Universe from Nothing – a load of Krauss, part 2

In part 1 of this post, I reviewed the near hysteria in materialist circles surrounding Lawrence Krauss. If you want to explain how 13.72 billion years ago we got a Universe from Nothing, then Lawrence is your man. He is the latest in a long line of contenders pursuing an entirely naturalistic account of nature. And if Richard Dawkins’ Afterword has it right, Krauss is to cosmology what Darwin is to biology: “The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is devastating.”[1]

No question, this guy is brilliant: a PhD from MIT, a Professor at Yale and more recently at Arizona State University, Krauss in his spare time directs the Origins Project, dismantles Intelligent Design arguments in Ohio, discovers dark energy in outer space, and writes science editorials for the New York Times. Here we explore his latest endeavour: Krauss has apparently solved an age old metaphysical problem of the contingency of creation. Forget the Creator, for now we have particles emerging ex nihilo.

What, then, is his argument? How does something come from nothing?

In essence—and as best as I can understand—Krauss argues that the laws of quantum mechanics are eternal, and that these laws can generate particles from empty space. Before the Big Bang there were relativistic quantum fields, the arrangement of which made possible different numbers of particles in the Universe, whether none, few, many, or theoretically an infinite number. A ‘vacuum state’ is where the arrangement of quantum fields generates no particles, thus termed ‘empty space’. As the theory goes, nature abhors a vacuum state, so this unstable structure which may have existed was potentially prone (or in Dawkins’ words “is almost bound …”) to reconfigure in another field arrangement in which particles do exist. Hey presto! You now have a Universe from ‘nothing’. Again, in Dawkins’ more quotable account, “Particles and antiparticles wink in and out of existence like subatomic fireflies, annihilating each other, and then re-creating themselves by the reverse process, out of nothingness” (189).

Let me skip over the assumption that these complex, necessary and beautifully symmetrical field laws existed without cause for all eternity and mysteriously conspire to make life—which may reflect the ‘mind’ of a Creator—and press into this ‘vacuum state’ and definitions of ‘nothing’.

Krauss tries to be clear: “By nothing I do not mean no-thing, but rather nothing—in this case, the nothingness we normally call empty space” (58).[2] (Has your hermeneutic of suspicion switched on yet?)

Space is assumed and space is ‘real’. And this space is jam-packed with virtual particles which can ‘pop’ into and out of existence as quantum fields shift (70, 146, 153f. 163f.). Granted, a century ago scientists would have referred to space without matter as ‘nothing’. Since that time, however, we’ve discovered that space itself is a ‘something’, as are the laws that dictate its dance. This ‘vacuum state’ possesses significant background energy even when the space is apparently ‘empty’. And from what I can gather, all of this quantum action still submits to the first and second laws of thermodynamics.[3] (Remember back to those happy high school science classes?) That’s right, “Energy can be changed from one form to another, but it cannot be created or destroyed” (Law I), and “In all energy exchanges in a closed system, the potential energy of the state will always be less than that of the initial state” (Law II).

Perhaps this didn’t strike you with sufficient force. My apologies. Let me try again. Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington said that “if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.” Similarly, Einstein said of classical thermodynamics that it is “the only physical theory of universal content which I am convinced will never be overthrown … .” More recently, Seth Lloyd quipped in Nature “Nothing in life is certain except death, taxes and the second law of thermodynamics.”[4]  Let’s put the pieces together.

  1. Krauss’ conjectured quantum field theory is governed by the far more certain laws of thermodynamics.
  2. Our Universe conserves the total amount of energy, even as this system winds down with entropy.
  3. Prior to the Big Bang, Krauss’ initial postulated ‘empty space’ or ‘vacuum state’—call it what you will, and irrespective of the number of ‘real’ particles and field configuration—must therefore have possessed the same energy as our Universe today.
  4. Thus, this “empty space” is not NOTHING, but SOMETHING! And this something, constantly winding down, must have at one point been entirely wound up. Before this point we still find that science necessitates a definite beginning where something truly did come into being from absolutely nothing.

Some years ago I watched a documentary on quantum physics and spirituality entitled “What the bleep do we know anyway?” It seems to me they took about ten wrong turns in the mystical direction, but the title has stuck with me nevertheless. As the Universe looks weirder at every juncture, what the bleep do we know anyway? I’m entirely open to being corrected on all of this. Perhaps I’ve joined data points best left as outliers in a jumbled connect-the-dots, drawing pictures detached from reality? But as far as I can tell, it is wise to reason from the more certain to the more abstract.

It’s something we also do in theology: apocalyptic speculation is circumscribed by clear teaching from the words of Christ, and it all must fit the overall trajectory of the canonical story. My point: any quantum speculation is still bounded by the near-canonical laws of thermodynamics. One day this may change, if enough warrants accrue. But presently, the conservation and entropy of energy is arguably a central defeater to Krauss’s theorizing.[5] In his quest for a naturalistic explanation of everything, he’s taken at least one wrong turn in the reductionist direction. All that remains now, in part 3 of this post, is to consider the word-game Krauss is playing, and why in spite of it all, God is still a physicist’s friend.

Dave Benson


[1] Dawkins, “Afterword” in Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012), 191. Any following in-text page numbers come from Krauss’s book.

[2] Also see pp. xiv and 143.

[4] “Concept Going into Reverse”, Nature 430, 971 (26 August 2004), doi:10.1038/430971a.

[5] Again, I may be mistaken, but I’m yet to be convinced. My more informed friend Bruce Blackshaw suggested that “most cosmologists would say the total net energy of the universe is zero, where gravitation is negative energy. So energy is always conserved” (personal email, 14 May 2012). To say gravitational energy is negative, however, sounds like a fudge—much like placing ‘virtual particles’ in a category of their own, knowing they obey the same laws as ‘real particles’. Krauss makes this ‘zero-energy’ assertion on youtube, citing Alexei V. Filippenko and Jay M. Pasachoff who ground the argument here. (See also here.) Still, even they admit that “all one needs is just a tiny bit of energy to get the whole thing started. … What produced the energy before inflation? This is perhaps the ultimate question.” From here they follow the same problematic definitions of ‘nothing’ as Krauss. Thus, at least as far as I can tell, their theory still runs into the laws of thermodynamics, that the total energy of the system remains constant. A “miniscule” violation of energy conservation is still a violation of the most certain laws we have, which seems to me like a case of special pleading.

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