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Lawrence Krauss has Plenty of Nothing

Krauss at the American Atheists Convention in ...

Lawrence Krauss is a brilliant theoretical physicist, but at times a terrible logician, and philosopher of science David Albert shows us why in his review of Krauss’ new book “A Universe From Nothing”, which appears in the NY Times. In the book Krauss, an outspoken critic of belief in God, argues that the origin of the universe can be explain by quantum physics; there is no reason to appeal to a transcendent cause or explanation. Albert delivers a bit of a spanking. I’m not sure, but as far as I can tell Albert is not a Christian or a theist. Here are some of the highlights, but the whole review is well worth your time.

“He complains that “some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine ‘nothing’ as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe,” and that “now, I am told by religious critics that I cannot refer to empty space as ‘nothing,’ but rather as a ‘quantum vacuum,’ to distinguish it from the philosopher’s or theologian’s idealized ‘nothing,’ ” and he does a good deal of railing about “the intellectual bankruptcy of much of theology and some of modern philosophy.” 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. Who cares what we would or would not have made a peep about a hundred years ago? We were wrong a hundred years ago. We know more now. And if what we formerly took for nothing turns out, on closer examination, to have the makings of protons and neutrons and tables and chairs and planets and solar systems and galaxies and universes in it, then it wasn’t nothing, and it couldn’t have been nothing, in the first place. And the history of science — if we understand it correctly — gives us no hint of how it might be possible to imagine otherwise.”

And then there is this gem:

Krauss seems to be thinking that these vacuum states amount to the relativistic-­quantum-field-theoretical version of there not being any physical stuff at all. And he has an argument — or thinks he does — that the laws of relativistic quantum field theories entail that vacuum states are unstable. And that, in a nutshell, is the account he proposes of why there should be something rather than nothing.

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.

I believe it was Aristotle who said “nothing is what rocks dream about”, and I take by that he didn’t mean that rocks dream about virtual particles and quantum fields. I’m just not sure there can ever be any purely scientific explanation of the origin of the universe. Science can’t explain anything except in terms of the law of nature, and if the universe began to exist, there was a time that there were no laws of nature, there was no-thing. Krauss is no fan of philosophy or metaphysics, but metaphysical and religious explanations are what we are left with, regardless of how distasteful he might find it.


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