The Quantum Thomist

Musings about quantum physics, classical philosophy, and the connection between the two.
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Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing? (Part 1)
Last modified on Fri Mar 29 21:49:28 2019


One of the things that came out of my last post is that I should respond more to the leading physicist new atheists: people like Lawrence Krauss, Victor Stenger, Sean Carroll, Stephen Hawking, and so on. I agree, I should. When I get a bit of time, I will try to do so in depth, though I can't promise where that will be.

But, for the moment, I was asked to comment on a recent article by Sean Carroll. It will take me several posts to respond to it fully, so this one is just largely introductory to set the scene. I will give a few introductory comments, and address Carroll's own introduction.

I should immediately give a caveat: I am responding to this article only. It is a twenty page article, and as such cannot have a full depth discussion of the topic. It necessarily will skip over various details. Thus the article is not a complete exposition of Professor Carroll's position, and my response should not be taken as a complete reply to his thought, but only to the topics raised in the article as presented in the article.

The article is titled Why is there Something, Rather Than Nothing? This is a reference to a question, raised my many who believe in God, who find atheist explanations of the origin of the universe to be incomplete. Metaphysical naturalists need to assume the existence of the universe and some form of physical law as a starting point, simply because by definition they deny that there can be anything other than that. But there is a clear problem with this position. There is no reason why the laws of physics of physics should be as they are. So taking them to be an ultimate explanation seems deficient.

Our current model of physics can be reduced to a number of principles, including:

  1. It is a quantum field theory, indeterminate and allowing the creation and annihilation of various quantum particles.
  2. It is constrained by a particular set of symmetries.
  3. There are various dimensionless constants describing the interaction strength between different particles.
  4. The universe contains a certain amount of matter, and not more nor less.

From the perspective of the naturalist, all of these seem to be inexplicable. Why a quantum theory? A classical (Newtonian) theory of physics is perfectly consistent and reasonable, but that's just not the way the universe works. Why those symmetries and not others? Why 3+1 dimensions? Why do the constants have the values they do? For those who believe in God, all of these questions ultimately go back to the choices that God made while setting up the universe, so one is in effect reducing the issue from a large number of unresolved questions to just the single question of why God is as He is. The new atheists (and a fair number of old atheists as well) obviously pounce on that and say that if you haven't explained God, then you still haven't answered the question, so why bother? Theists obviously have a response to that, but I will save that until a later post in this series.

Then we come to the last of the four points. Why does the universe have the particular density of matter in it that it does? This seems to be plucked out of thin air, completely arbitrary. The only two numbers which might not be arbitrary, which you might be able to explain from naturalistic principle, are zero and infinity. There are philosophical and mathematical problems with infinity, so the obvious answer from the naturalistic perspective is to say that there shouldn't be anything in the universe. Which is clearly false. Once again, the theist has no problem, because the claim is that God's intention was to have a relationship with creatures such as ourselves, which means that there needs to be a certain amount of matter in the universe, just enough to allow the formation of stars, planets and life, and not too much that there would be an immediate gravitational collapse. Again, atheists would just respond by saying that theists are shifting the problem from one place to another without resolving it.

Anyway, that, admittedly rather crudely stated, is the argument Professor Carroll is responding to in his article. I don't want to comment here on how good or bad I think the argument itself is. It is not one I use myself in my work, but I do have some sympathy for those who deploy it.

Deism verses Theism

Before responding to the article in detail, there is one point which I should make at the start, because it is a recurring theme. That is that Professor Carroll is responding to a deistic God rather than a theistic God. This is, I think, unconscious: he nowhere discusses the distinction between the two, but reading his work, it seems to me clear that he has the God of deism in mind throughout.

Deism is the belief that there is a God, who created the universe, and lets it run by itself with little or no input. The universe is governed by certain laws, which, although established by God, have no other relationship with Him. Physical descriptions and theological discussions are entirely separate. To say that "science did it" is different from saying "God did it."

Theism is the belief that there is a God, who created the universe, and continually upholds and sustains it (Hebrews 1:3). Physics is a description of how God does so in the normal course of events. While we can discuss the effects of that sustaining without reference to God, because God is universal and rational (and thus study physics separate from theology), nonetheless the nature of what we uncover in physics ultimately reflects back on the nature of God. A physical description is one type of theological description. To say that "science did it" is one way of saying "God did it."

Ultimately, theists and deists have two very different views of the philosophy of science. Now it is easy for atheists to converse with deists about such things, because they both hold very similar philosophies of science. Atheism is essentially deism with God either removed or made redundant, and one of the weaknesses of deism is that removal is, in certain circumstances, possible. The chief argument of atheists against deists is that everything we know about nature can be explained in scientific terms, so why invoke God? The deist will obviously retort that things like miracles, and the creation of the universe and the very nature of the laws of physics need an explanation beyond science. And the two of them will argue back and forward until the universe itself collapses into a thermodynamic death.

The theist, on the other hand, is rather bemused by all this. Because to his mind, the very points the atheist raises against the deist as evidence for the redundancy of God, for the theist these are manifestations of God's direct actions. For example, invoking evolution by natural selection is a huge problem for the deist, but not an issue at all for the theist (at least, not until religious texts are introduced, but since I am talking philosophy here rather than Christian theology, I'll leave that topic to one side). Evolution by natural selection for the theist is, if true, just the description of how God brought about the complexity of life, because it depends on physical interactions which are the direct act of God. Most of the new atheist arguments miss the point entirely, at least when discussing theism.

The atheist will, of course, respond that the theist philosophy of science was destroyed in the early modern period, as people like Galileo, Boyle and Kepler adopted a more mechanistic understanding of the universe. And that the success of the deist/atheist philosophy of science makes also the theist invocation of God redundant, albeit in a different way to how the atheist argues against the deist. That the laws can be treated as independent of God suggests that claiming that they are a description of God's sustaining action is again, at best, unnecessary and redundant. So the reason (the new atheist will claim) that they can ignore theism is that it is not a position that anyone takes seriously any more. That theists have not been able to put forward any evidence as to why their philosophy of science should be adopted ahead of the more modern deist/atheist one.

And that, of course, is the topic of my own book. I argue, that while there was a strong case for the deist/atheist philosophy based on the physics that prevailed from the sixteenth through to nineteenth centuries, developments since that time have undermined that case. Those developments are along the lines of what the older classical theists would have predicted, had they been smart enough to do so (which only a few were), were thinking along the right lines (which they weren't) and knew the necessary mathematics (which wasn't developed until much later). So this criticism of theism needs reappraisal. But that's a different topic.

Thus there is a lot of what Sean Carroll writes which I agree with. I do think that atheism would be a more reasonable position than deism, if one could neglect the arguments from miracles. Atheists do generally neglect those arguments, in part because they don't move in those Church circles where they would witness such things today, and in part because of arguments such as those of Hume, which, though very weak once you stop to think about them, are a good support for those who don't think about them critically or are ignorant of how religious people, especially before Hume's influence spread, understand the miraculous.

The definition of God

Next, I should note that Professor Carroll defines God in a particular way, namely a necessary being. There are two different senses in which the word necessary can be used in this context, and I'm not quite sure which one Professor Carroll was intending. One aspect though, which I think is common to all definitions, is that God is self-explanatory: that God is that being, where is not possible, given His nature, to explain that nature in terms of something external to Himself. This aspect of the definition is a good starting point to talk about God. My concern is that the definition that God is a necessary being adds in various baggage on top of this. There are subtle differences between Leibniz's definition of God, and those of, for example, the Thomistic tradition. By focussing on this one definition, there is a danger that his arguments might not be generalisable to the others.

But at least he doesn't define God as the greatest possible being or some other approach inspired by Kant (which I have seen in many atheist writings). Carroll's definition is certainly close to one I could live with, provided that necessary is understood in the correct way.

The fundamental question

So now lets turn to Professor Carroll's question.

Science and philosophy are concerned with asking how things are, and why they are the way they are. It therefore seems natural to take the next step and ask why things are at all - why the universe exists, or why there is something rather than nothing.

There is one point to make here, at the start. Carroll actually poses two distinct questions here: 1) Why the universe exists; 2) Why there is something rather than nothing? The second question only reduces to the first if one assumes that the universe is all that exists and can exist, or that the word something only includes those things that are part of the universe, and maybe nothing excludes anything that is not part of the universe. This, of course, leaves us with a problem, namely how do we define the universe. There seem to be two competing definitions: 1) Everything in existence; 2) Everything material in existence, i.e. which exists within space and time (maybe including space and time itself as part of that). Carroll seems to adopt the second definition here, namely that the universe is "the entirety of physical reality. No judgement is implied about whether things other than physical reality can be usefully said to exist." So I will take it that Carroll would exclude God from his definition of the universe. So if the two questions are to be seen as being equivalent, then the "something" and "nothing" in the question would have to exclude God (if God happens to be there) -- they are only talking about physical reality, namely, those things studied by physics and the subjects derived from physics.

Carroll dates this question as arising from Leibniz, and that older philosophers ignored it. That's partly true, and partly false. It is true in the sense that the question wasn't given prominence until modern times, and certainly not in exactly the same formulation (especially given the modern reliance on a mechanistic metaphysics). However, I think that it is a bit bold to say that no older philosopher addressed this question. This article suggests that Seiger of Brabant asked it directly back in the thirteenth century , and this review traces the question back to Plato and Plotinus. I know little of the history of philosophy, so comment on the accuracy of these references, or whether or not there are any others.

But it is certainly true that ancient writers spend a lot of time focussing on a similar issue. They took it for granted that "nothing" cannot be the cause of anything. So they turned their attention to the question of the first cause.

Ancient writers, at least in the Socratic tradition, preferred to think about a sequence of explanations (similar to Leibniz, so this digression isn't entirely off topic). They would look at what we see and observe, and thought about their explanations, tracing back from one being to another and so on. This led them to ponder what the nature of the ultimate explanation could be. It seemed clear to them (and they offered some good arguments to this effect) that the sequence could not continue forever, and that meant that there had to be something which sat first in the sequence. Some point where we would have to say "We can explain thus far and no further." They didn't consider it plausible that something could be explained by nothing, since nothing, by its nature, is not able to explain anything. (But note that the nothing we are discussing here is different from the complete absence of matter, space, time, and laws of physics that is supposed in Carroll's question; it would mean the complete absence of anything whatsoever, and in particular anything that could explain something else). For example, Plato traced this ultimate explanation to the Good, Aristotle to the unmoved mover (God), Plotinus to the One. I will give a brief quotation from Plotinus in his summary of his conclusions.

We have seen elsewhere that the Good, the Principle, is simplex, and, correspondingly, primal — for the secondary can never be simplex — that it contains nothing: that it is an integral Unity.

Now the same Nature belongs to the Principle we know as The One. Just as the goodness of The Good is essential and not the outgrowth of some prior substance so the Unity of The One is its essential.


When we speak of The One and when we speak of The Good we must recognize an Identical Nature; we must affirm that they are the same — not, it is true, as venturing any predication with regard to that [unknowable] Hypostasis but simply as indicating it to ourselves in the best terms we find.

Even in calling it “The First” we mean no more than to express that it is the most absolutely simplex: it is the Self-Sufficing only in the sense that it is not of that compound nature which would make it dependent upon any constituent; it is “the Self-Contained” because everything contained in something alien must also exist by that alien.

Deriving, then, from nothing alien, entering into nothing alien, in no way a made-up thing, there can be nothing above it.

We need not, then, go seeking any other Principles; this — the One and the Good — is our First; next to it follows the Intellectual Principle, the Primal Thinker; and upon this follows Soul. Such is the order in nature. The Intellectual Realm allows no more than these and no fewer.

Plotinus here was obviously operating in a generally Platonic world-view. So to him, behind the material natural world lay the intellectual world of the forms, and behind that ultimately the One. I raised this quotation, giving a summary of conclusions drawn earlier in the argument, because it illustrates a few things.

Firstly, that he concluded that the One was absolutely simple, and not compound or composed of parts. This also implies that there could only be a single such being (since otherwise the collection of such beings would be a compound object, and thus not simple). This was, I think, agreed by all the classical philosophers, most especially the Christians.

Secondly, we see that Plotinus regarded that there was some intellectual principle associated with the ultimate explanation. This has to be the case, if the ultimate explanation is not physical but is still able to explain parts of physical reality. Again, I think that the majority of the ancient philosophers who thought about such things would have agreed with this.

Thirdly, we can see some hint of the philosophy behind the Trinity, with his highlighting of the Good as the first principle, the Nous (intellect), and the psyche (translated soul, but which might also mean life or spirit). Obviously, a Christian would not adopt this philosophy as it stands. For one thing, Plotinus treats these as three separate principles, while the Christian would unite them all into one substance. And the Good, nous and psyche don't fully agree with the concepts of Father, Logos and Holy Spirit. But they are not completely dissimilar either.

I am not suggesting that we accept Plotinus' views as gospel truth. Clearly his philosophy is based on Plato's, and Plato's metaphysics needs to be shown to be consistent with modern physics. My point is to say that the ancient philosophers might not have focussed on Carroll's question, but they did discuss the next one in detail: assuming that there is such a principle, what would its nature be? Carroll doesn't discuss this question at all; so in some sense the ancient philosophers were operating at a more advanced level. I imagine that Carroll's response would be that we can't know the answer to this question. He terminates the sequence with a brute fact, which could be anything. In which case, he owes us a response to those arguments which suggest that we can know something of the nature of the terminus to the sequence of explanations.

Moving back to the article, Carroll cited Leibniz as the author of this question, in the context of the principle of sufficient reason. Leibniz responded that God, as a necessary being, was the reason the universe exists. God is the reason that the universe exists, but God exists necessarily. Carroll writes that Aristotle's unmoved mover is a parallel to this, and there is some truth in that, even though there are important differences between the two concepts.

However, one has to take care of what is meant by a necessary being in this context. There are two different definitions: firstly a being that is logically necessary, in the sense that its non-existence is a contradiction. Secondly, a being that can have no further explanation, perhaps because its nature is perfectly simple (so there need be no cause for its parts to be joined together) and because it has no beginning, either because it exists eternally or it exists outside of time. There is no logical contradiction in this second type of being not existing; but the traditional arguments for God attempt to demonstrate that if anything of a different nature (i.e. contingent) exists then a being of this type must also exist. There is no contradiction in saying that nothing exists at all, so God's non-existence would not be a logical contradiction as such.

Carroll goes on to cite Hume as casting doubt on the possibility of a necessary being. I will discuss this later, since Carroll will return to the point, but just note that it is an argument only against Leibniz's notion of God. It is not, for example, an argument against an unmoved mover.

Hume and Kant also questioned whether the intellectual tools developed to understand the world of experience could be extended to an explanation of existence itself. This, of course, begs the question of whether Hume and Kant got this right. Given that Hume's philosophy was based on pre-Newtonian physics and Kant's on Newtonian physics, we should regard them with the same scepticism that people today regard the likes of Plato, Plotinus, and Aristotle: not necessarily wrong, but they need to be justified against our contemporary understanding of science before we can cite them as an authority. We have, of course, good reasons to reject Kant's dichotomy between the world of experience and the world of reality upon which his argument rests. The mathematical representation of reality used in physics is a bijective mapping. One cannot just go from reality to experience, but use experience to go from reality to an abstract model, and then back from that abstract model to reality to make scientific predictions. If the model didn't correspond in any way to reality, then there would be no reason why science is so successful. What this tells us is that we can capture something of the nature of physical beings in our reasoning, and thus we can ponder upwards to try to deduce the nature of the terminus of explanations. We might not be able to deduce everything about it (just as we can't, by the scientific nature, understand everything about physical reality -- we can understand form, but not matter to the same detail since matter is, by definition, not reducible to an intellectual principle), but we might be able to deduce some of it.

Carroll goes on to cite the likes of Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein, "I should say that the universe is just there, and that's all." This can be termed as the brute fact answer to the question. It suggests that the sequence of explanations just stops at some arbitrary point, which is the limit of what we can know. This is the answer that Carroll himself will adopt.

Carroll finishes this summary of approaches to the question by asking if the question is reasonable at all. Why should we expect that because "Why" questions are useful to facts within reality but not of reality itself. He rightly notes that there are difficulties in extrapolating from what we directly experience to questions such as this. It is tempting to treat the universe as just another thing to be accounted for like everything else. We should not look for conventional answers. But, looking at physics and cosmology, we can make progress.

I would emphasise this point even more. "The universe" is too abstract a term to be thought of in these terms. I am not convinced that it makes sense to ask "What was the cause of the universe?" in the same way that we ask "What was the cause of this electron?" That was, of course, one of the advantages of classical theology, over contemporary theology (such as the Kalam argument) that its philosophy focussed on individual beings rather than the universe as a whole. There is certainly a problem in jumping from our discussion of causes of electrons and other such particular objects to discussing the cause of what is at best a collection of objects in the universe. But, the arguments of classical theology, still point back through the chain of individual beings to an ultimate individual being (or perhaps collection of such beings -- the arguments that advocate its unity are beyond my scope) as a first cause. Is this type of argument valid? Are we interpreting what we know of efficient causes of physical particles such as electrons, and transposing them to immaterial beings? Except, this isn't what those arguments do. Arguments from efficient causality don't claim that the causal link between God and (for example) the first electron is exactly the same as the link between that electron and the W- Boson it emits. But they do claim that the electron's nature is such that it cannot be explained without recourse to some efficient cause. If that cannot be a material being, then it must be something immaterial. Or we would have to single out one quantum particle arbitrarily as being uncaused. But if that is uncaused, why all the others of the same nature caused? Or we would have to something else that isn't God which gives rise to the quantum particles -- but that something else would equally be beyond physics, so we would have to ponder about its nature. Or we could postulate an eternal universe, so the sequence of electrons and photons and Bosons goes back to infinity.

But in any case the question that Why the universe exists is not one which we can usefully ask because only individual beings can exist (in the meaning of the word existence under discussion) and the the universe isn't an individual being. We can usefully ask why anything exists at all.

But what is the meaning of the question why? That's the topic of Carroll's first non-introductory section, but since I have written enough already on just his first two pages, I'll leave that till next time.

Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing? (Part 2)

Reader Comments:

1. Dayne stafford
Posted at 15:25:29 Friday March 29 2019

You Introduced Two Paragraphs that are next to each other each with "secondly"

"Secondly, we see that Plotinus regarded that there was some intellectual principle associated with the ultimate explanation. This has to be the case, if the ultimate explanation is not physical but is still able to explain parts of physical reality. Again, I think that the majority of the ancient philosophers who thought about such things would have agreed with this.

Secondly, we can see some hint of the philosophy behind the Trinity, with his highlighting of the Good as the first principle, the Nous (intellect), and the psyche (translated soul, but which might also mean life or spirit). Obviously, a Christian would not adopt this philosophy as it stands. For one thing, Plotinus treats these as three separate principles, while the Christian would unite them all into one substance. And the Good, nous and psyche don't fully agree with the concepts of Father, Logos and Holy Spirit. But they are not completely dissimilar either."

2. Nigel Cundy
Posted at 21:47:54 Friday March 29 2019

Thanks. I'll correct it

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