Contrary to what ancient Christian theologians hypothesized, the universe was not necessarily created from a pre-existing something.
I was recently reminded of this while watching a captivating two-hour British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) documentary, Everything and Nothing: The Amazing Science of Empty Space, first released in 2011.
Program host Jim Al-Khalili, an Iraq-born British theoretical physicist, University of Surrey professor and author, explains in the documentary that modern quantum research indicates nothing can indeed birth something. Naturally. Spontaneously. Without divine assistance.
Yet this idea is not new, just vastly more provable today than in earlier epochs.
The ancients often diverged radically on how the cosmos began. For example, some early Christian fathers (e.g., Theophilus, Justin Martyr, and Origen) leaned toward the idea that matter was already present in the universe when God decided to organize it into a cohesive reality. This is the creation “from something” theory.
The “from something” creation story echoed that of the storied Greek philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, et al), who also believed in pre-existent matter and the divine as it’s all-knowing architect.
But later Christian theologians began to coalesce around the idea that God was the immortally-present master of both spiritual and material existence, giving birth to and controlling both. This is known as the theory of creation ex nihilo—“out of nothing” in Latin.
Although most people today likely don’t give the arcane distinction a second thought (or a first, for that matter), the ex nihilo proposal is fundamental to modern doctrinal Christianity, Catholic and Protestant.
But this core assumption is demonstrably wrong. Which brings me back to the documentary.
The film’s core premise is that scientific research indicates empty, matter-free space—an infinite vacuum—very conceivably existed before the Big Bang, when the universe’s material-ness theoretically exploded into being. Al-Khalili explains in the documentary that experiments in quantum physics—the science that investigates the material behavior of atoms and even smaller entities—shows quantum bits of material spontaneously popping into and out of existence in a sterile vacuum. Ex nihilo.It is a strange-sounding phenomenon but infers cosmic consequences. Al-Khalil says quantum behavior is Big Bang theory writ infinitesimally tiny—powerfully supporting the ex nihilo hypothesis.
Our growing understanding of the infinitely teeny-tiny quantum realm is a major achievement that follows a long line of scientific advances. These incremental steps began when curious people began looking up at the medieval night sky and noticed it did not appear or behave as scripture and consensus opinion inferred it should. Doubt, as always, is the mother and father of innovation.
Ultimately, skepticism about Bible-infused group-think in the Middle Ages is what allowed humans to first leave Earth and journey to another world—the moon—in the Space Age. It allowed us to comprehend that the universe is not just contained within our solar system, as the ancients falsely believed, but that there are 200 billion stars (including the Sun) in our Milky Way galaxy alone (and countless solar systems) and a hundred billion other gigantic galaxies out there in the endlessness of deep space.
The shredding of this hidebound view of the universe began in earnest nearly 500 years ago, in 1572, when Englishman John Digges was captivated by an astonishingly bright star in the night sky. It was a supernova, an exploding star deep in space, which was millions of times brighter than the sun.
Shockingly, the star seemed to be moving, because its intensity alternated between bright and dim, as though approaching earth and then abruptly moving away. But astronomers of the day had long accepted that stars were in fixed—meaning immovable—positions in relation to earth, like a kind of inert cap over the world. Pioneering Polish astronomer Nicklaus Copernicus, also wrongly, had surmised the same thing decades earlier.
“Perhaps,” Digges’ colleague speculated about the star, referencing Copernicus, “this shell is just an illusion.”
And so it was. Soon, the cosmos would become infinite, not finite, in people’s minds.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Still, it would be several centuries before the world would entertain another of Copernicus’ theories—this one correct—that the Sun didn’t orbit the Earth, as scripture and the church insisted. Copernicus hypothesized that it was actually the other way around. He worked out that the Sun only seemed to move as it rose and set each day; in fact, it was the Earth that actually moved (as it rotates), and the Sun’s “movement” was only illusory. This profoundly new idea eventually changed everything and set modern science on a zooming path to modernity.
So, today science is able to convincingly demonstrate by peering into the tiniest of realms that in an infinite cosmos something can actually—and naturally—explode into being. Out of—as far as can be divined—absolutely nothing.