In the past, science was practiced by renaissance-type intellectuals who had a strong interest in philosophy. While the likes of Copernicus, Newton, Darwin and Einstein were no philosophic sages, they at least possessed an awareness of the limitations of science and understood that it had a context within the larger realm of philosophic thought. But this all changed when Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg came onto the scene and instigated the Copenhagen movement for interpreting quantum theory, an interpretation which gained an early foothold in the classrooms and has subsequently become the dominant paradigm ever since. The anti-causal, anti-logical nature of the Copenhagen interpretation succeeded in severing all connection between physics and philosophy.
As a result of this disconnection, physicists have lost their philosophic perspective and become entirely trapped within the scientific mentality, causing them to vastly overrate the philosophic importance of their work. Like air rushing into a vacuum, a collective hysteria has swept through the physics community, leading to numerous cosmologists and quantum physicists deceiving the public with wild, outlandish philosophic claims that are falsely presented as being supported by scientific theory and having the backing of the rest of the scientific community. If they are not staring into the mind of God, they are formulating the Theory of Everything, or unlocking the very fabric of reality, or discovering the God particle. It is as though the vagarities of the Copenhagen movement have given physicists permission to push away and ignore their intellectual conscience, allowing a kind of “anything goes” mentality to take over. Like kids suddenly being let out of school, they have been excitedly running amok with each trying to be more outlandish than the others.
Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist and author of popular scientific works, is the latest to be caught up in the hysteria. In 2009, he gave a lecture entitled, A Universe From Nothing, which garnered a lot of attention. A youtube clip of the lecture (featured below) went viral at the time and attracted over a million viewings, prompting Krauss to publish a book under the same title. The buzz that was created was largely driven by followers of the New Atheist movement (of which Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are leading figures) who saw the lecture as a powerful piece of anti-religious polemic, and indeed Krauss has since openly aligned himself with the atheistic movement by teaming up with Richard Dawkins to give talks and participate in debates for the purpose of promoting atheism and science.
The lecture (and book) also caused a stir within academic philosophic circles, partly because Krauss is openly dismissive of philosophy and partly because Krauss’s own utilization of philosophic concepts are badly executed. Critics have accused him of being arrogant, anti-intellectual, anti-philosophical, unnecessarily provocative, and even deceptive. I will use this blog to add my voice to this chorus, although I will be coming to it from a different angle than most. My main interest in Krauss is that he is a representative member of the modern physics community and thus an example of what happens to an otherwise intelligent man when he loses his philosophic perspective and falls into hysteria.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with my work, I would like to stress that I have no interest in religion (I support Krauss and Dawkins in their attacks on religious fundamentalism), nor in academic philosophy (I agree with Krauss that academic philosophy, for the most part, is a waste of time). My interest lies in what can loosely be described as “spiritual philosophy”, which is neither religious nor academic in nature, and involves worshipping rationality in all aspects of existence, including every nook and cranny of one’s personal life. Thus, in writing this blog, I am representing those rare thinkers of the past – such as Socrates, Diogenes, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Nagarjuna, Huang Po, Hakuin, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche – who took reason seriously and applied it relentlessly to expose and reject everything that was false in their lives, both personally and professionally. In other words, the true atheists.
In any case, here is the infamous lecture by Krauss. The clip is about an hour long:
The first thing that strikes you when watching this video is that the title, A Universe From Nothing, conflicts with the actual content of the lecture and is misleading on a number of fronts. In particular, it is clear that the words “Universe” and “Nothing” are not being used in the conventional manner. The “Universe” is commonly defined to be the totality of everything that exists or can exist, but in physics, and therefore with Krauss, the word has adopted a considerably lesser meaning. What he calls the “Universe” is simply the observable cosmos, the small expanding space-time bubble in which we live, one of possibly countless other space-time bubbles within a larger reality called the “Multiverse”. In other words, the “Universe” in physics has come to mean a mere portion of the Totality, and not the Totality itself.
The word “nothing”, in turn, is also given a strange, unconventional meaning (19:40 in the video). For most people, “nothing” in the purest sense of the word means nothing whatsoever. It means the complete and utter absence of all existences, forms, properties, states, laws, potentialities, etc. It is the complete antithesis of “something” in every respect. But this evidently does not suit Krauss, for he decides to redefine the word to mean something else entirely – namely, a quantum vacuum which consists of a “boiling, bubbling brew of virtual particles popping in and out of existence at a time-scale so short you can’t see them” (20:19). In essence, he constructs a facade of nothing which he presents to the public, only to sneakily slip a form of “something” in through the back door.
Krauss attempts to justify this bizarre use of the word “nothing” by arguing that modern cutting-edge physics has changed our view of what nothingness is, that the old idea of it being nothing whatsoever has to be abandoned. But that is clearly rubbish. The concept of “nothing” is like the mathematical concept of “zero” in that you cannot modify or tweak it without utterly destroying it. As soon as you try to tweak “nothing”, however slightly, it automatically ceases to be nothing and instantly slides into the other camp, into the realm of “something”.
If Krauss was to go around telling mathematicians that the latest cutting-edge physics shows that zero no longer equals zero, but instead equals, say, 0.0043, he would be quickly laughed out of his profession. His reputation as a credible thinker would vanish. And yet that is exactly what he is attempting to do with the concept of nothing. He isolates a particular subset of “something” (i.e. the quantum vacuum) and arbitrarily defines it to be nothing. He only gets away with it because the people he generally hangs around with are scientists who also don’t give a toss about anything other than science. It is all part of the “anything goes” mentality which currently afflicts the physics community.
Just the idea of altering definitions for ostensibly “scientific reasons” should be regarded with a great deal of skepticism. Imagine if a group of leading biologists with a militant social agenda were to start advocating that the definition of a “human being” should be changed to exclude blonde, blue-eyed Germans on account that they were missing a particular gene that the rest of the human race possessed. What would be your response? Wouldn’t you instantly smell a rat? I don’t see how Krauss’s attempt to redefine nothing is any different. There is a hidden agenda at play and it is not scientific. The agenda, at root, is to make cosmology seem more philosophically significant than it is.
Given that the “Universe” does not really mean the Totality, and “Nothing” does not really mean nothing, then by rights Krauss’s book should really be called, “Our local environment within the larger body of reality comes from something else.” Or if it needs to be more catchy: “Nothing New Here, Business as Usual”. It might not attract as much attention, but at least it would be honest. Curiously, Krauss seems half-aware that it is all a sham. In another video on youtube which features Krauss and Dawkins conversing at the Australian National University, he admits that when he puts his “educator’s hat” on and gives lectures about modern cosmology he does not mind being provocative with his language (1:28:20). His aim, he says, is to seduce people into taking an interest in science and if that means using misleading philosophic language to mess with their heads, then so be it. In other words, he admits that he deliberately participates in a confidence trick. It is the first time I have ever seen a physicist being so open about it, so I will grudgingly give him some credit for that.
This raises the question of whether Krauss is not only seducing and deceiving the general public, but also his scientific colleagues as well. Richard Dawkins, for example, seems to have become positively awestruck by the idea that something can come from nothing, and he even endorses Krauss’s book, A Universe From Nothing, in a glowing afterword:
Do the laws and constants of physics look like a finely tuned put-up job, designed to bring us into existence? Do you think some agent must have caused everything to start? Read Victor Stenger if you can’t see what’s wrong with arguments like that. Read Steven Weinberg, Peter Atkins, Martin Rees, Stephen Hawking. And now we can read Lawrence Krauss for what looks to me like the knockout blow. 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.
Yet things are rarely straightforward in real life. Dawkins appeared on Australian television earlier this year and there he was rather less confident about the matter:
At 27:35, Dawkins states, “Lawrence Krauss calls the substrate of his explanations ‘nothing’. It is possible to dispute whether ‘nothing’ is quite the right word, but whatever it is, it is going to be very, very simple and therefore is a worthy premise for an explanation – whereas a god, a creative intelligence, is not a worthy substrate for an explanation because it is already very complicated”. So here we see Dawkins backing away from his original stance that the title A Universe From Nothing means exactly what it says. He now seems to be hedging his bets. The Nothing is now possibly a Something. A very simple Something perhaps, but still a Something. In prevaricating like this, Dawkins is effectively conceding that modern cosmology is as far away from resolving the origins of Nature as ever (from now on I will be using the word “Nature” to mean the totality of all there is). Thus, far from being the “knock-out blow” against theology, Dawkins unwittingly affirms that Krauss’s punch is limited and weak, and far from being dead and buried, theology is allowed to climb back up from the deck once more.
Atheists are quick to pounce on religious people for postulating “God” as the ultimate explanation for the existence of Nature. As they correctly point out, such a postulation does not achieve anything as this new thing called “God” is itself in need of explanation. The goal posts have merely been shifted from a thing called the “Universe” to a thing called “God”, with nothing being resolved in the process. Or to put it more succinctly, any postulated God would necessarily be a part of Nature (again, defined as the totality of all there is). In a similar way, if Krauss wants to push the idea that the quantum vacuum is the ultimate explanation of Nature, then the existence of the quantum vacuum itself will need explaining. Trying to airbrush this quantum vacuum into nothingness is a cute way to try and remove the need for an explanation, but I doubt that it will convince anyone in the long run.
Perhaps he is getting old, but Dawkins is somehow failing to see that as far as the ultimate explanation of Nature is concerned, it does not matter if the quantum vacuum turns out to be simple or not. That is entirely irrelevant. It will still be a form of something and thus will still be in need of explanation. In fact, this goes to the heart of why science will never be able to uncover the ultimate explanation of Nature. For as soon as you assert “something” to be the ultimate explanation of Nature, no matter what this “something” is or how simple it might be, it automatically disqualifies itself on the grounds that it too is a part of Nature.
From a purely logical standpoint, there are only two possibilities concerning the origins of Nature. It either stretches back forever into the beginningless past, or it popped into being out of nothing whatsoever at some point. In other words, it either had an absolute beginning or no beginning at all. And science utterly lacks the capacity to deal with either possibility.
If Nature stretches back forever, then no one, not even a great physicist, can isolate a first cause. For there would be no first cause. In such a context, science will always remain a limited phenomenon, a collection of concepts and equations that might be efficient at mapping a small portion of Nature, but which can only look on wistfully as the rest of Nature spreads endlessly beyond its sights. Physics would no longer be the puffed-up aristocratic scientific discipline that probes at the very fundamentals of reality, but rather a local science concerned with the immediate environment and not much else. It would be a mere blip in an endless sea of reality.
On the other hand, if Nature had an absolute beginning, then no one, not even a great physicist, will be able to formulate an explanation. Contrary to what some people say, science cannot deal with a state of pure nothingness in which all causes are entirely absent. The very premise of science, its raison d’être, is the investigation of causes. If thousands of years ago the human race had simply decided to believe that everything they experienced just popped into existence out of nothing whatsoever, then science would never have got off the ground in the first place. No amount of scientific theorizing, no matter how mathematically sophisticated, can deal with a reality that has things popping into existence out of nowhere without rhyme or reason.
Not even the probabilistic theories of quantum mechanics can deal with pure nothingness. Quantum theory can only work as a predictive tool because there are regularities in the quantum realm for it to measure, and regularities can only exist because the quantum vacuum is not pure nothingness, but a realm in which causal forces (in whatever form) are at play. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics asserts that there are no such forces, but if that was really the case then we would not be seeing the same handful of particles constantly arising (electrons, protons, quarks, etc), complete with the same recognizable qualities of mass and spin and so on, and we would not be seeing these particles constantly appearing in the expected areas in line with the probability distribution curves. Instead, there would be an infinite array of unique forms appearing all over the place, with little or no repetition at all. The very attempt to create probability distribution curves under such a scenario would be useless. It would be like trying to model white noise.
So if it really was the case that Nature just popped into existence out of nothing whatsoever, without rhyme or reason, then no scientific explanation of any kind can be formulated. “It just happened” would be the considered verdict and that would be the end of the matter. In the lecture above, Krauss tries to get around this dilemma by saying that the nothingness he talks about is unstable. “Why is there something rather nothing?”, he asks (40:34), before answering: “There had to be. If you have nothing in quantum mechanics, you will always get something”. Or to paraphrase: “I dunno, it just happens.”
This fact alone, that science cannot deal with Nature either having a beginning or not having a beginning, demonstrates that science is incapable of providing the ultimate explanation of things. The greatest minds of each generation could conceivably spend the next ten million years single-mindedly building larger telescopes, inventing more finely-tuned observational devices, developing ever more sophisticated conceptual models, making breakthrough after breakthrough in cosmology and quantum mechanics, constantly pushing back the boundaries of what can be observed in Nature – and even then, after all that time, they still will not have advanced a single inch towards reaching an ultimate understanding of things. Why? Because it is the wrong tool for the job. Science can no more provide an ultimate explanation of things than reading the Bible can provide meaningful scientific theories.
You only have to look at the way scientists today can find support for a wild variety of philosophical and religious beliefs from current cosmological theories. Cosmologists can look at the same scientific data and see Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, atheism, theism, agnosticism, and even pagan gods staring out of its patterns. In effect, modern cosmology, along with quantum physics, has become a glorified Rorschach ink blot onto which people can project any kind of religious or philosophic belief they want. As a constructed realm of ambiguity, perhaps only the Bible can rival it. Indeed, modern physics has in many respects become the new Bible, and Krauss and Dawkins are just another couple of scientists who, armed with their own personal baggage, biases and gripes, have dipped into it and “seen” their own non-scientific belief in atheism reflecting back at them.
As far as philosophy is concerned, science will always remain nothing more than a glorified Rorschach ink blot. Unless it radically changes its nature and abandons the scientific method, this will always be the case. It is one of the inherent limitations of science. This is why I am always puzzled and amused whenever I hear physicists talking about their search for the Theory of Everything. Of course, with scientists and their god-given habit of redefining common words, the “Everything” they talk about does not really mean everything, and their search for the Theory of Everything usually refers to the more technical goal of uncovering a consistent set of laws or equations that can describe all of the processes that physicists observe in the universe. But there are still some physicists who have grander aims and continue to hope that cosmology will one day uncover the ultimate explanation of things. What they do not realize, however, is that in order to find the ultimate explanation of things one has to leave science behind and enter the realm of pure logic.
The human race already knows the Theory of Everything and has known about it for thousands of years. It is there staring at us in the face in every single moment of our lives, but like all great truths it can sometimes be too obvious and too simple for people to see. The great Theory of Everything, the kernel truth that explains the existence of all things, the core process which creates everything that you are and everything that you experience, is none other than: cause and effect.
To get a handle on what I mean by cause and effect, think of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, but tweak it so that it becomes simpler, broader and more wide-ranging, such that it embraces not only all forms of life, but all forms of non-life as well. Whether it be billiard balls crashing into each other, or the plasma movements inside stars, or the neurons firing inside the brain to create conscious thought, or the fluctuations occurring within the quantum vacuum, cause and effect is always in operation. It is the key process behind all processes. Blind, aimless, relentless, it never sleeps.
Everything is explained with this simple principle alone. Indeed, it is the simplest and most elegant explanation imaginable. And what’s more, no other explanation is possible. Any attempt to create an alternative explanation will always assume cause and effect and make use of it. Whether it be a religious person positing a God or a divine force to explain the Universe, or a physicist positing a quantum vacuum or a set of laws, cause and effect will always be at the heart of it. All other explanations are essentially cause and effect fleshed out into more complicated forms. If you were to boil them back down to their essence, then only cause and effect would remain. Cause and effect is always the core explanation (the trunk), while religious beliefs and scientific theories are the decorative, incomplete descriptions of certain kinds of causal processes that are observed in the world (the branches).
Of course, it is the fashion these days to think of cause and effect as an out-dated concept. And what is an intellectual but a slave to fashion? Many people seem to think that David Hume cast doubt on cause and effect back in the 18th century, while quantum mechanics more recently hammered the final blow. But they are wrong on both counts. David Hume did argue, correctly, that we can never be sure about what actually causes what in the observable universe. We might throw a glass against the wall and watch it smash into pieces, and we might naturally conclude that the glass hitting the wall was the cause of it being smashed, but we can never be 100% sure that the two events are that tightly linked. For all we know, the glass might have been smashed by a ray gun operated by aliens from outer space. But in pointing this out, Hume is not really undermining the concept of cause and effect as such, not as a logical principle at least. He is not saying that things come from nothing. He affirms that they do come from somewhere. We just cannot be sure exactly where.
In other words, Hume’s argument is directed towards the inherent limitations of empirical observation and affirms the obvious truth that the scientific method can never uncover any knowledge that possesses absolute certainty. It does not address the deeper, more logical conception of causality. The logical proof of causality ultimately stems from recognizing that nothing can exist of its own accord, independently of other things. Unfortunately, there is not enough space in this blog to go into this matter properly, but for those who are interested I have outlined the logical nature of cause and effect in some detail in a book called Wisdom of the Infinite.
As for quantum mechanics, I dealt with this earlier. The truth is, no one really understands quantum theory and what its implications are. Even its leading researchers admit they do not really understand it. “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics”, said the great physicist, Richard Feynman. It is a glorified Rorschach ink blot in and of itself. Whatever philosophic conclusions you extract from it depends on what assumptions you plug into it. The Copenhaganists plug in the assumption that quantum mechanics is a complete theory and lo and behold, uncausality pops out as a result. The many-worldists assume that the universal wave function is objectively real and does not collapse upon observation and lo and behold, causality pops out again. Clearly, as a philosophic device for discerning truth, quantum theory is useless. And besides, regardless of whatever assumptions physicists care to plug into the system, the fact still remains that quantum mechanics is a remarkably accurate predictive tool – indeed, it possesses an accuracy that is “equivalent to predicting the distance between New York and Los Angeles to within one hairsbreadth”, to quote Feynman again – which automatically implies that the quantum realm is a highly regulated one. The quantum realm is clearly deterministic in the sense that it is composed of causal forces, even though it may be indeterministic in the sense that the old models of classical physics cannot follow what is going on down there.
It might be objected that cause and effect is a useless explanation since it cannot be used to make predictions or be falsified by the scientific method. While that is true, it does not automatically make it useless. Cause and effect is a philosophic explanation, not a scientific one. If you want to make predictions, then you have to devise and utilize the appropriate scientific theories. If you want to find the core philosophic explanation of why anything exists at all, then you need to leave science behind and philosophically reason your way to cause and effect. That is the choice you have. It is either one or the other. You cannot have a theory that does both. While the philosophic truth of cause and effect is indeed limited in that it cannot be used to make specific predictions about the future, scientific theorizing is equally limited in that it can never provide the ultimate explanation of things. They both represent two different fields of expertise, with each focused on two different forms of knowledge. And they are both perfectly compatible with one another. To affirm the one does not require us to negate the other. Both Dawkins and Krauss make the mistake of assuming that absolute certainty of any kind is a threat to the open-endedness of scientific theorizing. But then, they are so ignorant about non-scientific matters and so spooked by religious people that they have lost the ability to distinguish between religion and philosophy.
To repeat, if you want predictions, do science. If you want explanation, do philosophy. If you want to avoid both, do religion.
In my experience, religious people are just as repelled by the principle of cause and effect as scientists are. They do not see any value in it either. It is too cold and impersonal for them. It does not promise any security in this life, nor any kind of heaven in the next. Just as cause and effect is not a scientific explanation, it is not a religious one either. However, truth is truth and should never be ignored just because you do not like it. Regardless of what scientists and religious people want to believe, cause and effect remains the only ultimate explanation there can ever be.
I found it interesting that in the first video above, A Universe From Nothing, Krauss talks candidly about “the most poetic thing he knows” about the Universe (16:25-17:25), which is that the atoms in our bodies come from dead stars, and that the atoms in our right hand could well have come from different stars to the atoms in our left hand. What is interesting to me is that Krauss here comes close to an awareness of cause and effect in a deeper, more existential sense and it seems to affect him profoundly, so much so that it was probably one of the contributing factors that led him to take up cosmology in the first place. But instead of becoming more directly conscious of cause and effect via philosophic reasoning, he took a tangential path away from this insight and became a scientist instead. And now he tries to rekindle that feeling through the indirect means of physics and mathematics, which allows him to gain the occasional glimpse of causality from a safe distance.
I mentioned earlier that modern cosmology, and indeed science in general, is like a Rorschach ink blot onto which people can project any religious or philosophical theory they like. We can think of the entire realm of science as a loose collection (or splotches) of complicated formulations of cause and effect, with plenty of gaps in between these various splotches, as well as a large gap between the splotches as a whole and the root principle of cause and effect. It is by exploiting these gaps that people can insert their religion. They can project a belief in God into these gaps if they want, or they can project atheism. And this is only made possible because people everywhere, including scientists and academics from all over the world, have intellectually and existentially removed themselves from the principle of cause and effect as far as humanly possible. They created the gaps to begin with and now they instinctively do everything they can to maintain them.
This is why the likes of Krauss and Dawkins appear insane in my eyes, and why their atheistic crusade is little more than a futile parody that actually encourages the growth of religion, rather than the opposite. By constantly affirming that science is the only valid means of gaining meaningful knowledge about the world, they are in effect affirming that all we ever have access to are Rorschach ink blots – which in turn preserves the gaps for religious people to exploit. So in the guise of trying to eliminate religion, they are actually helping to support it. If they were not so firmly entrenched in their scientific mindset, they would easily perceive this. But as with most scientists these days, they have lost their philosophic perspective and hence they are unable to see anything of any real note.
On the other hand, perhaps they do sense their own irrationality on some level. There is, after all, an element of violence to the way Krauss and Dawkins conduct themselves in their battle to counter religion, and there is a violence to the way they grasp tightly to their Rorschach ink blots. It brings to mind the image of the homophobic male who is quick to lash out at gay people as a way to distance himself from the nagging thought that he himself might be gay. Perhaps they do need religious people around, after all, in order to maintain their own belief that they are rational human beings. It is very easy to appear rational if all you do is constantly compare yourself to the Mormons, the Creation Scientists and their like.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, despite outward appearances, Krauss and Dawkins harbour no real desire to eliminate religion from the world. For that would mean having to face up to their own irrationality. If they were truly rational and genuinely serious about gaining knowledge of the world, then they would not be closing their minds to philosophy and the realm of logical truth. The fact that they seem to have no awareness at all that such a source of knowledge exists, not even the slightest inkling of it, shows that their minds are ultimately just as rigid and close-minded as the religious people they attack.
If the human race were to fully embrace cause and effect, both intellectually as the core explanation of everything, and existentially as the “stuff” out of which every aspect of their personal lives is composed, religion would quickly become a thing of the past. It is only by embracing cause and effect that one can truly go beyond all religion. It is the most atheistic of all activities and also the most spiritual. For spirituality is nothing other than atheism pushed to the extreme.
The question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is wrongly framed because it falsely assumes there is something to begin with. While Nature is obviously not nothing whatsoever (on account that we appear to exist and have experiences), it does not automatically mean that Nature is a something. Both categories are inaccurate in this case. Only things within Nature are capable of existing and not-existing, whereas Nature itself (the totality of all there is) is capable of neither. To put it crudely, Nature does not have the ability to coalesce into a form of some kind. For if it ever did, it would immediately cease to be Nature as a whole and instead just be another thing within Nature.
Nature is “unborn, and therefore ever-living”, as the sagely Lao Tzu once said.
A Universe From Nothing?, Sean Carroll
Nuthin’ to Explain, Victor J. Stenger
An Explanation from Nothing?, philocosmology