Sometimes it is said that quantum physics furnishes an exception to premise (1) [Whatever begins to exist has a cause], since on the sub-atomic level events are said to be uncaused. In the same way, certain theories of cosmic origins are interpreted as showing that the whole universe could have sprung into being out of the sub-atomic vacuum or even out of nothingness. Thus the universe is said to be the proverbial “free lunch.” ¶ This objection, however, is based on misunderstandings. In the first place, not all scientists agree that sub-atomic events are uncaused. A great many physicists today are quite dissatisfied with this view (the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation) of quantum physics and are exploring deterministic theories like that of David Bohm. Thus, quantum physics is not a proven exception to premise (1). Second, even on the traditional, indeterministic interpretation, particles do not come into being out of nothing. They arise as spontaneous fluctuations of the energy contained in the sub-atomic vacuum, which constitutes an indeterministic cause of their origination. Third, the same point can be made about theories of the origin of the universe out of a primordial vacuum. Popular magazine articles touting such theories as getting “something from nothing” simply do not understand that the vacuum is not nothing but is a sea of fluctuating energy endowed with a rich structure and subject to physical laws. Such models do not therefore involve a true origination ex nihilo.
In my view, none of our knowledge, including science, just “tells it like it is.” Knowledge, even the best scientific knowledge, interprets experience through human cultural understanding and experience, and above all (just as it is for poets and preachers) metaphor is the key to the whole enterprise. As I developed my own career path, as a historian and philosopher of evolutionary biology, this insight grew and grew. Everything was metaphorical — struggle for existence, natural selection, division of labor, genetic code, arms races and more. … Because metaphor helps you move forward. It is heuristic, forcing you to ask new questions. If your love is like a rose, what color is the rose? But note that it does so at a cost. A metaphor puts blinkers on us. Some questions are unanswerable within the context of the metaphor. “My love is a rose” tells me about her beauty. It does not tell me about her mathematical abilities. ¶ Now combine this fact with history. Since the scientific revolution, one metaphor above all — the root metaphor — has dictated the nature and progress of science. This is the metaphor of the world as a machine, the mechanical metaphor. What questions are ruled out by this metaphor? One is about ultimate origins. Of course you can ask about the origins of the metal and plastics in your automobile, but ultimately the questions must end and you must take the materials as given. So with the world. I think the machine metaphor rules out an answer to what Martin Heidegger called the “fundamental question of metaphysics”: Why is there something rather than nothing? Unlike Wittgenstein, I think it is a genuine question, but not one answerable by modern science.
[Lawrence Krauss] is presenting untested speculative theories of how things came into existence out of a pre-existing complex of entities, including variational principles, quantum field theory, specific symmetry groups, a bubbling vacuum, all the components of the standard model of particle physics, and so on. He does not explain in what way these entities could have pre-existed the coming into being of the universe, why they should have existed at all, or why they should have had the form they did. And he gives no experimental or observational process whereby we could test these vivid speculations of the supposed universe-generation mechanism. How indeed can you test what existed before the universe existed? You can’t. ¶ Thus what he is presenting is not tested science. It’s a philosophical speculation, which he apparently believes is so compelling he does not have to give any specification of evidence that would confirm it is true. Well, you can’t get any evidence about what existed before space and time came into being. Above all he believes that these mathematically based speculations solve thousand year old philosophical conundrums, without seriously engaging those philosophical issues. The belief that all of reality can be fully comprehended in terms of physics and the equations of physics is a fantasy. As pointed out so well by Eddington in his Gifford lectures, they are partial and incomplete representations of physical, biological, psychological, and social reality.
Premise (1) [Whatever begins to exist has a cause.] does not state merely a physical law like the law of gravity or the laws of thermodynamics, which are valid for things within the universe. Premise (1) is not a physical principle. Rather, premise (1) is a metaphysical principle: being cannot come from nonbeing; something cannot come into existence uncased from nothing. The principle therefore applies to all of reality, and it is thus metaphysically absurd that the universe should pop into being uncaused out of nothing. This response seem quite reasonable: for on the atheistic view, there was not even the potentiality of the universe’s existence prior to the big bang, since nothing is prior to the big bang. But then how can could the universe become actual if there was not even the potentiality of its existence?
To use a feeble analogy, it is rather like asserting that it is inadequate to say that light is the cause of illumination because one is then obliged to say what it is that illuminates the light, and so on ad infinitum. ¶ The most venerable metaphysical claims about God do not simply shift priority from one kind of thing (say, a teacup or the universe) to another thing that just happens to be much bigger and come much earlier (some discrete, very large gentleman who preexists teacups and universes alike). These claims start, rather, from the fairly elementary observation that nothing contingent, composite, finite, temporal, complex, and mutable can account for its own existence, and that even an infinite series of such things can never be the source or ground of its own being, but must depend on some source of actuality beyond itself. Thus, abstracting from the universal conditions of contingency, one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such: not a “supreme being,” not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates.
The existence of our universe might be explained by scientific cosmology, but such an explanation would still have to refer to features of some larger reality that contained or gave rise to it. A scientific explanation of the Big Bang would not be an explanation of why there was something rather than nothing, because it would have to refer to something from which that event arose. This something, or anything else cited in a further scientific explanation of it, would then have to be included in the universe whose existence we are looking for an explanation of when we ask why there is anything at all. This is a question that remains after all possible scientific questions have been answered.
It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape: they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.
The concept of a universe materializing out of nothing boggles the mind. What exactly is meant by “nothing”? If this “nothing” could tunnel into something, what could have caused the primary tunneling event? And what about energy conservaton? … The initial state prior to the tunneling is a universe of vanishing radius, that is, no universe at all. There is no matter and no space in this very peculiar state. Also, there is no time. Time has meaning only if something is happening in the universe. We measure time using periodic processes, like the rotation of the Earth about its axis, or its motion around the Sun. In the absence of space and matter, time is impossible to define. ¶ And yet the state of “nothing” cannot be identified with absolute nothingness. The tunneling is described by the laws of quantum mechanics, and thus “nothing” should be subjected to these laws. The laws must have existed, even though there was no universe. … A quantum fluctuation of the vacuum assumes that there was a vacuum of some pre-existing space. And we now know that the “vacuum” is very different from “nothing”. Vacuum, or empty space, has energy and tension, it can bend a warp, so it is unquestionably something. As Alan Guth wrote, “In this context, a proposal that the universe was created from empty space is no more fundamental than a proposal that the universe was spawned by a piece of rubber. It might be true, but one would still want to ask where the piece of rubber came from.”
While the many-worlds interpretation has many adherents, and the associated mathematical formalism has great merit, other viable interpretations of quantum mechanics remain with no consensus on which, if any, is the correct one … In fact, the highly successful theory of quantum mechanics does not predict the occurrence of these events, just their probabilities for taking place. While we leave open the possibility that causes may someday be found for such phenomena that allow for their prediction, we have no current basis for assuming such causes exist.