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 zer