You'd think that if secular scientists and religious true believers could agree on anything, it'd be the nature of nothing. After all, isn't nothing, well, nothing?
Zero. Zilch. Nada. Absence. Void.
But, no, here too science and religion are butting heads. Scientific nothing is quite different from religious nothing.
And while I used to be more on religion's side when I thought about what nothing meant in the Big Question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?", now I strongly lean toward the headbutt (or to the faithful, butthead) of science.
Physicist/cosmologist Lawrence Krauss does a great job laying out the debate in his new book, "A Universe from Nothing." Subtitle is the aforementioned Big Question. If you don't want to read his engrossing 191 pages, Krauss talks on You Tube for about an hour on this subject.
Here's how Krauss lays out the controversy in the preface to his book.
Before going further, I want to devote a few words to the notion of "nothing" -- a topic that I will return to at some length later. For I have learned that, when discussing this question in public forums, nothing upsets the philosophers and theologians who disagree with me more than the notion that I, as a scientist, do not truly understand "nothing." (I am tempted to retort here that theologians are experts at nothing.)
"Nothing," they insist, is not any of the things I discuss. Nothing is "nonbeing," in some vague and ill-defined sense. This reminds me of my own efforts to define "intelligent design" when I first began debating with creationists, of which, it became clear, there is no clear definition, except to say what it isn't.
"Intelligent design" is simply a unifying umbrella for opposing evolution. Similarly, some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine "nothing" as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe.
But therein, in my opinion, lies the intellectual bankruptcy of much of theology and some of modern philosophy. For surely "nothing" is every bit as physical as "something." It then behooves us to understand precisely the physical nature of both these quantities. And without science, any definition is just words.
A century ago, had one described "nothing" as referring to purely empty space, possessing no real material entity, this might have received little argument. But the results of the past century have taught us that empty space is in fact far from the inviolate nothingness that we presupposed before we learned more about how nature works.
Now, I am told by religious critics that I cannot refer to empty space as "nothing," but rather as a "quantum vacuum," to distinguish it from the philosopher's or theologian's idealized "nothing." ... And we're told that the escape from the "real" nothing requires divinity, with "nothing" thus defined by fiat to be "that from which only God can create something."
Brilliant and cogent analysis.
Krauss has nailed the Big Question about the Big Question: When we ask, why is there something rather than nothing?, it's important to make clear what the "nothing" is we're contrasting "something" with.
For many years prior to my churchless conversion, a.k.a. enlightenment, I thought of "nothing" in the idealized way Krauss criticizes above. Meaning, my "nothing" was an abstract quasi-philosophical, quasi-theological conception that didn't relate to anything observable or experienceable.
After all, how could it? My "nothing" was the absence of "something." So much so, there wasn't even the potential for any existence in my notion of non-existence. Yet strangely (looking back), my "nothing" had some sort of presence to it. Otherwise, how could I conceive of it?
It was like I was some sort of Godlike being looking upon existence from a transcendent realm, contemplating two cosmic possibilities: one where "nothing" prevailed eternally; another where the "something" we are aware of is existent.
I'd wonder why there's something rather than nothing. It just seemed so mysterious, so awesome, so marvelous, that instead of nothing, there was something, and I'm a part of it!
My mistake, as Lawrence Krauss points out, was in assuming that nothing and something are both realistic possibilities. Actually, there's no such thing as nothing, in the sense of nonbeing. Material existence is what there is. The opposite of reality isn't nothing, nonbeing, or nonexistence. Such is a theological or philosophical idea, an abstraction, present only in the human brain/imagination.
Religions, particularly of the Western monotheisitic variety, adore the idea of creatio ex nihilo, "creation out of nothing."
But that's all it is: an idea. There's no evidence of the absolute "nothing" so loved by the religionists who take issue with Krauss's scientific view of a quantum nothing that creates universes instead of God. The quantum nothingness of empty space is filled with energy, potential, possibility.
So the everlasting God of religion, which is nowhere to be observed, is replaced by the everlasting quantum nothing which has been proven to exist even in seemingly absolutely empty spacetime.
As Krauss says, religious true believers argue with this scientific godless understanding of the cosmos. "But the quantum vacuum isn't really nothing," they say. "It is governed by the laws of nature." Well, who says that reality has to conform with how God-crazy humans want things to be?
Reality is what it is. Nothing isn't really nothing. Deal with it, religionists.