How did something come from nothing?

Ard: I was wanting to jump to something closer to science, which is that the elements in our body – the whole series of elements – where did those come from?

PA: In what we term the Big Bang.

Ard: Okay.

PA: At least the simple elements were, but happily they got roasted in stars.

Ard: Okay.

PA: And once you start roasting things you get tastier meals like carbon and oxygen and nitrogen.

Ard: Okay. And so these elements in our body come from stars.

PA: Yes. We are stardust.

Ard: We are stardust.

PA: You are the child of some distant and now extinct star.

Ard: Which has exploded?

PA: And scattered its ashes. And you are ash.

Ard: I’m ash. That’s a kind of poetic...

PA: I think it’s lovely.

Ard: So do you think that gives us some kind of meaning?

PA: It gives us a certain humility insofar as humility is meaning. I think it’s a fantastic vision, really that through the processes of physical law, we have emerged and are able to have conversations of this kind. I think it’s quite an extraordinary vision of the grandeur of the universe.

Ard: Sure. Philosophers have tried for millennia to solve the problem of the meaning of life. Do you think that problem should be handed on to scientists now?

PA: Well philosophers haven’t made much of a fist of it, have they?

Ard: Okay. A classic kind of philosophical question is: why is there something rather than nothing? So, where did the universe come from?

PA: Yes.

Ard: Do you think science can answer that question?

PA: Well, nothing else can.

Ard: Okay. Do you think we’ve…?

PA: Obviously, theology thinks it can, by saying it was the workings of the finger of God which stirred up nothing and out of it came the universe. This is not, to my mind, very satisfying as an explanation.

Ard: And when you say ‘nothing’, what do you mean by ‘nothing’? Do you mean…?

PA: I mean what everyone means by nothing. It means absolutely nothing.

Ard: So it’s not like Lawrence Krauss says the laws of physics out of which…?

PA: No, no, that’s the laws of physics. It’s a meta-nothing.

Ard: Okay. It’s a meta-nothing. So nothing means nothing. There are no laws of physics. There is…

PA: I mean absolutely nothing. Not even a void.

Ard: Not even a void. So where did the voids and the laws of physics come from then?

PA: God knows!

Ard: God knows! Okay.

David: Very good!

Ard: Do you think that’s a deep mystery?

PA: When I say that God knows, I’m using that, of course, allegorically. I must say this.

Ard: There’s no doubt about that!

PA: I think the extraordinary thing is that we humans, we products of the creation, are on the track of giving a real answer to that extraordinary question.

Ard: Do you think we’ve got some ways we could answer that question?

PA: Oh, yes. Science is an extraordinarily powerful instrument of discovery that wherever it touches, the rocks give way.

Ard: Do you think it could be that we’re just the product of an accident? A cosmic accident?

PA: Well, yes, kind of. For an accident to occur, you need a kind of substratum for the accident to occur in. But even though it’s a difficult concept, it may be one that we ultimately find our way to understand. So I think it’s a real challenge for science, but we’re edging towards it. That’s the extraordinary thing. Science is edging towards understanding the deepest possible questions: it’s not rushing in. Sometimes it rushes in and then it gets rebuffed, but it is cautiously edging towards discovering the deep fabric of the universe and the events that took place in its inception.

Ard: But wouldn’t you say that science is based on the rules of physics and chemistry, etc.? But the question of where those rules came from, you think that’s also a scientific question?

PA: Oh, absolutely. I mean the ultimate level of the rules of science must be some kind of intrinsic logic to the universe.

Ard: And where did that logic come from?

PA: It might be that… This is pure speculation, of course.

Ard: Sure.

PA: Many kinds of universes can bubble into existence but immediately evaporate, vaporise, because they don’t have a logical structure that causes them to cohere. But then you get a universe suddenly that, quite at random, bubbles out of absolutely nothing, which by chance has a logical structure that enables it to persist.

Ard: But what makes those universes bubble out of nothing?

PA: Who knows? I mean, it would be unwise… I don’t think it’s the finger of God saying, ‘Bubble, bubble’. But, once we know that these universes have bubbled out of absolutely nothing, then we can start to understand why they did.

Ard: But…

PA: Perhaps they didn’t. Perhaps it’s all an illusion.

Ard: But they would have to be uncaused somehow, right?

PA: Of course.

Ard: Definitely uncaused?

PA: Although even causality might take a knock because it could… The kind of deep causality that we’re talking about might be retrospective causality, because something comes into existence, causality exists, and so it bootstrapped it into existence. Who knows?

David: A bit like time?

PA: Yes.

David: It would be the same? Time wasn’t ticking away waiting for the universe, but once the universe is here, it has time.

PA: But, you know, these very deep questions are extraordinarily important questions. But they are… Such is the plasticity and power of the human brain. I don’t think we should say that they are beyond human ability to elucidate. But it might take time, and we might be astounded by the answer. Who knows? We might have to say, ‘There’s a God!’

David: I take it you would reject out of hand the notion of people who say we should talk about the purpose of the universe?

PA: I dismiss that because there’s no evidence.

David: Right.

PA: It may be true, because with my puny understanding of cosmic history, who knows? There might be a God out there that is completely invisible to me in all his actions. But, you know, who knows? It might be true, in which case there would be a reason for the universe. But because I see no evidence for it, I’ve no reason to accept it. And if I could…

Ard: So because you see no evidence for God, there is therefore no purpose?

PA: I think I think that.

Ard: Okay.