So I went to see theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss last night in Portsmouth. This was great for two reasons. Firstly, Krauss is a great public speaker and a seemingly top bloke. Secondly, it shows that, occasionally, Portsmouth (UK) is not the cultural wasteland many think it is. Occasionally. Very occasionally.
The night started off well as a few of us Tippling Philosophers met in a pub and got talking to a playwright who had a vast and interesting array of knowledge in some areas close to our hearts – the making of Messiahs, philosophy and such like (so much so that he bought one of my books, The Nativity: A Critical Examination, there and then). After some fascinating discussions ranging from cognitive dissonance to Sabbatai Zavi and Appolonius of Tyana, we moved to the venue for the talk.
Krauss started off superbly by talking about the for of the question “why is there something rather than nothing” being problematic and question-begging. Funnily enough, we had just been talking about purpose in the pub, and this very problem. Krauss rightly pointed out that you cannot ask why questions without presupposing the notion of a purposer. ‘Why’ is seeking a purpose – ‘for what purpose did this happen?’. And an objective purpose requires there to be an ultimate being to give purpose. Intrinsic purposes are incoherent. For more on this, see my essay on the meaning of life.
Krauss declared that it is the ‘how’ question which is much more interesting, and a question which is much more relevant to science and scientists. It is this question, how is there something rather than nothing, which Kruass sought to answer. Not with proof, as that is almost impossible in the context, but with plausibility and, if possible, high probability.
For me personally, Krauss started off well and launched into the world of physics, taking everyone with him on what the universe is and how we know it is – open, closed or flat. However, about 2/3rds of the way through he started making step changes, and I suppose due to the nature of the vastness of the subject and the constraints of time, had to make some pretty sweeping assumptions to move from one point to the next. And it was around here that he lost me, in the same way, I seem to remember, that I got lost in the book.
Now Krauss has been criticised by the more philosophically minded people reading his book as not really getting to grips with the idea of nothing. It seems that nothing, for him, is a quantum vacuum state. As the NY Times opines:
Krauss, mind you, has heard this kind of talk before, and it makes him crazy. A century ago, it seems to him, nobody would have made so much as a peep about referring to a stretch of space without any material particles in it as “nothing.” And now that he and his colleagues think they have a way of showing how everything there is could imaginably have emerged from a stretch of space like that, the nut cases are moving the goal posts. He complains that “some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine ‘nothing’ as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe,” and that “now, I am told by religious critics that I cannot refer to empty space as ‘nothing,’ but rather as a ‘quantum vacuum,’ to distinguish it from the philosopher’s or theologian’s idealized ‘nothing,’ ” and he does a good deal of railing about “the intellectual bankruptcy of much of theology and some of modern philosophy.” But all there is to say about this, as far as I can see, is that Krauss is dead wrong and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right. Who cares what we would or would not have made a peep about a hundred years ago? We were wrong a hundred years ago. We know more now. And if what we formerly took for nothing turns out, on closer examination, to have the makings of protons and neutrons and tables and chairs and planets and solar systems and galaxies and universes in it, then it wasn’t nothing, and it couldn’t have been nothing, in the first place. And the history of science — if we understand it correctly — gives us no hint of how it might be possible to imagine otherwise.
Nothing is far more subtle than you might imagine, for the Bible for example, nothing would have been a vast, eternal empty universe. That would have been, you know, a void. Well that kind of nothing we now understand–namely empty space if you get rid of all the particles and all the radiation–that kind of nothing is actually quite complicated. In the modern universe it’s a boiling, bubbling brew of virtual particles popping in and out of existence on a timescale so short you can’t see them. So there’s nothing there but actually lots of stuff is happening. You just can’t see it, and that kind of nothing, one of the remarkable things we’ve learned is that kind of nothing is unstable. Empty space is unstable.
And, brain-aching science aside, this is what it appears to come down to. Krauss talks of a quantum void as being nothing, the philosopher talks of, well, nothing being nothing. As much as I am open to the idea of a universe from nothing (though I intuitively find a cyclical universe as more symmetrical and attractive, such as with Loop Quantum Cosmology), I can’t help but agree with David Albert (a professor of philosophy) from from the NY Times review quoted above:
Well, there is, as it happens, an interesting difference between relativistic quantum field theories and every previous serious candidate for a fundamental physical theory of the world. Every previous such theory counted material particles among the concrete, fundamental, eternally persisting elementary physical stuff of the world — and relativistic quantum field theories, interestingly and emphatically and unprecedentedly, do not. According to relativistic quantum field theories, particles are to be understood, rather, as specific arrangements of the fields. Certain arrangements of the fields, for instance, correspond to there being 14 particles in the universe, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being 276 particles, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being an infinite number of particles, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being no particles at all. And those last arrangements are referred to, in the jargon of quantum field theories, for obvious reasons, as “vacuum” states. Krauss seems to be thinking that these vacuum states amount to the relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical version of there not being any physical stuff at all. And he has an argument — or thinks he does — that the laws of relativistic quantum field theories entail that vacuum states are unstable. And that, in a nutshell, is the account he proposes of why there should be something rather than nothing.
But that’s just not right. Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements ofelementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absenceof the fields! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.
Cosmologist Sean Carroll sums up this difference eloquently:
Very roughly, there are two different kinds of questions lurking around the issue of “Why is there something rather than nothing?” One question is, within some framework of physical laws that is flexible enough to allow for the possible existence of either “stuff” or “no stuff” (where “stuff” might include space and time itself), why does the actual manifestation of reality seem to feature all this stuff? The other is, why do we have this particular framework of physical law, or even something called “physical law” at all? Lawrence (again, roughly) addresses the first question, and David cares about the second, and both sides expend a lot of energy insisting that their question is the “right” one rather than just admitting they are different questions. Nothing about modern physics explains why we have these laws rather than some totally different laws, although physicists sometimes talk that way — a mistake they might be able to avoid if they took philosophers more seriously.
So my conclusion is, rather like Carroll’s excellent and noteworthy read, that scientists like Krauss and philosophers like Albert are simply talking past each other. Both have relevant things to say about the universe and how it came to be, and in one sense, why. Rather than firing across each other’s bows, as the two have been doing, getting together and synthesising their work and theories would be an interesting venture. Just thinking about the ontology of physical laws is a fascinating enough project. Are laws prescriptive, and in this way, where and how do they exist and how do they make matter and energy adhere to them? Or, as I would decree, if laws are descriptive (merely human conceptions of describing the consistent behaviour of matter and energy), what is it that makes matter and energy behave consistently? These are fundamental and brain-aching questions which underpin the ideas that Krauss himself, and all scientists, provide. In sum, science supervenes on philosophy. Philosophers, for the most part, are far from moronic or useless as Krauss has retorted
Krauss concluded with these such remarks:
The important thing about the universe is, it doesn’t give a damn about what we like. The universe is the way it is whether we like it or not, which is the one thing that I really hope people would understand. But it, the way it is it’s fascinating. It may not be the way we like it to be, but it’s so fascinating that we should rejoice in this remarkable accident that lead to our existence. And that you and I are here and having this conversation. That consciousness evolved on a random planet in the middle of a random galaxy in the middle of nowhere. Four billion years into that time, consciousness evolved and we can have this conversation and enjoy learning about the universe back to its early moments and out to the indefinite future. It’s amazing, and the meaning in our lives is the meaning we create and we should enjoy it, and make the most of our brief moment in the sun…
The two lessons I want to give people is that, you’re more insignificant than you ever thought, and the future is miserable. And those two things should make you happy not sad.
All told, a fascinating event which I was more than glad to have attended. Krauss is an excellent speaker, humorous and affable, and he connected with his audience, keeping them fixed upon his agenda. Good stuff.