Physicist Lawrence Krauss has attracted a lot of attention with his claim that the universe could have sprung into existence from nothing. His lecture for AAI (Atheist Alliance International), introduced by Richard Dawkins, has been viewed 1.3 million times on YouTube. Now he has published a short book, again with an afterword by Dawkins.
Krauss argues that a quantum relativistic field is inherently unstable, and exactly the kind of thing that would bring forth a universe. That seems intuitively likely to me, although I obviously can't comment on the scientific arguments, which take up 95% of the text.
It's the other 5% which interests me. Krauss's goal is atheistic: he explicitly aims to knock away the First Cause argument, which he takes to be a pillar of religious faith. If the universe can be shown to have created itself from nothing, then there is no need for a creator god.
Actually the idea isn't new - another physicist and sceptic, Victor Stenger, has been banging this drum for a while. But Krauss's ability to get people's attention is exciting the atheist warriors, who seem to think he has really cracked it. 'Knockout blow', says Richard Dawkins. 'As it turns out, everything has a lot to do with nothing - and nothing to do with God (Sam Harris). 'The triumph of physics over metaphysics, reason and enquiry over obfuscation and myth, made plain for all to see' (A.C. Grayling).
Dawkins adds in his afterword:
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 biologists' 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.
A lot of people have pointed out the flaw in the argument, however. The 'nothing' that Krauss talks about is, in both theological and philosophical terms, already 'something'. A 'nothing' that has properties, and can be described as being unstable - and indeed, the kind of thing that is highly likely to produce 'something' - is very far from being 'nothing'. On the contrary, it is a very definite 'something'.
So the book has generated a lot of heat, of the usual impassioned kind. Even some generally sceptical scientists like Jerry Coyne have problems with it. The charge is led by David Albert, a philosophy professor with a Ph.D in physics, in a quite hostile review in the New York Times.
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 absence of 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.
Krauss seems to anticipate this come-back, sort of. He deals with it in the book in rather grudging asides. The question 'why is there something rather than nothing' is 'intellectually bankrupt', mere semantics, he claims. It's no more significant than asking why some flowers are red and some are blue. It used to be the domain of theologians and philosophers, but they've had their day, and now it's the turn of scientists, who are vastly better equipped to deal with it.
As a last resort, he concedes, the problem might justify a 'deistic' view of nature (of the kind that was briefly adopted by some thinkers in the eighteenth century). That's OK, just so long as we understand that this 'deity' is very far from the gods of the world's great religions, and isn't remotely interested in our doings. He concludes:
Either way, what's useful is not pondering this question, but rather participating in the exciting voyage of discovery that may reveal how the universe in which we live evolved and is evolving...That is why we have science.
It strikes me that this inability of scientists to accept the idea of 'nothing' - in its fullest sense, is closely analogous to the problems sceptics have with psi. It's a conceptual dead-end, a barrier that they can't get past. If they yield to it, it would represent the final triumph of mystery and uncertainty over the capacity of the human mind, harnessed to scientific thinking, to conquer all mystery. And this mystery must be vanquished, because it is exploited by wicked supernaturalists, to fuddle people's minds and cause evil.
I can understand why they should want to use this 'something from nothing' formula as atheistic propaganda - as part of their campaign to rid the world of the virus of religion. But I'd like to think that, in their heart of hearts, they know that there's a question here that science is not remotely capable of answering. What really worries me is that they don't, and that they actually believe this idea. In that case, there's no common ground on which to base a dialogue: we're in different conceptual worlds.
For me, Krauss's argument only goes to confirm Stephen Jay Gould's famous definition of science and religion as 'non-overlapping magisteria'. It's partly what Gould was talking about, and what atheists like Harris, who considers Gould's position 'doomed', seem unable to understand. For all of scientists' contempt for philosophers, casually expressed by Krauss throughout his book, they can't address this. Yes, biologists like Dawkins can explain why flowers are of different colours: it's to attract the right sort of pollinators, as insects and birds have different optical spectrums. But that sort of question is embedded firmly within the logic chain of material cause and effect. A state of 'nothing' that the human mind can conceive of, by contrast, is not - it's utterly beyond the mind's capability to deal with.
I may not be typical in this regard, but the First Cause problem has lurked obscurely in the background of my consciousness for as long as I can remember. It's an ever-present question. I accept that it can't be resolved in this world, with this mind, but I also struggle to understand how it could ever be resolved - in any future state. That frustrates me, so I'm never completely at peace about it.
I suppose one way to deal with it is to argue that the question doesn't exist, it's just a property of human consciousness to think in this way, an effect of the way the brain has evolved. But if we start down that road, then surely we degrade all human thinking, including the science that reveals to us the workings of the universe, in all its marvellous complexity. It's all so much meaningless fluff.
Or else we can believe that a state of mystical enlightenment may provide the answer, in a flash of intuitive insight, perhaps showing that the question in some way is false. That's something that's always intrigued me. But then the reasoning mind barges in, insisting that this would just be some comforting illusion, nothing to do with reality.
It's hard to escape the feeling that we're like fish in a tank, coming to an ever more detailed understanding of our environment, but still lacking the slightest clue what lies beyond it.