„Creatio Ex Nihilo“ – a modern-cosmological views on a millennia old philosophical problem

„In the beginning was the Word. Already I am stuck! And who will help afford?”Thus does Goethe let his protagonist Faust speak, who while working to translate the biblical text is asking in despair about the beginnings of the world. After several desperate attempts to understand the text, the medieval scholarfinally believes to have reached his goal: „Now suddenly the Spirit prompts me in my need, I confidently write: In the beginning was the Deed!” Of course, only at first glance this is a description of somebody’s endeavors to translate the first chapter of John’s Gospel. Goethe has his protagonist not only perform a simple bible study but leads him to a millennia-old desire of mankind: to provide an answer to the question about the beginning of the world.In contrast its scientific treatment is relatively young, even if this is what meanwhile dominates our modern assessment of the world and its origins.

Already in the early days of (Western) philosophical thought, in the thinking of the pre-Socratic philosophers, people realized that in explaining the world’s beginning one must begin with either something that is not of this world, or one is forced to deal with the opposite pole of Being, the “nothingness”. There seems to be only these two options: either at the beginning the first „something“ came from „something else“ and possibly by „someone else”that originated outside our world, or it came from „nothing“ (“Creation ex nihilo” in the philosophical jargon). Western philosophical has followed both paths of thought,and each in numerous variations.

The most common answer to the question of the beginning of the world for long followed the first of the above-mentioned paths, which in one form or another assumesa divine act of creation. As it is the case for Goethe: „In the beginning was the deed“, concludes his protagonist (and with him the author himself). And here, of course, what Goethe means is the act of God, who as the “first cause” (or the „first unmoved mover“, the. „primum movens“, as Aristotle says) created the world. We must however recognize that the recourse to something transcendent does not free us from any reference to the „nothingness“, as we must ask ourselves: What exactly did God form the world from? Here at last most creation myths are forced to refer to a pre-existent nothingness out of which the world was created.

With Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler, the “discipline of star-gazing“, in the terminology of the Greek „astronomy“, after nearly two millennia of standstillbegan to become a business of natural science again. It would soon claim its own schemes of cosmological explanations and would thus enter into a fierce competition to speculative-philosophical and theological approaches. And even if the motivations on the part of the fathers of modern astronomy from Copernicus to Newton had still been the search of a unique single order, which as in the Middle Ages should find its origin and meaning in a divine will, which had let the founders of modern science to still hold on to Aristotle’s „first mover“-God, at last in the Enlightenment century the thinkers broke away from the faith in an ubiquitous transcendent Creator. And once freed from metaphysical speculation about transcendent mechanisms and the commitment to a religious purpose, astronomy rapidly developed in line with other empirical sciences into a coherent immanent theory of nature. If one wanted to summarize the development of cosmological research during the 125 years from Immanuel Kant to Albert Einstein and Edmund Hubble with a single sentence, it would read as follows: The universe was getting bigger and bigger and more and more incomprehensible. And only in 1916 a first closed physical cosmology arose that included the origin of the universe. This, however, required the development of a theory which put the physical reality of space and time far away from our everyday intuition and thus drove the need for scientific abstraction to unprecedented levels: Albert Einstein’s „General Theory of Relativity“.

Only with Einstein’s theory of gravity arose the opportunity to associate the development of the cosmos with a singular physical event at its beginning. Meanwhile, physicists agree uniformly that our universe emerged from a violent explosion, which we call the „Big Bang“. But what happened before? What triggered this explosion? According to most physicists, this question is as meaningful as the question „What is north of the North Pole?“ There is no „before the Big Bang“. Time itself emerged from it., so their common response. Before the Big Bang there was neither time nor space nor matter. Physicists say that the big bang constitutes a „total singularity“. Or to put it more directly: They have no idea what happened and how to precisely describe the physics of the Big Bang.

Some physicists such as Stephen Hawkingspeculate, the universe together with time and spaceemerged out of „nothing“ as the result of so-called „vacuum quantum fluctuation“. They thus refer to a mechanism described within the second major theory of modern physics, quantum theory (more precisely „quantum field theory), which on non-intuitiveness and abstractness even outbids the theory of relativity. According to this theory particles and structures may arise out of a seemingly structureless vacuum as from “nothing”. Other physicists argue that there must have been a „before“ and that the Big Bang was merely the „birth“ of a new universe in a much larger structure of events, or, depending on the specific variation of their theory, that our universe is just one of many parallel universes that emerged. Whatever the details had been, from this singularity, i.e. from a “Never”, “Nowhere”, and “Nothing” suddenly emergedspace, time and matter as we know them. And this created the basis for 13.8 billion years later creatures with a head on the third planet of a small star on the edge of an unremarkable galaxy reflecting on the meaning and background of the cosmic beginning.

So two hundred years after Goethe today’scosmologists deal with possible first concrete empirical evidence of an extreme fast, so-called „inflationary“ expansion of the very early universe, which they have only known from speculative models so far. Such a „cosmic inflation“ describes apuzzling behavior of space-time immediately after the Big Bang as postulated by theoretical physicists, in which in a very short time the universe expanded dramatically- within 10-33 seconds from the size of a small fraction of the proton to the size of an orange. This expansion was evoked by not yet unknown quantum effects, so the theoreticians say. And indeed, the researchers believe that they can possibly detect specific signals in the cosmic background radiation originating from this time immediate after the Big Bang. Are they really looking at the beginning of everything, including time itself? Although the cosmologists have meanwhile realized that the observations they made in March 2014 are likely not as spectacular as they had announced at first, they nevertheless represent the spectacular endeavors of today’s physicists who deem themselves on track for an answer to the very same basic question asked by Goethe’s Faust.

The „the Deed in the beginning” does no more play any great role therein. Rather, modern quantum field theory actually provides a mechanism for particles and structures, space and time, even entire universes to arise from „nothing“. In view of the abstract heights of today’s theoretical physics that we have to climb in order to comprehend this it may sometimes appear that the question about the beginning of the world is as open as in Goethe’s time. But in fact cosmological research in the second decade of the 21st century finds itself in one of the most exciting periods of its history, in which the researchers may soon be able to shed some more light ona possible answer to the question about the beginning of everything.

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