a slightly different example: the origin of morality, which I first learned from my friend Steven Pinker.


If one argues, as many deeply religious individuals do, that without God there can be no ultimate right and wrong - namely that God determines for us what is right and wrong - one can then ask the questions: What if God decreed that rape and murder were morally acceptable? Would that make them so?

While some might answer yes, I think most believers would say no, God would not make such a decree. But why not? Presumably because God would have some reason for not making such a decree. Again, presumably this is because reason suggest that rape and murder are not morally acceptable. But if God would have to appeal to reason, then why not eliminate the middleman entirely?

We may wish to apply similar reasoning to the creation of our universe. All of the examples I have provided thus far indeed involve creation of something from what one should be tempted to consider as nothing, but the rules for that creation, i.e., the laws of physics, were preordained. Where do the rules come from?

There are two possibilities. Either God, or some divine being who is not bound by the rules, who lives outside of them, determines them - either by whim or with malice aforethought - or they arise by some less supernatural mechanism.

The problem with God determining the rules is that you can at least ask what, or who, determined God's rules. Traditionally the response to this is to say that God is, among the Creator's many other spectacular attributes, the cause of all causes, in the language of the Roman Catholic Church, or the First Cause (as per Aquinas), or in the language of Aristotle, moving the prime mover.


The apparent logical necessity of First Cause is a real issue for any universe that has a beginning. Therefore, on the basis of logic alone one cannot rule out such a deistic view of nature. But even in this case it is vital to realize that this deity bears no logical connection the the personal deities of the world's great religions, in spite of the fact that it is often used to justify them. A deist who is compelled to search for some overarching intelligence to establish order in nature will not, in general, be driven to the personal God of the scriptures by the same logic.


Moreover, those who argue that out of nothing nothing comes seem perfectly content with the quixotic notion that somehow God can get around this. But once again, if one requires that the notion of true nothingness requires not even nonexistence, there must have been the potential for existence. To simply argue that God can do what nature cannot is to argue that supernatural potential for existence is somehow different from regular natural potential for existence. But this seems an arbitrary semantic distinction designed by those who have decided in advance (as theologians are wont to do) that the supernatural must exist so they define their philosophical ideas (once again completely divorced from any empirical basis) to exclude anything but the possibility of a god.

In any case, to posit a god who could resolve this conundrum as I have emphasized numerous time thus far, often is claimed to require that God exists outside the universe and is either timeless or eternal.

Our modern understanding of the universe provides another plausible and, I would argue, far more physical solution to this problem, however, which has some of the same features of an external creator - and moreover is logically more consistent.

I refer here to the multiverse. The possibility that our universe is one of a large, even possibly infinite set of distinct and causally separated universes, in each of which any number of fundamental aspects of physical reality may be different, opens up a vast new possibility for understanding our existence.

As I have mentioned, one of the more distasteful but potentially true implications of these pictures is that physics, at some fundamental level, is merely an environmental science. (I find this distasteful because I was brought up on the idea that the goal of science was to explain why the universe had to be the way it is and how that came to be. If instead the laws of physics as we know them are merely accidents correlated to our existence, then that fundamental goal was misplaced. However, I will get over my prejudice if the idea turns out to be true.) In this case, the fundamental forces and constants of nature in this picture are no more fundamental than the Earth-Sun distance. We find ourselves living on Earth rather than Mars not because there is something profound and fundamental about the Earth-Sun distance, but rather simply Earth were located at a different distance, then life as we know it could have evolved on our planet.

Why is there something rather than nothing? Ultimately, this question may be no more significant or profound than asking why some flowers are red and some are blue. "Something" may always come from nothing. It may be required, independent of the underlying nature of reality. Or perhaps "something" may not be very special or even very common in the multiverse. Either way, what is really useful is not pondering this question, but rather participating in the exciting voyage of discovery that may reveal specifically how the universe in which we live evolved and is evolving and the processes that ultimately operationally govern our existence. That is why we have science. We may supplement this understanding with reflection and call that philosophy. But only via continuing to probe every nook and cranny of the universe that is accessible to us will we truly build a useful appreciation of our own place in the cosmos.


As I have also argued, one person's dream is another person's nightmare. A universe without purpose or guidance may seem, for some, to make life itself meaningless. For others, including me, such a universe is invigorating. It makes the fact of our existence even more amazing, and it motivates us to draw meaning from our own actions and to make the most of our brief existence in the sun, simply because we are here, blessed with consciousness and with the opportunity to do so.


As such, the question itself has been sidelined as we strive in our quest for knowledge. Instead, we are driven to understand the processes that govern nature in a way that allows us to make predictions and, whenever possible, to affect our own future. In so doing, we have discovered that we live in a universe in which empty space -what formerly could have passed for nothing - has a new dynamic that dominates the current evolution of the cosmos. We have discovered that all signs suggest a universe that could and plausibly did arise from a deeper nothing - involving the absence of space itself - and which may one day return to nothing via processes that may not only be comprehensible but also processes that do not require any external control or direction. In this sense, science, as physicist Steven Weinberg has emphasized, does not make it impossible to believe in God, but rather makes is it possible to not believe in God. Without science, everything is a miracle. With science, there remains the possibility that nothing is. Religious belief in this case becomes less and less necessary, and also less and less relevant.


I want to end my discussion by returning to a question that I personally find even more intellectually fascinating than the question of something from nothing. It is the question Einstein asked about whether God had any choice in the creation of the universe. This question provides the basic motivation for almost all research into the fundamental structure of matter, space, and time - the research that has occupied me for much of my professional life.

I used to think there was a stark choice in the answer to this question, but in the process of writing this book, my views have altered. Clearly, if there is a single theory involving a unique set of laws that describes and, indeed, prescribes how our universe came into being and the rules that governed its evolution ever since - the goal of physics since Newton or Galileo - then the answer would appear to be, "No, thing had to be the way they were, and are."

But if our universe is not unique, and it is a part of a vast and possibly infinite multiverse of universe, would the answer to Einstein's question be a resounding "Yes, there is a host of choices for existence"?

I am not so sure. It could be that there is an infinite set of different combinations of laws and varieties of particles and substances and forces and even distinct universes that may arise in such a multiverse. It may be that only a certain very restricted combination, one that results in the universe of the type in which we live or one very much like it, can support the evolution of beings who can ask such a question. Then the answer to Einstein will still remain negative. A God or Nature that could encompass a multiverss would be as constrained in the creation of a universe in which Einstein could ask the question as either would be if there is only one choice of a consistent physical reality.

I find oddly satisfying the possibility that , in either scenario, even a seemingly omnipotent God would have no freedom in the creation of our universe. No doubt because it further suggests that God is unnecessary - or at best redundant.