“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why, it's as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!”
– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
One often hears critics of atheism argue that the universe could not have come from nothing. Now, atheism does not actually imply such a thing – not in the way these critics mean. An atheist may believe that the universe has existed from eternity past, for instance (although that's not the only option, as we'll see below). But that's not what I want to discuss here. What I want to address instead is a mistake that these critics, as well as some atheists who respond to them, make – namely, the mistake of treating nothing as if it were a something. Or, to put it another way, the mistake of reifying nothing.
When critics of atheism claim that the universe could not have come into being out of nothing, they are claiming that what exists – that all that exists – could not have come from nothing. What they mean by nothing, therefore, is nonexistence. Nothing is the absence of anything at all. (In fact, one of the complaints many had about Lawrence Krauss's book A Universe from Nothing, is that what he meant by “nothing” wasn't really nothing.) But even though they are talking about the absence of existence, they then talk about it as if it at some point existed.
For instance, if it is claimed that the big bang was the absolute beginning, these theists imagine this to mean that first there was nothing, and then a universe popped into existence from this nothing. As William Lane Craig put it, “if originally there were absolutely nothing – no God, no space, no time – then how could the universe possibly come to exist?” The nothing in question here is treated as if it were the state that in some sense existed prior to the big bang. And that is literally nonsense.
Unfortunately, however, many atheists, rather than rejecting this notion of a nothing that is a something, reply to these critics by claiming that the nothing is in fact the sort of thing that a universe could arise out of. This is not what Krauss did, by the way, since – as already pointed out – his “nothing” isn't really nothing. But there are other atheists who argue that, because literal nothingness has no properties, one cannot rule out a universe popping into existence from it. Here's how one such atheist – a philosophically sophisticated YouTuber that I usually agree with – put it:
“If a condition of absolute nothingness had been the case at some point... there'd be nothing – literally nothing – to physically prevent something from springing into existence out of nothingness... [and thus] no reason why it could not happen.”
In other words, if what we are talking about really is nothing, these atheists say, then there isn't anything in it to rule out a universe coming into being. To claim that this would, for instance, violate conservation laws, is to claim that we are not really talking about a state of nothingness – for in such a state, there would be no laws of conservation, or anything else.
Now, it is undeniable that if there weren't anything in existence, there would be no laws of conservation. That's not what I'm disputing. The problem I have with the above is that it implicitly asks us to suppose that the state of nonexistence in question (call it N) at some point existed. It asks us to imagine it being the case that what there was at some point was N. And that is simply nonsense; it is a contradiction in terms.
It is, however, nonsense that is very easy to fall into. And the reason is language. Notice that the most natural way to talk about nothingness is to say things like “a state of nothingness,” or “the situation in which there is nothing.” But a state is something (isn't it?), and for there to be nothing suggests that in that case there is nothingness. But that's simply linguistic confusion. By definition, a state of nothingness has never existed and never will exist.
Now, if such “nothingness reifyers” are asked whether they actually believe that nothing is something most will presumably answer no. It is as obvious that to say “nothing exists” is to say “there isn't anything that exists” (and not to say “there is nothingness that exists”) as it is obvious that the King in Through the Looking Glass is confused. Nevertheless, the reifyers treat nothing as if it were a kind of thing.
Something cannot come from nothing not because it would violate conservation laws, but because nothing isn't a thing from which something can come.
This does not, however, mean that the only possibility is that the universe existed from eternity past. Provided it is possible for time itself to begin, then it is possible for (say) the big bang to be the absolute beginning – meaning that nothing existed before. And by “nothing” here I mean nothing – not even space or time. If there was empty spacetime prior to the big bang, then we are no longer talking about there being nothing prior to the big bang. For to claim that spacetime existed is to claim that spacetime has an independent reality, and thus that it is a “something.” (Note also that in that case one can no longer argue that there would necessarily be no conservation laws.) But if there really was nothing before the big bang, then the universe did not come into being out of this nothing, since there never was this nothing for it to come out of. Rather, the universe simply exists – just as it does if it has existed from eternity past. The only difference is that it has not existed from eternity past, since time itself began. Thus, a universe that begins at the big bang remains a possibility.
Now, some might complain that this is a distinction without a difference; that to say that the universe has simply existed from the moment of the big bang just is to say that it popped into existence out of nothing. But there is a difference. The universe did not “pop into existence.” It did not come into being from some prior state of things, as there was no prior state of things. And so there cannot be a question as to whether or not it could have been prevented from coming into being.
The Craig quote is from
The YouTube quote is from the following video at the Ozymandias Ramses II site – a site that I highly recommend in spite of disagreeing with this particular argument in it: