Sam Harris and Lawrence Krauss Talk About Nothing, and Make About That Much Sense

Lawrence Krauss says to Sam Harris,

Indeed, the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” which forms the subtitle of the book [his recent A Universe From Nothing], is often used by the faithful as an unassailable argument that requires the existence of God, because of the famous claim, “out of nothing, nothing comes.” … Modern science has made the something-from-nothing debate irrelevant. It has changed completely our conception of the very words “something” and “nothing”. Empirical discoveries continue to tell us that the Universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not, and ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ are physical concepts and therefore are properly the domain of science, not theology or philosophy….

The old idea that nothing might involve empty space, devoid of mass or energy, or anything material, for example, has now been replaced by a boiling bubbling brew of virtual particles, popping in and out of existence in a time so short that we cannot detect them directly. I then go on to explain how other versions of “nothing”—beyond merely empty space—including the absence of space itself, and even the absence of physical laws, can morph into “something.” Indeed, in modern parlance, “nothing” is most often unstable. Not only can something arise from nothing, but most often the laws of physics require that to occur.

I could take time to rebut that if I didn’t think it was self-refuting nonsense, and obviously enough so, without requiring my help to explain why. Even Sam Harris has a problem with it:

You have described three gradations of nothing—empty space, the absence of space, and the absence of physical laws. It seems to me that this last condition—the absence of any laws that might have caused or constrained the emergence of matter and space-time—really is a case of “nothing” in the strictest sense. It strikes me as genuinely incomprehensible that anything—laws, energy, etc.—could spring out of it. I don’t mean to suggest that conceivability is a guide to possibility—there may be many things that happen, or might happen, which we are not cognitively equipped to understand. But the emergence of something from nothing (in this final sense) does strike me as a frank violation of the categories of human thought (akin to asserting that the universe is a round square), or the mere declaration of a miracle. Is there any physical reason to believe that such nothing was ever the case? Might it not be easier to think about the laws of physics as having always existed?

There is at least one other thing that might exist (which I am convinced does exist) that we are not cognitively equipped to understand; something for which “thing” is really quite inadequate, which is ultimate and personal, and which would explain the existence of the laws of physics and more. Sam Harris and Lawrence Krauss reject that possibility. They will accept utter nonsense instead. And they will call it reason which led them to that conclusion.

Hat Tip to Bill Vallicella, whom I will not fault for thinking it was worth responding to more than I have done here.

Comments 5
  1. Tom Graffagnino

    One can only cringe…I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece (Are We Really Next to Nothing?” about this type of thing in relation to the Hadron Collider experiments:

    Our Collider’s brought us closer
    To The Emptiness we seek…
    On beyond the Brink of Boson;
    If you dare, come take a peek!

    Yes! We’ve peeled back all the layers…
    And… Good Lord!…we’ve come to Nought!
    Could this be The Truth we’re after?
    (Or, perchance, The Lie we bought….)

    Yes, we’re livin’ next to Nuthin’…
    Zero, Zilch…No, Not-a-Thing!
    Just a lotta Nada Nowhere…
    That’s the modern hymn we sing.

  2. PatrickH

    At least Harris recognized the difficulty. And he did seem to open a door when he said it would be ‘easier’ to say that physical laws always existed. Krauss just seems clueless. He’s really awful, isn’t he? Just a plain out and out embarrassment (though he seems to lack the self-awareness needed to be embarrassed).

  3. Holly Wilson

    Amazing that Sam Harris would recognize the problem with Krauss’ argument. It is indeed more reasonable to believe that nothing comes from nothing than that something would come from nothing. When particles pop into existence in space it is because they are in space and time and under the laws of physics. We have absolutely no access to any reality where the laws of physics are not operational…well at least until we die. As a scientist it is absurd to assert that something can come from nothing. The whole enterprise of science is built upon the law of causality which requires something to cause something else.

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