Thursday, 18 October 2012

A Universe from Nothing

Lawrence M Krauss has been studying physics longer than I have been alive. On the other hand I really have no idea, but Krauss' book has taught me heaps about this crazy thing call the Universe.

Krauss gives a good overview about the history of ideas, concepts and key people from the world of astronomy and physics and the problems and solutions that they have faced. I learnt about virtual particles (which really blew my mind), how dark matter and dark energy make up the bulk of the matter and energy in the universe, how during the big bang there was this thing called inflation that took place, that the universe is flat and Krauss explained what all the above meant in ways that I could understand. On this point alone, I think more people should read this book.

Things got interesting when he would diss philosophers and theologians. You see, we now have scientists - they have all the answers. Philosophers and theologians don't really know what nothing means. And what does Krauss means by nothing? I quoted him from the preface, but later he says:
By nothing, I do not mean nothing, but rather nothing—in this case, the nothingness we normally call empty space. That is to say, if I take a region of space and get rid of everything within it—dust, gas, people, and even the radiation passing through, namely absolutely everything within that region—if the remaining empty space weighs something, then that would correspond to the existence of a cosmological term such as Einstein invented (Chapter 4)
In essence Krauss is talking about a quantum vacuum (see his preface) in which other scientists (not philosophers and theologians - although how do you draw the line?) claim that there can be stuff in this nothingness. David Albert wrote a good review of this book in the NY Times, and hammered Krauss on this point, (which is kinda a big premise of the book). Albert annoying states: Krauss is dead wrong [on nothing in quantum vacuums] and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right. Doh! (Apparently Albert is also kinda a big deal in this filed, I didn't know that the first time I read his review.)

There are many things I would like to say from this book, but instead I am just going to post one long quote from Chapter 11. This is where Krauss is wrapping up his whole argument that God is not needed for the universe to have come about, and then I will make a few comments. Here goes:
Moreover, those who argue that out of nothing nothing comes seem perfectly content with the quixotic notion that somehow God can get around this. But once again, if one requires that the notion of true nothingness requires not even the potential for existence, then surely God cannot work his wonders, because if he does cause existence from nonexistence, there must have been the potential for existence. To simply argue that God can do what nature cannot is to argue that supernatural potential for existence is somehow different from regular natural potential for existence. But this seems an arbitrary semantic distinction designed by those who have decided in advance (as theologians are wont to do) that the supernatural (i.e., God) must exist so they define their philosophical ideas (once again completely divorced from any empirical basis) to exclude anything but the possibility of a god.  
In any case, to posit a god who could resolve this conundrum, as I have emphasized numerous times thus far, often is claimed to require that God exists outside the universe and is either timeless or eternal.
Our modern understanding of the universe provides another plausible and, I would argue, far more physical solution to this problem, however, which has some of the same features of an external creator—and moreover is logically more consistent.
I refer here to the multiverse. The possibility that our universe is one of a large, even possibly infinite set of distinct and causally separated universes, in each of which any number of fundamental aspects of physical reality may be different, opens up a vast new possibility for understanding our existence. (Chapter 11)

In the first paragraph of this quote is Krauss acting like a philosopher or a theologian? He after all is making statements about the nature and actions of God, which I think is the definition of theology proper. In this paragraph Krauss knows what God is like and what he can and can't do. I am impressed, I have read many other theologians who would not be so confident or certain about God's actions, and they even believe He exists.

Krauss doesn't like the stacking of the deck with people who decide in advance that God exits and then declare that God made the universe. But what about the people who end up declaring that God made the universe after examining the evidence? Is its OK then? Antony Flew, who by no means is a straw-man, (he was a modern day Hume, and wrote the article on Miracles in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy saying that there isn't much evidence for them happening), looked at the evidence of the universe existing as proof there was a creator, while initially rejecting the idea of a God for a very long time.

The next few paragraphs of this quote has Krauss resolving the issue for God to create the universe by appealing to a "plausible" and "more physical solution" that "is logically more consistent". And what grand solution is there for everything in our entire universe to have come into being? The multiverse - how simple and plausible. Currently there is no evidence for the multiverse to exist* and therefore isn't this argument also appealing to something decided in advanced? Krauss asserts that there are many many (an infinite amount) more universes for our one to exist. Before this problem was about just one universe existing, now it has multiplied, increased in complexity (an infinite amount), and invoked even more physical stuff (an infinite amount) to exist in order to get our own universe to exist. It seems it is possible for Krauss to believe in an infinite and eternal substance(s) or thing(s).

Someone may ask if Krauss has heard of Occam's razor, and in fact Krauss defines it:
Occam’s razor suggests that, if some event is physically plausible, we don’t need recourse to more extraordinary claims for its being. Surely the requirement of an all powerful deity who somehow exists outside of our universe, or multiverse, while at the same time governing what goes on inside it, is one such claim. It should thus be a claim of last, rather than first, resort. (Chapter 9)
So here, God should be considered a last resort, but if the penultimate resort is a multiverse solution, then perhaps we should go with Ockham (who was a theist) in this case.

Related links
Science all way down - My thoughts on the preface of this book, before I had finished it.

* James Daniel Sinclair (Chapter 2 in Contending with Christianity's Critics), summaries his chapter on the multiverse theory with this (of cause he expanded on each of these points):
We have seen that an atheist multiverse is a plausible candidate if:
  1. There is hard proof, or at least good inference as a natural extrapolation, of an observationally tested theory. 
  2. Contrary positive evidence for a singular universe is weaker than said proof.
  3. There aren't additional tiebreakers (between Design & SAP) over and above observer survivability.
  4. It avoids “strong” multiverse theory, which makes all possible worlds actual, because this appears to entail God's presence in all possible worlds.
  5. It embraces strong multiverse theory as a form of MWI quantum mechanics and a means to avoid a transcendent Creator (by deconstructing time).
Atheist multiverse theory meets none of the possible conditions, and 4 and 5 are inherently incompatible.


  1. Thanks for the book overview Andrew. Hadn't heard of this one but looks very interesting.

    Like you I'm always perplexed by anyone who rejects any notion of God out of hand whilst insisting on multiple universes! Besides, based on your quote it looks to me like the author doesn't understand the concepts theologians use to describe God's relation to the physical universe. To dismiss any notion of transcendence as a mere 'semantic distinction' shows a severe lack of understanding of the concepts he is claiming to engage with.

    Just out of interest: does he present any theological explanations of God's relation to the universe before rejecting them? Does he mention any names?

  2. It sounds like he is saying its riduculous to talk of something outside the universe and then suggesting there may be a something outside the universe! But maybe thats my poor understanding. ANyway it sounds like an interesting book, thanks for the review &

  3. Matt,

    Just out of interest: does he present any theological explanations of God's relation to the universe before rejecting them? Does he mention any names?

    Of cause not! Theologians are not useful in these type of discussions (or any discussion really). See for yourself:

    I want to emphasize that this theory [having an infinite number of universes stacked up above a single point in our space, invisible to us, but each of which could exhibit remarkably different properties] is not as trivial as the theological musing of Saint Thomas Aquinas about whether several angels could occupy the same place, an idea that was derided by later theologians as fruitless speculations on how many angels could fit on the point of a needle—or most popularly, on the head of a pin. Aquinas actually answered this question himself by saying that more than one angel could not occupy the same space—of course, without any theoretical or experimental justification! (And if they were bosonic quantum angels, he would have been wrong in any case.) (Chapter 8)

    See, theologians waste their time talking about things they can not prove.... unlike multiverses ... oh wait...