The Quantum Thomist

Musings about quantum physics, classical philosophy, and the connection between the two.
Probability, Fields and Bell's Theorem

A Universe from Nothing? Part 7: Concluding thoughts
Last modified on Tue Apr 7 21:01:33 2020

I have been writing a series of posts on Lawrance Krauss' book A Universe from Nothing, in which I have gone through his work, chapter by chapter, critiquing him where I think that he has gone wrong, and (occasionally) complementing him where I think that he has gone right.

In this post, I intend to offer a few concluding thoughts, drawing in material from his preface and epilogue.

Krauss and I obviously sit on opposite sites of the atheist/theist chasm. He believes that science has done away with the need for God. That the naive idea that creation requires a creator is incorrect. I believe that the evidence leads us somewhere different different. Not the opposite to his statement, but a different paradigm. The belief that science has done away with the need for God is based on the assumption that scientific law operates independently of God. Thus, in this view, scientific Law and God are rival explanations. The opposite view to Krauss would be to accept this paradigm, and say that science has shown itself to be incomplete. There are gaps that need explanation -- and this is where God fits in. Krauss' work is an attempt to argue against this. He focuses in particular on one purported gap in the scientific explanation of the universe, namely the origin of the physical universe: space, time and matter.

However, I reject the assumption that science is independent of God. I believe that science provides a description of God's activity in the universe, and that the details of scientific law themselves point to this conclusion, if one only stops to think about it. Thus Krauss' work is not a challenge to classical theists. If he finds a scientific explanation to the origin of the universe, then as far as the classical theist is concerned that's great, because it will serve just as well as a theological explanation. The deist, of course, who accepts Krauss' paradigm, only with added belief in God, has some thinking to do to respond to him.

The discovery of the big bang was unquestionably a blow to atheists. Modern atheism, don't forget, has its roots in late nineteenth and early twentieth century materialist philosophy, where the steady state universe model was widely accepted. It was then that many of the arguments still used today became popular. Krauss has done in this book a good job of outlining the evidence for the current cosmological standard model, which includes an initial singularity. The idea that creation requires a creator clearly fails if there is a chance that creation is eternal. The evidence now points to the idea that the universe we know about had a beginning (albeit with a bit of uncertainty about the precise moment of creation, where we need quantum gravity to be sure). Obviously some theists (such as those who use the Kalaam cosmological argument) have leapt onto this. It became necessary for atheists to respond; which Krauss does here.

Krauss suggests a few alternatives to an universal beginning: he seems to favour the no-boundary solution of Hartle and Hawking (where there is a spontaneous transition from Euclidean to Minkowski space time), but there are others, such as the bouncing universe, and eternal inflation. And it is true that at the moment we can't rule them out, though neither have we reached the point where we can rule one of those explanations in.

But to my mind, these discussions are missing the point. The main question is, and has always been, not over whether the universe has an origin and what explains it if it does, but to explain the order in the universe, including that manifested in the laws of physics.

So Krauss' project does not address this question. If he finds a scientific explanation for creation, then great: that is also a theological explanation. It does nothing to diminish the arguments for a creator. To a certain extent, it supports them.

So Richard Dawkins' claim in the afterward that this book drives God out of physics just as the Origin of Species drove God out of biology is misguided. Neither work does that. Even if successful, each work can only be used as an argument against certain forms of deism, where God and science truly are independent. They say nothing about theism; where God continually sustains the universe. Science is, in part, a description of that sustaining activity (albeit in part using secondary causes).

Now, despite our different views on the question of God's existence, Krauss and I do have things in common. For example, we both agree that the universe is the way it is, regardless of how we want it to be. We both agree that we should go where the evidence leads us. We both agree that one should try to prove theories wrong as much as we prove them right. And that the ultimate guide to truth is experiment and observation.

The problem is that Krauss only sticks to these principles for the first two thirds of his book. He presents the cosmological evidence very well. Dark matter and energy. The big bang. Inflation. Particle creation and annihilation. The problem is that none of these things answer the question Why is there something rather than nothing? To address that, he needs to move away from experiment and direct evidence into speculation. There is a shift in the nature of the book just at the point where it starts to become controversial. So that is the first major worry I have with Krauss' book.

My second major worry is his interpretation of particle physics, my own field. The existence of what is known as Virtual particles is well established. For example, the electromagnetic force is mediated by photon exchange. A proton emits a photon, which is then absorbed by the electron. This process binds them together into an atom. The proton and electron are known as real particles, because they are what we observe. The stuff we don't observe, which includes the photon, but of course can be more complicated than this (for example, the photon can decay into an electron positron pair, which then exchange a few photons, and annihilate each other back into another photon, which is the one which interacts with the electron). Calling the stuff in the middle virtual particles is to my mind misleading: they are just as real as the proton and electron, and their presence has indirect consequences which we can detect. True, they only exist for a short time, but that does not make them fundamentally different than those particles which endure for longer. (The particles we observe are naturally those which endure for longer times).

The existence of virtual particles is backed up by evidence, so both Krauss and I accept that. But then we get to the next step. Krauss asserts that these virtual particles emerge from nothing. The equations do not imply that. To put it simply, and a bit naively, in a Feynman perturbative expansion we don't see particles coming from nothing; we see them coming from the decay of other particles. In the Hamiltonian itself, describing the possible interactions, we see that creation operators are always paired with at least one annihilation operator. Particles only come into being if something else was there to be destroyed. So why not just take this picture literally? Of course, the simplest idea along these lines won't work: we would need to use renormalised rather than the bare particles of the Feynman expansion, there are some complications around gauge fixing and ghosts, and we have to worry about those regimes (for example in low energy QCD) where the perturbative expansion for unrenormalised particles doesn't easily converge. But these don't change the overall picture: virtual pairs don't come from nothing or the vacuum, their efficient causes are other particles. Momentum is conserved in all interactions in the energy/momentum representation of the interaction. I dealt with Krauss' misuse of the uncertainty principle when I discussed that section of his book.

In as much as his whole thesis depends on this idea that in quantum field theory particles emerge from nothing or the vacuum, when the opposite is implied by the theory, his argument fails the scientific test, before we even get onto his speculations about the emergence of space and time or of the laws of physics.

The definition of nothing

A problem with Krauss' work is that he needs to use a particular definition of the word nothing in order to make his thesis to work. He needs to define nothing in terms amenable to its study by theoretical physics. In doing so, he uses a definition that differs from that of the philosophers and theologians.

Krauss is well aware that this is the main source of objections. It was brought up the debates he held in preparing to write his book. In his preface he spends some time trying to defend his choice.

"Noithing", they insist, is not any of the things I discuss. Nothing is "non-being" in some vague and ill-defined sense. … Similarly, some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine "nothing" as not being any of the versions that scientists describe.

Krauss' problem is that he promotes his work as an answer to a philosophical and theological problem. He should thus use their definition of nothingness; otherwise he is not answering the question. Perhaps, if he is able, map it to an equivalent definition expressed in scientific terms. And if he is not able to do that, then admit that science has nothing to say on the topic, or, at least, it requires someone wiser than he is to do so.

So what of the accusations that philosophers are redefining their concept of nothingness? The implication here is that they are trying to squirm out of the argument. Let's go back to one of the first philosophers to discuss nothingness. Obviously, as an Aristotelian, I do not agree with everything that Parmenides proposed. But he still provided the basic framework and definitions for what followed. In his poem On Nature, we read

It needs must be that what can be thought and spoken of is; for it is possible for it to be, and it is not possible for what is nothing to be. This is what I bid thee ponder.

So here we have the definition of nothing: if it is logically possible for something to be (or exist), then it isn't nothing. This needs some qualification; for example abstract concepts such as mathematical propositions aren't nothing and neither can they be something in the same way that a cat or electron can be. So we need to introduce some additional way of dealing with abstractions, maybe saying that they exist in a third realm, or subsist in material beings, or perhaps something half way between the two. But that quibble aside, this definition of nothing is a perfectly respectable one. One of the attributes of existence, and which distinguishes it from non-existence, is that existent beings are able to influence other beings. Thus if a being X emerges from Y, then Y isn't nothing. Now I don't believe that the theologians and philosophers of whom Krauss speaks would have too much of a problem with Parmenides' definition, written almost two and a half thousand years ago. It is Krauss who has rejected it.

Is this definition vague? It is true that it is defined in terms of a negative, so you can't point to something and say "that's nothing," but, on the other hand, that is sort of the point. But there are other things defined in a similar way (albeit that these analogies are imperfect); for example blackness is defined as the absence of colour, and sickness is defined as the absence of health.

But I think that Krauss' main problem with the definition is that it is not something that can be mapped to a physical representation. There is, I think, a hint of scientism here: the belief that only scientific truth is valid. But why should we be surprised by this? Science is, after all, the study of the material world, i.e. things that exist. It begins by creating a representation of the material world, and establishing a mapping from the material world to the representation. But this mapping is only valid for existent objects, or objects which could in principle exist. The concept of nothing consequently can have no analogue in science. That isn't a problem with the concept; it is a limitation of science. (The belief that science is without limits is clearly false, since it is not something that can be investigated scientifically and thus the belief itself would beyond the limits of science.)

Anyway, Krauss continues:

But therein, in my opinion, lies the intellectual bankrupcy of much of theology and some of modern philosophy. For surely "nothing" is every bit as physical as something, especially if it is to be defined as the "absence of something." It then behoves us to understand precisely the physical nature of both these quantities. And without science, any definition is just words.

That isn't, of course, quite the definition that I used, but let's leave that to one side. Krauss needs a few more definitions to flesh out this argument. Firstly, he needs to define what he means by something, and secondly what he means by physical. We could say that something is anything which isn't nothing, i.e. a member of the set of objects which have the possibility of existing. I would also say that physical means that the object of study is a member of the set of material beings, or maybe even those beings which actually exist. The set of physical beings is then a subset of the set of beings that qualify as something. It might be (if material beings are all there are) that the two sets are equal; but it cannot be that the set of physical beings is larger than that of the somethings. But if this is the case, nothing, which is not part of the set of somethings, also lies outside the purview of the study of physical science. Of course, nothing is not a being in the first place. So Krauss' argument that nothing is physical leaves a lot to be desired

Is any definition just words without science? In one sense, definitions are just words even with science. Perhaps Krauss means that for a definition to be useful we need to connect it to a physical object. Of course, we can, for example, define the word "tree" by pointing to a number of physical objects, and some scientific definitions can be made in this way. Although, one can also define things in this way without science. Equally this method of definition fails to properly account for every possible variation in being a tree. But there are plenty of definitions which cannot be tied to a physical being in this way. Exegesis comes to mind, and it remains a word with a perfectly well formed definition. Come to think of it, Science is another example of a word that cannot be defined scientifically, without resorting to circularity. So Krauss' statement that only scientific definitions are valid is just another example of ill-thought out scientism.

Krauss goes on to suggest that the definition of nothing as empty space would have been universally accepted a century before he writes. It would be nice if he had some evidence to back up this claim. Certainly there would have been many happy with that claim. It was an era when classical philosophy and theology was at a low ebb. But the ancestors of today's critics of Krauss would have looked back at Parmenides, and raised the same point that I have. And, in those days, empty space was regarded differently than today. Krauss' argument requires "empty space" to be a boiling sea of virtual particles; such concepts were unknown to the Victorians he refers to. So what he means by empty space differs from what they did, so his comparison is unfair.

Then he discusses the absence of space and time itself, but that is still not the same as the absence of any being. And we have the same problem as with empty space. Of course, in those days before Einstein, space and time were thought of very differently. Today, when we think of space and time, we think in terms of General Relativity, metrics and curvature. Modern attempts to quantise gravity convert the metric into a representation of a quantum field, or a being (or maybe collection of beings). That is completely alien to how the late nineteenth century physicist would have thought about the problem. Since the nineteenth century physicist had a different notion of space and time, they would also have had a different notion of its absence. So when Krauss states that people a century ago would have accepted the absence of space and time as nothing, they wouldn't have meant the same thing by that as Krauss does when he discusses the absence of space and time.

Krauss' problem is not that the philosophers are arbitrarily rejecting any idea that he has. It is that they are stubbornly sticking to the same definition they have used since before the birth of Christ, and Krauss has failed to understand them. It's like a man who goes to a market, and asks for something that isn't fruit. The stallholder offers him first oranges, on the grounds that they are not apples (and apples are a fruit), then pears, then grapes, and so on, before finally collapsing in an exasperated heap wondering what his customer meant.

Krauss doubles down on this point in the epilogue, where he says that the meaning of the words something and nothing is no longer what it used to be. By which he means that his meaning of the terms is not what they used to be. And that is his whole problem: he is trying to answer the problem by redefining the terms so that it becomes a different problem which he thinks he can answer. That's not the way to proceed.

Finally, I will just mention the title of Krauss' book. A Universe from Nothing. I make this point frequently, but it is worth repeating. The universe is not a thing. What we are interested in is the origin of individual beings. The universe is not a being. It belongs to the realm of abstractions rather than those concrete objects which we can usefully describe as something. Thus if you show how how something arose from nothing, you are not showing that the universe could arise from nothing. And vice versa.

The purpose of his work

Krauss also discusses the purpose of his work. And it is, first of all, noble. He wants to explain scientific discoveries, and more than that impart the thrill of finding things out. "The journey," he writes, "provides its own reward." And that is, I think is true and correct. The thrill of knowledge and discovery is the best motivation for seeking to know and discover. Sure, there are more practical benefits to mankind from much of science. And that is all well and good. But the primal desire to know, to understand, is what drives us onwards. And, of course, not all of science does have obvious practical benefits. That space is flat (or nearly flat) is remarkable. Is it likely to lead to any great technological innovation? Almost certainly not, or at least not directly (maybe the mathematics might be applicable in other fields). Does that matter? Not in the slightest. What it implies about the universe, or would imply, teaches us more than any new device or machine ever could.

And Krauss makes another good point. Some people find a universe without objective meaning or purpose depressing. Krauss finds it exhilarating. It gives him freedom to draw meaning from his own actions. But he makes the point that what we feel about the issue is irrelevant. The universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not. And that too is a point well worth emphasising. If Krauss was here targetting people whose religious faith is built on vague feelings of a divine sense rather than evidence, then I share his contempt for that. Whatever we believe, it has to be on the basis of evidence. On the same token, of course, we can and should condemn atheists whose unbelief is based on feelings, while dismissing or misunderstanding evidence. People who as teenagers decide that theism is obviously false, on the basis of a few soundbites and intuition, and at best a Sunday school understanding of religion, and an primary school (elementary school) knowledge of the philosophy of science, and never return to question that view when they have greater knowledge. Reality is what it is, whether we like it or not.

In the epilogue we read,

But, as I have stressed, I believe that if we are to be intellectually honest, we must make an informed choice, informed by fact rather than revelation. That has been the purpose of this book, to provide an informed picture of the universe as we understand it and to describe the theoretical speculations that currently are driving physics forward as we scientists attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff in our observations and theories.

Note the false dichotomy between fact and revelation. If some revelation should also happen to have been an objective fact, then Krauss has unfairly dismissed it. But this paragraph illustrates Krauss' problem. He does a good job of laying out the evidence as we understand it. But that evidence is not enough to get him where he wants to go. So then he turns to theoretical speculation. But speculation is not fact. Krauss' conclusions, then, are not based on the facts that he rightly emphasises. He might argue that he is just trying to establish the possibility rather than prove his conclusions. But then that would admit that the opposite view is also possible. Then we would need to bring in the evidence and arguments that he hasn't considered.

Science, Krauss writes, is based on three key principles: to follow the evidence wherever it leads; to be willing to distrust even one own's theories and put them to the test; and that the ultimate arbiter of truth is experiment. The first two I would agree with; the latter I would probably expand from experiment to observation in general. Experiment has a key place, but the definition of what makes an experiment is strict, and we shouldn't limit what we can know to merely what can be experimented on. I would perhaps also emphasise the second point: even the best models are not reality, and we should not get so lost in the mathematics that we start to believe that they are. The fundamental principle is that you should trust the evidence, not the experts. And if you are an expert, that means that you should mistrust yourself. Experts frequently get things wrong. The evidence far less frequently fails. (It depends how raw the data is: as soon as someone starts analysing it, you are trusting the expert again. There can be some unaccounted for systematic error, over-estimation of the precision, or poor application of statistics. Unfortunately, it is the analysis rather than the raw data which is often presented.) Of course experts are better placed to point you to the evidence, but that doesn't mean their interpretation of the data is correct. Nor does it mean that it is incorrect. And, of course, there are some things that we can be sure about to a degree indistinguishable from certainty. We can be sure about the existence of gravity. The finer details of the true theory of gravity are less certain. With regards to the first principle, I certainly agree, with one caveat. We shouldn't jump to conclusions if the available evidence isn't decisive. Better to just simply say "I don't yet know," and try to find more evidence. If we feel like the evidence is leading in one direction, we need to be sure that we have eliminated the alternatives before committing ourselves.

This is not just good advice for the scientist, but for everyone. But it applies to Krauss just as much as it does to the theist. I would argue that Krauss' philosophy doesn't fit all the facts; that there is evidence that he has overlooked. So outlining these principles doesn't mean that he has necessarily practised them.

For example, Krauss writes "Something from nothing may have been required for the universe to come into being." What does he base this on? Empirical data? Experimental data? No, because there is none, and can be none. His data only gets him to the big bang (or in practice a short time after the big bang); but no further. His conclusion is based on a theoretical model, one which could be incorrect, but one which he happens to like. I do get the feeling that he is violating his own rule here.

Krauss' secondary motivation was to explore what the science implies for certain philosophical and theological questions. And again, that is good. We should be constantly re-evaluating our philosophy on the basis of the latest scientific findings. But this is also where things become harder, because philosophy is difficult. It is hard enough to understand even our own position, let alone those of our opponents. So Krauss writes in his introduction,

My real purpose here is to demonstrate that in fact science has changed the playing field, so that these abstract and useless debates about the nature of nothingness have been replaced by useful, operational efforts to describe how our universe might actually have originated.

Now I am not as optimistic that science has yet reached the point where it can describe how the universe originated. I think the most important word in that sentence is might. What we have is a lot of speculation, with little empirical data to back it up. What we do have strong empirical data for (and this is significant) is that the universe did in fact originate; that there is an origin for our universe. Although even that won't be certain until we have quantum gravity worked out. And it is notable that the point where Krauss' book drops in quality is when he stops dealing in scientific fact and turns to speculation.

But how does much this affect the "useless debates"? Very little, I would suggest. We have eliminated all those philosophies that necessarily implied a steady state universe. As for the rest, they would have agreed that there was some science to describe the first stages of the universe. That we are close to knowing what that science is makes little difference. Because the philosophers deal with the bigger question -- if the universe had an origin, what does that imply about the nature of reality? And Krauss simply does not engage with these arguments at anything more than a very superficial level. If he did, he would recognise that his findings fit alongside the philosophy, rather than provide a rival to it. In particular, he is stuck in his model, and fails to distinguish between the mathematical model and physical reality. And that makes the wider picture invisible to him.

As for his concerns about the nature of nothingness, again they are somewhat irrelevant to the philosophical debate. Maybe there was someone who identified empty space with nothingness. Krauss (or rather the physicists he relies on) has shown that they are wrong, and that we should stick to the traditional definition. He, instead, tries to insist that those hypothetical modern philosophers were right to identify nothingness with empty space, while wrong about the attributes of nothingness. But it is the attributes which define the term.

So, while modern science is important, I would suggest that it hasn't changed the playing field as much as nor in the way that Krauss thinks that it has.

Indeed, the immediate motivation for writing this book is a profound discovery about the universe … that most of the energy in the universe resides in some mysterious, now inexplicable form permeating all of empty space.… This discovery has produced remarkable new support for the idea that the universe arose from precisely nothing.

Note that dark energy is cited as mysterious and inexplicable, which is fair enough. But one would have thought that this would be enough to make him cautious about drawing too deep a conclusion from it, yet. His argument is that the dark energy is basically negative energy, which precisely cancels out all the positive energy from matter, leaving a total of zero energy in the universe. Thus the universe can be created without violating conservation of energy. As I pointed out in my earlier post, there are two different definitions of energy in current physics. Conservation of energy applies to the definition used in quantum physics, while Krauss is here referring to the definition used in classical physics and general relativity, which is only approximately conserved. And the precise definition of energy he uses is frame dependent, and is thus impossible to give any value to, zero or non-zero. But note what he is saying: there is more in the universe than we once believed; therefore the universe came from nothing. The discovery of dark energy says nothing about the mechanism of the origin of the universe. He has replaced God of the gaps argumentation with science of the gaps.

The relationship between God and science

Of course, Krauss is also motivated to share his views on religion, which are neither very complementary nor very informed. Note, for example, this passage:

For more than two thousand years, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" has been presented as a challenge to the proposition that our universe might have arisen without design, intent or purpose. While this is usually framed as a philosophical or religious question, it is first and foremost a question about the natural world, and so the appropriate place to try to resolve it, first and foremost, is with science.

It would be nice to see a reference that people have been thinking about this question for two thousand years in the terms that Krauss has presented it. Certainly, arguments from design are relatively recent, only really becoming popular after the enlightenment (the older teleological argument was very different, and to my knowledge -- which could be limited -- only arose in the middle ages). But the main thing I want to question is whether Krauss is right that this is a question for science. Firstly, is it first and foremost a question about the natural world? Here, one would have to have some doubts. The concept of nothing is unrelated to the natural world, since everything in the natural world is, by definition, something. Thus the study of the natural world can only at best give us insight into one side of the question, which means that it cannot provide an answer. The field of study that can answer this should encompass both concepts of something and nothing. And this is, of course, the primary reason why Krauss can't handle the concept of nothingness. Because he is trying to turn something which isn't a scientific question into a scientific question, that means that he has to create a new definition of nothing so he can explore it.

The second issue I will raise is, inasmuch as this is a question concerning the natural world, why does this exclude philosophy and religion (or relegate them to second place)? The distinction between metaphysics (the most relevant branch of philosophy) and physics (the most relevant branch of science) is traditionally stated that physics is the study of particular beings, while metaphysics looks at being in general. Both are interested in the natural world; but metaphysics studies generalities and physics specifics. But the concept of "something" is a generality. Thus it is most properly studied by metaphysics, or the philosopher. Equally, theology is (in part) concerned with the relationship between God and the natural world, and how that relationship operates. Again, theology is of more relevance than science to addressing the general question .

Which brings me to my third point. Science is concerned with describing the relationships between material objects, and the nature of those objects, through a combination of theoretical analysis and careful observations. But the question of why there is something rather than nothing is not related to the relationship between material objects nor their nature. Science obviously has a role to play in eliminating incorrect metaphysical theories, but it cannot answer the question of why there is something rather than nothing. It cannot even answer the question of what the laws of nature are, and why material beings obey such laws. Yet since it ultimately expresses everything in terms of those laws, that means that science cannot answer these fundamental questions. It can and should inform those who try to answer the questions, but only as merely one piece of a larger puzzle. So Krauss' attempt to answer these questions through science alone is thoroughly misguided.

Krauss also fails to address the issue of what the laws of physics are. He discusses the laws arising spontaneously, and laws having the power of creating space and time. But nowhere does he describe what he understands the laws to be. I can imagine, for example, a material being arising spontaneously (it doesn't happen, of course, but I can still imagine it). But the laws of physics are an abstract concept. Worse, they are an abstraction within an abstraction, because they are only formulated in the mathematical representation of reality that physicists use. But then, are the laws of physics the sort of thing that can arise spontaneously, or by themselves can have the power of creation. For example, if we are to think of the laws of physics as a description of the relationships between different types of matter, then the matter is ontologically prior to the laws. In theism, of course, God is active in sustaining the universe. In occasionalism, this is though direct action (material particles aren't causes, but only God); more standard approaches introduce secondary causation as an intermediary (so the material particle is an efficient cause which has the potential to produce an effect, while God is the one who activates that potential, and keeps things existing from moment to moment). In either case, the laws of physics describe the relationship between God and the material universe. In occasionalism that is all they describe, in non-occasionalist theism they also describe secondary causation (which still depends more indirectly on God). So God is ontologically prior to the laws. Or there is the Humean view, where the laws of physics are a description of repeated observed conjunctions. Again, not something that can arise independently of matter. So I am struggling to understand quite what Krauss believes the laws of physics to be. Perhaps he believes that they exist as something akin to a Platonic form; but then that leaves the old interaction problem, where one needs to explain how the ideals interact with the physical world. Whatever his philosophy, he clearly presumes without argument that it is correct and the other understandings false.

Krauss certainly doesn't seem to like the theistic understanding of laws. He writes,

Surely, invoking "God" to avoid difficult questions of "how" is merely intellectually lazy. After all, if there were no potential of creation, then God couldn't have created anything. It would be semantic hocus-pocus to assert that the potentially infinite regression [of explanation] is avoided because God exists outside nature and, therefore, the "potential" for existence is not a part of the nothingness from which existence arose.

But, of course, theists don't invoke God to avoid difficult questions. What theists do is ask if the series of explanations terminated, then would would be the attributes of the thing that they terminated with. The answer to this question, theists argue, bears a very striking resemblance to God. It is not laziness to think through a problem to the end. It is laziness to do what Krauss does, and stop half way down the chain of reasoning. God is not invoked to avoid difficult questions, but because people have tried to answer those questions. Is this semantic hocus pocus? No, just logic and reasoning. Theists argue that there are only three possibilities: something from nothing (irrational, given the standard definition of nothing), turtles all the way down, or the series of explanation terminates with something that looks suspiciously like the monotheistic God. Krauss does not address the first point, since his definition of nothing is non-standard, states that he doesn't believe in an infinite regress ("Turtles all the way down? I don't believe so"), so presumably his argument is heading down the third path. The only objections that theists would have (leaving aside any scientific errors) is that he hasn't thought deeply enough about what his work is implying.

Every day beautiful and miraculous objects suddenly appear, from snowflakes on a cold winter morning to vibrant rainbows after a late-afternoon summer shower. Yet no one but the most ardent fundamentalists would suggest that each and every such object is lovingly and painstakingly and, most importantly, purposefully created by a divine intelligence. In fact, many laypeople as well as scientists revel in our ability to explain how snowflakes and rainbows can spontaneously appear, based on simple, elegant laws of physics.

Now I would be in a strange quandary were I to take this passage as divine fiat. For I would be both an ardent fundamentalist and someone who revels in the scientific explanation and the simple, elegant, laws of physics. The problem is that Krauss has raised a false dichotomy. I marvel in the laws of physics all the more because their simplicity and elegance is a reflection of the awe-inspiring nature of God.

Krauss seems to be under the illusion that the choice comes down to science or God. That's a false choice. It could be both, God acting through scientific law. That the laws of science could be a description of God's activity doesn't seem to have occurred to him. Yet he describes the laws as having many divine attributes: timelessness, omnipresence, omnipotence, freedom of activity (i.e. spontaneous and unpredictable generation of virtual particles), and the ability to create space and time and the material universe out of nothing. My main problem with his work isn't that he hasn't thought, but that he hasn't thought enough. He hasn't continued to the end of where his line of thought leads.

Does God have choice?

In his epilogue, Krauss briefly turned to the question of whether God has a choice in the creation of the universe. He only devotes a few paragraphs to the issue, which is a shame because it is worth discussing in detail. He considers two possibilities: firstly, that there is a single universe, involving a unique set of laws that describe and prescribe how the universe came into being and evolves. In this case, he asserts that things would have to be as they are. The second case is if there is a multiverse, with numerous different choices for the way the laws are set up. But here Krauss argues that only a restricted combination of laws could lead to a universe like ours, nad again God is left without a choice. (He might also have answered that the multiverse as a whole would be unique.) In either case, he views the idea as saying that the omnipotent God would have no freedom in the creation of the universe, further suggesting that God is redundant or unecessary.

Of course, once again he is assuming that the laws of physics are independent of God, so arguing against deism rather than theism. In theism, the very existence and operation of the laws and matter requires God to be continually sustaining it, so God most certainly isn't redundant. Secondly, again in theism, God's freedom is best reflected in the indeterminacy of the laws. So discussing the nature of how the universe works by itself, without reference to the ongoing work of God (for many theists, creation is not just a single event in the past, but ongoing each moment) doesn't take into account all the facts and all the ways God's freedom can impact the universe.

But let's consider the unique universe. To say that God had no choice (absolutely) would be to say that the laws of physics that we know are the only self-consistent option. That is not the current direction of modern science. For example, electromagnetism (without the nuclear forces), presumably also with gravity, is, as far as we know, perfectly self-consistent. God could choose to create such a universe. In this sense, God is most certainly free. So I don't really understand Krauss' first point. If the universe is unique, that doesn't mean that it is the only possible universe, only that this happens to be the universe that God made. If God decides to make a different universe, then that would be the single unique universe.

Now onto Krauss' second point, where he makes use of the anthropic principle. This is saying that if God wanted to create intelligent life such as ourselves, then he had no choice about how the universe. Of course, that word 'no choice' (which Krauss needs to come to his conclusion) is misleading. There is a small window of possible values where a universe that can contain life can develop -- tiny in comparison to the infinite range of possibilities, but still containing different options and freedom of choice for God. Secondly, there is that assumption. The argument that Krass needs to make in order to conclude that God had no choice is given God as the only premise, the universe we live in is inevitable. But he can only reach that conclusion from the three-fold premises of God's existence, that God necessarily desires create sentient life, and that the laws we know and love are the only self-consistent possibility that could lead to sentient life. That second premise is refuted by most reputable theologians. God didn't need to create us or indeed anything else; He is self-complete. He chose to do so, of course, as an expression of His love, but there was nothing compelling Him to do so.

So in either case, Krauss' argument here does not seem convincing.

Religion and God

Krauss, of course, is a convinced atheist, and part of his purpose in writing this book is to provide an intellectual justification for his atheism. Thus, when he is not describing the physics, he does make snide concepts about God. For example, he writes,

We have discovered that all signs suggest a universe that could and plausibly did arise from a deeper nothing … via processes that may not only be comprehensible but also processes that do not require any external control or direction. In this sense, science, as physicist Steven Weinberg has emphasized, does not make it impossible to believe in God, but rather makes it possible to not believe in God. Without science, everything is a miracle. With science, there remains the possibility that nothing is. Religious belief in this case becomes less and less necessary, and also less and less relevant.

When he describes processes that do not require external control or direction, he is assuming without evidence (I would ague against the evidence) his own philosophy of science. And not very consistently; he talks about the laws of physics bringing about change, which at the very least are not physical substances and provide direction and control to physical substances. When he states that science makes it possible to not believe in God, he leaves out all the historical, experiential, and philosophical arguments. Historical arguments are, in my view, particularly important. Science and philosophy can lead to a general knowledge of God. But to go from that to a specific and personal knowledge (or a particular monotheistic religion), you need first of all historical revelation. To become a theist, it is sufficient to read and understand Edward Feser. To become a Christian, you need to look first of all at the historical case for Jesus. And many people find that evidence compelling even without the philosophy, once you come to it objectively and without prejudice from obviously flawed philosophical arguments denying miracles. The theology was adopted as a means of explaining religious observation. People believed before they had worked out all the details, on the basis of what they saw.

So that brings me to the subject of miracles. ``Without science, everything is a miracle." That statement is clearly false. I don't know when you want to define the beginning of science: Newton? Galileo? Bradwardine? Roger Bacon? Aristotle? Thales? But in any case, people earlier than that clearly distinguished between the miracles and the non-miraculous. The standard definition of a miracle is that it is a sign and wonder. A sign because it points directly to some aspect of God's character or nature, providing more specific knowledge than what can be gleaned from the usual workings of the universe. A wonder because it provokes a significant emotional and intellectual reaction: it is something that makes you sit up and take notice. In order to have miracles, you need to have a strong conception of the non-miraculous to contrast it against. Equally, "with science, there remains the possibility that nothing is a miracle" is clearly misleading. Science, since it only investigates the non-miraculous, has nothing to say on the topic.

In his preface, Krauss responds to the question Where do the laws of physics come from? -- the question I consider most important -- by suggesting that it implies a regress. To avoid the implications of such a regress, we are posed the old response, "Who created the creator?" Of course, as is well known, such a question (when applied to God) is itself self-contradictory. God is defined as a being whose existence is not contingent on anything outside Him. To substitute that definition in and ask "What created that which by definition cannot be created by something else?" is meaningless. The question we should be asking is what is the nature of or the attributes of the first member of the causal series. Theists have known this for a long time. Maybe atheist scientists and philosophers will one day stop just saying that there is no difference between an eternally existing universe and eternally existing creator and stop to think about it properly instead of just mouthing platitudes. When they do, perhaps they will be surprised to learn that the theists knew what they were talking about all along.

I'll finish with Krauss' opening sentence.

In the interests of full disclosure right at the outset I must admit that I am not sympathetic to the conviction that creation requires a creator, which is at the basis of all the world's religions.

Is it the basis of all the world's religions? Firstly, many religions don't invoke the idea of a creator, or at least don't consider it that relevant. Many forms of Buddhism, as much as I understand them, and the Confucianist, Taoist and ancestor worship Chinese religions are obvious counter examples. I can also think of various polytheist religions that don't fall into this bracket. I am not sure about Hinduism, but both Egyptian and Greek/Roman polytheism speak of a primeval chaos rather than a creator. The Manichees and Zoroastrians were dualist, and accepted two independent creative forces.

But what of the monotheistic religions which do require a creator? Again, I wouldn't necessarily say that this is the basis of the religion. The basis of Judaism, for example, was the burning bush and covenant at Sinai. The basis of Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus. The basis of Islam, the life and poetry of Mohammed. These are the events which formed the religion; direct encounter with God (or a perceived direct encounter with God) rather than philosophical musings about creation. Was their an intrinsic idea of the creator in the background, inspiring the interpretations of the events? If so, it is not really relevant. It is not sufficient to explain the origins of the details of the religions. And (unless the religions are true and the sense arose from a memory of an encounter with God at the beginning) I am not sure we can confidently say this. Of the religions around them, only the Jews had the notion of divine creation out of nothing. For example, it is said that Abraham was born and raised in the Sumerian city of Ur. He most likely lived around the time of the third dynasty of Ur, the last Sumerian Empire. So what did the Sumerians believe? There are a few surviving fragments of their creation myths. They focus on the origin of mankind and vegetation as a by product of the quarrels of the gods. They assume a pre-existent earth and gods. No creation, but an eternal universe. From a secular perspective, that is most likely what Abraham was raised to believe, before his father was purportedly called to leave that land. If Israelite religion arose out of Egyptian or Canaanite culture, then the picture is similar. To my knowledge, neither of those had knowledge of the idea of divine creation from nothing. This suggests that the basis of the Jewish religion was not a pre-conceived notion of a single creator. Rather it was as described, an encounter (or perceived encounter) with God. Ideas about creation followed from that encounter.

The only religions where I think that one can truly say that their basis was the idea that "creation requires a creator" were the neo-Platonic ones; Plato, Aristotle, through to Plotinus (and even here it is a misstatement; that was a consequence of their arguments rather than a premise). These obviously would later form much of the philosophical basis of Christianity. But Christianity did not originate from this idea.

And this is an example of the major problem with Krauss' discussion of theism. His knowledge and understanding of it, and with what theists actually believe, is too shallow.


So I will wrap up this series on Krauss' book now. It was mixed. His presentation of the latest advances in cosmology was very good. When he strayed into my own field of particle physics, it was less good. He seemed to assume without proof or discussion of the alternatives one particular philosophy of quantum physics, and particular virtual particles, one which I would say is neither in conformity to the gravitational evidence nor the most natural interpretation of the theory. But none of that is enough to lead him to his conclusion. To get to his conclusion, he needs to rely on speculation from modern theoretical ideas, not yet backed up by experiment. Indeed, the experiments are looking troubling: Supersymmetry has not been discovered at the LHC, and from cosmology we have evidence against axions, and testing Lorentz invariance beyond the Planck scale.

However, when it comes to philosophy and theology, there is little to commend Krauss. He does not understand the concept of "nothing." He does not understand theism, which is the main idea that he is attacking. In particular, he assumes a deist account of the laws of physics, in which they operate independently of God rather than are an expression of God's actions.

But put aside all his flaws. His conclusion is that space, time and the material universe can arise from nothing that can be represented physically. I added in that "which can be represented physically," but since his methods only allow consideration of physical objects, it is clear that we should add in that caveat. So at best his work is just a confirmation of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic concept of creation ex-nihilio. Is that really what Krauss wanted to do?

On Bell's Theorem

Reader Comments:

1. Dominik Kowalski
Posted at 11:51:27 Friday April 24 2020

Philosophy of Mind

Hello Dr Cundy!

Recently I have been reading Ladymans, Ross's and Spurretts “Everything must go: Metaphysics naturalized“, particularly the chapter on the defense of scientism, and it gave me an idea, when they objected to Jaegwon Kims “Physicalism or something near enough“ that it didn't have a section on physics. Now Kim was mainly defending a reductionistic account of the mental and I have heavy doubts that his account would have been improved by implementing such, especially since the empirical sciences are underdetermined, but I wanted to ask two questions:

1. What implications do you think your work has for the Philosophy of mind, if any at all?

2. The most common empirical evidence cited for the materiality of the mind is the conservation of energy. Could you illuminate me how that should be looked at? I have had some links on that topic, but I lost them.

2. Michael
Posted at 03:48:02 Saturday April 25 2020

David Albert's review of "A Universe from Nothing" pretty much exposes the bait-and-switch tactic that Krauss is using, which is to redefine nothing as "quantum vacuum" instead of what it really is, which is "absence of being". The truth is, Krauss has no idea where the laws of nature come from, has no idea about metaphysics and philosophy in general.

On this note, have you ever commented on Feser's talk about laws of nature? I'll post the link below. I'd be curious what you think of it.

3. Nigel Cundy
Posted at 22:56:51 Saturday April 25 2020

Response to Michael

I would certainly agree that my criticisms of Krauss' work have been discussed before by others.

With regards to Feser's talk, I read a brief outline of it when it first happened, and generally agreed with what was written there. But I haven't taken the time to actually watch it in full. I probably ought to, though. Based on the outline I read, and what I know of Professor Feser's views on the topic, I would be surprised if there was much in the talk which I would disagree with. But obviously I can't give a detailed comment until I watch it.

4. Nigel Cundy
Posted at 23:36:32 Saturday April 25 2020

Philosophy of mind

The philosophy of mind is one of those areas which I try to avoid talking about. I know virtual nothing about neuroscience, and read little on the topic from the philosophy side of things. So on both side of things I don't feel qualified to discuss it. (Aside from listing the obvious attributes of mind: intellect, sensation, free will, memory and so on.) Any observations I make would have little value.

Regards to the conservation of energy-momentum, I don't see why that would imply that the mind is material. I don't know the argument you are referring to (see the previous paragraph), but I would guess that it would resemble something like the following:

1) If the mind is immaterial, then there must be a material aspect to our consciousness (accountable to the laws of physics), since our bodies are material, and an immaterial aspect (which lies beyond the laws of physics).

2) The immaterial aspect must in some way be able to influence the material aspect.

3) Any such influence would in effect either add extra motion or extra matter into the mind (since everything can be reduced to the twin principles of matter and motion);

4) Introducing or taking away extra motion into the material world from an immaterial source would violate the conservation of momentum.

5) Introducing or taking away matter from the material world would violate the conservation of energy, since every bit of matter carries energy proportional to its mass.

6) The conservation of energy and momentum are always satisfied.

7) Therefore any material aspect of the mind cannot be influenced by an immaterial aspect.

8) An immaterial part of the mind which has no effect on the world is redundant, and does not explain anything.

9) Therefore the mind is material.

Premises 1) and 3) are the ones I have difficulty with.

Premise 3) because there are numerous different processes which could happen consistent with the conservation of energy and momentum. It is a necessary condition (baring an act of God), but not a determining one. An electron could emit a photon. An electron could emit a W- Boson. Both of these processes satisfy the conservation of energy and momentum. Let us say (for the sake of argument; reality will, of course, be far more complex than this) that if a particular electron emits a photon in our brain then that leads to one thought, while if it emits a W- Boson that leads to another thought. Physically, there is no way of predicting which of these events would occur. However, it might be precisely here, through selecting which of these events happens, that the immaterial part of the mind influences the brain. No violation of energy/momentum conservation; but still influence. Obviously this is just my own guess about a construction of an argument I am not aware of, so possibly this objection is just a straw man, but I can't personally see how you can construct an argument starting from the premise of the conservation of energy/momentum to the materiality of the mind without this premise or something equivalent to it.

Premise 1) I object to, because the way it is used in the argument seems to imply a Cartesian dualism. Obviously, Aristotelian hylomorphism is different. Here everything, not just the mind, is composed of a material aspect (matter) and an immaterial aspect (form, or soul in the case of a rational creature). The form interacts with, shapes and moves the matter in the mind in the same way that it does for everything else. The conservation of energy and momentum are part of the description of how the substance evolves and interacts with the environment. It is built into the final causes. Thus, in this view (and excluding God from the set of things under consideration), since everything is part immaterial, and that has no difficulty with the conservation of energy and momentum, obviously that would apply to the mind as well.

In short, I think this objection attempts to show that Cartesian dualism and Newtonian mechanics together imply a material mind. I will leave those who are Cartesians or believe that the world is governed by Newtonian principles answer it for themselves. But for those of us who are neither Cartesian nor Newtonian, the argument doesn't really offer any obstacle.

5. Carlos Vasquez
Posted at 00:55:23 Wednesday June 3 2020


Thank you Dr. Cundy for your works; I wanted to enquire if the version of your book on Amazon is a revised version or still the original. If it's the original are you working on releasing a newer updated version? Many Thanks.

6. Nigel Cundy
Posted at 19:13:02 Wednesday June 3 2020


The book you can currently obtain is a revised version (I have a version number on the copyright page, in the format -*- vn -*- (the version I have on my computer is v6; I think that the first published version was v4). I currently intend (though don't promise that I will) to have another look over it towards the end of this year, and maybe make a few more minor changes.

7. Carlos Vasquez
Posted at 10:16:46 Thursday June 4 2020

Kindle Edition

Dear Dr Cundy, thank you for your reply.

Do you know if a Kindle Edition will ever be released? I would like to carry the book around with me to read at work etc. but currently it's hefty size makes it a bit difficult 😅 . Many thanks.

8. Nigel Cundy
Posted at 18:45:02 Thursday June 4 2020

Kindle edition

A kindle edition is something I occasionally think about, but the book has a complex layout which makes conversion to an epub format difficult. At least that was the case when I first looked into it; maybe things have changed since then.

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