Universe from Nothing – a load of Krauss, part 1

If I hear one more person cite Lawrence Krauss without meaningful explanation, I’m going to explode. It began with a bombshell. Dawkins was recently debating Australian cardinal George Pell on the television program Q&A, during which he was asked point blank, “How it is that something as enormous as the Universe came from nothing?” Dawkins acknowledged this as deeply mysterious. But then he then cited Arizona State University’s esteemed physicist, Lawrence Krauss, to the effect that this dilemma has dissolved:

When you have matter and antimatter and you put them together, they cancel each other out and give rise to nothing. … Krauss is now suggesting that if you start with nothing the process can go into reverse and produce matter and antimatter.

And there you have it. Millennia of philosophical and theological speculation on why there is something rather than nothing, solved in twenty seconds with the invocation of Krauss! Since that time, Krauss has become commonplace: top-billing at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, media interviews on international airwaves, and constant citation on campuses as secular students deflect talk of God with the chant of their guru’s name: Krauss, Krauss, Krauss.

Professor Krauss has even made a brief appearance on this blog! Hélder Favarin wondered out loud, If God does not exist, how could everything come from “absolutely nothing”? Thankfully  SciAwakening set him straight in response. The solution: yet another citation of the mysterious Krauss and his magnum opus A Universe from Nothing.[1]

Okay, I like a good hand-waving exercise as much as the next person: “hocus po-krauss – look, a Universe!” But what exactly is his explanation? My undergrad in applied science is stretched to the limit in grappling with these matters, so let me try and put it in simple though hopefully not simplistic terms. In part one of this post, I’ll trace some preliminary history to put Krauss in context. In part two, which arrives this Wednesday, I’ll briefly outline his proposal and suggest what I consider to be the central scientific defeater. Finally, in part three on Friday I’ll consider the semantics of ‘nothing’ and suggest why, despite Krauss’s best efforts, creation is contingent and we still need God.

First, then, some history. Once upon a time, most scientists believed—contrary to Biblical revelation—that the material Universe was eternal. Then came the discovery of cosmic background radiation in 1964, confirming suspicions that our Universe expanded out from (what was later termed) a ‘singularity’. 13.72 billion years is a long time ago, but such an event still counts as a start requiring an explanation. As Greg Koukl quips, “a big bang requires a big banger.”[2] Fred Hoyle’s Steady State theory was no match, and ‘God’ was potentially a physicist’s friend. (Do you know any other immaterial, eternal, powerful, uncaused and intelligent candidates for bringing something out of nothing?)

In a Universe where there is supposedly no free lunch, how can one get something from nothing without invoking the supernatural? Scientific materialists, as Richard Lewontin confessed, “cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door … [because] at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured [and] miracles may happen.”[3] Material phenomena require empirically verifiable and falsifiable material explanations.[4]

Thus began the race for a methodologically atheistic account of something coming from nothing—or, at the very least, downplaying an absolute beginning and undermining the anthropic fine-tuning written across the cosmological constants. Such proposals include Richard Tolman’s oscillating Universe, Alan Guth’s inflationary expansion, Paul Davies’ cosmic jackpot to solve The Goldilocks Enigma, Stephen Hawking’s “no-boundary proposal” (drawing on “imaginary time” and “imaginary numbers”, √-1 kind of stuff which seems ab-surd to me), or any one of cosmologist Max Tegmark’s multiverse hypotheses.

String theory, a recent contender, illustrates the problem. In our search for a TOE (Theory of Everything), the Universe seems increasingly bizarre, the proposals are either presently unverified or entirely unverifiable, and the scientific camps continue to fragment in dissent. (Krauss, for instance, dismisses string theory as untestable,[5] but seems fine with causally disconnected multiverses to explain equations beyond Einstein essential for life. Karl Popper would have kittens over these shenanigans, and Thomas Kuhn would say it’s time for a paradigm shift.) All of this should give us pause before enthroning any scientific explanation as “just the way it is.” Even our best models aren’t reality itself—they are powerful metaphors to help us understand the material Universe.[6] Science advances through dissension, so this I respect. Such naïveté concerning the philosophy of science is, however, reprehensible.[7] Humility and wonder, not bluster and arrogance, is an appropriate response of limited and biased humans before the mystery of it all.

As you can see, Krauss joins a long and brilliant procession of crusaders in search of physics’ Holy Grail: the quest for eternal and unified laws.  What, then, is his proposal? For that, read on to part 2 of “Universe from Nothing – a load of Krauss.”

Dave Benson

[1] Read the book OR join 1.4 million other groupies and watch youtube for the one hour low-down on Krauss’s theorizing.

[2] See here for Koukl, or for the underlying philosophical argument, see here for a brief video of William Lane Craig’s “Kalam Cosmological Argument”, and here for a 2012 debate between Krauss and Craig, later debriefed here.

[3] “Billions and billions of demons,” The New York Review, 9 January 1997, p31.

[4] Ever since Einstein birthed the atomic age with E=mc2, it’s been hard to know what ‘material’ materialists count as ‘real’.

[5] Universe from Nothing, pp. 130ff.

[6] Interestingly, this is not so different from theology, albeit starting with a different source for our hypotheses—revelation rather than nature—from which we reason abductively, seeking inference to the best explanation. See Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), and Alister McGrath, “Religious and Scientific Faith: The Case of Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’ (The 24th Eric Symes Abbott Memorial Lecture, King’s College London, Oxford, 2009), http://www.westminster-abbey.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/22494/ESA-lecture-2009-i.pdf. Also helpful is Alister McGrath, Science and Religion: A New Introduction, 2d ed. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), chapter 7 (pp. 51-58), “Science, Religion, and the Explanation of Things.”

[7] See Alan Chalmers, What Is This Thing Called Science? 3d ed. (Buckingham: Open University Press, 2007). Each chapter traces one stage in the historical development of the philosophy of science, beginning with older and less adequate conceptions of science, progressing toward more nuanced models such as proposed by Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos, Feyerband and others, dealing with realist–non-realist debates. The kind of “naïve realism” exhibited by Dawkins and his ilk is dispatched within the first three chapters, a relic of enlightenment beliefs that science was simply objective reason playing upon the natural world.


2 responses to “Universe from Nothing – a load of Krauss, part 1

  1. I’ll be honest. You could do without the snarky attitude. I would take you much more seriously if you responded thoughtfully instead of mockingly. I mentioned that I found the book “very interesting”. To me it was a thought-provoking book that related to some of the questions that the blogger was posing. I’m not in love with the book nor am I a big fan of Lawrence Krauss. It seems to me you are reading way too much into a very short comment I left on a blog.

    And what is with the snarky, sarcastic tone used here: “Thankfully SciAwakening set him straight in response. The solution: yet another citation of the mysterious Krauss and his magnum opus”

    I like the other book I mentioned a lot more: “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt. You should check it out. And there is another book by Jon that is even better, “The Happiness Hypothesis”. If you’d like to read and engage in conversation with me on those books, I’d love to have a thoughtful discussion with you. [1]

    [1] By the way, using footnotes doesn’t make you smart or right. How’s that for snark? Argh. I guess it takes one to know one. Oh man, some self-deprecation, this blog comment has everything…

    Seriously though man, lighten up a bit. You aren’t going to win anyone over with that attitude.

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