Green Room

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

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:

  1. Current scientific theory cannot explain why X occurs.
  2. Thus there is a gap in science.
  3. 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

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Alrighty then. Thanks for the info.

squint on March 28, 2012 at 11:07 PM

There is a distinction between the physical universe and the unqualified universe (defined as that which encompasses everything). This distinction is too seldom recognized.

If we postulate a moment “before” the physical universe comes into existence, we must admit that, at that moment, the potential for the physical universe must exist.

What is required to convert a potential to an actual? If you think about it, the potential must exist, as must the capacity for realization of the potential. Equally indispensable is the force to drive the conversion of the potential into the actual, contingent upon the capacity.

What is the nature of that which encompasses the potential, the capacity, the driving force, and ultimately the completion of the actual, which must thus encompass everything (i.e. the entire universe, in an absolute sense)?

In enlarging our comprehension of the Infinite Creator and Eternal Upholder, it’s good to reject the man-with-a-beard-wielding-lightningbolts image. But we must expand our grasp, not diminish it with childish arguments and sophomoric logic as is the current fashion.

mr.blacksheep on March 28, 2012 at 11:35 PM

“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?”

What is the first law of thermodynamics? Matter nor energy can neither be created or destroyed, but only changed in form. So, you are saying that this is no longer the case? That things are appearing and disappearing completely in our universe and have been observed doing so? My my, just imagine the possibilities.

As for your argument that he has proven there is no God, what he has done is say that us being here, in the form we are, is essentially orders magnitude less likely than the created from nothing others had previously argued. And for all intents and purposes, something that cannot be seen, measured or otherwise detected or interacted with is nothing. Now the nothing is something you are arguing is far more complicated than it was before, hence creating a far less likelihood of our universe existing.

astonerii on March 28, 2012 at 11:53 PM

astonerii on March 28, 2012 at 11:53 PM

Newton gives way to Einstein on the atomic scale, and Einstein gives way to quantum mechanics on the sub-atomic scale. For example, it is generally accepted at this point in time that the x-ray and gamma ray emmissions we use to detect “inactive” (meaning not eating a star) black holes come from the gravitic tides forcing the spontaneous creation of mattet-antumatter pairs, which subsequently annihilate and cause the emmissions.

Of course, that’s not even touching on string theory nor membrane theory, of which I have but the meanest understanding myself

Short version, things change, and laws that work great on the macro scale (thermodynamics) don’t necessarily apply on the micro scale.

None of which has the slightest bit to do with the existence/nonexistence of divine entities.

Asurea on March 29, 2012 at 1:41 AM

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. 2 For by it the elders obtained a good testimony.

3 By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” Hebrews 11:1-3 (NKJ)

College Prof on March 29, 2012 at 10:53 AM

The actual point is that no matter how or when the Universe is assumed to have developed, it says nothing about creation. G0d could have created it with this message on your computer screen while you are reading these words. Similarly G0d could have created the universe 5 seconds, minutes, hours, months, years, decades, centuries, millenia, eons, ago. Those who argue against the existence of G0d because of fossils are just as wrong as those who argue against the existence of evolution because of creation from nothing. This says nothing about the “G0d in the gaps”, it just says that in order to allow us to have free will, G0d deliberately allows ambiguities.

A famous example is the splitting of the Reed Sea during the exodus from Egypt. The bible explicitly states that G0d caused a wind the entire night before in order to open up the path. Modern science has discovered a reef in the sea at the point that they think the exodus occurred that a 60 mile per hour wind blowing all night would uncover and allow people to cross. Some of them them said that this “proves” that G0d does not exist. After all, if G0d existed, then it would have been done like Cecil B. DeMille showed it and not by a “natural wind”. They ignore the fact that this wind occurred exactly at the right time and place to let the Israelites escape and that it stopped blowing just in time to drown the Egyptian army.

A similar argument is made about those who argue that “who created the gods?”. The definition of G0d is the one that created whatever came first (including Time) and was not created.

sabbahillel on March 29, 2012 at 11:19 AM

I just finished reading Michael Behe’s book, “Darwin’s Black Box”. Very impressive. He lays out in very clear fashion why, at the most simple amino acid level, even something as simple as adenine could not have formed without intelligent guidance. He also examines many irreducibly complex systems, such as blood clotting, and antibody processes and shows how even something as simple as blood clotting in response to a cut is amazingly complex, and any evolutionary path to accomplish this process would have killed the host several times over as it was forming.

I sat through several evolutionary biology classes in my undergrad, and here’s what I saw:

1.) The textbooks contain several falsehoods proven wrong a long time ago. Ontogeny recapitulates Phylogeny, Haeckel’s embryo’s, horse evolution, Piltdown Man, Nebraska Man – all proven false, yet still in the textbooks. Why??

2.) Storytelling. On one page, this and this might have happened. A few pages later, those things definitely happened, so this, this, and that could have happened. It’s all imagination.

The most striking thing to me is the absence of transitional fossils. That we find all of our fossils in the “formed” state and not the “forming” state says it all. I could understand Darwin dying before any fossils were found. But the years have been unkind to the evolution faithfuls. As we peel back the layers, we find out the cell is more complicated than a space shuttle and even the simplest processes are unbelievably complex.

Hannibal on March 30, 2012 at 10:13 AM

Hey! I blogged about Krauss’s book without having read it too! Mediocre minds think alike.

JS on March 30, 2012 at 6:01 PM

I have to disagree on your point about science and proofs for Gods existence. Not all scientific arguments for the existence of God amount to a God-of-the-gaps argument. The problem with any gaps argument is that it is ad hoc or contrived. If you fill the gap with something in an ad hoc way — Marxists fill gaps in historical explanations with economics in an ad hoc way for example — you’re employing a gaps argument.

Science proceeds according to what Peirce called abduction or inference to the best explanation. If a supernatural explanation is the best one among the alternatives then it should be preferred to its naturalistic rivals. God-of-the-gaps issues simply don’t arise in this context, or at least not necessarily.

JS on March 30, 2012 at 6:15 PM

If you are going to disagree with something, you really need to know what that “something” is.

Read the book and then get back to us. Otherwise you are acting like a Liberal….just spouting off on what you believe something to be…

ProfShadow on March 31, 2012 at 10:03 AM