Monday, September 10, 2012

Lawrence Krauss Don't Know Nothing: A review of "A Universe from Nothing"

The philosopher Martin Heidegger has been often (and not entirely unjustly) ridiculed for having once said, "The Nothing nothings." Science, we have been told, is scrupulous in its avoidance of this kind of meaningless gibberish. Science is clear and precise. So it is ironic that Case Western Reserve cosmologist Krauss now comes to us with the equally inscrutible "The Nothing somethings."

Krauss' A Universe from Nothing is yet another in a series of New Athiest tracts that have come out in recent years, all attempting to make the case for the scientistic pretense that science has superseded philosophy and theology, and that the latter discipline is no longer necessary. And, like most other New Atheist books, it only ends up proving just how necessary these disciplines are--and how naive is the view that science is some sort of universal intellectual elixir that can carry the weight of both scientific and philosophical inquiry.

The book takes the reader on a tour of the universe, or rather, a tour of the contemporary cosmological view of the universe (scientist like Krauss have been known to confuse the two). It is, of course, an imaginary place, existing only in the minds of contemporary cosmologists, although, claims Krauss, we have every reason to believe it exists in reality--if only, by believing it, he doesn't have to believe all that business about God.

The ancient philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides disagreed over the nature of the universe, Heraclitus saying there was only change, and Parmenides that there was only permanence. The history of science has always had a noticeable likeness to a Heraclitean stream: you can never step into the same one twice. But while cosmology, like the state of what it purports to describe, is always in a state of flux, Krauss, like most other scientists before him, is convinced that his view is the permanent one.

Science is Heraclitean; scientists are Parmedian. Undoubtedly, the scientist who comes along next and overturns Krauss' view will be equally confident in the permanence of his position.

The cosmological tour Krauss gives us, which is sandwiched in between the preface and the latter part of the book which seem to contain the central argument of the book, is not only not particularly lucid in its own right, but seems to have little to do with his argument.

And what is the central argument?

Well, if one were to read the cover of the book, he would come away with the distinct impression that the book has something to do with answering the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" That impression is hard to shake when there, staring at you on the front cover is the subtitle, "Why there is something rather than nothing."

And this impression is given some weight when Krauss says, in the preface:
The purpose of this book is simple. I want to show how modern science, in various guises, can address and is addressing the question of why there is something rather than nothing: The answers that have been obtained ... all suggest that getting something from nothing is not a problem. Indeed, something from nothing may have been required for the universe to come into being. Moreover, all signs suggest that this is how our universe could have arisen.
It is rather curious for someone who claims to be manning the barricades of Reason in defiance of the irrational religious hordes to infer from the fact that his theory requires the universe come from nothing, that the universe therefore must do so (Would that simply having a theory about the universe ipso facto confered necessity on a theory's own assumptions about it).

In the somewhat embarrassing recent interview by Ross Anderson in The Atlantic, Krauss begins dissembling about this in the face of Anderson's questions about what, exactly, he's arguing in the book. When Anderson presses him on whether the book is actually trying to answer the question of whether something can come from nothing, Krauss backpedals, saying "Well, if that hook gets you into the book that's great. But in all seriousness, I never make that claim. In fact, in the preface I tried to be really clear that you can keep asking 'Why?' forever. At some level there might be ultimate questions that we can't answer, but if we can answer the 'How?' questions, we should, because those are the questions that matter."

"Never make that claim"? He not only makes the claim, he makes it in the very subtitle of the book.

In fact, the physics in the book is not half as head-spinning as the rhetorical contortions Krauss engages in about what exactly the book is for. I don't mind reading about quantum leaps, I just wish the author wouldn't engage in them in the course of his actual arguments.

Krauss' Redefinition of 'nothing'
First, Krauss simply takes the concept "nothing" and gives it a definition that conveniently avoids all the difficulties Krauss claims to be resolving in the book. Nothing, it turns out, is, for Krauss, not nothing. He blasts philosophers and theologians, who have the temerity to define "nothing" as, well, nothing.
[N]othing upsets philosophers and theologians who disagree with me more than the notion that I, as a scientist, do not truly understand "nothing" ... 
"Nothing," they insist, is not any of the things I discuss. Nothing is "nonbeing," in some vague and ill-defined sense ... 
But therein, in my opinion, lies the intellectual bankruptcy 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."
He really can't understand where anyone would get the crazy idea that "nothing" means "no thing." What were they thinking?
By nothing, I do not mean nothing, but rather nothing, in this case, the nothingness we normally call empty space.
Apparently there is something about italics that allows you to engage in equivocation with impunity. In fact, in Krauss' rhetorical shell game, the definition of "nothing" bears a striking resemblance to "something." And his discussion of the traditional philosophical and theological positions on nothingness is simply incoherent. He clearly has no familiarity with the philosophical or theological views on the subject, characterizing them in one way in one paragraph, and a different way in the next. It's kind of hard to dispute your opponent if you don't know what your opponents position actually is from one paragraph to another.

After criticizing philosophers and theologians for thinking that "nothing" means the lack of anything, he then digs himself in deeper by misportraying them too as having asserted that nothing is, in fact, something, namely, empty space:
A century ago, had one described "nothing" as referring to purely empty space, possessing no real material entity, this might have received little argument. But the results of the past century have taught us that empty space is in fact far from the inviolate nothingness that we presupposed before we learned more about how nature works.
Huh? Who is he talking about here? What philosopher describes nothing as simply "empty space"? And even if they exist (or existed), do they constitute the whole of the philosophical tradition?

In fact, Krauss is completely ignorant of any of the necessary philosophical distinctions philosophers and theologians have employed to make sense of a concept like "nothing." Although it's hard to make out exactly what he's criticizing (largely because he clearly does not know himself), every once in a while you can vaguely recognize the stray hints of what he at least thinks he's referring to. In one place he refers to what is apparently the Aristotelian view that anything that has any potentiality cannot be nothing! Would that he actually understood Aristotle or St. Thomas whose view he attempts to criticize (the distinction between potentiality and actuality). As it is he fails because he has absolutely no clue what he's talking about.

What he does instead is to mischaracterize all such views as invoking God when, in fact, they don't do that at all--that, and arguing that philosophers have "changed the playing field" on the issue of "the nature of nothingness." Science per se has never addressed the nature of nothingness for the simple reason that it is not a scientific question. But Krauss has it in his head that by simply being a scientist and redefining "nothing" as "something" (the one thing that it absolutely, positively can't be), he has magically brought the question into the realm of science. In the process he acts as if he represents some kind of scientific tradition that has come to terms with the issue, when in fact, there is no such thing. In fact, his whole account of nothingness, as philosopher of physics David Albert pointed out in the devastating New York Times review of the book, makes not sense at all.

Veni, vidi, halicinatus est: "He came, he saw, he rambled incoherently."

In short, Krauss is philosophically and theologically illiterate, a condition that ill-equips him to criticize philosophers and theologians, a problem compounded by the fact that he doesn't realize it and wouldn't think it mattered if he did. It is also one which causes him, in addition, to mischaracterize the limits of the science he does know something about because the question of what science is or isn't is not a scientific question, but a philosophical one.

Changing the Question
Second, he reformulates the very idea of explanation in a way that relieves him of the trouble of answering the very question he claims to be answering. After just repeating, in chapter 9, his statement that he is going to answer the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" He then rewrites the question in a way that changes its essence:
At the same time, in science we have to particularly cautious about "why" questions. When we ask, "Why?" we usually mean "How?" If we can answer the latter, that generally suffices for our purposes ... Why implicitly suggests purpose, and when we try to understand the solar system in scientific terms, we do not generally ascribe purpose to it.
So I am going to assume that what this question really means to ask is, "How is there something rather than nothing?" "How" questions are really the only ones we can provide definitive answer to by studying nature, but because this sentence sounds much stranger to the ear, I hope you will forgive me if I something fall into the trap of appearing to discuss the more standard formulation when I am really trying to respond to the more specific "how" questions.
Appearing to discuss the more standard formulation? Not only does he "appear" to discuss it, he says in plain English that that is exactly what he is doing. In fact the paragraph just before this reads: "I want to return to the question I described at the beginning of this book: Why is there something rather than nothing?"

When once the reader is told in unambiguous terms that Krauss is going to address this question, he discovers that Krauss doesn't actually do this. It's not just that Krauss says he's going to do it and then doesn't; it's that he says he's going to do it, and then says, just as firmly (in the same book), that he's not going to do it.

If Krauss doesn't want anyone to mistake him for asking a "why" question, then a useful expedient would be to avoid telling people in the first place that that's exactly what he's going to do.

What are we to say about a book that keeps repeating what it is about, only to find out on p. 143 that the author is not doing that at all? At that point in the book it is so clear he is making a mess of his whole stated project that he throws up his hands and basically says, "And now for something completely different."

It works for Monty Python, but it's kind of hard to justify it in a science book.

On p. 134, Krauss quotes Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek, who has likened the science of string theory to throwing a dart against a blank wall and then, only afterward, drawing a target around it.

What Krauss doesn't seem to realize is that his own argument that science explains how something can come from nothing is of the same nature. His argument, though designed to prove that science can explain even the most intractable philosophical mysteries, only serves as a testimony of the prejudicial nature of his case, a case which he states in a way that, at one and the sane time, serves to guarantee that he can accomplish his purpose and yet prevents him from actually doing so.


Anonymous said...

This is certainly much ado about nothing.

Anonymous said...

Dang, the chicken or egg question doesn't fit here because both the chicken and the egg are somethings.

ZPenn said...

I haven't had a chance to read the book yet. It's on the long list of books which I'd like to read but haven't had a chance to yet. The tagline does appear to be misleading, as "why" is not really a question science tends to answer a whole lot. He appeared to explain rather clearly why he had to change the question to a "how" in order to keep it in the realm of science, so I'm not entirely sure why there is still a problem. I guess I dislike the misleading nature of the tagline, but isn't this a popular science book meant to sell copies rather than to be published in a scientific journal? Krauss and his publishers probably figured that tagline would raise interest and sell more copies. The only real attack you seem to have against this book is that it doesn't answer it's tagline, and that Krauss has little knowledge of philosophy (which I would suspect has something to do with the fact that he spent his life studying physics, which leaves one little time for other pursuits). You don't appear to have talked anything else that might have been in the book. Since I haven't read it myself, I'm not sure if there is anything else, but I certainly am curious to see what he's got. I've seen some of Krauss' lectures, and he usually has some interesting things to say about the cutting edge of theoretical physics.

Singring said...

'A century ago, had one described "nothing" as referring to purely empty space, possessing no real material entity, this might have received little argument. But the results of the past century have taught us that empty space is in fact far from the inviolate nothingness that we presupposed before we learned more about how nature works.'

And who do philosophers have to thank for that?

Who was it that allowed them to figure out that what they had very confidently called 'nothing' for thousands of years was in fact not 'nothing' at all.

Was it the careful study of the universe by philosophers? Was it philosophers just really putting their thinking hats on and coming up with this new realization?

Or maybe - just maybe - was it physicists who figured this out for them?

The bottom line is this:

Were it not for Krauss et al. philosophers would still be arguing over the 'nothing' that we now know is not 'nothing' at all (or is it?).

In that sense, philosophers come across as the literary critics of academia: faced with the utter impotence of their own discipline to tell us anything reliable at all about the universe (and what lies beyond) they ride on the coattails of the scientists who can (oh yeah - *this* is what we meant by 'nothing' all along!) and then have the temerity of lecturing them on how they really don't know what they are talking about.

It takes some chutzpah, I'll give them that!

Martin Cothran said...


Who was it that allowed them to figure out that what they had very confidently called 'nothing' for thousands of years was in fact not 'nothing' at all.

Did you just not read the post at all? Who are these mythical philosopher who thought "nothing" was empty space? Give me some names.

Anonymous said...

Lucretius and other atomists thought the world was composed of atom and the void space between atoms but I think he calls it something like "vacuum," not "nihil." I am not aware of any philosopher who defined empty space as "nothing." Nothing can be predicated of nothing, and if we can call space "empty" we can predicate something of it other than nothing.

ZPenn said...

The point of the argument isn't the definition of nothing. The point of the argument is that science and the scientific method have a great track record for explaining how the universe works. Philosophy is a lame duck by comparison.

Martin Cothran said...


The only real attack you seem to have against this book is that it doesn't answer it's tagline...

It's tagline? The claim is repeated throughout the book.

Martin Cothran said...


The point of the argument isn't the definition of nothing. The point of the argument is that science and the scientific method have a great track record for explaining how the universe works. Philosophy is a lame duck by comparison.

That all sounds very fine, only it's not the stated point of the book.

This is a book review. A book is judged in part on whether it accomplishes what it claims to accomplish.

This book claims on the cover and throughout the text that it addresses the question of why there is something rather than nothing. Only at the end does Krauss reveal that this is not the question he is addressing. He then changes the question altogether.

If you think this is somehow out of bounds as a legitimate criticism, that's fine. I'll just write it off as further evidence of deteriorating intellectual standards among atheists.

And you don't explain something by merely describing it.

ZPenn said...

If what you claim about the content of the book is true, then it is certainly legitimate critisism. Like I said before, I haven't yet read it, and I only know of Krauss' via a few of his lectures (only one in which he described his thoughts on "nothing" from the perspective of modern physics). My comment on "nothing" was more in response to your reply to Singring. I think you missed the point of his argument, which had almost nothing to do with "nothing", and more to do with philosophy being relatively useless without science to inform it.

"And you don't explain something by merely describing it."

Maybe I'm not defining my words correctly, but "explain how" is the same as "describe" in my book. Could you enlighten me on the difference? I understand that "explain how" and "explain why" are two different things, and I also understand that science has done a pretty good job of "explaining how" lots of things in the universe work. Explaining why is something science really doesn't touch much on, nor should it.

Anonymous said...


"Philosophy is a lame duck by comparison."

The idea that the value of something should be measured primarily by its practical utility is a philosophical position called pragmatism. You're doing philosophy, you're just not aware of it -- and generally speaking philosophy done unconsciously is about as good as skydiving done unconsciously.

ZPenn said...

I'm pretty well aware of the fact that I am practicing philosophy by participating in this discussion. Why do you think I'm unaware of this?

Anonymous said...

You appear to believe that the practice of philosophy is a waste of time, or at least vastly inferior to science.

ZPenn said...

Vastly inferior to science, yes. Waste of time? not necessarily.

Martin Cothran said...


In what way is philosophy "vastly inferior" to science? And can you tell me what kind of methodology you would be engaging in when you seek to answer that question?

Anonymous said...

A clam diver may prefer breathing through scuba gear to breathing on land, because the former is more useful to him. But he wouldn't be able to breathe with his scuba gear unless it were first possible to breathe on land. The marginal utility of the scuba gear could not possibly make it more fundamentally important.