In that post about Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong a week or so ago, I mentioned that Dawkins appears not to grasp the idea of creatio ex nihilo, creation from nothing. More precisely, he appears not to grasp the idea of nothing. This seems to be true of quite a number of scientists and materialists. It is a common pattern in the polemics of materialists attempting to refute the idea of a creator God to push the conceptual chain of causality back to some really, really, really fundamental entity, stop there, and declare victory. In Bertrand Russel’s day it was the atom, but that didn’t hold up for long; sometimes, considering the huge number of subatomic particles discovered since then, one wonders if atoms can really be said to exist at all.
But no entity is nothing. I’ve never read Stephen Hawking’s famous Brief History of Time, so I’m not sure where I got this, but I read somewhere that he considered the hypothesis of a creator unnecessary because “a quantum fluctuation in the void” would be sufficient to set in motion the processes that resulted in the Big Bang and everything that followed from it, including you and me. I’ve since become aware that this phrase seems to have become a standard (or at least very popular) materialist explanation for the existence of the cosmos. Google it, and you’ll see what I mean. Here are a few representative items: A Wikipedia article on the vacuum state
As best I can figure from sampling a few such links, certain really really elementary particles are always appearing and disappearing: “According to quantum mechanics, the vacuum state is not truly empty but instead contains fleeting electromagnetic waves and particles that pop into and out of existence” (from that Wikipedia article).
I don’t know anything of modern physics past a few elementary concepts (though I hope one day to read some of the books that attempt to explain it to the untrained). And I find it hard to believe that something which is apparent to me should escape the notice of Stephen Hawking. But it seems to need pointing out that everything mentioned in these discussions—fleeting electronic waves, for instance—is something, not nothing. There are events, which are not nothing, and in order for there to be events there must be some sort of space-time, however bizarrely contracted and distorted it may be in some postulated pre-cosmic state. And if there’s one concept that even slightly educated people like me can’t miss in modern physics, it’s that space and time are not nothing. Even a purely empty space, which apparently does not exist, is not nothing.
It really seems that these scientists and their followers have not truly grasped the idea that nothing means non-existence. Not “existence in a really strange and incomprehensibly small and imperceptible mode,” but non-existence.
There’s nothing you can say about the attributes of nothing, because it isn’t there.
It has no behavior, it does not fluctuate, because it isn’t there.
It does not provide a field in which events can occur, because it isn’t there.
Nothing means nothing—no energy, no particles, no space-time, no physical processes, not even any physical laws. Nothing. When Catholics say that God created from nothing, this is the nothing we mean. Not the hardly-anything, but the not-at-all.
The “popping in and out of existence” of certain particles seems to describe a transition from energy to matter, although I’m not clear about that. But supposing it doesn’t, supposing that the idea is that they truly come into existence from nothing, and setting aside the fact that the environment in which they exist is something, one would still come up against the same old riddle. To stop there is to say that the seed explains the plant, and no further questions need be asked.
If you want to stop at the concept of the quantum fluctuation and ask no more questions, if you want to say it’s all just there and there’s no point in inquiring any further, I can respect that. It’s an honorable and honest position. But don’t claim to have solved the problem when you’ve only pushed it back another step. And don’t say it’s we who are reluctant to ask the probing questions.
The Catholic faith does not, contrary to atheist imaginings, shrink from asking the question of where God came from, of who made God. It is the question that leads us to the idea of the self-existent, of the God Who Is, who is not a being but Being itself. The one who asks it leaves physical science behind for philosophy, and in considering the answer he goes yet further, from philosophy to contemplation and worship. Here, he recognizes, is the Ultimate, that which we all seek, that which is, at last and entirely, worthy of the human desire to worship.