Posted on May 7, 2012 by Tom Gilson
Lawrence Krauss’s book A Universe From Nothing was panned about as effectively as any publication I’ve seen, when David Albert published his review in the NY Times Sunday Book Review. That was on March 22. A Google search on “Krauss nothing” returns dozens of other negative reviews. Just to show that even great criticism has its limits, the LA Times published an opinion piece by Krauss on April 1. (The date is fitting.) I don’t think it’s too late now to register my opinion on it.
The piece is called “A universe without a purpose,” and it’s subtitled, “New revelations in science have shown what a strange and remarkable universe we live in.” There’s enough right there work with: if Krauss is going to tell us that scientific revelations show the universe has no purpose, he’s crazy. What science could tell us, possibly, is that as far as science knows, it’s possible the universe has no purpose—with emphasis on as far as science knows and possible. Science doesn’t know everything.
He opens the piece,
The illusion of purpose and design is perhaps the most pervasive illusion about nature that science has to confront on a daily basis. Everywhere we look, it appears that the world was designed so that we could flourish.
Well it was. God did that. Does Krauss think science disproves that? I think he does. How does he come to that conclusion? If we’re supposed to find the answer to that question in this article, we’re in trouble—or else Krauss is. Now, I’ve written for newspapers, and I understand the space limits they impose. If he had said that it was hard to explain in so few words, I could accept that, and I could look elsewhere for his real explanation. He doesn’t do that, though. Instead he wastes valuable words on this kind of nonsense:
One by one, pillars of classical logic have fallen by the wayside as science progressed in the 20th century, from Einstein’s realization that measurements of space and time were not absolute but observer-dependent, to quantum mechanics, which not only put fundamental limits on what we can empirically know but also demonstrated that elementary particles and the atoms they form are doing a million seemingly impossible things at once.
Physics has indeed presented us with challenges: wave-particle duality, absolute limits to knowledge, cosmological mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, and as Krauss tells us,
Most surprising of all, combining the ideas of general relativity and quantum mechanics, we can understand how it is possible that the entire universe, matter, radiation and even space itself could arise spontaneously out of nothing, without explicit divine intervention. Quantum mechanics’ Heisenberg uncertainty principle expands what can possibly occur undetected in otherwise empty space. If gravity too is governed by quantum mechanics, then even whole new universes can spontaneously appear and disappear, which means our own universe may not be unique but instead part of a “multiverse.”
Pardon my bewilderment, but what does any of this have to do with “pillars of classical logic”? Classical logic has to do with the way we draw inferences from premises or evidence (which frequently supplies the material for our premises). Contemporary science still draws inferences from premises/evidence. It still relies on those classical pillars. If it didn’t, then evidences could lead to any conclusion whatsoever, without logical restraint. Krauss’s statement here betrays an astonishing ignorance concerning philosophy.
Not that he has no appreciation for it whatsoever, as he has explained in a more recent article. Still,
I, and most of the colleagues with whom I have discussed this matter, have found that philosophical speculations about physics and the nature of science are not particularly useful, and have had little or no impact upon progress in my field.
This is hilarious. His conclusion, the universe came from nothing, comes from his philosophical speculations about physics and the nature of science. Of course since he is a physicist he has the right to practice philosophy, just as (elsewhere in that article) he grants physicists the right to draw the right conclusions about the implications of quantum physics. Granted, physicists have a better grip than the rest of us on the issues raised by physics, but that doesn’t make them good philosophers. The best illustration for that is Krauss and “nothing.” For a universe to arise out of his kind of “nothing,” that “nothing” has to be the sort of nothing that accommodates Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. It has to be the kind of nothing in which laws of physics apply, and where the potential to create matter exists. Physical laws and potentialities are not nothing.
But Krauss will have (ahem) nothing of that. He sets it aside with,
When it comes to the real operational issues that govern our understanding of physical reality, ontological definitions of classical philosophers are, in my opinion, sterile. Moreover, arguments based on authority, be it Aristotle, or Leibniz, are irrelevant.
I’m not sure whether the “or” in “real or operational” is the “or” of an appositive or of an alternative. In other words, I don’t know if he means real issues = operational issues, or if he means either real issues or operational issues. If the former, then he’s playing philosopher again in a big way. (It’s not a real issue unless it’s an operational issue. Fiat reality, and those of you who disagree just shut up, would you? Not that I’m trying to act as an authority… see below.) If the latter, he’s still playing philosopher, but maybe not quite so egregiously. Anyway, he goes on,
In science, there are no authorities, and appeal to quotes from brilliant scholars who lived before we knew the Earth orbited the Sun, or that space can be curved, or that dark matter or dark energy exist do not generally inform our current understanding of nature. Empirical explorations ultimately change our understanding of which questions are important and fruitful and which are not.
Important or fruitful for what purpose? For empirical and scientific purposes, surely. He assumes that those categories are all that count. I suspect he’s making that assumption on his own authority, without even recognizing he’s doing so. In science, there are no authorities.
He meanders from there through some muddled thinking on theology and philosophy, and leads us to this defense of his “nothing:”
Instead, sticking firm to the classical ontological definition of nothing as “the absence of anything”—whatever this means—so essential to theological, and some subset of philosophical intransigence, strikes me as essentially sterile, backward, useless and annoying. If “something” is a physical quantity, to be determined by experiment, then so is ‘nothing’.
“Intransigence.” Hmmph. No authority-playing here, right? Wrong.
“If ‘something is a physical quantity, to be determined by experiment, then so is ‘nothing’.” Really? How does that follow? How? It boggles the mind! (Maybe the Walking Christian was right.)
Krauss closes that piece saying,
To those who wish to impose their definition of reality abstractly, independent of emerging empirical knowledge and the changing questions that go with it, and call that either philosophy or theology, I would say this: Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature.
His mistake is obvious. He tells us that philosophical/theological definitions of “nothing” are unhelpful to the progress of science, and in that carefully delimited realm I’m sure he is correct. He says physicists have their definition of “nothing,” and it happens to be the sort of “nothing” that can produce something. In this he is also correct. This is all true as far as science knows. But he also says that the same “nothing” explains where all the somethings came from, while forgetting that this “nothing” demands explanation itself, for in the broad scheme of things it too is a “something.”
Back now to the LA Times article, where he writes,
Perhaps most remarkable of all, not only is it now plausible, in a scientific sense, that our universe came from nothing, if we ask what properties a universe created from nothing would have, it appears that these properties resemble precisely the universe we live in.
We know this because if a universe created from nothing didn’t have these properties, we wouldn’t be living in it, as he says elsewhere. It’s a neat little post hoc, circular-logic, anthropic trick. The prediction of what a universe-from-nothing would produce is made on the basis of what the universe (wherever it came from) actually did produce. Oh, and did he say “created”? How careless of him! It’s that pesky illusion of design creeping into his language, right here in the very article he’s writing to refute it.
Does all of this prove that our universe and the laws that govern it arose spontaneously without divine guidance or purpose? No, but it means it is possible.
And that possibility need not imply that our own lives are devoid of meaning. Instead of divine purpose, the meaning in our lives can arise from what we make of ourselves, from our relationships and our institutions, from the achievements of the human mind.
Imagining living in a universe without purpose may prepare us to better face reality head on. I cannot see that this is such a bad thing. Living in a strange and remarkable universe that is the way it is, independent of our desires and hopes, is far more satisfying for me than living in a fairy-tale universe invented to justify our existence.
Science reveals that it’s possible there is no Creator God, he says; and to believe in God is to living in a “fairy-tale universe invented to justify our existence.” Really, now. Purpose and design are illusory, too. Where did those conclusions come from? From science reveals it’s possible there is no Creator God? If that’s what he thinks, then the pillars of logic have indeed been kicked out after all— from under one scientist, at least.