Distinguishing nothing from something

Brandon Vogt and Bishop Robert Barron had what I thought was a great exchange on the topic of creation and being with respect to Stephen Hawking’s argument that the existence of the universe does not require an explanation:

Brandon Vogt: Hawking seems to suggest that really, the only reason to believe in God, is if you think he’s necessary to explain the universe. That God would have been the only possible cause of the universe, and so the rest of the chapter aims to show why the universe could have been created without God. Hawking says explicitly, “I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing according to the laws of science,” and he later says, “The laws of nature itself tell us that not only could the universe have popped into existence without any assistance like a proton, and have required nothing in terms of energy, but also that it is possible that nothing caused the Big Bang.” What’s your take on that analysis?

Bishop Robert Barron: He’s doing there what a lot of his acolytes do, which is equivocate on the term “nothing.” I know it seems odd to put it that way, because nothing is nothing. But they really are, they’re equivocating on the meaning of the term.

Let’s stay within the philosophical frame. Within philosophy, “nothing” designates absolute non-being, right? The absolute negation of being of any kind. But when the theoretical physicists use the word “nothing,” they’re using it in a highly equivocal way. They’re not intending by that word absolute metaphysical non-being. They’re talking about really a very rich and fecund field of energy out of which these subatomic particles emerge.

The minute you say what they came from and what they return to, you’re not designating nothing. You’re not designating absolute metaphysical non-being. You’re pointing to this very richly textured field out of which these energies appear. And so it’s throwing the word “nothing” around as though it’s solving a metaphysical problem. What they mean by it is not like a measurable thing, so you might be pointing to a dimension of reality which is not a measurable thing in the conventional sense. If by that you mean “nothing,” fine, but see, what they in fact are indicating is a contingent state of affairs that therefore needs to be explained metaphysically. We still can ask the question, “What’s the condition for the possibility of that state of affairs?”

The thing that you read, that passage, when I read that on the plane, I remember I laughed out loud because: so the universe comes out of absolute non-being, but given the laws of nature. Say what you want about the laws of nature—they’re not nothing. The laws of nature are naming certain fundamental constants that the scientists are operating out of. That’s the epistemological context in which scientists are operating. Say what you want of those, but they’re not absolute non-being. So then the question arises, “How do you explain the laws of nature?” Which I think is a very searching question.

Look, all of the sciences are predicated on the assumption that there is a fundamental intelligibility about being and “laws of nature” is just a way of saying that. That there is an intelligible structure to reality at the ordinary level of our experience and at the most fundamental level of theoretical physics. And Hawking is calling those, for sake of argument, “the laws of nature.” I want to know where those come from! I want to know how it’s just the case that reality is explicable in terms of densely complex mathematical intelligibilities. And all of the sciences assume it—they don’t prove it, they assume it, they rest upon it. Where did those come from? I want to know that.

And don’t play the game of saying, “Oh it’s coming from nothing, it just comes out of absolute non-being.” Oh, and of course conditioned by the “laws of nature.” I mean, philosophically speaking you’re just trading in nonsense there.

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