A debate on the substance of nothing

Ross Andersen has a superb interview with the theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss at the Atlantic’s site. Krauss’s recent book A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing has, by design, kicked up a controversy. Krauss argues in the book that science is now “addressing the question of why there is something rather than nothing” and that, indeed, recent scientific discoveries in this area “all suggest that getting something from nothing is not a problem.” In his afterword to the book, Richard Dawkins writes, “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.” In a New York Times review last month, the Columbia University philosopher David Albert begged to differ, writing that Krauss is “dead wrong.” Albert argued that what Krauss claims is “nothing” – in short, “empty space” – is actually something and that, therefore, Krauss’s explanation does not “amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.” In the Atlantic interview, Krauss calls Albert “a moronic philosopher.”

Fun stuff.

But important stuff, too. As Andersen writes, “To see two academics, both versed in theoretical physics, disagreeing so intensely on such a fundamental point is troubling. Not because scientists shouldn’t disagree with each other, but because here they’re disagreeing about a claim being disseminated to the public as a legitimate scientific discovery.” More than that, they’re arguing about whether non-scientific approaches to explaining or even contemplating the origin of the cosmos – not just theological approaches, but also philosophical ones – still have any legitimacy. Krauss has little regard for philosophy, as he makes clear at the outset of the interview:

Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, “those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.” And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; … it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension [between science and philosophy] occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.

And yet – and this is testimony to Andersen’s skill as a questioner – as the interview proceeds Krauss begins to sound as much like a philosopher (a philosopher of science, even) as a scientist:

Andersen: I think the problem for me, coming at this as a layperson, is that when you’re talking about the explanatory power of science, for every stage where you have a “something” – even if it’s just a wisp of something, or even just a set of laws – there has to be a further question about the origins of that “something.” And so when I read the title of your book, I read it as “questions about origins are over.”

Krauss: Well, if that hook gets you into the book that’s great. But in all seriousness, I never make that claim. In fact, in the preface I tried to be really clear that you can keep asking “Why?” forever. At some level there might be ultimate questions that we can’t answer, but if we can answer the “How?” questions, we should, because those are the questions that matter. And it may just be an infinite set of questions, but what I point out at the end of the book is that the multiverse may resolve all of those questions. From Aristotle’s prime mover to the Catholic Church’s first cause, we’re always driven to the idea of something eternal. If the multiverse really exists, then you could have an infinite object – infinite in time and space as opposed to our universe, which is finite. That may beg the question as to where the multiverse came from, but if it’s infinite, it’s infinite. You might not be able to answer that final question, and I try to be honest about that in the book.

The universe is still big enough to accommodate both scientists and philosophers – and even philosophical scientists and scientific philosophers. I suspect it will remain that way for some time yet.

UPDATE: Two more perspectives:

At the Huffington Post, Victor Senger writes:

Albert is not satisfied that Krauss has answered the fundamental question: Why there is something rather than nothing, that is, being rather than nonbeing? Again, there is a simple retort: Why should nothing, no matter how defined, be the default state of existence rather than something? And, to bring religion into the picture, one could ask: Why is there God rather than nothing? Once theologians assert that there is a God (as opposed to nothing), they can’t turn around and ask a cosmologist why there is a universe (as opposed to nothing). They claim God is a necessary entity. But then, why can’t a godless multiverse be a necessary entity?

And here’s John Horgan, at Scientific American:

Science has told us so much about our world! We now understand, more or less, what reality is made of and what forces push and pull the stuff of existence to and fro. Scientists have also constructed a plausible, empirically founded narrative of the history of the cosmos and of life on Earth. But when scientists insist that they have solved, or will soon solve, all mysteries, including the biggest mystery of all, they do a disservice to science; they become the mirror images of the religious fundamentalists they despise.

And let’s not forget Wallace Stevens’s portrait of the man

… who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

One thought on “A debate on the substance of nothing

  1. Sprague Dawley

    While it is always encouraging to see intellectual concerns addressed soberly in this medium (academic name calling notwithstanding), I stumbled on this statement by Andersen: “Because the story of modern cosmology has such deep implications for the way that we humans see ourselves and the universe…” I can think of nothing, in this age, that has fewer implications for how we define ourselves than cosmology. The statement seemed itself to be an article of faith, written by an acolyte of an expiring order.

Comments are closed.