Physicist Lawrence Krauss’ new book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing, purports to answer the age-old philosophical question of why there is something rather than nothing from a scientific, rather than philosophical or religious perspective. In the book’s afterword Richard Dawkins announces that Krauss has triumphed in his quest:
Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, “Why is there something rather than nothing?,” shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. If On the Origin of Species was biology’s deadliest blow to supernaturalism, we may come to see A Universe From Nothing as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is devastating.
Columbia professor of philosophy, David Albert, couldn’t disagree more. In his scathing review for the New York Times, Albert points out that Krauss has not answered the question at all.
Krauss claims that reason there is something rather than nothing is that the quantum vacuum is unstable. The vacuum state broke down according to the laws of quantum mechanics, resulting in our universe. While it may be true that that the universe sprang forth from an unstable quantum vacuum according to the laws of quantum mechanics, this is not something from nothing, but rather something from something. While the laws of quantum mechanics can explain why something looks the way it does, they cannot explain where something comes from to begin with. As Albert writes:
And what the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all there is for the fundamental laws of nature to be about, insofar as physics has ever been able to imagine, is how that elementary stuff is arranged. The fundamental laws of nature generally take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of that stuff are physically possible and which aren’t, or rules connecting the arrangements of that elementary stuff at later times to its arrangement at earlier times, or something like that. But the laws have no bearing whatsoever on questions of where the elementary stuff came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular elementary stuff it does, as opposed to something else, or to nothing at all.
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 … 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.
The fundamental problem with Krauss’ answer to the age-old question of existence is that he — like so many other physicists — changes the question by changing the meaning of “nothing,” answers this new question, and then boasts of having solved the age-old question. When philosophers ask why there is something rather than nothing, by “nothing” they mean the absence of being. By contrast, what physicists mean by nothing is the quantum vacuum. The quantum vacuum is a sea of fluctuating energy, which is clearly not nothing. So even if Krauss is right about the history of our universe, he has only succeeded in showing how something physical (our universe) came from something else that is physical (quantum vacuum). Like Stephen Hawking, he leaves unexplained where the quantum vacuum came from, or where the laws of quantum mechanics come from. Put simply, his project is an abject failure. He has not succeeded in showing how science can solve the problem of being itself; how something physical can come into being from absolutely nothing (“nothing” in the true sense of the word).
There is a good reason why Krauss has failed in his endeavor: science is in principle incapable of explaining why something exists rather than nothing or how nothing could become something because science can only study what exists. As William Lane Craig quipped in his debate with Krauss, there are no physics of non-being. Scientists have no access to what did or does not exist. Indeed, it is impossible to study what does not exist because there is nothing to study! The scientist can only speak to possible states of physical existence that preceded our universe. And when they identify some state X that preceded our universe, it invites the further question of what caused state X. If the answer is found to be state W, then it can be further asked what caused state W, ad infinitum.
One must either conclude that physical reality is eternal, or that there was an initial state of physical reality. Those like Krauss who maintain that the quantum vacuum is unstable do not have the first option available to them. If the quantum vacuum is unstable, then it could not have existed from eternity past. It must have had a beginning since it decayed a finite time ago, resulting in our universe. If there was a previous state of physical reality that gave rise to quantum vacuum, it must similarly be finite in age for the same reason. Given the impossibility of an infinite temporal regress, one must eventually arrive at a first initial physical state. Where did that state come from? If physical reality cannot be past eternal, then how did it come into being? Either it popped into being from absolute nothingness (which is absurd), or something non-physical and eternal brought it into being. While the latter is clearly the more reasonable option, those like Krauss dismiss the notion due to their anti-supernatural bias and empiricism (the only valid answers are scientific ones). For those of us non-empiricists who are willing to follow the evidence where it leads, however, we are able to answer the age-old philosophical question by positing a necessary, immaterial, eternal, powerful, personal being who created the universe from nothing – literally nothing. God, not the laws of quantum mechanics, is the reason why there is something rather than nothing.
David Albert, “On the Origin of Everything,” a review of A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence Krauss in the Sunday Book Review of the New York Times, 23 March 2012; available from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/books/review/a-universe-from-nothing-by-lawrence-m-krauss.html?_r=3; Internet; accessed 26 March 2012.