But “that is exactly how I see God,” Dawkins replied, helpfully, illustrating how the sound and the fury that is the New Atheism — and the old atheism, for that matter — is generated mostly from confusion about the terms of the debate. That the world comes “from nothing” is an idea that Dawkins finds to be of “extraordinary beauty.” To ask what he means by “nothing” will provoke some eyeball-rolling at first, but the longer you think about it, the more you realize just how stubbornly inscrutable a concept “nothing” is, like “time,” which gave Saint Augustine so much trouble: “I know what time is until you ask me for a definition of it.”
In A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing, Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist, undertook to counter the ontological argument for God as the answer to the question “Why is there not nothing?” That argument is elegant, simple, and starker than apparently he appreciated. In the afterword to the book, Dawkins with characteristic verve celebrated Krauss’s claim to have removed the philosophical cornerstone of theism.
By “nothing,” it turns out, Krauss meant only the vacuum state, which in quantum theory is a field characterized by the occurrence of fleeting electromagnetic waves. In a withering review, David Albert, a theoretical physicist and philosophy professor at Columbia, dismissed A Universe from Nothing as a fraud and excoriated Krauss for failing to deliver the goods advertised in its title: “Vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields!”
Had he more space, Albert might have mentioned that Krauss’s first misstep was his attempt to identify nothing: To define “nothing” is to say what it is, when what it’s intended to convey is an absence of being. You can’t talk about nothing without treating it as something. And so, on close inspection, the question “Why is there not nothing?” turns out to be paradoxical — as we should expect, given that “when the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question,” as Wittgenstein observed. Still, it’s hard to let the question go; we intuit the intended meaning even as it eludes our ability to capture it in precise language. While the word “nothing” is self-contradictory and irrational when strictly interpreted, it does, like the number zero in mathematics, serve a purpose when used gingerly or with enough qualification.
Used loosely, “nothing” is put to practical use every day. Dawkins makes it a placeholder for “God.” By invoking “nothing,” he can point to the source of the universe without implying that You Know Who had anything to do with it. So much anxiety rides on the “G” word and what Dawkins evidently regards as the undue respect it might connote. He treats it as if it were a proper name, which it isn’t, as David Bentley Hart patiently points out in his gem of a new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Still, on their own terms, antitheists are correct to be mindful of the halo that surrounds “God” in everyday usage; some observant Jews omit the vowel, for example, treating it almost as if it were the Tetragrammaton itself.
It’s become too familiar, this ordinary English word for what we tend to talk around rather than talk about. So forget “God.” Call him “Nothing,” if you prefer:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Nothing, and the Word was Nothing.” The key to understanding John 1:1 turns on the verbs, not the nouns. Dawkins in his awe before the Nothing sounds like Heidegger but without Heidegger’s awareness of the unfathomable profundity of what it means “to be.”
Notice how “nothing” can function for the atheist as “God” does for the theist. Are the two only using different linguistic tokens in parallel efforts to express the same ineffable thought? Their fear and trembling at the prospect of the “eternal nada,” Jones and Evans explain, moves them to cultivate their appreciation for the physical world (Christians call it “Creation”) that tickles our sense organs in the here and now: “Transcendence can be found in a breath of wind on your face or in a mouthful of custard tart,” they write. They pronounce nature “awesome,” a word whose recently acquired colloquial sense still shades into its older, literal sense. Open the door to just that much transcendence, however, and all of it comes rushing in, like a strong wind. Atheists instinctively try to resist it, while those of us who have been blown away by it recommend the experience.
“Wonder more,” the Sunday Assembly urges, and adherents of monotheistic religions echo the advice back to them. No, following wonder to its logical conclusion does not by itself make an atheist suddenly Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. It only means he’s not an atheist. Someone should tell him.
— Nicholas Frankovich is a deputy managing editor of National Review. This is adapted from an article that ran in the December 31, 2013, issue of NR.