When asked to defend their belief in a Creator God, people of faith often turn to the argument that there must be a First Cause - you can't create something out of nothing they say, therefore right at the beginning, someone must have been responsible for the first element from which sprang life.
A new book, "A Universe from Nothing", by the American theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, turns this argument on its head. Not only can something arise out of nothing, but something will always arise out of nothing because physics tells us that nothingness is inherently unstable.
The book has made an enormous impact in the States, making the New York Times' best sellers list, and it prompted Richards Dawkins to observe that it was "Potentially the most important scientific book with implications for atheism since Darwin".
So does it knock the argument for God on the head? Are physics and God irreconcilable?
Joining Ernie to discuss whether modern physics leaves any room for God are Dr John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, Dr Usama Hasan, Senior Lecturer at Middlesex University and a part time Imam, and Dr Mark Vernon, Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, London who has degrees in physics, theology and philosophy.
"Having looked at Lawrence Krauss's book, I think the title from the start is very misleading, because the nothing he claims that is a nothing, is not actually a nothing."
Streaming audio of this episode of Beyond Belief is available here:
Not for the first time Lennox comes across as a barely disguised old-earth creationist, while Mark Vernon's mild atheism is reasonable but diffident (maybe he's being careful to avoid being labelled as "gnu"). Usama Hasan claims atheists cannot say where the laws of physics come from, as if they ought be inscribed on stone tablets somewhere up a mountain. In the middle of the episode Ernie Rae plays an interview with Graham Swinerd, an agnostic astronautics engineer who found Christ as a result of the fine-tuning argument — though as he also credits attending an Alpha Course one might perhaps consider him as already on the brink.
As is usual at the end of an episode Rae asks all three of his guests one question; this time it's whether the universe has a purpose. Hasan claims it's to declare the glory of God and to produce conscious beings able to choose between good and evil. Vernon doubts that the universe has an overall purpose, except as a container for people who have their own purposes. Lennox, however, goes into eccentric preacher-mode:
"The Universe is a temporary home for human beings created in the image of God. He's conveyed on us that immense dignity, and ultimately, for me, the whole purpose of life in the universe is to enjoy the fellowship of the creator that invented the atom."