Nothing’s the Matter with Atheistic Materialism

Updated: May 10, 2019

by Joe Heschmeyer

The central problem with atheistic materialism is nothing, really. Metaphysical nothing, to be exact.

Any worldview, including atheism, should be able to give some sort of coherent answer to the rudimentary question of why the universe exists. I don't mean “why does this universe exist rather than another?” I mean, “why does there exist anything, rather than nothing?”

Dr. Victor Stenger, in a recent Huffington Post piece on how to debate religion, claims to have an answer. It turns out to be the standard materialist response given by many atheist scientists: How can something come from nothing? "Nothing" is notoriously difficult to define. To define it you have to give it some property. But then if it has a property it is not "nothing." So this is an incoherent question unless you define nothing as an empty vacuum.

There are several reasons why this answer is wrong, even incoherent and self-refuting:

Reason #1: Vacuum States Are Something, Not Nothing

The first reason his answer fails is because a vacuum is something, not nothing. We speak of it like it's nothing, just as I might say that there exists nothing in the space between Mercury and Venus, or that there's nothing in my glass after I drained it.

But in all of these cases, we're using “nothing” loosely. Obviously, there's air in my “empty” glass, and there's radiation, light, gravity, and such travelling through “empty” space. It also possesses dimensionality, which nothingness can't. We can say that there are nearly 60 million kilometers of empty space between the sun and Mercury. If empty space were nothing, it would be incoherent (and impossible) to quantify it spatially.

Likewise, vacuums are something: namely, they are physical states that periodically contain matter, and are not completely empty voids:

"Although the average value of a field in a particular region may indeed be zero, quantum theory predicts that there will be fluctuations around this zero value. Each fluctuation signifies the brief appearance of a 'virtual' particle. Hence, even in a true vacuum, matter fields may appear briefly. Even if the matter fields involved in the vacuum state are rather peculiar and certainly not observable in the sense that 'real' particles are, it is a mistake to think of any physical vacuum as some absolutely empty 'void.'"

Of course, even if they were completely empty voids, in the sense of lacking any particles, they would still exist, possessing width, breadth, and length, etc. So we can imagine something more empty than a vacuum state, and even that would be something, not nothing.

Stenger claimed that the only coherent way to understand nothing is as “an empty vacuum.” Of course, for a vacuum to be described as empty, it must first exist, and therefore, be something. This is easily illustrated by visualizing two people: one has an empty bag, while the other one doesn't have a bag. Which of these people has nothing?

This is similar to the analogy that the physicist Stephen Barr uses to explain the difference between a vacuum state and metaphysical nothing:

"An analogy may help here. A checking account is a system that has many possible states: the zero-dollar state, the thousand-dollar state, the negative-thousand-dollar state (if one is overdrawn), the million-dollar state, etc. And this system can make transitions from one state to another. For instance, by a finance charge or by accruing interest. Even if your checking account happens to be in the zero-dollar state one day, the checking account is nevertheless still something definite and real, not 'nothing.' It presupposes a bank, a monetary system, a contract between you and that bank, all being governed by various systems of rules. Imagine the day on which your bank account balance is zero. Then imagine a deposit the next day that raises it to one thousand dollars. A quantum theory of the creation of a universe (in Hawking’s version, or Vilenkin’s, or anyone else’s) is akin to this transition from an empty account to one full of money. Obviously, therefore, the “nothing” that Hawking makes part of his theory of the creation of our universe is not nothing in a metaphysical sense. The “no-universe” of his speculations is like the “no-dollars” in my account. It exists within the framework of a complex overarching system with specific rules. So we can see that, if true, the way of thinking put forward by Hawking does not threaten the classical doctrine of creation out of nothing."

Here's another way of thinking about this: imagine that tomorrow, scientists (somehow) discovered another universe that was only a quantum vacuum. They would excitedly announce that they had discovered something, and they would be right. They would have discovered something: namely, a universe whose existence we would have to account for somehow.

This is the most glaring problem with Stenger's answer (and the answer given by most other atheist materialists). But there are other problems, too:

Reason #2: When We Say “Nothing,” We Don't Mean “Vacuum States"

There is a related, but more fundamental problem with Stenger's answer: it isn't responsive to the question asked. If I asked you what a rock eats, you would rightly answer “nothing.” And you wouldn't mean that rocks eat vacuum states. You would mean that they eat nothing, that they don't eat. If I asked what you know about quantum mechanics, and you said “nothing,” you wouldn't mean that you know all about vacuum states. For that matter, when Stenger says “Nothing like this has ever happened,” he isn't talking about empty vacuums.

In all of these cases, we see that we can meaningfully speak about “nothing” without referring to vacuums. So when Stenger claims that it “is an incoherent question unless you define nothing as an empty vacuum,” the most charitable thing that can be said is that he has no idea what he's talking about.

Stenger is simply changing the question. He's asked how the materialist can get from utter, metaphysical, non-existence to a universe. He doesn't answer this. Instead, he changes it to an argument about whether matter can appear within a quantum state (inside of an already-existing, empty universe). But these aren't even remotely the same question.

It's clear why he wants to shift the debate: Stenger, a physicist, seems to know very little about philosophy (or history, but that's a matter for another day), so he's simply redefined the question to make it about physics. But the actual question isn't a question about physics, but about something more basic: metaphysics. A related question would be: how and why is there a universe that physics can study? Obviously, that's not a question that physics can answer, since physics necessarily assumes the prior existence of this universe in order to operate.

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