A Universe from Nothing? Dr. Krauss Explains Nothing

If Dr. Richard Dawkins is the atheist’s rock star of biology, Dr. Lawrence Krauss is the atheist’s rock star of physics (maybe only second to Stephen Hawking).  An engaging speaker and winsome personality, Dr. Krauss is a theoretical physicist and professor at Arizona State University.  In his book A Universe from Nothing, Krauss seeks to answer the age old question, “Why is there something rather than nothing” without reference to God.

Dr. Krauss says the cause of the universe is not God—it is “nothing.”  He cites happenings at the quantum level to dispense with the need for God.  (The quantum level is the world of the extremely small, subatomic in size.)

“One of the things about quantum mechanics is not only can nothing become something, nothing always becomes something,” says Dr. Krauss. “Nothing is unstable. Nothing will always produce something in quantum mechanics.”[i]

Now, whenever you hear something that just doesn’t sound right, you ought to ask the person making the claim, “What do you mean by that?” In this case, the precise question to Dr. Krauss would be, “What do you mean by ‘nothing’?”

It turns out that Dr. Krauss’ definition of “nothing” is not the “nothing” from which the universe originated.  The initial starting point of the universe was not the quantum vacuum that Dr. Krauss keeps referring to in his book. The starting point was non-being– literally no thing.  Since no thing isn’t anything, there are no properties to work with.  Nothing is, as Aristotle put it, what rocks dream about.  Unless someone powerful intervenes, the ancient maxim still stands:  out of nothing, nothing comes.

A quantum vacuum, on the other hand, is something—it consists of fields of fluctuating energy from which particles appear to pop in and out of existence.  Whether these particles are uncaused, or are caused but are merely unpredictable to us, is unknown.  There are ten different models of the quantum level, and no one knows which is correct.  What we do know is that, whatever is happening there, it is not creation out of nothing.  Moreover, the vacuum itself had a beginning and therefore needs a cause.

Lest you think I am mad to question the physics of Dr. Krauss, please note that I am more questioning his logic, which is required to do science of any kind.  Dr. Krauss is committing the logical fallacy known as equivocation—that is using the same word in an argument but with two different definitions.  The “nothing” in the title of Dr. Krauss’ book is not the “nothing” from which the universe came.

This critical distinction was not lost on fellow atheist Dr. David Albert.  A Ph.D. in theoretical physics, Dr. Albert is a Professor at Columbia University and author of the book Quantum Mechanics and Experience.  In his scathing review of Krauss’ book in the New York Times, Dr. Albert questions both Krauss’ logic and his physics.  He pulls no punches and even uses his fist to illustrate.

Commenting on Krauss’ central claim that particles emerging from the quantum vacuum are like creation out of nothing, Dr. Albert writes:

 But that’s just not right. Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-­theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing (emphasis in the original).[ii]

            Speaking of fists, Dr. Albert lands the knockout blow to Krauss’ entire thesis this way, “But all there is to say about this, as far as I can see, is that Krauss is dead wrong and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right.” (It’s important to note that Dr. Albert and Columbia University are not known for Christian fundamentalism.)

Now Dr. Krauss didn’t take all this lying down.  He got up off the canvas and fought back by calling Dr. Albert “a moronic philosopher.”[iii]

Well that solves that then.  If the guy’s a moron, the non-moron must be right. Right?  Actually, on several occasions in this book, Dr. Krauss confuses even non-moronic readers when he admits Dr. Albert’s point in advance—namely, that the “nothing” Krauss is talking about is not exactly the nothing from which the universe came.  Dr. Krauss even puts his “nothing” in quotation marks like I just did.

In an interview, Krauss acknowledges that no matter how one defines “nothing,” the laws of physics are not nothing (sorry to keep using the word nothing, but there’s nothing else to use!).  And although he’s clearly annoyed doing so, Dr. Krauss eventually gets around to admitting that his “nothing” is actually something.

“Even if you accept this argument that nothing is not nothing,” he says, “you have to acknowledge that nothing is being used in a philosophical sense. But I don’t really give a damn about what ‘nothing’ means to philosophers; I care about the ‘nothing’ of reality. And if the ‘nothing’ of reality is full of stuff, then I’ll go with that.”[iv]

So if Dr. Krauss admits all this, why the bait and switch title: “A Universe from Nothing:  Why there is something rather than nothing”?  Why smuggle in the laws of physics and the quantum vacuum and then call it “nothing”?  Why diss philosophers who are only trying to bring the book’s assertions back to reality?

Dr. Krauss seems to think that philosophers are not talking about reality, when in fact, that’s exactly what philosophy is—the study of ultimate reality.  The problem for Krauss is two-fold.

First, reality is not merely physical stuff.  Since nature and the laws of physics themselves had a beginning, ultimate reality is beyond nature or supernatural.  So despite claiming to explain how the universe came from nothing, Krauss has explained nothing.

The second problem is a far more serious intellectual disease that infects the thinking of Krauss and several other prominent atheists as well.  This disease is so severe that it threatens the accuracy of the very science they seek to promote.  Krauss, like Dawkins and Hawking, are dismissive of philosophy.

Now, having studied a lot of wacky philosophy myself, I sympathize with them.  But the existence of wacky philosophy doesn’t discredit the existence of good philosophy any more than the existence of wacky science discredits the existence of good science.  While it is true that one can use bad philosophy, it is impossible to use no philosophy.

In fact—and this is the essential point—Krauss, Dawkins and the like can’t do science without philosophy.  While scientists are usually seeking to understand physical cause and effect, science itself is built on philosophical principles that are not physical themselves—they are beyond the physical (metaphysical). Those principles help the scientist make precise definitions and clear distinctions, and then interpret all the relevant data rationally.

What exactly is relevant?  What exactly is rational?  What exactly is the best interpretation of the data –including what exactly is or isn’t “nothing”?  Those questions are all answered through the use of philosophy.  (Perhaps that’s why the “Ph.” in Ph.D. stands for “philosophy.”  The originators of advanced degrees knew that philosophy is the foundation of every area of inquiry.)

Einstein had an observation about the man of science.  He said, “The man of science is a poor philosopher.”  Unfortunately, if you abandon good philosophy you end up with bad science. And if you disdain all philosophy, as Krauss and company tend to do, then you put yourself in the self-defeating position of holding a philosophy that disdains all philosophy.  You can’t get away from philosophy.  It’s like logic.  To deny it is to use it.

In the end, despite the lofty promises of his book’s title, Dr. Krauss explains nothing about the ultimate origin of the universe.

[i] Opening statement of Lawrence Krauss in his debate with Dr. William Lane Craig, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-craig-krauss-debate-at-north-carolina-state-university#ixzz2bwKlOhe1.  See also Dr. Krauss’ book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing, Atria Books, 2012, Chapter 10.

[ii] David Albert, “On the Origin of Everything ‘A Universe From Nothing,’ by Lawrence M. Krauss,” The New York Times, March 23, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/books/review/a-universe-from-nothing-by-lawrence-m-krauss.html?_r=0.

[iii] Ross Anderson, “Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete?”. The Atlantic, April 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/print/2012/04/has-physics-made-philosophy-and-religion-obsolete/256203/.

[iv] Ross Anderson, Ibid.

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7 replies
  1. toby says:

    I think the old nugget “why is there something rather than nothing” is deeply flawed because it was formulated with supernaturalism as its base. If we were starting from scratch with only what we can observe would not the more honest and evident question be: Given that everywhere we look in this universe all we see is physical is ‘nothing’ possible? I don’t think apologists have demonstrated this or ever address it.

    “Unless someone powerful intervenes, the ancient maxim still stands: out of nothing, nothing comes.”

    Positing a god offers no explanation of how the universe was made. It’s always slipped by quickly in debates, this “enormously powerful” line. What does that explain? The entire cosmological argument hinges on our understanding of causation yet it’s a type of causation that no one anywhere has any evidence or experience of. “First there is a god, second ?????, third there is a universe.” So is it that there is a powerful thing with no location, temporality, or form took no building blocks and was able to make everything. How do you justify arguing for this? This is completely special pleading for a type of causation that you can’t say with any sort of certainly can exist and makes no sense.

    You decry Krauss for not explaining the ultimate origin of the universe, but your side can clearly do no better.

    • Richard says:

      you’re doing krauss proud by dodging and weaving the whole subject
      “why is there something rather than nothing” does not require belief in God.
      before the big bang there was nothing, this requires an explanation and krauss explains it by the describing the quasi-nothing that is contained in the universe he is trying to explain the origin of, it’s circular.

      God cannot be explained but we see evidence that points to his existence and it fits with the world we see around us.

    • Keith Ward says:

      But Turek’s post isn’t about the likelihood that there is a God that created the universe. He’s taking issue with Krauss’s logic. You didn’t argue against Frank’s central thesis at all, which is whether Krauss is correct in his reasoning. It appears to me that you’ve simply said “Well, Christians don’t have an answer, either.” That doesn’t, in any way, materially affect Turek’s argument.

    • Paul Schroeder says:

      All examples of something are caused by something with greater intelligence and/or energy. If you trace this to its conclusion, logically you come to something all powerful. This wins. Our observable universe is not organizing itself, and it isn’t logical to say that it did so in the past.

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  3. Jack says:

    If “nothing” is defined as the absence of space, time, matter/energy, and all the laws that would eventually become known as “physics”, then the fact that all those exist now would–if logic applies–require that whatever created it all stands apart from, and outside of, time, space, etc. In fact, even logic itself must have come into existence through the same means.

    So “nothing becoming something” means there’s something “non-nothing” that made nothing into something.


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