A Universe Perhaps From Something – a Second and Conciser Critique of the Central Tenet of Lawrence M. Krauss’s a Universe From Nothing
posted at 9:28 pm on March 28, 2012 by Dafydd ab Hugh
I have not read Krauss’s book, a Universe From Nothing; I cheerfully admit as such up front. But funnily enough, I can still shatter its core argument… and in a lot fewer words than used by David Albert a few days ago in the Sunday Book Review of the New York Times, in his equally devastating (but overlong) piece, “On the Origin of Everything.”
And I promise that the sentence above will be the longest and most convoluted in this post.
Krauss purports to prove, whether he admits it or not, that God did not create the universe, and indeed does not exist at all. His thesis culminates with what he alleges to be a scientific — i.e., non-supernatural — answer to the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, which he sees as the crux of what his cohort, militant atheist Richard Dawkins, who wrote the afterword to Krauss’s book, would call the “God delusion.” (I’ll deal with this — the “God of the gaps” argument, a.k.a. the Thunder Fallacy — in more depth below.)
Krauss’s answer to his question is thus: Contemporary quantum mechanics demonstrates that what we have historically called “nothing,” an absence of any physical substance, is in fact something, quantum fields interacting with other quantum fields; and that the original “nothing-something” can reformulate itself as “something-something,” that is, physical particles and suchlike.
Distinct quantum fields can combine in various ways. When they combine in some ways, they create physical particles — electrons, protons, neutrons, other, more exotic critters, and their quark building blocks. But when they combine in other ways, they create “things” that have no mass, no charge, and no other detectable properties… in other words, what earlier scientists would have called “nothing.” (I’m doing my best here as a non-physicist; but even if I get the specifics of Krauss’s scientific argument wrong, that doesn’t change my point, as you will see.)
Under current theory, quantum fields can interact, break up, and realign themselves into different configurations. Which means that fields that are currently combined in ways that create so-called “nothing” can recombine in ways that create physical somethings.
And that is what he means by saying he has solved the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
Albert’s critique is a bit of handwaving — appropriate because he’s responding to an argument by Krauss that is a lot of handwaving. Albert essentially argues that, by Krauss’s own description, previous ages of scientists, philosophers, and theologians were simply wrong to think that “empty space” actually comprised literaly nothing; it was always something, to wit, quantum fields arranged in certain ways. Therefore, Albert argues, even Krauss agrees that the universe was not created out of nothing but rather out of something; and the title of Krauss’s book is misleading.
And who, Albert argues, created the quantum fields in the first place, not to mention the rules by which they can combine, and the rules preventing them from combining in other ways? Albert argues that all Krauss has done is push divine Creation back one step: Instead of asking, “Who or what created the physical world with us on it?”, we must instead ask, “Who or what created the quantum fields and the physical rules that govern them, such that our physical world came into existence with us on it?”
Which is logically the same question, and Krauss is simply begging it.
Krauss complains that his critics are moving the goal posts. The theologians said that God must exist because how else could the universe be created out of nothing; I have proven that physics itself says things can be created out of nothing; but now the critics say that’s not good enough, because those very theologians were wrong about nothingness in the first place!
Is that unfairly moving the goal posts? No; and for Krauss to maintain that it is ensnares him in the same trap that has caught many religious folk, when they argue, e.g., that evolutionary theory keeps “moving the goal posts.”
Evolutionary science evolves — pun noted — because all science evolves. By the very nature of science, theory is constantly checked against observation; and when empirical measurement finds anomalous results, they must be explained. If they cannot be explained by finding some demonstrable error in the testing or analysis of results, then current theory must be changed to accomodate the new observation.
Science is therefore self-correcting, in a way that other disciplines are not. That is not a bug, it’s a feature.
However, philosophy, to the extent it is grounded in physical reality, must necessarily also change along with the scientific concensus: When Johannes Kepler discovered that the planets orbited the sun, not in circles (with or without “epicycles”) but rather in elipses (squashed circles), philosophy, including religion, had to change its fundamental theory that God pushed the planets around in circles because He is perfect, and the circle is the perfect curve.
Likewise, contemporary religion must remake itself to take into account the scientific truths that the species of Earth, including humans, physically evolved from simpler creatures; and also that quantum theory indicates that what appears to be nothing can reorganize itself into what is obviously something. It’s not “moving the goal posts;” it’s simply philosophy accepting the evolving nature of scientific understanding. Why should that get Krauss’s knickers in a twist?
I cannot vouch for the accuracy of Krauss’s (or Albert’s) science; but fortunately, there is no need. The better critique is to get at the core of Krauss’s argument and bypass the question of who or what created quantum fields.
And here it is: Who cares if Krauss has an explanation of how physical somethings can spontaneously spring into existence from nothing? How could that prove the nonexistence of God? The only logical connection that would make that argument work is that Krauss must assume that there is one and only one reason why believers believe in God: because they think there is some “gap” in scientific understanding that can only be filled by God.
Plug that gap, and poof! No more need for God. This, Krauss appears to think he has accomplished.
Francis Collins, author of in indispensible book the Language of God (which I did read) — former head of the Human Genome Project — calls this the “God of the gaps” argument, and it goes much like this:
- Current scientific theory cannot explain why X occurs.
- Thus there is a gap in science.
- Aha! That gap must be where God lives! Clearly, God causes X to occur every time it’s necessary.
But what happens when scientific theory is changed, as above? Suppose science does now explain very nicely why X occurs? What happens to the God of the gap?
There are two general classes of response: The gapper can quibble whether new theory A really does explain gap X; or he can find another aspect Y, a deeper part of X, that is not fully explained by current theory… and aha again, that’s where God actually lives!
Yep, it’s turtles, turtles, turtles all the way down. But that other aspect Y is almost necessarily narrower and more technical than the original X. And as Collins (who is himself very Christian) argues, the gaps in which God lives get smaller and smaller, until finally He is squeezed right out. And that’s why “God of the gaps” theologians oft become atheists: They run out of gaps in which God can hide.
More melodramatically, I call this argument the Thunder Fallacy — that we need God to explain the thunder and lightning, the floods, the earthquakes, and the other scary threats that seem to arise out of nowhere. They’re punishments by God for some sin we have committed.
But isn’t that quite a primitive, petty, and meagre conception of what is supposed to be an omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-good being? I don’t know why the sun shines, so God created it. I don’t know where people came from, so God individually created them. I don’t know how the Bernoulli Effect works, so God reaches down and grabs all the airplanes, holding them in the sky. You may as well say it’s ju-ju.
Your dog doesn’t understand how food keeps appearing in the magic bowl; but to humans, there is a simple explanation. Alas for Fido, it’s simply beyond his ken. And much of the universe is beyond the ken of even the most genius human being; but is everything unexplained therefore unexplainable?
Krauss phrases his killer question as a “why,” but it’s actually a “how” — Under quantum field theory, how, by what mechanism, does something materialize out of what appears to be nothing? Assume Krauss is correct: How in cosmos does that prove there is no God?
Even if it’s possible for a universe to spring into existence ex nihilo, by itself and without being created by God, how does that prove that our own universe was not created by God? At best, Krauss can prove that we cannot use the Thunder Fallacy, the God of the gaps argument, to prove that the existence of Universe requires special creation by God.
Krauss might be able to demonstrate that God is not required to create a universe, but he surely cannot demonstrate that there is no God, or that God did not create this universe; maybe God is not a necessary condition for our universe, but He certainly would be a sufficient one, if He existed. Likewise, believers cannot use science to prove that God does exist and did create this universe, for the same reason you can’t crack a walnut by hitting it with a hard calculus equation: Nutcrackers and mathematics are both useful tools, but they’re hardly interchangeable.
And that is all Krauss has done; he has clearly shown that the existence of God cannot be proven by scientific reasoning… an insight that philosophers and theologians latched onto several centuries ago: If God’s existence and/or nature could be proved by pure reason, argue the religious, then there would be no need for faith.
Speaking as a bona-fide agnostic — not like most, who declare themselves agnostics but in fact are cowardly atheists — I have always understood that God can neither be demonstrated nor refuted by logical or scientific means; He cannot be measured or deduced. I wrote a paper about it at university nearly 35 years ago, and it was an ancient, almost trite argument even then.
Congratulations, Lawrence Krauss… your scientific ontogeny has recapitulated philosophical phylogeny!
All right, all right, so my critique wasn’t any more concise than Albert’s after all. But by golly, it’s more universal and doesn’t fall prey to the Thunder Fallacy. So there. Krauss’s argument that something can arise from what used to be called nothing proves nothing at all about the existence or nonexistence of God. It proves only that that particular “gap” in science has (perhaps) now been filled, thus it cannot be hiding a mysteriously shy and reticent Almighty.
But we already knew that, didn’t we?
Cross-posted on Big Lizards…