The quantum science claim that things arise from nothing

The argument is familiar to everyone. For an instance chosen more or less at random, see here.

This is popularized science, of course. Most of the drama of the claim fades on closer examination, and is softened through qualifications. Due to circumstances that are not entirely rational, theists and Thomists are presumed to have to dispute the claim and see it as somehow a threat; as though the scientists had dethroned some basic axiom of perennial philosophy or Christina theism. Oddly enough, Aristotle and St. Thomas never mention the axiom “nothing comes from nothing” except when they are taking exception to its universality (note that if it were true without qualification, creation would be impossible, which Christians deny). It’s not clear what there is in the data as such that makes the scientist not want to take it as an observable case of the exercise of divine power (look, things are really being created here, just as the Christians say!) But, at any rate, I might as well play my role as the one who has to be skeptical about the claim.

More than one person has pointed out that the quantum action ex nihilo is not really from nothing. This argument is not usually fleshed out, but it can be – “nothing” is an intentional term. The quantum scientist understands “things arising from nothing” as one reality – called “nothing”- giving rise to another reality, called “being”. There is a paradox in the wording here, but scientist can define his terms well enough, and they are tolerably close to actual usage. But this is certainly not what the classic formula of “creation ex nihilo” is. Creation ex nihilo is not the claim that one reality (being) arose from a previous one (nothing), but simply that God did not depend on any matter when making things. “Ex nihilo” is a claim about the difference between the divine art and our own art, not a claim about a state prior to existence. More importantly in the classic doctrine “nothing” is an intentional term, that is, a term that has its whole existence from the activity of the human mind. “The denial of dependence” is not a thing, nor is the absence of divine dependence on matter. If the scientists were speaking in the same terms as the classic doctrine, then their claims would be absurd in a rather straightforward way – it would be the same sort of claim as saying that you picked your teeth with the thought of last Tuesday; or that you measured the distance from London bridge to Christmas day. But their claims aren’t absurd, and so whatever their speaking of is utterly set apart from the classic doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

 

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3 Comments

  1. Gagdad Bob said,

    July 31, 2011 at 7:33 am

    Physicists confuse the “nothing” that lies beyond the threshold of scientific conceptualization with “nothing” — which makes about as much sense as suggesting that the dark side of the moon doesn’t exist, or that there are no fish smaller than one’s net.

  2. Crude said,

    July 31, 2011 at 11:30 am

    You briefly touch on one thing which I always wonder about.

    In light of the doctrine of ex nihilo, I’m surprised I’d never seen exactly the claim you mention – where the scientist says “See? Matter comes into existence from nothing all the time!” and the theologian replies, “Oh, there’s scientific support for the doctrine of ex nihilo now?” I imagine the next line would be, “No, it’s popping into existence without any cause at all, divine or otherwise!” – but then comes the replies to that.

    • July 31, 2011 at 3:55 pm

      On a related point, STA argued that all elements arose from an act of special creation ex nihilo. so we could keep the conversation going by saying “so you’ve just proved Aristotelian- Thomistic physics correct!”


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