Wednesday, 14 August 2013

A Critical Review of "A Universe From Nothing" by Lawrence Krauss

While atheism is simply a lack of belief in a god or supernatural deity, and not a religion, as many Christians allege, contemporary instantiations of atheism such as New Atheism not only veer into the realm of ideology, but tend to be evangelistic. The holy wars and schisms that characterise the movement, most notably the split over Elevatorgate, add weight to the observation that while atheism is not a religion or belief system, the movement that some non-theists have created is an ideology.

Ever since the Draper-White Conflict Model hypothesis of the relationship between science and religion was advanced [1] in the 19th century, non-theists have employed science as a rhetorical tool to deprecate theism. Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss in his latest work "A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing"  is clearly following this path, as can be seen by his inclusion of a vigorous afterward by the biologist Richard Dawkins which makes the following informed, restrained observation:

"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. If On the Origin of Species was biology's deadliest blow to supernaturalism, we may come to see A Universe From Nothing as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is devastating. [2]

Given that Dawkins, speaking as a biologist and ardent anti-theist is hardly an informed, disinterested participant, it is difficult to credit his opinion as being anything other than an atheist equivalent of the fervent 'Amen!' shouted during a sermon. More importantly, given that Krauss saw fit to allow Dawkins to write the afterward, indicated that Krauss' intentions ultimately are less about science and more about New Atheist apologetics.

But is it science? Well, yes and no. Quantum cosmology is hardly a fringe science, and the weight of expert opinion does suggest that it is well placed to provide us with an insight into the origins of our universe. However, there is a rather clumsy bait-and-switch being carried out here. When theists refer to a universe from nothing, we mean exactly that: nothing. The ultimate privative. The vacuum state in quantum field theory is hardly Nothing in the philosophical sense of the word, and as a  rule, when you catch a non-theist layperson using it in that way, it is a sure sign that you are dealing with someone well out of their depth, to put it charitably.

The first question that naturally springs to mind when confronted with a work of New Atheist apologetics such as "A Universe From Nothing" is to ask where do the laws of physics behind quantum field theory come from, or what these laws actually mean. As philosopher and physicist David Albert noted in a review of Krauss:
The fundamental laws of nature generally take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of that stuff are physically possible and which aren’t, or rules connecting the arrangements of that elementary stuff at later times to its arrangement at earlier times, or something like that. But the laws have no bearing whatsoever on questions of where the elementary stuff came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular elementary stuff it does, as opposed to something else, or to nothing at all. 
The fundamental physical laws that Krauss is talking about in “A Universe From Nothing” — the laws of relativistic quantum field theories — are no exception to this. The particular, eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world, according to the standard presentations of relativistic quantum field theories, consists (unsurprisingly) of relativistic quantum fields. And the fundamental laws of this theory take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of those fields are physically possible and which aren’t, and rules connecting the arrangements of those fields at later times to their arrangements at earlier times, and so on — and they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story. [3]
Not so fast. As mentioned earlier, a fundamental mistake is to conflate Nothing, with the vacuum state of a quantum field, particularly if one has an agenda that is contingent on this. Albert continues:
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 absenceof 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.
Krauss does, to his credit, acknowledge his ignorance about the origin of the laws of physics. Albert noted that:
Krauss is more or less upfront, as it turns out, about not having a clue about that. He acknowledges (albeit in a parenthesis, and just a few pages before the end of the book) that every­thing he has been talking about simply takes the basic principles of quantum mechanics for granted. “I have no idea if this notion can be usefully dispensed with,” he writes, “or at least I don’t know of any productive work in this regard.”
It would serve his more enthusiastic (if considerably less informed) acolytes well if they were this honest.


1. Historians of science have long dismissed the Conflict Hypothesis, regarding it as a tendentious interpretation of a complex problem. See for example Ronald Numbers' introduction in Ronald Numbers (Ed), Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Modern Myths About Science and Religion (Harvard University Press, 2009), p 1-6
2. Krauss L "A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing" (2012: Free Press) p 191
3. Albert D "On the Origin of Everything. 'A Universe From Nothing,' by Lawrence M. Krauss" New York Times Sunday Book Review March 23 2012