Alexander Vilenkin’s “tunneling from literally nothing” model (pdf of 1982 paper; pdf of 1988 paper) for the origin of the universe is brought up frequently in both scientific and religious arenas: In the context of science, the model is just plain interesting. And in the context of religion, it has an unique parallel to the doctrine of creation ex nihilo – the belief that God created the universe from nothing – a doctrine to which William Lane Craig subscribes (and, incidentally, is part of his Kalam Cosmological Argument).
In a nutshell, Vilenkin’s model is a variation on Edward Tryon’s “vacuum fluctuation” model, but instead of the universe appearing within a background of space, the universe appears from an empty geometry (i.e. “nothing”). As Vilenkin’s colleague Alan Guth explains,
Putting [general relativity and quantum mechanics] together, one can imagine that the universe started in the total empty geometry – absolute nothingness – and then made a quantum tunneling transition to a nonempty state. Calculations show that a universe created this way would typically be subatomic in size, but that is no problem . . . Vilenkin was able to invoke inflation to enlarge the universe to its current size.
The Inflationary Universe (1997), Page 275
But perhaps calling this creation from “absolute nothingness” is a bit confusing. As Guth points out, Vilenkin’s “absolute nothingness” is “mathematically well-defined, and can be used as a starting point for theories of creation” (Pg. 273). In fact, Vilenkin himself seems to dislike the terminology.
[T]he state of “nothing” cannot be identified with absolute nothingness. The tunneling is described by the laws of quantum mechanics, and thus “nothing” should be subject to these laws. The laws of physics must have existed, even though there was no universe.
– Alexander Vilenkin in his book Many Worlds in One (2006), Page 181
In Craig’s review essay of Vilenkin’s book, he responds to this statement by arguing that “If these laws are truly descriptive, then obviously it cannot be true that ‘there was no universe.'” However, I think this is simply a misunderstanding on Craig’s part. Craig seems to think of the word “universe” as being synonymous with “all of physical reality,” but if Vilenkin’s “nothingness” is simply an empty geometry (as described by general relativity), then it is certainly plausible that this “nothing” behaves in a way which can be described by quantum mechanical laws.
But Craig has claimed that usage of the word “nothingness” is both “philosophically naive” and “misleading” when used in similar contexts, so presumably Craig wouldn’t consider Vilenkin’s model to be akin to creation ex nihilo. Perhaps this is why Craig continues to defend the standard Big Bang model (unfortunately, that really doesn’t describe creation ex nihilo either).