In his latest book, The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking—arguably the greatest living scientist since Einstein—wrote the following sentence, which has been twisting my neurons into Mobius strips ever since I read it.
“Because there is a law such as gravity,” Hawking wrote, “the Universe can and will create itself out of nothing.”
Now, my understanding of the math behind modern physics doesn’t extend beyond the simple formula for time dilation as predicted by special relativity, so I won’t feign challenging Hawking’s physics. But that sentence isn’t just physics; it’s metaphysics, abstract philosophizing about what can be only abstractly philosophized about, nothing more.
His sentence begins with these words: “Because there is . . .” What does the phrase “there is” imply, other than that “there is” something? The first part of the sentence, which points to something, contradicts the last part, which points to nothing. Whatever “there is” might be fleeting, imperceptible, inaccessible, even incomprehensible, but it is not “nothing.”
Hawking, in fact, tells us what that “there is” actually is. He said: “Because there is a law such as gravity.” No doubt, because the physics is heavy, I’m missing a lot here. But what I am not missing are the two nouns, “law” and “gravity,” in that sentence. A “law”—in this case, a law of nature—is something. And sure, gravity might be weak (raise your arm and you’ve just pushed against the gravitational pull of the entire earth), but it’s not nothing. And all these people aren’t getting plastic surgery for “nothing” either, are they? And isn’t gravity what holds the moon in orbit around the earth, and the earth in orbit around the sun? So how does one argue that “because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself out of nothing?”
People are looking for something, anything, even nothing (that which, by definition, does not exist), as opposed to God as the creative force behind our origins. For some the foundation of all existence, God, is replaced by “nothing,” the negation of all existence.
“It seems impossible,” wrote best-selling author Bill Bryson, “that you could get something from nothing, but the fact that once there was nothing but now there is a universe is evident proof that you can.”
As I said, this is metaphysics, not physics.
In the nineteenth century a relatively unknown philosopher, Heinrich Jacobi, in a totally different context from Hawking (that of the meaninglessness of life without God), wrote: “But the human being has such a choice, this single one: Nothingness or a God.”
He’s right. If we look backward to Creation, or forward to eternity, there is only God or nothingness. Even if cosmologists peel back the past to the most fundamental level possible, something had to precede that level in order to create it, to give it the laws, principles, and formulas that allowed it to become the universe. And whatever preceded it also needed something prior to explain how it got there, and on and on in an infinite regress. The only options are that an eternal God created the universe; or that “nothing” did, because “nothing”—as opposed to everything else (except an eternal God)—needs no explanation.
Meanwhile, if we look toward the future, toward eternity, if there is no God, if all life, all consciousness, all human existence ends in eternal death, what awaits us but, essentially, nothingness as well?
Having lost faith in God, and delving into the philosophy of nihilism,35-year-old Mitchell Heisman committed suicide in September by shooting himself in front of a church in Harvard Yard. But not before writing a 1,905-page suicide note in which he expressed where his nihilism had taken him. “Every word, every thought, and every emotion,” he wrote, “come back to one core problem: life is meaningless. The experiment in nihilism is to seek out and expose every illusion and every myth, wherever it may lead, no matter what, even if it kills us.”
Nihilism, by the way, comes from the Latin word nihil, which means, you guessed it, “nothing.”
Heisman, Jacobi, Hawking. They’re right. God, or nothing.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. This article was published November 18, 2010.