Last year theoretical physicist and atheist, Lawrence Krauss, wrote a book titled A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing. As the title suggests, Krauss wrote the book to answer the age-old question of why there is something rather than nothing. The book was heralded by many atheists as the definitive answer to theists who claim God is necessary to explain the existence of physical reality. Indeed, in the afterward Richard Dawkins claimed that Krauss’ book devastates theistic arguments based on cosmology just as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species devastated theistic arguments based on design in biology. Other reviewers, however – including scientists, philosophers, and theologians – beg to differ. Having read the book myself (not just once, but two times now), I can see why they were less than impressed with Krauss’ argument.
While my overall assessment of Krauss’ argument is not positive, truth be told, most of the book was quite enjoyable and informative. That’s because the first 2/3 of the book is a lesson on the historical development of modern cosmology. Krauss doesn’t make his case for why there is something rather than nothing until the last four chapters. Unfortunately, that’s where the book falls apart.
Changing the question
The most significant problem with Krauss’ handling of the issue is the fact that he redefines the question in two significant ways. First, he changes why to how. Krauss says “why” questions are meaningless from a scientific perspective. Science speaks to the “how” questions. So to “scientize” the question of why there is something rather than nothing, Krauss changes the question to how there is something rather than nothing. While this may be necessary to scientize the question, it is not necessary to make it meaningful. Indeed, it actually changes the question. Perhaps a scientific approach to the question that focuses on the how may give us great insight into origins, but answering the how question does not make the why question meaningless, or answer the why question. At best, it would simply show that there are two sides to the question, and while science can answer one aspect of the question, it is incapable of answering the other. It would not follow that the why question can be eliminated, or simply reduced to the how question.
Secondly, and more importantly, Krauss changes the definition of “nothing.” For Krauss, nothing is really something, namely the quantum vacuum. He attempts to show that natural processes are capable of transforming the quantum vacuum into all of the stuff we see today. If true, it is very interesting, but unfortunately it has nothing to do with the question being asked. The question posed is not how something became something else, but why there is something rather than nothing at all. And by “nothing,” we mean the absence of being, not a “thin” kind of something. The quantum vacuum is clearly something, not nothing, despite Krauss’ claims to the contrary. Indeed, at times Krauss admits as much by saying things like “one should be tempted to consider [the quantum vacuum] as nothing,” and repeatedly describes the quantum vacuum as “almost nothing.” If the quantum vacuum is almost nothing, then it is not truly nothing. Nothing is even less than the quantum vacuum. Nothing is the absence of all being itself: no quantum vacuum, no physical laws, not anything! It’s disingenuous, then, for Krauss to claim that science can explain how something came from nothing. Science can do nothing of the sort. As William Lane Craig has quipped, there are no physics of non-being! Science can explain how things work, and even tell us their natural history, but in all cases they are explaining how something came from something, not how something came from nothing.
Krauss can’t plead ignorance regarding the intended meaning of “nothing” either. He acknowledges that the age-old philosophical question understands “nothing” as non-being (although elsewhere in the book he chides philosophers and theologians for always changing the definition so that science can never answer it), but says he takes a “flippant attitude toward this concern” because it doesn’t add to the conversation…because it can’t be answered by science. In other words, he doesn’t like the actual question because his favored discipline (science) and favored epistemology (empiricism) cannot answer it (though he tries, as I’ll discuss in a bit). That is an interesting piece of biographical information, but it doesn’t make the actual question one bit less meaningful.
On second thought, science can answer that too!
While Krauss’ preferred approach to answering the question of why there is something rather than nothing is to change the definition of nothing so that it becomes another something, later in the book (page 146) Krauss claims that science can even explain how something can come from true nothingness. How so? Virtual particles. Krauss writes:
[M]erely defining “nothingness” as “nonbeing” is not sufficient to suggest that physics, and more generally science, is not adequate to address the question. Let me give an additional, more specific argument here. Consider an electron-positron pair that spontaneously pops out of empty space near the nucleus of an atom and affects the property of that atom for the short time the pair exists. In what sense did the electron or positron exist before? Surely by any sensible definition they didn’t. There was potential for their existence, certainly, but that doesn’t define being any more than a potential human being exists because I carry sperm in my testicles near a woman who is ovulating, and she and I might mate.
And your argument is…? What follows from this is…what precisely?” His argument appears to be that since virtual particles come into being from non-being all the time, and this is a natural phenomenon that scientists “observe,” therefore science can provide a naturalistic explanation for how something can come from truly nothing. If you’re not scratching your head yet, let me help create the itch. Krauss’ “argument” is misguided on several counts.
First, even if virtual particles are truly coming into being from non-being, observing this and explaining this are entirely different matters. The only thing scientists know is that it happens. They have no idea how or why it happens (which is why some have even resorted to the absurd conclusion that these are uncaused events). Virtual particles coming into being from utter nothingness would simply presents scientists with an innumerable number of additional examples of the problem needing to be answered. Rather than trying to explain a single event in which something comes into being from non-being (the coming into being of physical reality), they have to explain the occurrence of countless events in which something comes into being from non-being. Thinking you have solved one problem by pointing to the existence of innumerable instances of the same inexplicable problem does not get you one step closer to actually solving the problem! It would only prove that the problem is worse than originally conceived. Pointing to virtual particles does nothing to explain how something can come from nothing. At best, it just demonstrates how ubiquitous and intractable the problem of creation ex nihilo is for science to explain.
Second, it cannot be the case that virtual particles are coming into being from true nothingness. For some X to come into being, it must have a source that contains within it the potential for X. For example, cars can come into being because the steel they are created from has the potential to become a car if acted upon in a certain fashion. If there is no source material, however, then there is no potential for a car. Nothingness has no properties, and thus has no potential for anything. If you start with nothing, you will always and only end up with nothing. Something can only come from something else. Krauss’ own analogy reveals this same point. There is potential for a human being to come into existence only because a source exists with properties sufficient to produce a human being under the right circumstances. But if there was no man carrying sperm in his testicles, and there was no woman ovulating, would it make any sense to speak of the potential for a human being? No. The potential for X requires a source of X, and yet Krauss denies the existence of any source for virtual particles, and the universe itself. While Krauss is right to distinguish between the potential for existence and actual existence, that distinction is only relevant when we are talking about something coming from something. When we are talking about something coming from nothing, however, we are talking about actual existence arising without a source that contains the potential for it to exist. How one can get an actual something without even a potential something is beyond me.
Thirdly, virtual particles are not coming from non-being, but arise from within the quantum vacuum itself. Krauss admits as much. While we may not understand what causes this phenomenon, this is not an example of something coming from nothing, but of something coming from something else.
Stop…in the name of natural law
Every causal explanation must come to a terminus at some point. For theists, the causal terminus is God – a necessary being who is the source and cause of everything other than Himself. For many atheists, the causal terminus is natural laws. Natural laws are eternal, and the source of all physical reality (this represents a gross misunderstanding of the ontology of natural law), and a brute fact of reality (they are the necessary beings, not God). Krauss so desires to answer the problem of how something can come from nothing that he even attempts to explain the origin of physical laws…or so he says. In reality, he punts on the issue by appealing to a multiverse that causes physical laws, without explaining the origin of the multiverse. In the end, the fundamental physical reality is neither named nor explained.
Krauss acknowledges two possible explanations for the origin of natural laws: God or something non-supernatural. It should come as no surprise that he rejects the God explanation. What is surprising is how poor his reasons are for rejecting it. Then again, given his general disdain for and lack of familiarity with philosophy, his inability to critically evaluate the hypothesis is not at all surprising. First, he trots out the ‘if God created the natural laws, then who created God’ line. I never cease to be amazed at how many times Christians have answered this point, and how many times atheists don’t pay attention. On theism, God is a necessary and hence uncreated being. To ask, Who caused God?, then, is to ask, Who caused the Uncreated Being to exist?, which is meaningless. It makes no more sense to ask who created God then to ask what sound silence makes.
Next, he posits that if we invoke God to explain what determines “the rules,” then who determines God’s rules for Him? Really? On theism, God is the metaphysical ultimate and first cause. There can be nothing that determines “the rules” for God? Krauss’ question makes as much sense as asking what mathematical equation determines mathematical truths. It’s actually worse than that since “the rules” Krauss has in mind, natural law, could not possibly apply to God since God is not a physical being. I don’t know what other rules Krauss could possibly have in mind, but whatever they may be, it doesn’t make any sense to speak of rules that govern a free-will agent.
Then, Krauss argues that a First Cause of the universe would only argue for deism, not theism. Ok? No theist would dispute that? Other arguments are necessary as part of a cumulative case to get to the God of the Bible, but that does nothing to detract from the fact that a divine being would still be the cause of the universe, and deism is miles away from the atheism espoused by Krauss! Deism may not get you to Christianity, but it would definitely invalidate atheism.
Next, Krauss argues that God cannot be a first cause because every effect must have a prior cause, ad infinitum (strange, given his admission that the best evidence available to us today supports an absolute beginning to the universe). Once again, Krauss would benefit from the help of philosophy, which demonstrates the absurdity of an actual infinite.
Finally, he argues that if something can only come from something, then even God cannot create natural laws from nothing. Apparently it hasn’t dawned on him that God is not nothing. God’s creation of physical laws would be an example of something coming from something, not something from nothing.
After dismissing the God hypothesis, Krauss turns to a non-supernatural hypothesis: the multiverse. Krauss knows the precise values of the physical constants are fine-tuned for the existence of intelligent life, and proposes that the multiverse could explain the value of the physical constants since, in a multiverse, each universe could have a different set of values for the physical constants. We just happen to live in a universe in which the random distribution of those values is life-permitting. But once again, Krauss has moved the goal post. When it comes to questions of origins, what Krauss needs to explain is why there are physical laws in the first place, not why the physical laws in our universe have assumed the values they do. If the multiverse both creates and determines the value of the physical laws in each universe, then the multiverse, not physical laws, is a more basic feature of physical reality. What, then, explains the multiverse? What explains the mechanism that produces multiple universes with multiple values for the physical constants? In the end, Krauss admits he can’t answer the question. He writes, “Where did they [physical laws] come from? That is a good question, and one of the more modern answers is that even the laws themselves may be random, coming into existence along with universes that may arise. This may still beg the question of what allows any of this to be possible, but at some level it is… ‘turtles all the way down’.” In other words, he doesn’t have a clue. So much for explaining the origin of all physical reality from nothing!
At the end of the day, Krauss’ book answers a question that no one was asking. He has explained how something could become something else, but not how something could come from nothing. In that respect, his book is an abject failure. And yet, it remains a monument to materialist thinking, and demonstrates the bankruptcy of scientism and empiricism to answer the most fundamental questions humans can ask. Science is a marvelous discipline, and can tell us much about the physical world. What it cannot do is tell us why or how something could come from absolutely nothing.
Thinking it can is like the student who does not know the answer to a complex geometry problem, so he creates millions of copies of the unanswered problem, and turns those pages in to his teacher expecting to receive an A+ for his observational efforts.