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  • Writer's picturePatrick Prill

Nothing Happened At The Beginning

Updated: Jul 27, 2022

“... I would like it to be the case that absolutely nothing happened at the Creation and that I can justify the claim. Gone activity, then gone agent. If absolutely nothing happened, then science would have nothing to explain, which would certainly simplify its task.”[1]

- Peter Atkins

Peter Atkins is an accomplished author, lecturer and Chemistry professor at Oxford University. As a scientist, he has long pondered how our universe began. How could a universe that had a beginning have commenced without a first-cause? After all, if a physical universe had a nonphysical origin, would that origin not be God? As a scientist who is committed to materialism, he does not want that to be the case.

In 2011, Mr. Atkins wrote a book entitled On Being. In it, he stated scientists “haven’t a clue” as to the events surrounding the origin of the universe.[2] He explained that what scientists know about the laws of physics breaks down when you project back to within a tiny fraction of a second of the Big Bang event.[3] So, given the limits of science, he couldn’t really know what happened. But he thought about it none-the-less. His key question was, how could the universe have started without God? Here are a few of his possible scenarios:

Mother and daughter universes – This idea would enable the universe to have a beginning without having a beginning. It would be more like a birth. However, for the mother universe to not have a beginning, there would need to be an infinite number of universes. He contemplated:

“It might be the case that any universe can bud into an infinite number of universes, that the current number of universes is already infinite, but increasing, and possibly increasing infinitely rapidly at an infinitely accelerating rate, and has been accelerating infinitely rapidly for eternity...”[4]

If I remember my algebra classes correctly, infinity can’t be multiplied by anything; it’s already infinite.[5] The idea that there is an infinite number of universes increasing infinitely for infinity doesn’t make sense. And, even Mr. Atkins states that a single originating universe would still be required. So, let’s go to the next idea.

Nothing split into positive and negative charges – This idea doesn’t require a predecessor universe to get ours going. According to Mr. Atkins, it requires nothing. Here is the general idea. Mr. Atkins states that “experiments seem to show that the total energy in the universe is fixed and never changes.”[6] He then observes that the universe consists of positive and negative charges and the sum total of these charges seems to be close to neutral (or nothing).[7] Therefore, everything (which he assumes is really nothing) could have come from nothing!

How could this have actually happened? Mr. Atkins speculates:

“At the creation, nothing did indeed come from Nothing, but the original Nothing was turned into a much more interesting and potent current nothing when some kind of event split Nothing into electrical opposites.”[8]

Unless I’m mistaken, “some kind of an event” is something and the “Nothing” that is the start of this scenario is also something – positive and negative electrical charges. Since Mr. Atkins agrees that Laws of nature could not have preceded nature, what was this event that caused “Nothing” (electrical charges) to become everything? And, what was the source of the electrical charges? He didn’t know.

This scenario merely replaces God as the creator and first-cause of the universe with an unspecified event and assumes that nothingness is really a neutral energy source. It’s imaginative, but not compelling.

Seven years later...

It seems Mr. Atkins wasn’t fully satisfied with these scenarios and continued to ponder how the universe got started. He saw that the difficult problem to solve was “how something can come from nothing without intervention.”[9]

In 2018, he wrote another book, Conjuring the Universe. In it, he sought to overcome the problems of his earlier scenarios with the idea that nothing actually happened at the beginning. After all, if nothing happened, then God wasn’t needed to make it happen:

“That is, I would like it to be the case that absolutely nothing happened at the Creation and that I can justify the claim.”[10]

This is Mr. Atkins’ preferred scenario, though he can’t really substantiate it. He knows that what actually happened at the moment the universe began is unknowable with the tools of science. But, he states that the ability to conceive of a way that the universe began (even if unprovable) is evidence that God does not exist.[11] Thus, the ability to develop an unprovable hypothesis is evidence for another hypothesis.

Mr. Atkins’ latest self-described “flight of speculation” is quite a journey.[12] Of itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. Great science begins with speculation – ideas that are either confirmed or rejected. He lays out a series of assumptions about energy, time, laws, and symmetry and then speculates:

“...Nothing rolled over into something and our incipient universe became equipped with space and time. The immediate consequence of that rolling over is what we call the Big Bang, but I want, at this stage, to avoid the impression of banginess and would like to regard the Big Bang as an event taking place later than this rolling over. The rolling over in due course enabled the Big Bang in some sense.”[13]

There are obviously more than a few logical problems with his assumptions and this flight of speculation. In the interest of time, let’s look at just a few.

1. Something did happen – Something enormous clearly happened about 13.7 billion years ago, though the tools of science can’t tell us how or why. An incomprehensibly massive event occurred that launched all of the matter, energy, time, space and laws of the universe into existence.

2. Unprovable hypotheses aren’t evidence – The ability to develop an unprovable idea for how the universe began isn’t evidence for the non-existence of God. It is merely evidence of creative thought.

3. Nothing happened before the Big Bang – Paul Davies, a professor of theoretical physics, explains that no events happened before the Big Bang because time didn’t exist before it. Time originated at the Big Bang.[14]

4. Nothing doesn’t possess anything – Mr. Atkins describes “Nothing” as possessing the ability to do something – roll over and become. He even states that nothing possesses the attributes and properties of potentiality, fruitfulness and uniformity.[15] However, nothing possesses no abilities or attributes – it’s nothing.

5. Nothing isn’t a first-cause – Nothing is not a thing. It can’t rollover, become equipped with something (space and time) and then cause something – the Big Bang. What was the accident, necessity or decision that prompted (caused) non-existence to do something? Mr. Atkins doesn’t know and he doesn’t eliminate the need for a real first-cause that pre-existed the Big Bang.

Mr. Atkins, while acknowledging the universe had a beginning and somehow emerged from “Nothing,” wants the universe to have had no first-cause. So he speculates about infinite universes, a series of events that occurred before time, space, matter and energy existed, the possibility that time is looped and how laws could have come into existence from chaos. Yet his flight of speculation is merely speculation.

Mr. Atkins’ creative thought is evident and commendable. However, to advocate for the idea that nothing happened at the beginning of the universe because of events that happened before its inception that were caused by, for, and out of nothing doesn’t make a great deal of sense.

[1] Peter Atkins, Conjuring the Universe, (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2018), 6. [2] Peter Atkins, On Being, (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2011), 5. [3] Atkins’ view is that the Big Bang occurred about 13.7 billion years ago and that what is known about physics breaks down at about 10¯³⁴ of a second after the Big Bang event. [4] Peter Atkins, On Being, (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2011), 7. [5] Infinity isn’t actually a number. It’s not a distinct value; it’s a concept. [6] Peter Atkins, On Being, 15. [7] Mr. Atkins assumes that the total positive and negative energy forces in the universe total to zero and that the total amount of energy is fixed for all time. On Being, 16-17. However, this doesn’t seem to be an established fact. Some astrophysicists are now stating that the amount of dark energy in the universe is actually increasing as the universe expands. [8] Peter Atkins, On Being, 14. [9] Peter Atkins, Conjuring the Universe, (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2018), 5. [10] Peter Atkins, Conjuring the Universe, 6. [11] This is a twist on the approach used by Anslem in the 11th century. It’s called an Ontological proof and isn’t a totally convincing approach. For example, if we can conceive of a giant marshmallow man, would that necessarily make it a reality or just a possibility? [12] Peter Atkins, Conjuring the Universe, 16. [13] Peter Atkins, Conjuring the Universe, 28. [14] Paul Davies, What Happened before the Big Bang?, in the collection edited by Russell Stannard, God For The 21st Century, (Radnor, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2000), 8. [15] Peter Atkins, Conjuring the Universe, 17, 29, 38.

© Copyright 2020 Patrick Prill

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