How the universe began ≠ why the universe began

As I teased earlier, cosmologist Lawrence Krauss and astrophysicist Rodney Holder engaged in a conversation about cosmological origins on Unbelievable over the weekend. It was an entertaining though not altogether surprising debate, confirming my impression of Krauss’s book. I have not read it, but as I always say in these scenarios, reading the book is not a prerequisite for commenting on what the author says is the point and thrust of his own book. This is not a review of the book; it’s a review of some of Krauss’s ideas and his presentation of those ideas, which are presumably not that different from those argued in his book.

But I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the real, if you wish, miracle that people seem to think requires the existence of God is that you can create a universe full of stuff, full of stars, planets, humans, remarkable things out of nothing, literally where there were no stars, particle, space, etc. And that particular “miracle” is something that the laws of physics certainly has plausible explanations for.

If this summarized Lawrence Krauss’s book A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing as well as he claims it does, I doubt I would have any major problem with it. I like eliminating the god of the gaps as much as anyone. But Krauss and his New Atheist compadres have bigger ideas for his book than just that.

At one point in the interview he says, “The key, fascinating thing to try to understand is how we got this amazing universe and how you don’t need a Creator; you don’t need someone to obviate the laws of physics to produce it.” In the book Krauss offers a few variations on how to answer the question of the universe’s origin. This would indeed problematize the cosmological argument, especially when the latter is being used as a proof rather than as a pointer; in science, the more plausible mundane explanations are available to contend with a counter-intuitive explanation, the less likely the counter-intuitive explanation (here, a divine miracle) appears. But Krauss’s interlocutor for this debate was less than convinced that his explanations were compelling enough to make natural theology an entirely superfluous supposition.

Holder, a former priest and a current astrophysicist, argues that in attempting to settle the philosopher’s quandary about the universe’s creation from nothing, Krauss does not properly begin with nothing. Indeed, in the interview, Krauss speaks of this or that conceived pre-Universe state as “approaching” the “philosophers’ nothing“. Holder is not convinced: “He’s ontologized this nothing.” In one model under consideration, Holder points out that Krauss is not beginning with the absence of anything, but a quantum vaccuum. Krauss did not argue with this point.

Holder then noted that even under an alternative model discussed in the book beginning with an actual “absence of space,” Krauss speaks of this nothing as having properties, which would disqualify that lack of space from being the philosophers’ nothing: “…It has the property of being unstable; it has the property of being able to be acted upon by quantum fields and gravity and so on.”  Krauss objected that those things did not exist in that model: rather, there is a “metaverse” in which there is potential for those things to exist. Rejoined Holder, even the potential is not nothing. The existence of potential is still existence.

This prompted a pointed response from Krauss: “If the universe didn’t have the potential to exist, then how did God create it?” Krauss seemed similarly bothered by the “why? why? why?” question, to which he expected the answer, “turtles all the way down:” that is, if we persist on asking “why this created object?” until we get to an eternal object, we could still always ask “why that eternal object?” And like Dawkins, Krauss maintains that we could do this with the existence of God, as well.

Holder launched into an explanation of God as a necessary being, claiming that most scientists hold that the universe, on the other hand, is contingent. I consider that this difference in types of existence can conceivably be squared with apophatic theology of the Cappadocian variety, which despite on the surface maintaining that God Himself does not exist (and does exist) is really arguing that God has an existence of an altogether different kind than the way we can conceive of existence; He is the very basis for the kind of existence we are familiar with. Holder mentions Hawking’s discussion of what “breathes fire into equations.”

Another point in the book that Krauss wanted to point out is that the laws of physics creating and sustaining the universe could themselves be generated naturally. Holder didn’t repudiate the idea, but he apparently still wants to take it back one more step, asking why these particular laws exist: “So there can be the most wonderful theory, but why is this theory even instantiated?” They did not go far down this road in this discussion, but I wish they had had the time to!

One thing they did have the time to get into was the question of the value of philosophy.

Krauss stated his belief that physics has begun to answer the questions that used to be the domain of theology and philosophy. He argues that the philosophers’ distinction between something and nothing have been shown to be irrelevant distinctions under science’s microscope (note that in answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing, Krauss in effect wants to deny the premise of the question). Although he occasionally equivocates on this, it certainly appears as though Krauss wants to bookend Sam Harris’s The End of Faith with The End of Philosophy.

Many philosophers are up at arms against Krauss for dismissing philosophy as increasingly irrelevant in his empiricist’s world of logical positivism, as he does in this interview (he admits that he “discounted” a recent scathing NY Times review because it was by a philosopher rather than a cosmologist). But this is not just some unfortunate parasite intruding on Krauss’s project. As fellow scientist (and atheist) Sean Carroll judiciously pointed out, this is at the core of Krauss’s project: as stated explicitly in this debate, Krauss believes that physics has demonstrated that the question of why is no longer more scientifically interesting than the question of why flowers differ in color. What Krauss is saying is that answering how, i.e. mechanical explanations, make irrelevant the question why, i.e. the question of meaning or purpose.

We can see the folly of approaching why as a how question in much smaller endeavors. If a man presented to his wife a beautiful oil painting he had created out of a spontaneous act of devotion to her, he would be wronged if she dismissed it as the ultimately meaningless result of oil smeared across canvas. In fact, the more brilliant and beautiful the painting, the more poignant its higher purpose would be to her.

More to the point, if my son were to ask me, “Why do I have to get a painful shot?” and I answered, “Because the needle triggers the pain receptors in your arm,” I have misheard his question as “what makes a shot painful?” rather than “why do I need to undergo this painful shot?” Similarly, answering “why does the universe exist?” as Krauss does is no different than if he had heard the question as “what makes the universe exist?” which of course an entirely different question than the one memorably posed by Leibnitz. Answering how manifestly does not render the question of why irrelevant. It is on this point that I agree with Gould’s NOMA principle: science seeks to answer how where philosophy and theology seek to answer why, and despite all of the efforts of Krauss and special creationists, both disciplines are ill-equipped to answer the other’s question.

This is why I’d be happy enough for Krauss’s book to completely decimate the cosmological argument. I don’t need it. I don’t need God to stand in that gap. But don’t try to tell me that knowing how something is accomplished in any way abolishes any attached purpose or meaning behind it, no matter how brilliantly or exhaustively you explain the how‘s.

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  • NW


    Did you not read the scathing review of Krauss’ book in the Times?  Basically, Krauss is playing off an equivocation, as it turns out we might able to give an account of how an older definition of the “physical universe” (i.e. the sum total of physical particles) can come into existence from an older definition of “nothing” (i.e. the absence of physical particles); however, the theory he uses to achieve this result redefines the notions of “physical universe” and “nothing” in such a way that it can no longer give an account of how the “physical universe” can come from “nothing” as defined by the theory.  Basically, the whole argument is a fraudulent play on words, like Anselm’s ontological argument.

    • I purposefully limited my comments to evaluating those contentions of Krauss that he had a chance to respond to in this interview because 1) I haven’t read the book and so I don’t want to review a review, 2) Krauss (along with Carroll, who is overall critical of Krauss’s work here) does not believe that the review addresses the scientific data accurately, and 3) I wouldn’t know if it did or did not. 🙂

      But the play on words aspect you describe is certainly consonant with the critique made by Holder in the interview, to which Krauss gave no very convincing reply. Thanks for the input!

      • NW


        As a professional mathematician whose thought about some of the rather sophisticated mathematics that goes into these theories I can assure you that the critique is indeed sound.  When Carroll and Krauss confess to not having a clue about where the “laws of quantum mechanics” come from they are not wondering where some abstract mathematical equations come from but where the elementary physical stuff whose rich physical structure is described by those laws comes from (they don’t put it this way for a reason).  Krauss, and to a lesser extent Carroll in his blog post, is playing off the ignorance of the public when discussing these matters.

        Bottom line, as much as Carroll, Krauss, and their ilk hate to admit it, the empirical investigation of the world cannot demonstrate their a priori metaphysical commitments (i.e. the physical world is all that exists) nor can it replace the work of philosophy classically understood.