Home > Cosmic Origins > Alexander Vilenkin’s Model of Cosmic Origins

Alexander Vilenkin’s Model of Cosmic Origins

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).

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Categories: Cosmic Origins
  1. allzermalmer
    07/23/2011 at 1:04 AM

    From Vilenkin, “The laws of physics must have existed, even though there was no universe.”

    That makes no sense at all. That’s like saying, “if there is no universe, then there must have existed laws of physics.” Which transforms into, “If there must not have existed laws of physics, then there is a universe.” His statement is just absurd. I’m not defending Craig, yet showing the absurdity of the position that there must have existed laws of physics when there is no universe. Laws of physics are describing observations that we make, which happens with a universe. No universe, then no laws of physics, since there is nothing to describe. Laws are only descriptions of what is observed, and they don’t exist when nothing exists, or at least regularities.

    • 11/03/2011 at 11:06 AM

      I think there are a couple of problems with your comment, one of which I think is the result of a simple semantic misunderstanding. I am pretty certain that when Vilenkin says the that the laws of physics “must have existed,” he is not making a philosophical argument in regards to the laws of physics being a “necessary” property. I believe this quote was meant in the following sense “The laws of physics must have existed [for my theory].”

      Second, the statement Vilenkin made “The laws of physics must have existed, even though there was no universe,” is not equivalent to the one you made. “There is smoke outside, even though there is no fire,” is different from stating “If there is no fire, then there must be smoke.”

      “Even though” is similar to the statement “despite.” There “must” be laws of physics “despite” there being no universe for his theory to work.

      Hopefully that clarifies those issues. Your last point is much more complicated.

      “Laws of physics are describing observations that we make, which happens with a universe.”

      I would first point out that this statement by definition precludes the development of a scientific theory of the universes origin. Second I do not think it is accurate.

      “Laws are only descriptions of what is observed, and they don’t exist when nothing exists, or at least regularities.”

      This statement is both true and false at the same time. In one sense “laws of nature” are the descriptions and conceptual frameworks by which we understand regularities in nature. If you wish to talk about laws in this sense, than law only “began” to exist once we observed and described them.

      I doubt this is really what you mean though, after all if I asked you is laws of nature existed 5 million years ago, I am guessing you would say yes, in which case what you stated does not make much sense.

      Secondly, physicists ARE trying to provide a description of what is observed, namely the universe itself. Science rarely depends on direct observation, so physicists are attempting to use what they observe now to extrapolate back to the initial cause.

      Thirdly, your point seems to be that “nothingness” cannot have physical laws. I would first be careful about using intuition here because I don’t think anyone can really say anything about what “nothingness” is or is not like, considering we both have no experience of it and have no conceptual framework on which to even consider it. In addition Vilenkin is not referring to “nothing” but a mathematical description of a potential cause of the universe that does indeed have properties. If it was indeed “nothing” than his journal articles on the topic would consist merely of a blank piece of paper.

      Finally I think it is important to remember the very topic with which we are dealing. William Lane Craig, absurdly in my opinion, attempts to use “intuition” in order to try and understand THE MOST unintuitive topic likely known to man. IF we ever discover the ultimate cause of existence (and I am perfectly willing to admit it may be outside the scope of human understanding) it will almost certainly be bizarre, and likely nearly incomprehensible, except for possibly in a mathematic sense.

      • allzermalmer
        11/22/2011 at 11:07 PM

        “I am pretty certain that when Vilenkin says the that the laws of physics “must have existed,” he is not making a philosophical argument in regards to the laws of physics being a “necessary” property. I believe this quote was meant in the following sense “The laws of physics must have existed [for my theory].””

        So he’s not describing the universe, but describing his theory. That’s fine, just means you can’t take his theory for the universe. And I think you’d agree that his theory isn’t the universe.

        ““Even though” is similar to the statement “despite.” There “must” be laws of physics “despite” there being no universe for his theory to work.”

        So, from your view, “even though”=”despite”. So let’s replace his words with what you think. “The laws of physics must have existed, [despite] there was no universe.” This still makes no sense. This is basically Platonism. These abstract things like laws existed despite there being no universe for them to be actualized.

        “I would first point out that this statement by definition precludes the development of a scientific theory of the
        universes origin.”

        That’s because the scientific theory of the universe origin is unanswerable, and it’s not a law. It postulates a beginning, and from that postulate sees what it can deduce. It deduces observational implications, and sees if it matches up with experiment or observation. It states no laws. It presumes, and see’s what would happen in such a system with that presumpition.

        “If you wish to talk about laws in this sense, than law only
        “began” to exist once we observed and described them.I doubt this is really what you mean though, after all if I asked you is laws of nature existed 5 million years ago, I am guessing you would say yes, in which case what you stated does not make much sense.”

        I’d say, if you asked “did laws of nature exist 5 million years
        ago?” I’d have to answer “I don’t know”. And if no person was around then, then the obvious answer would be “we don’t know”. If you haven’t noticed, science is done by human beings, and so it’s laws only stretch to human observation. The rest is unknowable. Doesn’t mean they’re false or didn’t happen, just that we don’t know.

        “Secondly, physicists ARE trying to provide a description of what is observed, namely the universe itself. Science rarely depends on direct observation, so physicists are attempting to use what they observe now to extrapolate back to the
        initial cause.”

        Scientists either describe what they observer, a pointer reading on a measurement device or on a computer screen or photo. Or they describe what happens in their models. One is real, the other isn’t real. The actual observations are real, and the models aren’t real, because those models talk about things that aren’t empirically observable. Science is empirical, which means all things are tested by experience, and those are the actual facts, while the models aren’t facts. In fact, you can come up with an infinity of models that are all consistent with the facts, but each model contradicts one another.

        “In addition Vilenkin is not referring to “nothing” but a mathematical description of a potential cause of the universe that does indeed have properties. If it was indeed “nothing” than his journal articles on the topic would consist merely of a blank piece of paper.”

        If it has properties, then it’s not nothing, but something.

        “IF we ever discover the ultimate cause of existence (and I am perfectly willing to admit it may be outside the scope of human understanding) it will almost certainly be bizarre, and likely nearly incomprehensible, except for possibly in a mathematic sense.”

        This would be just as absurd as what you say about Craig. We won’t discover the ultimate cause of existence, because we can only do that through experience. And it doesn’t follow, either, that the ultimate cause of existence wouldn’t be incomprehensible, because it could be comprehensible, and even by simple “inution”. And, you can’t exempt mathematics, because that’s based on some “intution” as well. And your putting mathematics before all else, and mathematics isn’t about reality, but a tautology. It is literally without content.

  2. Udaybhanu Chitrakar
    08/16/2011 at 11:24 AM

    In olden-golden days the saying was: When there was nothing, there was God. When there will be nothing again, there will still be God.
    But then came the scientists and changed everything. The above saying also changed to this: When there was nothing, there were quantum laws. When there will be nothing again, there will still be quantum laws.
    These quantum laws are spaceless, timeless, changeless, eternal, all-pervading, unborn, uncreated and immaterial. Only that these laws lack consciousness.
    These quantum laws are spaceless, timeless and immaterial, because when there was no space, no time and no matter, there were still these quantum laws. (Vilenkin’s model)
    These quantum laws are all-pervading, because these laws act equally everywhere.
    Quantum laws are scientists’ God.

    • 11/03/2011 at 10:42 AM

      Udaybhanu Chitrakar,

      If you wish to think of it that way I don’t necessarily have a problem with it, as long as you realize it is largely semantic. Like Aristotle or Aquinas, if you wish to refer to the “prime mover,” “first cause,” what-have-you as God, I don’t necessarily have a problem as an atheist in believing that that God exists. Similarly I could probably sign on with the God of Spinoza for the most part, by which Spinoza basically referred to the entirety of existence as God.

      It is pretty hard to debate that things exist and that things came about somehow, so by these definitions I think most atheists would agree to believing in these “Gods.”

      The problem is thinking these “Gods” are anything like standard theistic definitions most people use and conceive of when referring to God and gods. If you want to call a microwave God, that is fine, I would believe in that God because I believe microwaves exist, but that is not what is usually meant by God.

      The problem is that the theist without reason or evidence claims to know certain attributes of God that not only aren’t based upon science, math, etc. but also do not seem to make sense. I am willing to admit I don’t know how the universe came into existence.

      Yet the theist not only claims they “know” but also claim that this cause is somehow analogous to the theist’s themselves, has some kind of “mind” that unlike any other mind we have encountered is entirely non-physical, can apparently have thoughts, emotions, etc. despite having at least at some point existed outside of time and space themselves… well I could go on and on.

      These conceptions of God seem absurd to me, but if you want to try and convince people that whatever created the universe should by default called “God” than good luck, and if you’re successful than I will gladly call myself a theist.

  3. 09/21/2011 at 5:31 PM

    1+1 still equals 2, even if you don’t have any.

  4. James
    04/09/2012 at 6:24 PM

    ITS HYSTERICAL what atheists have come to.
    Why dont you just become agnostic and be done with it. When you start gathering around all saying how silly it is for everyone to think of nothing as really nothing….you’ve not only lost all credibility..you’ve just become embarrassing.
    Its like a small group of people floating in sewage laughing at everyone for saying they smell.
    We all know their abnormal-as their beliefs are far from the norm in human history, but its truly to the point now where you wonder if they’re not disturbed or something. Maybe this is the price of their arrogance.
    They accept probability for everything but the insurmountable odds of creation. Their so confused that they dont even understand their naturalism renders their opinions that of random particles–yet they argue as is IF they actually have an opinion?

    Whats next, infinite universe where everything that can happen happens, including places where they believe in God, God exists, the stars spell out “something cant come from nothing”?…oh yeah…..that was next

    • Mark
      02/06/2013 at 8:59 PM

      “Why dont you just become agnostic and be done with it.”

      Most atheists are agnostic. Very few atheists claim absolute knowledge of god non existence because that would be as silly as claiming absolute knowledge that he does exist, they very simply don’t believe the evidence available supports the presumption that he does. You are confused by the popular usage of the term “Agnostic” by those who also “claim” to not to be atheists as well. But these people are simply confused.

    • Mark
      02/06/2013 at 9:13 PM

      “Whats next, infinite universe where everything that can happen happens, ”

      Atheists make no claims on absolute knowledge, and can live with the fact that we don’t yet know everything. I know, what a concept right James. Such humility is no where to be found among theists however, who not only claim absolute knowledge of how all of creation came into existence, (smarter than all physicists alive), but also the petty desires wishes and hates of this creator. I’ll tell you James one of these positions is pretty much the definition of reasonable, and the other is very close to the definition of insane. Can you guess which is which?

  5. above
    08/05/2012 at 2:16 PM

    “William Lane Craig, absurdly in my opinion, attempts to use “intuition” in order to try and understand THE MOST unintuitive topic likely known to man.”

    What utter nonsense is that?
    Nothingness is literally the absence of a thing. It’s not something we’re going to investigate either empirically or mathematically because there is nothing to investigate. Period. Any other meanign of the word nothing that does not conform the absolute absence of thingness is simply an equivocation fallacy.

    Also, as far as your objections to Theism and God’s properties and the like, you don’t seem to be familiar with much of the literature. There’s hardly any objection (from within and from without) that has not been investigated and much of the issues have been nornalized are completely resolved. In regards to your statement about Aquina’s Uncaused Cause… Well you realize that he meant a Personal God, right? So long as you’re open to that reality (dogamtic certainty in favor is just as bad as dogmatic atheistic certainty against), why don’t you simply call yourself agnostic as James mentioned and be done with it?

    • Amateur Academic
      04/14/2014 at 3:54 AM

      But we’re not talking about a “literal” nothing. We’re talking about the vacuum (lack of space-time) from which the Universe (space-time) came into existence. Because even that kind of “nothing” still has the laws of QM (which can explain the creation of the Universe).

      As for your second point; pretty much no atheists are actually 100% certain that God doesn’t exist, as that’s just as arrogant as being 100% certain that he does exist. They’re just pretty sure (80-90). We’re like extreme agnostics (that’s a pun). And more people today are atheists as scientific hypotheses, such as Vilenkin Tunneling, provide alternative explanations for the existence of the Universe to just “God did it”.

  6. Bartone
    08/16/2012 at 10:07 PM

    Doesn’t this model only work if the universe is closed? Didn’t the The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe prove the universe was flat with a margin of error less than 1%?

    • Amateur Academic
      04/14/2014 at 3:39 AM

      No, I don’t think so. Vilenkin tunneling is a literal hypothesis for the origin of the Universe. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t predict any specific shape of the Universe.

    • Rob Heusdens
      06/20/2014 at 12:10 PM

      I think the model only “works” as long as the mind of Vilenkin is keeping somewhere the quantum wave probability function, that ultimately creates the universe “from nothing”. So sad though that there got to be a universe in the first place for a mind like Vilenkin to exist.

  7. LauLuna
    03/06/2014 at 1:03 PM

    For QM to apply to that ‘literally nothing’ that is and is not absolute nothingness, that (no)thing must be physical, not just mathematically well-defined: QM doesn’t apply to merely mathematical objects. Vilenkin is attempting the impossible: to explain the existence of the physical universe by means of laws that presuppose the physical universe. I suspect that making that pre-universe oscillate between being and nonbeing is only a form of disguising this ultimate impossibility.

    • Amateur Academic
      04/14/2014 at 3:46 AM

      I think you misunderstand the term “physical”. A thing doesn’t have to “physical” to be real. An electromagnetic field (between the photons) is technically non-physical, yet is real.
      Similarily, the “nothing” (or “lack of space-time” in a more correct terminology) doesn’t have to be physical or made of particles to be real.
      Also, the laws of QM aren’t dependant on anything; they exist whether there’s a Universe or not. Therefore, they also apply to that “lack of space-time” (i.e.”nothing”).

  8. Rob Heusdens
    06/20/2014 at 12:01 PM

    “Nothing” can only meaningfully refer to the world in which there is also “being” to which it can form an opposite. Neither “nothing” nor “being” – taken as seperate – can refer to a real world. They only exist in their unity, and that unity is change. Everything in reality is changing (becoming, ceasing to be) in which “being” and “nothing” jump over into each other spontaneously.

  9. Rob Heusdens
    07/08/2014 at 6:06 AM

    Suppose this model is correct, and means that an empty geodesic with existing laws of GR and QM produce a universe. Suppose this has happened at t=0. But then we ask: if that happened at t=0, why didn’t it happen at t=-1, or t=-2, etc, or t=-T for every (positive) value of T? The model cannot answer that question, and would lead to a contradiction. Either this ‘coming into being from nothing’ does not happen at all, or it would happen all the time.

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