A common argument against atheism is that the Big Bang proves everything had a beginning (it does not in fact prove that, but bear with me here), therefore there was once nothing, and ex nihilo nihil fit, “from nothing, comes nothing.” However, that latter premise is demonstrably false. And that spells death for theism and marvelous glory for atheism. And I don’t even mean in the Lawrence Krauss A Universe from Nothing sense, since he doesn’t actually mean “nothing” when he talks about nothing (a point I’ll get back to in a moment). No, I mean, even granting the theist’s premise that if there was no God, then there was once absolutely nothing, and therefore there cannot have been a universe, therefore the fact that we are here entails God exists, because our existence would be literally impossible otherwise. I am saying that even granting that premise, all those “therefores” don’t actually follow. They are complete non sequiturs. In fact, I am not just saying that; I’m even saying that the exact opposite is true, that when we grant that premise (the theist’s own premise!), then a whole shitload of stuff will necessarily exist. Huwah? Yeah. And not a pejorative load of shit. An actual shitload.
I’ve been asked to explain this so many times lately (going all the way back to Mike Licona in our second debate) that I’ve decided to blog it so I can just point people here (that’s kind of the reason for everything I write, really).
I am an empiricist, which means I don’t truck with a priori reasoning. But there is one good use for the latter: to deduce from a hypothesis what would be the case if that hypothesis were true (and what the case if it were false); because then you can go look and see what you observe and thus determine how likely it is that that hypothesis is true (or false). This is the basic foundation of scientific method, the “hypothetico-deductive method” (which in Proving History I demonstrate is fundamentally Bayesian, but I won’t go on about that here). This is not actually a priori, because you still have to go looking around, and your conclusion is never absolutely certain but always some matter of probability. So here I am not saying there ever was nothing. There might well have always been something. Or quite a lot of things really. The argument that that is impossible, owing to confusions about infinite sets, is also bogus, and based on fundamental ignorance of logic and mathematics (as I’ve explained before).
So I am not actually conceding the premise that there was once absolutely nothing. I’m just analyzing that as a hypothesis, to see what it entails if it were true. So here goes…
Which ‘Nothing’ Is That Again?
First we must define “absolutely nothing.” There are actually many different kinds of nothing (John Barrow even wrote a book about it: The Book of Nothing). Krauss, for example, means by “nothing” a collapsed region of space-time governed by certain laws of quantum physics. But that’s not actually nothing. For one thing, you have space-time. That’s something. And you have “certain laws of quantum physics” (a minimal set of which he describes, and which, if it always existed, he shows would entail that a universe would arise spontaneously very much like ours, no God needed; which conclusion was also reached and demonstrated by Stephen Hawking in The Grand Design, and likewise by Victor Stenger in God: The Failed Hypothesis, pp. 132-33, with extensive support in The Fallacy of Fine Tuning and The Comprehensible Cosmos). That’s also something. Quite a few things, really. Now, Stenger has made a case (in The Comprehensible Cosmos) that those “few things” are in fact logically necessary if we presume no God exists (and thus no agency exists to decide the world should be one way rather than another); for example, if no agency exists to entail an objective reference frame or to alter the outcomes of random events, then the whole of Relativity Theory is logically entailed by default, and likewise all the laws of thermodynamics. It’s an interesting argument, but not one I will assume as proven here.
Really, my only task at present is to define what we must mean by absolutely nothing. This can only mean that nothing whatever exists except anything whose non-existence is logically impossible. That latter caveat is unavoidable for the obvious reason that if it is logically impossible for something not to exist, then there can’t have ever been a state of being where it did not exist. So if by “absolutely nothing” you mean even the non-existence of logically necessary things, then “absolutely nothing” is logically impossible, and thus there can’t ever have been “nothing” in that sense. So if that’s what theists mean by “if there was no God, then there was once absolutely nothing,” that not even logically necessary things existed, then their claim is self-refuting. We can then dismiss it out of hand. But if they allow that logically necessary things still exist even when there is otherwise nothing, then we have a “nothing exists” that is logically possible. There could have been such a state of being, of there once being nothing, in that sense.
Of course, theists will then want to introduce their ontological arguments at this point, which purport to prove that God is one of those things whose existence is logically necessary, but no such argument ever succeeds. They are all invalid or unsound (the clearest demonstration of this is to be found in Malcolm Murray’s most excellent desk reference for atheists, The Atheist’s Primer, pp. 55-73). And one could in principle pull a Victor Stenger here instead, and aim to prove that certain basic laws of physics are logically necessary. And such a task might even succeed.
But I’m not depending on any such proposal here. All I will assume is what is undeniably true: that all the fundamental propositions of logic and mathematics are necessarily true (for example, all valid and sound theorems and syllogisms are necessarily true, in the sense that, when given their premises, their conclusions cannot be false; but not in the sense that their premises are necessarily true, even if they might be), and therefore there can never have been a state of being in which they were false. For example, it can never have been the case that “if you form a polygon from only straight lines, on a flat plane, with only three sides, then the sum of the angles produced within that polygon will not equal 180 degrees.” More importantly, it can never have been the case that the basic laws of probability were false (such as complementarity, unity, and exclusivity), nor can the basic laws of logic have ever been false (as that would be logically impossible by definition; that is, to say that the laws of logic are false, is by definition to say that logically impossible things can exist, and therefore logically necessary things can in that case not exist after all…so much for God!).
One might object at this point by asking how the laws of logic can “exist” when nothing exists. There are two ways to answer that, one is to refer to the naturalist ontology of logic, whereby things like numbers and laws describe what always potentially exists, even when nothing actually exists (see my book Sense and Goodness without God III.5, pp. 119-34, esp. III.5.4-5, pp. 124-34), and when nothing actually exists, all potentials exist (because then nothing actually exists to prevent anything from potentially existing, which point I’ll revisit in a moment). But another is to simply refer back to the simple point that if the laws of logic don’t exist, then by definition that means logically impossible things can exist. Which is fine if you really want to entertain that as a hypothesis. Good luck with that (I don’t think you’ll get very far: Sense and Goodness without God II.2.2.7, pp. 42-43, and III.9.3, pp. 188-91). Meanwhile, I will simply take it as granted by all sane parties that logically impossible things can’t exist. Certainly, that is a premise most theists must accept. At least, if you can really get them to deny it, then you’ve pretty much gotten them to publicly confess to being crazy. And one hardly need continue arguing with a confessed lunatic.
Now, when nothing exists (except that which is logically necessary), then anything can happen (whose happening is logically possible). Because the only way to prevent something from happening, is to have some law or force or power or object or agency, in other words some actual thing, that prevents it. If you remove all obstacles, you allow all possibilities. This is a logically necessary truth. The only thing that is prevented, is the logically impossible. Because, as we have concluded so far, even when “nothing” exists, all logically necessary truths still exist. And here “exist” means only in the sense of being true; obviously the laws of logic aren’t made of aluminum-titanium alloy with a mass of twelve earths and located precisely one light year below galactic south; it is a fallacious prejudice to assume “existence” requires mass, substance, or discrete location, although perhaps it does require something.
For instance, I have argued that that which exists at no location or at no point in time, by definition exists never and nowhere, which is by definition not existing. So one might think that if nothing exists, no place or time exists, therefore logical truths cannot exist. However, since it is logically impossible for logical truths not to exist, if logical truths must exist at some point in spacetime, then it would follow that spacetime is logically necessary and therefore there can be no “absolute nothing” that lacks at least a singular point of spacetime (which is of course practically nothing). Thus logical necessity can prevent things from happening. But if that’s all there is, then everything else can happen, because nothing exists to prevent it.
And So the Baby Goes Out with the Bathwater…
This is why ex nihilo nihil fit is necessarily false. For that is a law. And a law is not nothing. A law is something. To say that “from nothing comes only nothing” is to say that some law of physics (like, say, the law of conservation of energy) exists to prevent nothing from generating anything else except more nothing. But if nothing exists, then that law of physics doesn’t exist. Since it is not logically necessary that nothing can only produce nothing, then when nothing exists except what is logically necessary, the law ex nihilo nihil fit doesn’t exist either. Therefore, that “absolute nothing” that once existed will not have been governed by such a law. It cannot have been. Because if it were, it would then not be nothing, but the inexplicable and arbitrary existence of something: a weird law of physics with no origin or agency. Thus it is a logical contradiction to say “there once was absolutely nothing, and that absolute nothing can only have produced nothing.”
From here on out it only gets worse for the theist. Not only will there have been nothing to prevent anything from happening, there won’t have been anything to make any one thing more likely than any other. For example, quantum mechanics entails that some things are more likely than other things; if whatever the fundamental structure is that causes quantum mechanics to work didn’t exist, then some things would not be more likely than other things. Everything would be as likely as anything else. Because the only way to make one thing more likely than something else, is for something to exist that makes the one thing more likely than the other. In some cases, logical necessity can do that. But not in every case. The number of universes that exist, for example. There is no logical necessity for there to be only one universe. Or any other specific number of them. And if nothing exists to decide how many there will be, all possible outcomes are equally likely. There being just one universe will be just as likely as there being seven of them, or a million of them, or any other number of them. And if we count all configurations, then smaller numbers actually become less probable than larger ones (as I’ll demonstrate shortly).
Getting Everything from Nothing
I draw out the consequences of this fact in The End of Christianity (ch. 12, “Neither Life Nor the Universe Appear Intelligently Designed,” note 20, pp. 408-09). I quote the relevant material here:
In our background knowledge b we have no knowledge of any law of physics that would prevent there being other universes (and no means of seeing if there are none), so the probability that there are is exactly what that probability would be if the number of universes that exist were selected at random. Of all the possible conditions that could obtain (no universe; just one universe; two universes; three; four; etc., all the way to infinitely many universes), that there would be only one universe is only one out of infinitely many alternatives. This entails it is effectively 100 percent certain an infinite multiverse exists because the probability of there being only one universe is then 1/INFINITY, which is [approximately] 0 percent. In fact, for any finite number n of universes, the probability of having only that many or less is n/INFINITY, which is still [approximately] 0 percent. If the probability of having any finite number of universes is always [approximately] 0 percent, then the probability that there is an infinite multiverse is [approximately] 100 percent. This further entails we have no need to explain why there is something rather than nothing: as then nothing (a state of exactly zero universes) also has a probability of 1/INFINITY, which is again [approximately] 0 percent. The probability that there will be something rather than nothing is therefore [approximately] 100 percent. This conclusion can only be averted if something were proved to exist that would change any of these probabilities, thereby making nothing (or only one thing) more likely than any other logical possibility. But we know of no such thing. Therefore, so far as we must conclude given what we actually know, there is an infinite multiverse, and there must necessarily be an infinite multiverse (both to a certainty of [approximately] 100 percent).
This is an epistemological argument (it does not claim to prove there is an infinite multiverse, but only that so far as we know there is; some future knowledge might change that conclusion). But if we grant the metaphysical premise “there was once absolutely nothing,” then this epistemological argument becomes a metaphysical argument: it is then logically necessarily the case that there is an infinite multiverse.
Therefore, if we grant the theist’s premise, that there was once absolutely nothing (no spacetime, no God, and no laws of physics, beyond those that may be logically necessary), it necessarily follows that there is an infinite multiverse (or to be more precise, the probability that there wouldn’t be is infinitely near to zero). From a simple demonstration of probability, it then follows that the universe we find ourselves in will also necessarily exist (or again to be precise, the probability that a universe essentially like ours wouldn’t exist is infinitely near to zero). Therefore, the theist’s own premise entails a godless universe will exist that looks exactly (in all relevant particulars) like the one we find ourselves in. Ooops.
The formalization of the argument proceeds as follows:
- P1: In the beginning, there was absolutely nothing.
- P2: If there was absolutely nothing, then (apart from logical necessity) nothing existed to prevent anything from happening or to make any one thing happening more likely than any other thing.
- C1: Therefore, in the beginning, nothing existed to prevent anything from happening or to make any one thing happening more likely than any other thing.
- P3: Of all the logically possible things that can happen when nothing exists to prevent them from happening, continuing to be nothing is one thing, one universe popping into existence is another thing, two universes popping into existence is yet another thing, and so on all the way to infinitely many universes popping into existence, and likewise for every cardinality of infinity, and every configuration of universes.
- C2: Therefore [given logical necessity], continuing to be nothing was no more likely than one universe popping into existence, which was no more likely than two universes popping into existence, which was no more likely than infinitely many universes popping into existence, which was no more likely than any other particular number or cardinality of universes popping into existence.
- P4: If each outcome (0 universes, 1 universe, 2 universes, etc. all the way to aleph-0 universes, aleph-1 universes, etc. [note that there is more than one infinity in this sequence]) is no more likely than the next, then the probability of any finite number of universes (including zero universes) or less having popped into existence is infinitely close to zero, and the probability of some infinite number of universes having popped into existence is infinitely close to one hundred percent.
- C3: Therefore, the probability of some infinite number of universes having popped into existence is infinitely close to one hundred percent.
- P5: If there are infinitely many universes, and our universe has a nonzero probability of existing (as by existing it proves it does, via cogito ergo sum), then the probability that our universe would exist is infinitely close to one hundred percent (because any nonzero probability approaches one hundred percent as the number of selections approaches infinity, via the infinite monkey theorem, similar to the law of large numbers).
- C4: Therefore, if in the beginning there was absolutely nothing, then the probability that our universe would exist is infinitely close to one hundred percent.
I’ve already shown that P1, once granted, entails P2. And P4 and P5 are logically necessary truths (they can only be false if the basic laws of logic and probability are false, which, as I said, is by definition logically impossible). And C1-4 are all logically necessary if P1-5 are true (given the following connotation of P3). So that leaves P3. There are two objections sometimes raised against it. The first is that it is incomplete; the second is that its demarcation of possibilities is arbitrary or contrary to set theory. [Another objection, that infinite probability distributions are impossible, is simply false.]
As to the first objection, (1) there are presumably things that can pop into existence besides universes; and (2) there are many different kinds of universes possible, so each number of universes would represent an infinitely divided fraction of possible combinations of that many universes.
As for (2), that makes no difference to the argument. As long as nothing existed to make any particular universe more likely than any other (and given P1 and P2, nothing did), then C2 as stated remains true on P3. For example, “zero universes” would be infinitely less probable than one universe if we counted each of infinitely many singular universes as being equally likely as any other outcome, but if that’s the case, then zero universes remains no more probable than one universe, as C2 states; and in consequence, P4 also remains true as stated. And likewise for every number of universes above that. Such considerations are therefore irrelevant.
As to (1), if we define “universe” as “any collection of actually existing things (whether it consists of just one thing or several) that is completely separated from other collections or in some way connected to other collections but entails a fundamentally different physics from them,” then P3 remains true, and so on down the line. Because then by definition nothing else can pop into existence but some universe or other. What then distinguishes one universe from another (thereby making two universes, instead of just one universe consisting of two combined collections) is a fundamental separation or a fundamental difference in its governing physics. In the latter case those universes won’t be physically separated, but in the unity of them both, one physics will govern one region and another physics will govern the other, making for two universes, even if, for instance, they are both just different parts of one combined region of spacetime. [You could still count this binary universe as one universe, but then you would have to count its twin as one universe, i.e. a universe otherwise identical but in which the relative positions of each distinguished region are swapped in the same space-time manifold, so you still get two universes, each as likely as the other.]
This leads to the second objection: that this demarcation is improper. Isn’t one “metaverse” with two different regions of governing physics more complex than one single universe with only one governing physics, and therefore isn’t the former much less probable than the latter? Actually, no. Because we are selecting at random from the set of all possible states of being. For example, one binary metaverse will be one state of being, while a singular universe will be another state of being. Therefore the probability of selecting one or the other is equal, because in each case there is only one possibility that can manifest, and the sum of those possibilities is two. And in fact, once we start counting configurations, the odds go in the other direction. Think of a bag of infinite marbles, inside each of which is a possible outcome (a number and configuration of universes). Will it be more likely that you will draw a “one universe” marble than a “two universe” marble? To the contrary, there are far more possible configurations of two universes, so in fact there are far more “two universe” marbles in that bag than “one universe” marbles. Therefore, choosing a “one universe” outcome is not more probable than choosing a “two universe” outcome (in fact it is on this reasoning a great deal less probable). Thus, P3 as stated remains true and (in conjunction with C1) entails C2 as stated.
Therefore C2 remains true, therefore C3 remains true, and there must then be an infinite multiverse, if in the beginning there existed absolutely nothing. And that means C4 remains true, and our universe, in effect, necessarily exists. This leaves the theist in a bind. If we start with their assumption that (if there was no God) there was once absolutely nothing, then we get our universe, no God needed. There can be no doubt that “absolutely nothing” is a vastly simpler entity than any God (much less their preferred God, who just happens to have all these convenient powers and properties, and not only that, but just happens to have them in infinite degree, which has to be the luckiest existential dice roll conceivable). So if a vastly simpler hypothesis explains all the evidence, we must prefer it (because it is necessarily vastly more probable: see Proving History, pp. 81, 104-06). In other words, Occam’s Razor slits God’s throat right good.
Winning the Whac-a-Mole Twostep
But maybe P1 is false. Certainly, the theist must retreat to insisting it is, now that we’ve just proven P1 explains the universe better than his God does. Well, then something has always existed (or just existed in the beginning for no reason, either way). They say it is God. We would say it is something decidedly ungodlike; namely, a very basic physics. In other words, the basic physical assumptions of Krauss, Hawking, or Stenger. Or anyone else. It doesn’t matter. As I’ve explained before, we don’t need to know which originating physics began it all, to know it’s far more probable that some such thing did than that a god did (upon request I even postulated ten different possibilities, all of which having a greater prior probability than a God). For Krauss, Hawking, and Stenger, it’s a simple quantum vacuum (whose properties are much more basic than God’s, and every single one of which has been scientifically proven to exist, unlike any of the unique properties of God, much less his existence), from which they can deduce the universe we observe. In fact, as I prove in The End of Christianity (ch. 12, “Neither Life Nor the Universe Appear Intelligently Designed”), the scientific evidence conclusively fits the deductive predictions of that hypothesis, in precisely the way it doesn’t fit the deductive predictions of any plausible God. So if something always existed for no reason, and our options are that this something was either God or a simple quantum vacuum, the evidence confirms it was the latter. And if that’s the case, then quantum vacuum it is.