Plenty of Nothing

God made everything out of nothing, but the nothingness shows through.

-- Paul Valéry

I confess I was not among those who immediately grasped the significance of the Higgs boson, the elementary particle whose existence was confirmed with 99.9999% certainty in a recent smashup at the Large Hadron Collider. I went to school long before the Higgs boson was mentioned in any physics textbook. Indeed, Peter Higgs -- the physicist who first proposed the existence of the particle in 1964 -- was rebuffed when he sought to publish his theory in a leading scientific journal. Eventually the scientific establishment came around to his point of view. Still, it is remarkable that physicists were able to commandeer $10 billion to build an enormous particle accelerator whose main purpose was to hunt down a subatomic particle that could only be detected indirectly and that does not even stick around long enough to sign autographs.

Much to the chagrin of the scientific community, the Higgs boson has been dubbed the “God particle,” even though it has nothing to do with proving the existence of God and everything to do with confirming the so-called standard model of particle physics. Yet it may bring us closer to answering one of the most perplexing questions of all philosophy and science: Why is there anything rather than nothing? The particle proves the existence of the Higgs field, which was formed a split-second after the Big Bang and provides the glue that binds together elementary particles, giving them their mass. Without the Higgs field, there would be no atoms, no stars, no planets and no intelligent life to wonder why there is anything rather than nothing.

As it happens, both scientific and Christian cosmologies are predicated on the understanding that everything arose from nothing, so it behooves us to comprehend exactly what is meant by nothing. According to the Big Bang theory, everything that now makes up the universe began as an infinitely dense “singularity,” smaller than an atom, that exploded with unimaginable speed and force some 13.7 billion years ago. Technically, there was nothing “before” the Big Bang, since time did not yet exist, nor did the nothing-before-the-everything consist of empty space, since there was no space either. Similarly, early Christian theologians formulated the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (literally “out of nothing”), based on various biblical sources, including this passage from Hebrews: “By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear.” For St. Augustine, it was pointless to ask what God did before he created the universe, since time itself was part of the created order.

Once you have stripped away time, space and everything contained therein, you are left with what the poet Wallace Stevens once described as “the nothing that is” – a logical contradiction that caused philosophers like Parmenides to conclude the universe must always have existed since nothing can come from nothing. Admittedly, total nothingness is a tough concept to wrap your mind around. Science, whose normal stock in trade is everything that nothingness is not, has surprisingly little to say on the subject. However, cosmologist Alex Vilenkin attempted a precise scientific definition in a conversation with author Jim Holt. Comparing the four-dimensional spacetime in which the universe exists to the surface of a balloon, Vilenkin suggested imagining that the balloon gradually deflates until its radius is zero. He defined nothingness as “a closed spacetime of zero radius.” What he described, of course, is the Big Bang in reverse, with the entire universe crawling back into its womb.

But does any of that tell us how something came from nothing? Theologians have an easier time answering that question than physicists, since they believe everything came from God. But that, of course, merely begs the question of where God came from. However, it is not clear that science has a better answer. Physicist Stephen Hawking maintained that quantum theory alone explains the spontaneous creation of the universe from nothing. "It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going," he wrote in The Grand Design. But that doesn’t explain how quantum mechanics operates when there is literally nothing in which to operate. The mechanisms themselves are something, not nothing. So where did they come from?

If you assume that everything must have had a cause, you quickly find yourself on a path that leads nowhere. The medieval Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas argued that since nothing can cause itself, and the chain of causation cannot be infinitely long, there must be a first cause to the universe, which he identified with God. The main problem with this line of reasoning is that God becomes his own cause, which violates Aquinas’ initial premise that nothing can cause itself. Substituting the Big Bang for God as the first cause doesn’t really get you anywhere, either. You can argue that time begins with the Big Bang, and therefore there can be no prior cause. But then, St. Augustine made essentially the same point about God when he created the universe.

According to some Christian and Jewish thinkers, God did not create the universe from nothing, he was the nothing from which the universe was created. For John Scotus Eriugena, a ninth-century Irish theologian, God was nihil, without attributes or essence, beyond being or non-being, no-thing. Similarly, medieval Jewish philosophers characterized God as Ayin, meaning nothingness or no-thingness, and the universe was created as yesh me-Ayin, or “something from nothing.” Ayin is associated with Ein Sof (literally “without end”), or God in his unmanifested state, existing above and beyond the created order and also beyond human comprehension. Both Eriugena and his Jewish counterparts believed that this primordial God was unknown even to himself, and that the creation of the universe was, in a sense, God’s attempt to discover himself.

If even God does not know himself apart from his creation, how can we expect otherwise for ourselves when we ask what went on before the universe existed? Physicists can plug numbers into their equations and tell you everything that happened in the first trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Higgs boson first emerged from the cosmic soup to glue the universe together. But not before. For all intents and purposes, there is no before, no peeking behind the curtain of creation -- indeed, no curtain to peek behind. For those of us who exist in the mind of God, or wherever it is we exist in, the show begins, as the Bible does, with these words: In the beginning, God.

Hebrews 11:3
Jim Holt,
Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story
Genesis 1:1

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