If Nothing Is Something, A Universe Can Come From Nothing

If Nothing Is Something, A Universe Can Come From Nothing

Somebody asked a Ph.D. astrophysicist, author, and science communicator over at ForbesCan We Really Get A Universe From Nothing?

The biggest question that we’re even capable of asking, with our present knowledge and understanding of the Universe, is where did everything we can observe come from? If it came from some sort of pre-existing state, we’ll want to know exactly what that state was like and how our Universe came from it. If it emerged out of nothingness, we’d want to know how we went from nothing to the entire Universe, and what if anything caused it.

A pre-existing state is not nothing. It is something. And therefore had to be itself created. It had to have a reason for its existence, an explanation. It can not have come from nothing. For nothing cannot create anything.

Anyway, we’ll call the universe all there is. All there is would include that so-called pre-existing state. So we’re back to the original question: Can We Really Get A Universe From Nothing?

The answer is no.

Is an electron nothing? No, it is something. Is gravity nothing? No, it is something.

Well, how about a quark? Is that nothing? No, it is something.

Quarks are big, electrons are huge, and gravity needs stuff, all of which are somethings. And somethings aren’t nothing. So how about a quantum fluctuation? That’s pretty darn small! Is that nothing?

No, it is something. It is a fluctuation of some thing, and a some thing is not nothing. It is something.

But if we graciously allow that something is nothing, in the same sort of way every child wins a trophy for participation, than we can say a universe can come from nothing.

And if we can say that the universe can come from nothing, then we have solved one of the oldest philosophical problems there is. Even better, we have eliminated the need for God to create the universe from nothing, because we have our own official version of nothing, namely very small somethings, from which, physicists say, the universe can come from.

All it took was a little redefinition of words. Not bad for ten minute’s work!

Don’t scoff, because we’re not the first to think of it.

You might be wondering why it’s important to think about these concerns when talking about a Universe from nothing. After all, if your Universe is full of matter and energy, it’s pretty hard to understand how that’s relevant to making sense of the concept of something coming from nothing. But just as our intuition can lead us astray when thinking about matter and energy on the spacetime playing field of General Relativity, it’s a comparable situation when we think about nothingness.

A universe full of matter and energy is not a universe full of nothing. It is full of something and came from something.

You very likely think about nothingness as a philosopher would: the complete absence of everything. Zero matter, zero energy, an absolutely zero value for all the quantum fields in the Universe, etc. You think of space that’s completely flat, with nothing around to cause its curvature anywhere.

If you think this way, you’re not alone: there are many different ways to conceive of “nothing.” You might even be tempted to take away space, time, and the laws of physics themselves, too. The problem, if you start doing that, is that you lose your ability to predict anything at all. The type of nothingness you’re thinking about, in this context, is what we call unphysical.

If we want to think about nothing in a physical sense, you have to keep certain things. You need spacetime and the laws of physics, for example; you cannot have a Universe without them.

Of course, thinking about creating a universe from nothing is not to think in a physical sense at all. Siegel admits this in the link, in the fourth meaning of “nothing” (the first three are all very definition somethings).

But in the context of physics, we cannot make sense of this sort of nothingness. We’d have to assume that there is such a thing as a state outside of space and time, where you can have the emergence of spacetime from this hypothesized state of true nothingness.

Siegel says that in order to solve the problem, it has to be put in physical terms; if it is not in physical terms, physicists can’t solve it; since physicists have to solve it, it has to be in physical terms. And so somethings are defined as nothing.

This is cheating.

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  1. It’s a logical conundrum that “science” cannot avoid, that is the “science” that insists on materialism.

    A great exploration of this theme is in Ray Comfort’s book: Nothing Created Everything.

    “Richard Dawkins is arguably the modern poster boy for Charles Darwin. However, a key difference radically separates the two men. Darwin believed in the existence of God and calls God the Creator seven times in The Origin of Species. Dawkins, in contrast, claims, The more you understand the significance of evolution, the more you are pushed…towards atheism. It seems Professor Dawkins thinks Charles Darwin didn’t understand his own theory.Just months after the 2009 discovery of the supposed missing link, author Ray Comfort turns the tables on evolutionists. In Nothing Created Everything, he examines the evidence for evolution and shows it is lacking. He demonstrates that when it comes to explaining how life began, atheists and evolutionists offer faith not facts. Ironically, atheists insist nothing created everything, a scientific impossibility.In a conversational tone, Comfort speaks to both atheists and believers and urges this discussion be based on hard evidence. And when it is, he insists, people will realize evolution is a theory that can’t be tested or measured and therefore can’t be scientific.”


  2. tom

    The something-from-nothing argument is why physicists initially resisted the big-bang, and the expanding universe. They desperately sought to avoid a creation event for theological reasons.

    However later developments in quantum-gravity may have come to their rescue. The Wheeler-DeWitt equation reveals the universe to be in an eigenstate of its Hamiltonian, which means that, taken as a whole, it is at rest. Time is not a quantum observable, rather an emergent phenomenon within an timeless universe.

  3. How did I become immeasurably rich while sitting at home? It’s easy! (Doctors hate me!) First, Define “Immeasurably Rich” as having a roof over my head and a beer in my hands. Then: That’s it! You did it! Congratulations! That’s all for now, I need to write to my cousin Buford and ask for rent money again.

  4. Shecky R

    and thus, there can be no such thing as ‘first causes’…

  5. swordfishtrombone

    “A pre-existing state is not nothing. It is something. And therefore had to be itself created.”

    Why can’t it ‘just exist’? Your explanation is that it has been created by a God which has no explanation, so that doesn’t get you anywhere.

    “It can not have come from nothing. For nothing cannot create anything.”

    What Nothing? There isn’t any evidence that this Nothing ever ‘existed’, and a state of absolute nothing can’t have any qualities at all, including any rules invented by you telling it what it can or cannot do.

  6. Kevin

    Shecky R, could you elaborate on how the conclusion of this piece is that there can be no such thing as first causes? It seems to actually demand a first cause, IMHO.

  7. swordfishtrombone

    @ Kent Clizbe,

    “author Ray Comfort turns the tables on evolutionists…”

    I can’t believe you’re seriously appealing to a book by Ray “bananas prove creationism” Comfort. The guy is a laughing stock. Even the blurb you quote is misleading. Darwin was a Christian but by the time he’d finished On The Origin of Species he’d largely abandoned his faith, so Comfort’s point there fails. Also, evolution is a theory which has been supported by a mountain of evidence and which has been tested, contrary to Comfort’s lies.

  8. Gary

    So this is why I heard the 1974 Billy Preston song on the radio during my drive to work this morning.

    “Nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin’ You gotta have somethin’ if you want to be with me.”

  9. Swordfish,

    Believe it….or not!

    Your name-calling is an “ad hominem” attack and is meaningless.

    “Nothing created everything.” is so blatantly illogical that just title destroys materialist mumbo-jumbo blathering.

    The cosmo-babbler in the Colbert link above spends 8 minutes destroying his own illogical babbling with hand-waving attempts to “explain” how “Nothing created everything.” For the materialists, at least that one, his explanation is “quantum mechanics.” Oh, okay.

    Please share the “evidence” for “nothing created everything.”

    And also please do share the “mountain of evidence…which has been tested, ” in support of evolution.

    Be careful though. This line of reasoning could lead you to reject PC-Progressive pieties. You wouldn’t be accepted at the best soiress in PC-land then.


  10. DAV

    henry higgins,

    Clueless? Your clip illustrstes the pitfall of dumbing down a complex subject. There is evidence that the universe is expanding faster than expected and the rate is increasing. This seems to indicate that creation is ongoing.

    Why Colbert sees this as an attack on “his” God (implying there is more than one) is incomprehensible.


  11. DAV

    “Nothing created everything.” is so blatantly illogical …

    And being created by an eternal God is not? You want evidence of Krauss’s view but not for the God-did-it view. Why?

  12. Kip Hansen

    Briggs ==> There is a lot of cheating going on in physics, metaphysics, epidemiology, climate, psychology…..

    It comes in the course of Feynman’s “fooling oneself” — we all do it in the minor inconsequential things of life . . . . but in science it is a true destroyer.

  13. swordfishtrombone

    @ Kent Clizbe,

    “Your name-calling is an “ad hominem” attack and is meaningless.”

    Technically, yes. Sometimes it’s justified though. For a proper, short debunking, try this:


    “Please share the “evidence” for “nothing created everything.”

    I’m not claiming that nothing created everything, I’m claiming that there isn’t any reason to think the universe was created.

    “And also please do share the “mountain of evidence…which has been tested” in support of evolution.”

    Ah, the old “show me 160 years of scientific work in a blog comment” tactic. Go to Google Scholar and type in “evolution”. You’ll get over 5.5 million hits.

  14. Plantagenet

    Oh I know it’s pointless but here goes;
    Swordfish-“…a God which has no explanation” really are you actually putting that forward? Here on a website which is more or less premised on the notions of the explanations for God…amongst other things. I don’t really see how you could have missed it as it’s been pretty ubiquitous around here. The explanations are many and their explainers have been many: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, heck a whole battalion of excerpts from Aquinas which runs each week, Maimonides (if you’re feeling kosher), Kierkegaard (if you don’t mind the Scandinavian gloom), Elizabeth Anscombe (possibly the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century some have said). Furthermore references and suggestions aplenty directing those interested to popular contemporary commentators like Feser, David Bentley Hart, William Lane Craig etc…This is all just teeniest of tips to the gargantuan library of explanations for God.
    However perhaps what you intended, or implied, was that you don’t accept the explanation(s). Ah but that’s a completely different thing and you should have been a tad more clear about it. Though it does sort of suggest you have read and engaged the “experts” and found them wanting. I fear I have certain reservations on that score. There is something…dare I say it…Jerry Coynesque…in some of the comments. Well I may be wrong.
    In fact the fourth paragraph of your first posting is a very good start towards a superb argument/explanation for the existence of God.

  15. DAV,

    Intoning “quantum mechanics” and pooh-poohing God is not “proof.”

    Logic is logic, even if the result is identification of an unknown.

    Evidence of intelligenct design is all around us. From the macro to the micro, things and processes fit and produce results. The more we know–the deeper we delve into the cell, for example–the more evidence of design is uncovered.

    Darwin thought that cells were gelatinous protoplasm. We now know that each cell is a veritable city–with machines protecting it, producing food, eliminating waste, creating unimaginably complex programs for reproducing, and more. Because Darwin did not know what was happening inside a cell did not make it go away. The processes were there, he was just ignorant of them.

    If you stumbled across a set of encyclopedias, arranged A-Z, in the middle of a desert, could you deduce anything about that object? Sure–logically, we can deduce that an Intelligence designed and produced it. Even if we cannot see the Intelligence, the evidence is clear.

    Logic. Evidence. Try it, you’ll like it!

  16. Swordfish,

    Ok, so you’re saying you don’t have any evidence.

    Type “Freudian psychology” in Bing and you get 18 million hits.

    That does not make it real, true, or useful.

    Happy to help!

  17. DAV

    Logic is logic, even if the result is identification of an unknown.

    Indeed. The increasing rate of expansion of the universe can be seen as indicative of something from nothing. It’s just a theory at this point but no more illogical an the God creation idea.

    As for intelligent design, I see no compelling evidence. Not even sure why it has come up.

    Logic. Evidence. Try it, you’ll like it!

    What’s good for thehorse is good for the gander.

  18. DAV

    What’s good for the horse?
    I should do better editing.

  19. Evidence is all around you.

    For those who care to see.

    And those who dare to see.

    If you don’t care, nor dare, then climb aboard the train the popular kids are all riding. It’s fun for the horse, and the gander!

  20. Ye Olde Statistician

    There isn’t any evidence that this Nothing ever ‘existed’,

    Of course not. If it had existed, it would be some thing. Ex nihilo, nihil fit.

    It might be well to ask what the philosophers meant by creatio ex nihilo before nattering on. As Stephen Barr, a particle physicist, pointed out, “a quantum state is not nothing. It is a quantum state.” Barr is author of Modern Physics, Ancient Faith.

    We might start by contrasting creation with transformation. The latter means that some matter has taken on a new form. For example, two hydrogen atoms have been fused into a helium atom, or an atom of chlorine has electromagnetically joined with a sodium atom into the form of salt. Or that a subpopulation of a species in the form of ape has been transformed into one in the form of man.

    In all such cases, the transformation requires some prior matter capable of receiving the new form: hydrogen atoms, H. habilus, and so forth. None of these transformations is a creation, except analogically.

    First causes are not first-in-time, but first-in-logic. Imagine an eternal globe illuminated by an eternal lamp. The lamp is still the cause of the illumination, even though it does not precede the globe in time.

  21. Sander van der Wal


    An expanding universe is only a matter of ongoing creation if space itself needs creating to make more of it. Space could also be stretched, for instance. If that actually means something.

    Then there is time. Time passes, does that mean that time is created too, all the time?

  22. DAV

    Sander van der Wal,

    I don’t doubt there are alternate explanations. I was merely pointing out that Krauss was neither clueless nor illogical.

  23. Sheri

    Why can there not be a something that has always existed? The universe could then be created by/developed from/ whatever term you like, said “something”. I cannot see that we must start with the premise that “nothing” had to exist at one time and “something” could not have been there all along. The Big Bang creates the simplistic notion that there was a beginning to time and space, but there are no unchangeable rules that say that (yes, it probably violates quantum theory, space-time and all that, and Einstein would be unhappy, but he could be wrong with his theory). Technically, infinity and eternity stretch in both/all directions forward, backward, sideways. There need not be a “start” or a “source”.

  24. Mark


    “Why can’t it ‘just exist’?”

    Sounds like you’re talking about a “steady state” universe, which was popular back in the days before the Big Bang theory and all that. It has its own problems like infinite regression in terms of cause & effect and so on, but suffice it to say it’s fallen out of favour as the evidence of the Big Bang has mounted.

    “What Nothing? There isn’t any evidence that this Nothing ever ‘existed’, and a state of absolute nothing can’t have any qualities at all, including any rules invented by you telling it what it can or cannot do.”

    Go find a good library and learn about logic perhaps? This is very muddied thinking at best. In trying to say that God had no part in all this you’ve thrown out everything, right down to the most basic axioms of logic. “Nothing can’t have any qualities, including ones that limit what can happen, therefore anything can happen, like the spontaneous creation of a universe. Haha, Christians BTFO by !SCIENCE! again!”

    = = =


    Per our best understanding of the laws of nature, you run into the problem of infinite regression, among other things. You need something supernatural (ie, above nature) to fix this problem. First Cause, Prime Mover… there have been various names for this, but when you have people like Aristotle saying “this is a problem”… it’s a problem 😉 .

  25. DAV

    you run into the problem of infinite regression, among other things. You need something supernatural (ie, above nature) to fix this problem. First Cause, Prime Mover…

    It’s “solved” by assuming it got started by something supernatural? How does this differ from “beats me”?

    Does this supernatural something have to be eternal thus you don’t have to explain how it itself got started? If so, why can’t it simply be some eternal superuniverse and what we perceive as THE universe originated from it?

    people like Aristotle saying “this is a problem”… it’s a problem

    Aristotle also thought there were five elements. If he was wrong about that then what else did he get wrong?

  26. C-Marie

    The “first cause” argument is …..an argument for the existence of God. (thank you dictionary.com)asserting the necessity of an uncaused cause of all subsequent series of causes, on the assumption that an infinite regress is impossible.

    Or much easier, just believe God and His Word in the Gospel of John: Chapter 1.

    Man’s reasoning can attain much, but God’s wisdom is so far above us, that we can only know Him and about Him as Creator and more, because of His revelations to us.
    So go on trying to figure all of this out, or just accept Him.
    God bless, C-Marie

  27. swordfishtrombone

    @ Kent Klizbe

    “Ok, so you’re saying you don’t have any evidence.”

    You put words in my mouth then crow that I don’t have any evidence for the words which I didn’t say. Impressive ethics.

    “Type “Freudian psychology” in Bing and you get 18 million hits.”

    You ask for evidence, then dismiss all of it on the grounds that someone working in a completely unrelated field made false claims. By that logic, I can dismiss all the evidence for ID – or at least I could if there was any.

  28. swordfishtrombone

    @ Plantagenet,

    “The explanations [for God] are many and their explainers have been many:”

    I’ve read most of them. So far as I’m aware, the only explanation they give for _why_ God exists (as opposed to arguments _that_ he exists) is that he’s a “necessary being” which is really just a pretentious way of saying he “just exists”. This is why I’m saying that invoking God doesn’t actually explain anything.

    “In fact the fourth paragraph of your first posting is a very good start towards a superb argument/explanation for the existence of God.”

    No, it’s an argument for the existence of something rather than nothing, not an argument for a disembodied intelligence with anger management issues.

  29. Mark


    “It’s “solved” by assuming it got started by something supernatural? How does this differ from “beats me”?”

    “Beats me” isn’t really an answer, it’s just “I don’t know”, whereas “an eternal, super-natural First Cause” or w/e provides at least two pieces of information (eternal, and above the laws of nature). We know, or at least have good reason to believe, more than we do than when we just shrug our shoulders.

    “Does this supernatural something have to be eternal thus you don’t have to explain how it itself got started? If so, why can’t it simply be some eternal superuniverse and what we perceive as THE universe originated from it?”

    Could be – Iain M Banks had something like this in his Culture novels to explain where universes come from. You need more than this to get to God.

    “Aristotle also thought there were five elements. If he was wrong about that then what else did he get wrong?”

    There’s a difference between getting something wrong because you lack data, and getting something wrong because your logic is faulty.

  30. Jennifer

    I couldn’t have said it better… No really I couldn’t ????? Seigel has turned into as pompous ass who overly uses his blog to call out everyone they pisses him off for the day. He’s a pompous Star Trek nerd…I mean come on… That’s pretty concerning in itself.

  31. DAV

    “Beats me” isn’t really an answer

    Neither is “eternal supernatural something”. It’s just assigning a name to “beats me” — much like saying thunder is Thor pounding his hammer.

  32. Brian Ballard

    Something can’t come from nothing.
    Ok, where did God come from?
    He just always existed
    Ok, then the laws of physics could have always existed.
    No, only God, and my God at that.
    Special pleading at its best.
    And ironically, the laws of physics actually have been proven to exist now, whereas no God ever has.

  33. henry higgins

    Sword, There are tons of conflicting evidence for tons of conflicting evolution theories. That is true. If you are familiar with the JEDP theory of the Pentateuch you know the analogous situation: A ton of scholars agree on the Documentary Theory and when they actually each dissect according to that theory, you SEE that they are in almost total conflict. Sorta of like the reasons several million guys did not marry my sister.

  34. henry higgins


    Logically your statement about Colbert reduces to the contention that no atheists laughed when he said that !! They laughed plenty. Do some research. Lawrence Krauss is considered a moron by a multivarious and teeming crowd 🙂

  35. henry higgins


    Here is an atheist so incensed with the stupidity that Colbert attacked in Krauss — so mad that he wrote a book against his foolishness
    Atheist David Albert destroying Dumb New Book by naïve Atheist Krauss

    Here is a quote that should send you looking for strychnine:

    Krauss has written a book whose main impact, apart from making him money and feeding confirmation bias in the target audience, is that religious people have yet more evidence proving that scientists and science writers simply do not understand the issues properly and have reduced themselves to selling mediocre books to a semi-intellectual new “third culture” mob of know it all loudmouths ridiculing all other religions but their own: naïve scientism.

    But all there is to say about this, as far as I can see, is that Krauss is dead wrong and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right.

    So DAV, swallow or repent 🙂

  36. henry higgins

    You are arguing against a definition not against an argument. One can only term a First Cause ‘supernatural’ — that is what the word means !! What a First Cause (whether you call it God or something else ) causes must be ‘nature’ as that would be what exists and what YOU call ‘nature’

  37. henry higgins


    “Nothing” etymologically is not like Poopsie, Rover, or Mae West — it was a denial of a thing : “No thing” . You have turned a privative into its opposite. So for example “childless” is privative, it has NOT positive content, else you could say (well, you could. I couldn’t): That toaster is childless.

    If you want to think about this, ask yourself whether a blind man sees nothing or he sees ‘black’. He cannot see ‘black’ because he CANNOT SEE. If he regained sight he might say of black “that is what my sightlessness was like”.

  38. Sam Salah

    We could discuss this subject for
    eternity to no avail. We simply don’t have the logic required to
    answer the question of existence.
    However ,a superior being can.
    We may call it god

    _He has also set eternity in the
    hearts of men ; that they can never
    fathom the work of God from
    beginning to end.

    Ecclesiastes 3:11

  39. DAV

    Dearest henry,

    You forgot the maniacal BWAHAHAHAHA. Still, has anyone told you how cute you are when you are like this?

  40. swordfishtrombone

    @ Mark,

    “Sounds like you’re talking about a “steady state” universe, which was popular back in the days before the Big Bang theory and all that.”

    No, I’m assuming the Big Bang happened. We don’t currently know what happened _before_ the Big Bang, but even if nothing happened before, my point is the same. Something can have a beginning (and end) but still ‘just exist’.

    “Go find a good library and learn about logic perhaps? This is very muddied thinking at best. In trying to say that God had no part in all this you’ve thrown out everything, right down to the most basic axioms of logic.”

    I’ve already said that I don’t see any reason to suppose there was ever a Nothing state from which the universe would need to be created, but supposing there was, and supposing that the laws of logic applied to it, then what law of logic says that something cannot come from nothing?

    (@ Mark to @ Sheri)

    “Per our best understanding of the laws of nature, you run into the problem of infinite regression, among other things.”

    No. There’s nothing in any laws of nature which say that time can’t be infinite.

  41. swordfishtrombone

    @ Sheri,

    “Why can there not be a something that has always existed? [etc]”

    Must be something wrong here because I find myself in agreement with almost everything you said. High five!

  42. Mark

    Participating in a sporting event is not nothing just because you dont win. And the assertion that the pre existing state had to be created assumes away the fundamental question. Why would that be true?

  43. DG

    I agree Briggs, something cannot come nothing or in more specific terms, a non-existent thing cannot come into being without anything real making it happen. Non-existent things simply can’t bring themselves into existence all on their own. We would live in a totally lawless world if non-existent things could just pop into existence at random without explanation.

  44. Dean Ericson

    Whoa, 44 comments on “nothing”.


  45. C-Marie

    Perhaps keep in mind, that Jesus really rose from the dead, and if anyone needs more proof that God is, well, that Resurrection is the ultimate proof that God is.
    We can choose to believe that really happened, or not, but the “not” is at our own peril of possibly being called from this earth without the change of mind and heart necessary for salvation. God is wholly merciful, and we are to respond to His mercy towards us, and to His Love. Just below, verse 31, especially.

    “19 Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. 20 And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, 21 and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. 22 Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us. 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ 31 But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’ ” Luke 16: 19-31.

    God bless, C-Marie

  46. Bob

    What a pointless article. Instead of adding something meaningful to the conversation you just spun in circles.

  47. DAV

    Dean Ericson,

    Yup. Just like Seinfeld, the show about nothing.

  48. Salvus

    It may be useful to talk a little about physics, and its relation to supernatural notions.

    Physics can be viewed as a rather mundane discipline in the sense that it is strictly limited to concepts that fit a certain simple-minded paradigm, elucidated nicely by Feynman. It is comprised of three simple steps.
    1. From various observations and thought, formulate a theory (Feynman called this a guess) which is a conceptual notion about how some phenomenon works. (How, definitely not why, it works that way.)
    2. Express the theory in mathematical terms such that the mathematical formulation predicts the results of controlled experiments (typically within a laboratory, but possibly larger, say among spacecraft) in non-arbitrary specific and definite quantities. These quantities need to be expressed in units (e.g. kilograms, meters, seconds, charge, etc.) which have previously been well defined and for which laboratory experiments exist to standardize the units for inter-comparison of results.
    3. Perform controlled laboratory experiments and compare the results against the predictions. If the predictions and the results agree as far as can be resolved with experimental accuracies, then the theory is assessed to be not wrong for the time being. Such a theory is considered useful for predictions as far as is known, but it is never considered “true” or “proven.” It simply survived the most recent test.

    Several requirements of this mundane paradigm should be made clear. First, it is necessary to express the theory in mathematical terms. Besides the need for math to calculate quantities to compare to experiments, this is needed so that anyone can replicate the predictions of the theory doing their own calculations. The predictions cannot depend on a specific individual or individuals making predictions and then only when the “vibes” are right. Second, the predictions need to be non-arbitrary in the sense that they predict the same result for the same experiment regardless of who does the calculation and the prediction does not depend on or change as a result of doing an experiment.

    This is a very brief statement of the relatively simple-minded discipline of physics. It has been remarkably successful at providing the capability to predict (within appropriate accuracies) many things that we observe in our world as well as the outcomes of things that we construct to our benefit such as x-ray machines, land, sea and air vehicles, rockets, spacecraft, various electronic devices, etc.

    Focusing on laboratory experiments and putting aside for the moment interpretation of observations (such as distant astronomical objects) of systems we cannot perform in the laboratory, it is useful to examine the relationship between supernatural notions and physics. Remember that physics strictly limits itself to the simple-minded task of quantitatively predicting outcomes of experiments in a non-arbitrary fashion. A good example is the hydrogen atom, ubiquitous in our everyday world.

    Around the turn of the last century, Ernest Rutherford did some experiments that agreed with predictions of theories then current only if the positive charge in atoms was densely concentrated and the negative charge was distributed somehow around it less densely. The presence of positive and negative charges in atoms had been previously found to agree with experimental outcomes, but the distribution of the charges was what Rutherford’s experiment determined accorded with predictions using a dense positive and diffuse negative charge. Further, electrons and protons had previously been observed and found to accord with predictions of Maxwell’s equations assuming the electron and proton to have certain masses and behave more or less like particles of mass with charge somehow embedded. Given these theory-prediction agreements, the theory of the hydrogen atom proposed was that it consisted of a proton with an electron orbiting around it. This theory combined the previously useful theories of classical mechanics with the also very useful electrodynamics resident in Maxwell’s equations.

    Now a problem arose in physics, much like problems we may have today interpreting observations of distant things compared to what we do in the laboratory. The difference with the hydrogen atom was that we could do more experiments with it in the lab and compare directly to predictions of theory. The theory available at the time, of an electron orbiting a proton, using the then current theories of mechanics and electrodynamics, predicted that a hydrogen atom should radiate energy, since it was a time varying dipole and was composed of charges under acceleration. This radiation in other contexts had been measured and found to agree well with Maxwell. This theory predicted that a hydrogen atom should radiate energy and in so doing, its orbit would decay (due to the energy loss) in about 1e-11 seconds. Which would mean there would be no hydrogen in the world, it would all decay essentially instantaneously. This was clearly contradicted by observations since the hydrogen lifetime is observed to be very large, perhaps infinite (infinity and physics might be discussed in a later comment). Further, electromagnetic radiation emitted by hydrogen atoms while decaying should have comprised a continuously changing spectrum, but hydrogen is observed to emit radiation at only very specific, relatively few, wavelengths.

    Now imagine that we are at that point in time and wondering what to make of all this. One possible explanation is that a supernatural entity has ordained that in atoms accelerating charges shalt not radiate. This is by presumption perfectly possible for an all-powerful entity to do. This is a logically consistent explanation for “why” hydrogen is observed to be stable. However, this explanation does not fit within the simple-minded paradigm of physics, which would then ask what is the mathematical formulation of this theory and what are the specific predictions it makes for the observed wavelengths of radiation from hydrogen and other atoms. If it cannot produce such predictions, then it may be useful and satisfying in some way for philosophers or religious thinkers, but it is not useful for physicists. Physics took the more mundane route of observing the wavelengths of emission, guessing different mathematical formulas that might fit the data (for example Balmer’s empirical integer series formula for the discrete wavelengths emitted by hydrogen). Finally, the guessing proceeded to the notion that angular momentum was quantized or that the so-called action was quantized and mathematical expressions of this theory predicted outcomes that agreed fairly well with experiments. Further guessing resulted in a theory that we now know as quantum mechanics, which has been fairly successful predicting outcomes of future experiments.

    For a physicist, the question of “why” does quantum mechanics work is (within physics) irrelevant, the only question is how well it works predicting experiments. The notion of a supernatural entity being the reason “why” it works is also irrelevant(within physics), unless that notion produces a mathematically expressed theory that can predict outcomes of future experiments for comparison. If the supernatural notion does not predict any outcomes not predicted by the mundane theory, then it is irrelevant as far as physics goes. In fact, any of a variety of such supernatural notions have the same status. One could envision fights over which supernatural entity ordained such a thing, but it would be irrelevant to physics.

    A similar state of affairs existed at the time of Galileo, when improvements in telescopes allowed observations that seemed to be at odds with predictions based on a theory that the earth was the center of the universe. At that time, some religious authorities held that a supernatural entity had ordained that the earth was the center, not the sun, but Galileo (and others) found that theory increasingly at odds with observations. In this particular case, the specifics of the supernaturally based concept allowed it to be compared directly with increasingly improved observations and it simply turned out that the supernaturally based theory had to be discarded as being in conflict with observations. Since then of course, we have been able to turn the solar system into a laboratory with artificial satellites, space probes, etc. and found that the sun centered solar system (because of the observed large mass of the sun) agrees very well with observed motions within the solar system.

    All of this says nothing about any moral or spiritual or even logical aspects of supernaturally based theories, since the focus here is on physics. The only issue is the relevance of supernatural notions to physics and vice versa. The point one should take away is that they are apples and oranges.

    In a later comment, I hope to address the issue of interpretation of observations we make of phenomena remote in either space or time, which we cannot replicate in the laboratory and hence try to interpret in terms of the physics we measure in laboratory experiments. In addition, I hope to comment a little bit on formal logic and its relation to all this. The intention is to clarify the distinction between physics and the supernatural and the relevance of the notions of “something” and “nothing” as discussed in this blog post, not to vilify or glorify anything.

  49. DAV


    Before you run off on another tangent, physics does indeed ask why and searches for explanations.

    For example, one might ask why is there thunder or put another way, what causes it? One might observe that it appears associated with lightning but sometimes one sees lightning but hears no thunder and sometimes there is thunder without lightning. So, one must first define what is meant by “appears associated”. This is where math comes in handy. Once you have a mathematical model you can make testable predictions.

    There islittle point in delving into why lighting could cause thunder until you establish that it actually does (or probably does) by observations matching your predictions.

    You call this a simple-minded paradigm but, to me. the supernatural explanation (such as Thor’s hammer) is the simple-minded one. It cannot be tested or verified. It’s a dead end.

    A model is only as good as its predictions. If observations are made that aren’t predicted then the model is questioned and the why part goes into action until another theory explains them.

    Even so, there are some who are delving into questions such as what is time and can the universe have created itself. There is another post which links a video on a theory of this. Currently it isn’t at the point of making predictions.

    In any case, each physical model is attempting to establish cause of observations which is the why.

    As for Galileo, he wasn’t really bucking doctrine. In fact, the pope himself encouraged Galileo to publish. The only stipulations were he couldn’t claim his idea was proven (which it wasn’t) and to publish it as a hypothetical. His downfall came about because he went out of his way to publicly insult the pope. The world’s first recorded nerd.

  50. Salvus

    As to Galileo, his case warrants more than a couple of lines dismissing the whole matter as simply a case of personal grievance. To do so ignores the essential content of the case against Galileo and the subsequent prohibition on not just his, but virtually all other expressions contrary to church doctrine.
    Unfortunately, it takes more than a couple of lines to discuss the case.

    Many have studied the internal church personalities and political intrigues contributing to Galileo’s inquisition. Pope Urban certainly played a major part. As late as Galileo’s audience in 1624 with Urban, the relationship was amicable and even friendly, and that meeting stimulated Galileo to begin writing his Dialogue, which would take the next six years or so. One can also be aware that the prosecution of Galileo was technically conducted by the Roman Inquisition, not the Papal office itself, and the judgements and verdicts were not interpreted as Papal edicts (potentially imbued with Papal infallibility). As late as February 1630, Urban issued a formal salute to Galileo for his “honest life and morals and other praiseworthy merits of uprightness and virtue,” and bestowed on him a small pension. However, when the printed Dialogue arrived in Rome in summer 1632 Urban had no time to read it since he was enmeshed in battles in the Thirty Years War and he was being accused of not defending the faith strenuously enough in that fighting. Instead, now anonymous advisers (many being longstanding enemies of Galileo) reportedly assured him that the character of Simplicio espoused Urban’s views and constituted a personal insult, resulting in an official order to the inquisitor that the Dialogue could no longer be sold and ordered that Galileo appear before the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Clearly personal vagaries and intrigues led to Galileo’s delivery to the Inquisition, but the substance of the matter was the espousal of opinions contrary to church doctrine.

    In fact, the conduct and verdict of the Inquisition focused entirely on the fact that the official church position was that the earth and not the sun was the center of the universe and that Galileo had disobeyed a direct order not to espouse it. When Galileo finally appeared for inquisition on April 12, 1633, the inquisitors asked him in no uncertain terms about the injunction given to him on this matter at a meeting he had [in 1616] with Cardinal Bellarmino and a collection of representatives of the Holy Office to wit “…the Cardinal admonished the said Galileo of the error of the above-mentioned opinion [that the earth not the sun was the center of the universe] and warned him to abandon it….gave Galileo a precept and ordered him in the name of His Holiness and the whole body of the Holy Office to the effect that the said opinion that the sun is the center of the universe and the earth moves must be entirely abandoned, nor might he from then on in any way hold, teach or defend it by word or in writing; otherwise the Holy Office would proceed against him.” In this first session there ensued a discussion about exactly what the injunction said and whether Galileo intended to and did actually follow the correct procedures to obtain permission to publish, in particular had he informed the approval authorities of the injunction given to him. In his final answer on that day, Galileo stated “ I did not happen to discuss that command with the Master of the Sacred Palace when I asked for the imprimatur, for I did not think it necessary to say anything, because I had not doubts about it; for I have neither maintained nor defended in that book the opinion that the earth moves and that the sun is stationary but have rather demonstrated the opposite of the Copernican opinion and shown that the arguments of Copernicus are weak and inconclusive.” This statement posed a quandary for the Inquisitors since Galileo’s enemies (the advisers) had been forcefully arguing that the Dialogue indeed does show (without explicitly stating) that the Copernican view is more supported by evidence and logic. Urban himself is reported to have inserted himself in the process, trying to reconcile his longtime friendship with Galileo, charges that he was not strenuously enough defending the faith in a variety of venues, and advisers claiming that part of the Dialogue was a personal insult to the Pope.

    The inquisition proceeded until sentence was pronounced on June 22. It is worth quoting that sentence at some length.

    ” Whereas you, Galileo, son of the late Vaincenzo Galilei, Florentine, aged seventy years, were in the year 1615 denounced to this Holy Office for holding as true the false doctrine taught by some that the Sun is the center of the world and immovable and that the Earth moves, and also with a diurnal motion; for having disciples to whom you taught the same doctrine; for holding correspondence with certain mathematicians of Germany concerning the same; for having printed certain letters, entitled “On the Sunspots,” wherein you developed the same doctrine as true; and for replying to the objections from the Holy Scriptures, which from time to time were urged against it, by glossing the said Scriptures according to your own meaning: and whereas there was thereupon produced the copy of a document in the form of a letter, purporting to be written by you to one formerly your disciple, and in this divers propositions are set forth, following the position of Copernicus, which are contrary to the true sense and authority of Holy Scripture:

    This Holy Tribunal being therefore of intention to proceed against the disorder and mischief thence resulting, which went on increasing to the prejudice of the Holy Faith, by command of His Holiness and of the Most Eminent Lords Cardinals of this supreme and universal Inquisition, the two propositions of the stability of the Sun and the motion of the Earth were by the theological Qualifiers qualified as follows:

    The proposition that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from its place is absurd and false philosophically and formally heretical, because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scripture.

    The proposition that the Earth is not the center of the world and immovable but that it moves, and also with a diurnal motion, is equally absurd and false philosophically and theologically considered at least erroneous in faith.”

    […various recountings of the course of the inquisition…]

    “We say, pronounce, sentence, and declare that you, the said Galileo, by reason of the matters adduced in trial, and by you confessed as above, have rendered yourself in the judgment of this Holy Office vehemently suspected of heresy, namely, of having believed and held the doctrine—which is false and contrary to the sacred and divine Scriptures—that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west and that the Earth moves and is not the center of the world; and that an opinion may be held and defended as probably after it has been declared and defined to be contrary to the Holy Scripture; and that consequently you have incurred all the censures and penalties imposed and promulgated in the sacred canons and other constitutions, general and particular, against such delinquents. From which we are content that you be absolved, provided that, first, with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, you abjure, curse, and detest before us the aforesaid errors and heresies and every other error and heresy contrary to the Catholic and Apostolic Roman Church in the form to be prescribed by us for you.”

    Galileo was required to kneel, read and sign a public confession affirming his faith and admitting his crime, heresy. A partial quote from his abjuration is as follows:

    ” I, Galileo Galilei, son of the late Vincenzio Galilei of Florence, aged seventy years, being brought personally to judgement, and kneeling before you, Most Eminent and Most Reverend Lords, Cardinals, General Inquisitors of the Universal Christian Republic against heretical depravity, having before my eyes the Holy Gospels which I touch with my own hands, swear that I have always believed, and, with the help of God, will in future believe, every article which the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome holds, teaches, and preaches. But because I have been enjoined, by this Holy Office, altogether to abandon the false opinion which maintains that the sun is the center of the world and immovable, and forbidden to hold, defend, or teach the said false doctrine in any manner; and because, after it had been signified to me that the said doctrine is repugnant to the Holy Scripture, I have written and printed a book, in which I treat of the same condemned doctrine, and adduce reasons with great force in support of the same, without giving any solution, and therefore have been judged grievously suspected of heresy ; that is to say, that I held and believed that the sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center and movable, I am willing to remove from the minds of your Eminences, and of every Catholic Christian, this vehement suspicion rightly entertained towards me, therefore, with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I abjure, curse, and detest the said errors and heresies, and generally every other error and sect contrary to the said Holy Church ; and I swear that I will nevermore in future say or assert anything, verbally or in writing, which may give rise to a similar suspicion of me ; but that if I shall know any heretic, or anyone suspected of heresy, I will denounce him to this Holy Office, or to the Inquisitor and Ordinary of the place in which I may be. I swear, moreover, and promise that I will fulfil and observe fully all the penances which have been or shall be laid on me by this Holy Office. But if it shall happen that I violate any of my said promises, oaths, and protestations (which God forbid!), I subject myself to all the pains and punishments which have been decreed and promulgated by the sacred canons and other general and particular constitutions against delinquents of this description. So, may God help me, and His Holy Gospels, which I touch with my own hands, I, the above-named Galileo Galilei, have abjured, sworn, promised, and bound myself as above ; and, in witness thereof, with my own hand have subscribed this present writing of my abjuration, which I have recited word for word.”

    Galileo’s Dialogue was entered into the Index of prohibited works (and promptly became a very hot, much desired commodity throughout Europe). Despite rapid progress in astronomy and publication of Newton’s law of universal gravitation in 1687, the prohibition of Galileo’s Dialogue was not formally dropped from the index of prohibited documents until 1757. It would take another 200 years before the Catholic Commission for the Study of the Ptolemaic-Copernican Controversy issued in 1984 the preliminary finding that Galileo was right and in 1992 Pope John Paul II formally absolved Galileo.

    Interestingly enough the Pope (John Paul II) stated something close to the topic of this post, that there are two realms of knowledge, ?one which has its source in Revelation and one which reason can discover by its own power.? He said the two realms are distinct, but should not be considered opposite. Which is fairly close to my earlier statement about apples and oranges.

    It would be somewhat myopic to claim that the case of Galileo is simply a case of personal insult with no significance for the overarching intellectual tension between religion and science.

    As to the comments about “why” versus “how” in physics, it will take a bit more time to discuss that fairly. I hope to do that sometime soon as a part of addressing the difference between the practice of physics as dependent on controlled experiment in a laboratory versus using physics to interpret observations we make of phenomena outside of the laboratory, such as most astronomy and cosmology (as well as weather and climate). That will lead into clarifying the issue of “something” versus “nothing”.

    For now, I would point out that the why/how issue relates most clearly to the theories within physics itself, not the use of physics to interpret uncontrolled observations. (For the latter, the why/how issue is the same, but some care is needed to understand the nature of using physics in an explanatory fashion.) For example, the current theory within physics would say that inertial mass and gravitational mass are the same, and it is measured to be the same with as much accuracy as we currently have. “Why” this is the case is not a question physics concerns itself with, it is enough that the theory expresses how masses interact. Unless and until experiments demonstrate they are not the same, the question is irrelevant to physics. (This is not to say people should not or do not speculate on such “why” questions. Many do and find it enlightening or entertaining, but it is not physics.) Similarly with the theory that says the gravitational force depends on the inverse square of the distance, or that light travels at a specific speed, obtained from Maxwell’s equations as 1 over the square root of (epsilon naught times mu naught), where epsilon and mu are fundamental constants. If experiments show that some of these things are wrong, the approach of physics is to then try to guess a theory that explains how the phenomena work and predict the new experimental results. “Why” a theory predicts the outcomes is outside of physics.

  51. C-Marie

    Good sentence: “Why” a theory predicts the outcomes is outside of physics.”
    All that physics discovers through its use of reason, mathematics and experiments,
    is that which the Lord God of Hosts has put at our disposal to discover, step by step.
    It would be wise if all physicists honored Him for these gifts to us, and perhaps they do.

    Also, what is the Scripture that Pope Urban and his people used to give such a horrid judgment against Galileo. Observation alone proved that night follows day follows night and so on. Their ideas must have been very primitive if they thought somehow the sun shut down at night time, and then was turned on again for day time.
    The sun always rises to the east and sets in the west. Perhaps Galileo’s judges did not spend much time out of doors.

    So, I wrote that just above and then decided to find at least one scripture they might have used. And I did find one, (stopped looking then), that they might have used.

    “The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
    And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.

    Day to day pours forth speech,
    And night to night reveals knowledge.

    There is no speech, nor are there words;
    Their voice is not heard.

    Their line has gone out through all the earth,
    And their utterances to the end of the world.
    In them He has placed a tent for the sun,

    Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber;
    It rejoices as a strong man to run his course.

    Its rising is from one end of the heavens,
    And its circuit to the other end of them;
    And there is nothing hidden from its heat.” Psalm 16: 1-6.

    That does say that the sun has a circuit. It also points out some of the joy of marriage…..so maybe they did not use that one….if celibacy was the disciplinary rule at that time, as it is the rule, now, but only a rule which can be changed at anytime.

    My thanks to you, Mr. Briggs for the wonderful articles and this wonderfully enlightening forum, is it called?

    And my thanks to all who place their comments, whether agreeing or not.

    And, thank you who wrote regarding physics, for the explanation of what physics is about…the How and not the Why….but which is more important to find out??

    It seems that the How is limited to the physical, but the Why leads more easily to the Living God.
    The How is very interesting, but if only one could be had, I take the Why.

    Plus “supernatural notions”…..much considered as that….are revealed truths by God to us.

    God bless, C-Marie

  52. DAV

    First sentence should read:
    The Galileo thing is straying off topic…

    I’ve discovered that merely touching some of the text will change it.

  53. DAV

    As for physics, the purpose of theoryis to explain observations — the Why. The purpose of experimentation is to verify the theory by verifying its predictions. If the theory doesn’t make predictions, it’s just a shiny toy that may or may not have any connection with reality.

    Supernatural “explanations” make no predictions and thus can’t be verified. They may be self-consistent but still shiny toys.

  54. Salvus

    First, on how and why. I think C. Marie gets it, but a little discussion may still be useful.

    Let’s look at the English dictionary definition of “why”.

    The first definition given in the dictionary is: adverb 1) for what reason or purpose. “why did he do it?” This meaning of why is clearly outside the realm of physics. And that is OK. The purpose or higher reason for the way physics works the way it does (e.g. “what is the purpose of masses attracting each other?” or “Who or What ordained that this would be so when the universe was created, perhaps out of nothing?”) is more appropriately the subject of philosophy or religion and rightly so. The search for purpose is a universal human longing. It is this meaning of “why” that working physicists avoid but philosophers relish. The chain of causes philosophy discussions relish such as: what causes x, Well, y causes x. But what causes y? Well, z causes y. But what causes z? Well p causes z. But what causes p? Well q causes p. And so on until it stops somewhere. Philosophy buffs like to discuss things like this and wind up discussing things like “first cause.” (The notion of first cause does have an analog in physics and we will get to that when we get directly to the something/nothing issue.) Working physicists are much more mundane and simply treat fundamental theories as first causes in and of themselves. Theories predict outcomes of experiments, period. Another dictionary meaning for “why” is: noun 1. a reason or explanation. “the whys and wherefores of these procedures need to be explained to students.” This definition is could be viewed as synonymous with how and could easily be used (in English) interchangeably. It involves nothing about purpose. But to avoid the possible confusion with purpose or “first cause” working physicists avoid using why and instead rely on how. An interesting discussion thread on “why” versus “how” is at


    Reading through the questions, answers, and comments should give you a good sense of the puzzlement many have with the notion. Its also fun to see the different perspectives.

    How does “how” get confused with “why’? It is largely due to the difference between working physicists and those who don’t work in physics. Students who have gone through the courses for physic majors are generally not confused about why versus how. Practicing physicists generally don’t use why, because it can be erroneously taken to mean the “purpose” or “ultimate cause of all things” meaning. Instead they understand to think, and speak, in terms of strictly how. Students, such as chemists, biologists, or engineers who have been required to take a few physics courses specifically designed for users of physics, not practitioners of it, should have been exposed to the notions of how and why, but they likely will forget it or get careless about it. Students who taken physics appreciation courses or physical science for non-science majors may or may not be exposed to the notion and will likely use “why” and internally confuse the notions of explanation (which could simply be “how”) with notions of purpose or first causes.

    Feynman, as usual, had some pointed insight on this which he included in a series of lectures he gave to the general public on the theory for which he got the Nobel prize, quantum electrodynamics or QED. It is worth quoting a little from his introductory lecture:

    “What I am going to tell you about is what we teach our physics students in the third or fourth year of graduate school–and you think I’m going to explain it to you so you can understand it? No, you’re not going to be able to understand it. Why, then, am I going to bother you with all this? Why are you going to sit here all this time, when you won’t be able to understand what I am going to say? It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don’t understand it. You see, my physics students don’t understand it either. That is because I don’t understand it. Nobody does.

    I’d like to talk a little bit about understanding. When we have a lecture, there are many reasons why you might not understand the speaker. One is, his language is bad–he doesn’t say what he means to say, or he says it upside down–and it’s hard to understand. That’s a rather trivial matter, and I’ll try my best to avoid too much of my New York accent.

    Another possibility, especially if the lecturer is a physicist, is that he uses ordinary words in a funny way. Physicists often use ordinary words such as “work” or “action” or “energy” or even, as you shall see, “light” for some technical purpose. Thus, when I talk about “work” in physics, I don’t mean the same thing as when I talk about “work” on the street. During this lecture I might use one of those words without noticing that it is being used in this unusual way. I’ll try my best to catch myself–that’s my job–but it is an error that is easy to make.
    The next reason that you might think you do not understand what I am telling you is, while I am describing to you how Nature works, you won’t understand why Nature works that way. But you see, nobody understands that. I can’t explain why Nature behaves in this peculiar way.

    Finally, there is this possibility: after I tell you something, you just can’t believe it. You can’t accept it. You don’t like it. A little screen comes down and you don’t listen anymore. I’m going to describe to you how Nature is–and if you don’t like it, that’s going to get in the way of your understanding it. It’s a problem that physicists have learned to deal with: They’ve learned to realize that whether they like a theory or they don’t like a theory is not the essential question. Rather, it is whether or not the theory gives predictions that agree with experiment. It is not a question of whether a theory is philosophically delightful, or easy to understand, or perfectly reasonable from the point of view of common sense. The theory of quantum electrodynamics describes Nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense. And it agrees fully with experiment. So, I hope you can accept Nature as She is–absurd.”

    Now we are ready to get into nothing/something. The post talks about a number of physics concepts and a central issue is our notion of the universe, i.e. cosmology, which deals with the structure and time evolution of “everything.”

    First, we need to examine the difference between physics as practiced by comparing theories with lab experiments and disciplines that use physics we know from the lab to try to account for things we observe but not in a controlled lab setting. There a lot of things we observe but don’t control. Stars and galaxies and the universe as a whole for instance. We observe distant stars and galaxies, but we don’t control them. We can’t create a full-scale star in a lab and study its time evolution, perhaps exploding into a supernova and collapsing into a black hole. Further, we don’t know what may be going on in or around the star that we don’t observe because our instruments have limited spectral and time resolution and limited sensitivity. Weather and climate are similar, in that we don’t control them we just observe them.

    So how do we understand things we can’t replicate in the lab, such as stars and galaxies, and the universe? We assume things work for things outside our control according to the same physics we measure in the lab, which we do control. In cosmology, this is called the principle of universality. It says that gravity, electrodynamics, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, etc. all work the same way anywhere in the universe that they work here. What we then do is see how we can use the theories we know to reproduce the observations we obtain about stars and galaxies and the universe. From spectroscopy we know what emission lines are given out by various materials in the lab, so when we see those lines in stars or in intergalactic regions, we assume the lines mean that kind of material is there, and how much of it is there, and how much energy it must have. From thermodynamics in the lab, we know how to predict the temperature of a body from the spectral composition of the light it emits and we assume that same thing works for things far away. A lot can be done this way and in particular the evolution of the discipline of astronomy is a fascinating story of progressive understanding of more and more of the observable universe. Perhaps another time.

    But something happens when we keep doing this that gets us into a little trouble. When we assume our physics works everywhere, that means we can evolve stars, galaxies, and the universe as a whole in time, both backwards and forwards. Not necessarily in gory detail, but in some kind of approximate way that ignores certain details and focuses just on the large-scale structure of things. So if applying our theories to observations of a star tells us it will burn (via fusion) for a while, then run out of fuel and (depending on how much mass it starts off with) explosively collapse in such a way that no force we know of can stop it collapsing, what our theory predicts is a black hole. In a minute, we will see how this poses a quandary just like the nothing/something quandary. Similarly, if we take what our theories say about the universe as a whole (i.e. currently expanding at some rate, composed of so much matter and energy) one of the possible results is that it will begin to contract at some time and continue contracting so that no force we know of can stop it. At some point in the contraction, we reach a state for which the energies and densities (such as infinite) involved are such that we have no theory to apply. If we think we don’t see enough matter now to stop the expansion, we still get the same result if we evolve the universe backwards in time, to ever increasing energy densities, until we reach the same point where we don’t have any physics theories that apply.

    At this point some people like to ask, well how did it start? Or why did it start? Did something come out of nothing? A physicist would say your guess is as good as mine, I have no clue, I don’t even know *how* it started, much less why. Anything one says is non-physical speculation, but it is OK. Just as people at one time speculated that gods pushed the planets around or that the solar system was the entire universe with the earth at the center, created just for us, people want to assign some kind of reason or cause or purpose for things we don’t yet understand as a part of physics. And that is fine, it is what people do because they long for reason and purpose in life. As we understand more in terms of physics, we adjust our views accordingly. Galileo opined on the issue of finding purpose nicely when he said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

    It is unlikely that we will soon have the physics to describe the state of the universe at very, very, very early times (much less before that) since it is gets hard to make experiments that measure things at those energies. People have speculated that the universe might just collapse into a point of infinite (meaning not measurable in any way) density and/or just go away into Nothing (no vaccum fluctuations, no boundary conditions of any matter or energy, etc.) and cease to evolve in any way we can understand. Or that the universe will bounce and begin to expand again, giving us another chance to live the life of the universe right, and this cycle will go on forever (what does forever mean exactly anyway?). Or that the universe will not begin to contract and will just expand forever (again that forever word), slowly getting colder and colder, with all matter eventually collapsing into black holes and all life dying out, which would mean we will never get another chance to get things right. Some people get depressed thinking about these things, some like it. But physics can’t tell us anything about the bouncing/crushing part.

    It is more likely we will sooner be able to find out something about the flip side of this question, namely the predicted physical infinity within black holes. It appears there are black holes relatively close to us. The one at the center of our galaxy, Sagittarius A* is only about 26,000 light years away, close by universe standards. There appear to be some even closer to us within our galaxy perhaps as close as 3,000 light years. Some may be even closer, although hopefully not too close. We may someday in the not too distant future have the ability to go to one and observe it close up, perhaps probe it in some way.

    A black hole is a perfect example of a prediction of a theory that leads to something hard to interpret. Technically a black hole is a solution of Einstein’s equations with boundary conditions such that there is nothing else in the universe (i.e. stress energy is zero everywhere and at infinity) so that there is no matter anywhere except inside the event horizon. So far it looks like this is a good enough approximation that at least some objects with the right size/mass ratio and the right kinds of appearance to have an event horizon exist in accord with the prediction. The problem is that inside the black hole, the prediction says there is a point (or line for a rotating black hole) that has real, physical infinite density. Even though the event horizon hides it from being seen by the outside universe (so-called cosmic censorship) it is theoretically possible to go inside an event horizon and measure it. Unfortunately, all of our physics breaks down if there is a real, physical infinity of a measurable quantity like mass or energy. As one gets closer and closer to the infinity the same thing happens with our ability to predict as what happens as the universe contracts more and more. A real, physical infinity is just as perplexing as Nothing. Even thinking about infinity can drive you crazy. Georg Cantor, who more than anyone else, developed the math of infinity and cardinality, did indeed suffer from depression in later years and was institutionalized. Some people say it was because thinking of infinity drove him crazy, others say he was already depressed for other reasons. If we can just figure out a way to get something inside an event horizon and get the information back out, we may be able to answer some questions, or perhaps find at least one way Nature has of avoiding this particular impossible prediction. If we are lucky, that may give us a clue at how to deal with the contracting universe.

  55. DAV

    My! You certainly are taking a novel approach (or perhaps a novella?). Your comments are longer than the original post. Maybe you should consider getting (and paying for) your own blog?

    Your argument seems centered on english semantics. You must fancy yourself a philosopher — word games and all. (Example: God is not a “thing” therefore the rules applying to “things” — such as having a beginning — don’t apply to God who is “No Thing”. Not to mention complaints about the use of the english word “something” — a placeholder for a noun — as if it were synonymous with “some thing”).

    In english, “how” and “why” are often used interchangeably with multiple meanings such as: intention, cause, reason, explanation, and the manner of operation.

    In physics, “why” is generally reserved for “cause” while “how” is generally reserved for a system of causes. “Intention” is not considered at all as it is assumed the universe has no intentions. You clearly are attempting to use “Why” to mean “Intention”.

    Even there, “First Cause” is not “Intention”. As a “cause”, it may be intellectually satisfying but it lacks usefulness as an explanation. It makes no testable predictions so how (not “why” 🙂 ) can it be validated as an explanation with some connection to reality? That is, being more than a shiny toy? By using it you are merely giving a name to “somehow things got started” which is no explanation at all.

    As for “something from nothing”, the assumption is “no thing” existed before the universe the reasoning being that all “things” must have a beginning thus cannot have eternally existed. This assumption should be taken as conjecture. We really don’t know and may never find out. Nonetheless there are those endeavoring to do so and those endeavors may result in a testable theory.

    As it stands, “First Cause” is effectively a deadend.

  56. Salvus

    The essential point is simple: physicists use words very carefully, often with very precise, defined meanings distinct from common usage. Read Feynman’s text on understanding what he says. Only non-physicists confuse the language. That is why he cautions his audience to be aware of the special restricted meanings for words used. In physics, “why” is simply not used, certainly not where its meaning could be seen as different from “how.” The language is important only because it transmits the ideas.

    The other essential point is that physics is only useful for conditions (largely mass/stress/energy) for which the theories have been tested. It can say nothing about conditions which have not been experimentally tested. Even less about things for which experiments are impossible. Extrapolation to conditions outside of physics are open to anyone’s speculation. There may have been nothing from which something came, the universe may have simply been bouncing and expanding endlessly, with no beginning or end (weird to think of), or there may be multiple universes in which both and perhaps other things are happening, but those ideas are philosophy or religion, not physics.

    The final essential point is that to get to such states, one has to go through states (e.g. infinite mass/stress/energy density) for which physics is inadequate now. But if we have any hope of figuring out (via physics) how things work in that case, our best bet is with a black hole, which we seem to see close to us and may be able to directly observe. Likely sooner than the universe will collapse, even if we can only travel at light speed.

    P.S. If something is worth saying, it is worth saying in enough detail to rule out as much misunderstanding as possible.

  57. DAV

    The other essential point is that physics is only useful for conditions (largely mass/stress/energy) for which the theories have been tested

    Yes indeed! Physical theories have to account for what is already known. You seem to see this as a problem.

    Even less about things for which experiments are impossible. Extrapolation to conditions outside of physics are open to anyone’s speculation.

    Yes, speculations are open to anyone but those which are forever impossible to test (such as the supernatural) — and thus forever provide no way to validate — will always remain speculation and an intellectual dead end.

    For example, how would you go about testing the validity of the Gaia model of the ecosystem? In what way does Gaia extend our knowledge?

    As for anything being outside of physics, that is in itself untestable speculation.

  58. C-Marie

    Maybe a little off topic, but regarding the supernatural, Jesus predicted that He would rise from the dead, and He did rise from the dead, proving the supernatural absolutely exists.

    Thank you again for all of this information. I do not retain so much of it, but it is very fun to read. I did go over to the physics stack exchange link, and read some of that too. I am discovering lots of things late in life, am from the forties, that I like!!

    God bless you all, C-Marie

  59. 8mile

    When there is only one universe it comes from nothing. And if there is a sort of state instead of nothing it can not be eternaly that state and suddenly magically there is some activity. You cannot go naturaly all the way from one of those to where we are now. There has to be at least some outside interference which only can be a eternal non physical super natural. But that is a taboo in science so they come up with all sort of idiotic pseudo explainations to get rid of the supernatural. Like multiverse..where you still deal with the same problems.

    There is this scienfic framework where the natural world is all there is..that is the dogma. Nature is what it is not what we pretend it is. There likely is a supernatural which is as natural as the natural world is. Just be aware about the scientific taboes and try to accept that science does not cover all grounds.

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