For a great look at this topic, read “A Universe from Nothing” by Lawrence Krauss – interesting stuff to think about.
“Something can’t come from nothing, so their must be a God” (cosmological, or First Cause, argument) is not only a non sequitur when defending ones religious claims, it is also not a very good argument on its own merit. It seems that religious people are trying to hijack a “reasoning” or “scientific” method of approaching the argument, and it just doesn’t work. Here’s why:
We can prove that Something can come from Something because we can understand and analyze the properties of all Somethings, and we can also use that information to make predictions. I know steam can come from boiling water, and I know that a human baby can NOT appear from boiling water. However, I know that a human baby can come from a pregnant human female, and not from a pregnant elephant, or from an inanimate object such as my shoe. Etc. Etc. Basically, we can observe the cause and effect of all Somethings that are observable and make educated predictions based on their properties.
Next, and most importantly, no one has ever observed Nothing (absence of space, time, matter) so no one can make predictions regarding what Nothing can or cannot do. What if somehow we could observe Nothing and we found that it creates more Nothing – which is likely. Or, the properties of Nothing lend themselves to turn some kind of vacuum energy into Somethings to fill the void (I am obviously not educated in quantum mechanics or string theory enough to give a good example here, but you get the idea). Point is, we cannot make any predictions about Something coming from Nothing if we don’t know what Nothing is and have never observed it.
This might seem like I am using semantics, but really think about it – we exist in a Something universe so it is hard to contemplate Nothing. We can’t even understand the forces that drive our own universe as it is right now, let alone what kind of hidden forces might lurk in a universe of Nothing, or the Nothing into which our universe is apparently expanding.
I think that most people think of this question like, “A person just can’t pop out of thin air,” or “The Earth can’t just pop from outer space.” The flaw in the thinking is that air and space are actually made of Somethings, though they look to the subjective human eye like Nothings. For example, air contains gases, light particles, radiation, etc and therefore is a Something that we can make predictions about – and we know that a spontaneous person can NOT be the effect of an air-cause. We can draw the same conclusions about space, matter, gravity, energy, etc. and that ‘space’ is a Something, not a Nothing.
So, when people use this argument, they are equating the principles of a universe of cause-and-effect-Somethings with the principles of a universe of Nothing, which may have been around 14 billion years ago before the universe of Something exploded into action. Nothingness may not operate under the same laws of physics by which Somethingness operates, so we cannot assume anything about the physics within Nothingness. Since we cannot observe this in our universe’s history, we can’t really say for sure what Nothing is and what Nothing is capable of.
One other approach is to say that matter cannot be created or destroyed, so matter could not have come from non-existence. However, matter appears to have come from – and is expanding into – Nothing. And again, we are using physics from a Something-universe to define Nothing – but we just don’t have an idea what Nothing is. Nothing could actually be a Something of a totally different species, if we could observe it.
I’m going to stop there. However, thinking about the questions this way does redefine this classic argument in a way that we really take a hard look at what Nothing might be since it might actually exist somewhere, or existed before our universe. So, we can’t just fly through the premise and accept it within a theist’s structure of the debate – we need to scrutinize the premise a bit more to see if it warrants a blind acceptance.