Scientists became excited not long ago when new observations suggested that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. It had been thought that expansion should be slowing. The new findings give additional support to the theory of the physicist Alan Guth that the universe immediately after its birth underwent a period of rapidly accelerating expansion. Guth’s theory of inflation has solved a number of cosmological problems associated with the Big Bang theory. This theory might end up demonstrating that the entire universe quite likely was created from nothing at all. If so, the inflation theory will provide scientific confirmation of one of the oldest and most difficult teachings of the Christian theologians.
A long, long time ago, around A.D. 400, a man we now call St. Augustine concluded that the whole world is made of nothing at all. Augustine came to this bizarre conclusion by meditating upon the nature of the God in whom he believed. God is the only necessary being, the argument goes; nothing else can exist necessarily, eternally, apart from God. So the raw material God used to construct the cosmos waswell, there was nothing for God to use, so he must have used nothing.
The church accepted Augustine’s line of reasoning, and it has taught for 16 centuries that God made the universe out of nothing. No doubt plenty of the faithful through the centuries found this view hard to swallow, since the idea completely defies common sense. How can something come from nothing? If pressed, theologians had an answer for doubters: it is a mystery.
Quite likely a good many early believers, people not much different from you and me, dutifully professed belief in the mystery while secretly holding to the more sensible view, which had been held by the ancient Greeks, that the universe has always existed and always will exist. Theologians have come to accept the idea that the cosmos might be eternal; but as far as they are concerned, this eventuality does not change the fact that God creates all matter from nothing. If the cosmos is eternal, then God, the only being that must exist, creates it from nothingnot, however, at some fixed point in the past, but eternally.
When modern science appeared on the scene about 400 years ago, it would have nothing to do with the concept that the cosmos came from nothing. If people, even scientists, wanted to believe that, fine; maybe the dogma was even true. Who knew? If the church said it was so, then it must be. But all-from-nothing had no place in science. First the law of conservation of mass, then the law of conservation of energy, then the combined law of conservation of mass and energy forbade it. No thing could become nothing, nor could it come from nothing. Science came to make so many correct predictions that it continually grew in stature while religion declined. The Age of Reason arrived. Increasingly, thinkers considered matter to be eternal. If God had made or was making something out of nothing, this would have to be a supernatural act completely beyond human comprehension.
But in 1915 a certain physicist made a connection between something and what appears to be nothing. In that year Albert Einstein published his general theory of relativity. According to this theory, the vacuum has a structure. Clocks placed in various locations in the vacuum run at different speeds, depending on their nearness to matter, and a rod suspended in space will appear to be of different lengths depending on where it and its observer are. According to Einstein, this structure, called space-time, is responsible for the phenomenon of gravity.
Gravity, then, is not a force pulling through nothingness, but an effect of the structure of that apparent nothingness. The vacuum, the apparent nothingness, by virtue of its structure is a field of energy. (By means of its structure, it bends the paths of light and other things that pass through it and therefore does work.) Einstein had already shown in the special theory of relativity that E=mc2, so the field of energy had to be a field of matter.
While general relativity was demonstrating that what might seem to be nothing is not nothing, a new branch of physics, quantum physics, which Einstein had helped found, was introducing other interesting ideas that turned out to bear on the relationship between nothing and something. Quantum physics studies quanta, the smallest particles that make up matter. In its early days, this form of physics made a truly disturbing discovery, which has since been confirmed time and time again. Particles are particles, but then they are not; they are waves. A particle is a particle only if you want it to be, if you insist on pinning it down. Otherwise, it is a wave.
Because particles are and are not particles, if we know where one is now we cannot know where it will be in the next moment. One of the amazing consequences of this uncertainty principle is that ephemeral pairs of particles, virtual particles, at times pop up from nothing, from out of the cosmic void. They suddenly exist, only to vanish again. The existence of these field particles is implied by the absolutely uncertain state of energy of any region of space.
The Big Bang
While quantum physics and general relativity were starting to pick up the trail of Augustine, the astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered in 1919 that the universe is expanding. This discovery led cosmologists to the not illogical conclusion that the universe, while now big, had once been small. A new theory, the Big Bang theory, was formulated to describe the origin of the universe. According to an early theory, the universe had once been packed into a cosmic egg about the size of a basketball. At a certain moment the basketball had blown up, expanding to become the cosmos we know today. Later variations of the theory made the cosmic egg much smaller than a basketball; it must have been very small indeed, because of the tremendous gravitational forces tending to compress it. Scientists soon realized that in fact, the egg must have been an infinitely small point. But how could an infinitely small point have ever contained the huge sum of energy/mass that makes the universe? Why had the point, or singularity, blown up when it did? How, at the moment of the bang, had the compressing force of gravity been overcome? Physicists grappled with these and other questions the theory presented.
Where had the singularity come from in the first place? This was a problem. Maybe it was the remains of a previous universe that had collapsed. But once collapsed, how could it blow up again? The more scientists thought about the crushing force of gravity around the singularity, the more they were convinced that no other force could overcome it. The singularity could never blow up. The question of how the Big Bang ever got started appeared to be unanswerable. But quantum theory and inflation theory have come to the rescue. Over the last 25 years theorists have offered plausible explanations of both how the singularity came to be and how it then became an expanding universe.
Uncertainty and Inflation
One key to the answer is in the uncertainty principle, which implies that the energy level of any region fluctuates haphazardly and without reason. It is because of this fluctuation that even in a complete vacuum with an energy level of zero, tiny fields of gravity at random pop into existence from nothing, then vanish from being as suddenly as they appeared. These events do not violate the laws of conservation because the fleeting fields of gravity are ephemeral, virtual fields.
The other key lies in Alan Guth’s theory. Inflationary theory shows how a tiny, ephemeral speck emerged from nothingness could be boosted into permanence by a period of accelerating expansion and then continue expanding to become something like the vast universe we know. According to the theory, in the expanding field matter is created out of the growing energy of gravity itself. The matter is considered positive energy, and the gravity is considered negative. The two mathematically cancel each other out, so that the total energy of the growing universe is zero. So here too the laws of conservation are not violated.
The idea that the universe might have popped into being from nothing in a quantum fluctuation was first proposed by Edward Tryon in 1973. In 1979 Alan Guth presented his inflationary theory, which provides the mechanism that might have kept an ephemeral virtual particle, which was the nascent universe, from fading back to nothing again. Did it probably happen this way? More work needs to be done on the problem before we can say, but at the moment it appears possible.
Augustine May Have Been Right
Sixteen centuries after Augustine, then, modern science finds that he may have been quite right after all. Strange as it may seem, the universe may well have come from nothing, and may return to nought, and may indeed be nought. The material world we see and feel and hear may have arisen when from out of absolutely nothing, nowhere, suddenly there appeared a speck of apparent nothingness, which in reality was an ephemeral tiny particle containing a field of space-time, or gravity, which exploded to become the very real long-lasting massive universe we see around us today. Physics, however, finds that the universe, if it came from nothingness, could well have come all by itself, without the help of any creator. A universe such as ours can grow from nought without any special divine intervention, as easily and as naturally as a maple grows from a seed.
This does not, however, disprove the existence of God. If nothingness is the natural possibility of being any material thing, we may still insist that it is God who makes this possibility possible. Without this insistence, in fact, we are completely in the dark about why things come from nothing. Quantum physics only explains that it happens, at random, but has not the foggiest notion why.
Augustine knew why. The answer is in the mind of God, he believed. Many people do not share that belief. But if Augustine’s outlandish theory of creation from nought has been tentatively confirmed by physics centuries later, we might suspect the old saint had the right ideas about some other questions as well.