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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Universes for Nothing

Columbia University philosopher David Albert reviewed the latest book by science popularizer Lawrence Krauss in the NYTimes Sunday Book Review, 23 March 2012.  He was not kind.

The book is entitled A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing, and was described by well-known fellow science-popularizer Richard Dawkins with these words:
“Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?,’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. If ‘On the Origin of Species’ was biology’s deadliest blow to super­naturalism, we may come to see ‘A Universe From Nothing’ as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is ­devastating.”
This encomium alone should be sufficient clue that there is less here than meets the eye. 
And indeed, Krauss does not tell us that the universe -- the collection of everything that exists -- comes from nothing.  He tells us that it comes from arrangements of relativistic quantum fields.  The alert reader will recognize that the fields are therefore the matter and their arrangement is the form.  And that therefore there was not nothing. 

The way it works is this.  In relativity, physical matter (particles) are simply states of the field of Ricci tensors.  Quoting Albert's review:

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.
Shazaam!  The vacuum state being unstable, it will spontaneously decompose into a state with particles and -- hey, presto! -- we have something rather than nothing.
Physicist Stephen Barr has a
different take from physicist
Lawrence Krauss

Of course, a vacuum state is not nothing.  It is a quantum state.  (And you cannot have a "state" without a thing to be in that state.  A state of confusion implies that someone or something is confused.  It's the old medieval thingie "no white without a white thing."  No form without a matter to be informed.) 

Krauss is confusing zero with nothing.  Physicist Stephen Barr compared this a couple of years ago to a bank account. 
There is a difference ... between a bank account with no dollars in it and no bank account at all. To have a bank account, even one with a momentarily zero (or negative) balance, requires having a bank, an agreement with that bank, a monetary system, a currency, and banking laws. Similarly, to talk about states with various numbers of "universes" requires having a quantum system with different possible "states," and laws determining the character of those states and governing the transitions among them. The term "the universe" should really be applied to this whole system with its laws, and not, as is misleadingly done in such discussions, to "space-times" that are coming into and going out of existence.

Albert, more amusingly uses the image of fingers and fists:
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.
Unlike Dawkins, who seems never to have heard, let alone understood, the classical arguments, Krauss is aware of the argument outlined by Albert and by Barr and others; and he thinks it's no fair.  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 [sic] 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’.”  He feels that philosophers are trying to move the goal posts. 

The problem is, it was the post-Cartesian scientists who moved the goal posts and that they "currently describe" "various versions" of "nothing" incorrectly does not change the fact that "nothing" means precisely what it says: no thing.  That is, nothing is not a particular sort of thing any more than "no one" is a particular sort of person. 

And how can there be "various versions" of nothing?  I mean, c'mon! 

Sorry, Charlie, but the folks who started the whole discussion of creatio ex nihilo used a particular and straightforward definition of nihil.  If scientists are now equivocating on the term, confusing an analogous usage with a proper usage, that is the fault of their own imprecise thinking. 

Science, as always, deals with transformations.  Matter in one form changes to matter in another form. 
  • A sodium atom (Na) is transformed into a sodium ion (Na+) by losing an electron.
  • A species of beardog is transformed into a dog by natural selection.
  • A strand of DNA is transformed into two new strands by replication.
And, as we have just noted, a quantum system may transform from one state to another state. 

In other words, there is always something on both sides of the transformation.  There is never nothing.  Scientists are so accustomed to this sort of thing that when they do try to deal with nothing, they cannot help but conceive it (or worse, merely imagine it) as a kind of something, relabeled for their purpose. 
Postscript.  As lagniappe, we can also see why natural selection was not the deadly blow that Dawkins imagined.  Not when Thomas Aquinas himself commented in passing that if new species ever did arise, they would do so from powers that were given to nature from the beginning.  Transformations of matter from one form to another simply is not the same kind of thing as creation. 


  1. Also, quantum mechanics was formulated to describe the interaction of a microscopic system with a measuring device. So I have doubts regarding the justification of postulating the quantum field of the whole universe. What is going to collapse that wave function?

  2. It's fair enough that Krauss is proposing an eternally extant quantum state as the first cause, and there is no good reason to not make such a proposition. Arguing that this is not really nothing seems to be little more than quibbling.

    Of course, existence from absolutely nothing is not an issue for atheists, either. If nothing exists, then there is nothing to cause something to come into existence, but also nothing to prevent something from coming into existence, and nothing to say that the former clause would dominate the latter clause.

    1. It was Krauss who claimed that he was demonstrating "creatio ex nihilo" and that this somehow demolished philosophical arguments. But it is surely basic that you cannot demolish an argument based on X unless you actually address X. Making up something else and calling it "X" doesn't hack it. Consider creationist arguments demolishing evolution by natural selection by defining evolution in ways that biologists do not.

      One good reason not to make such a proposition is that it a proposition in physics that has not yet been established in physics. Citing Barr once more:
      Right up front, it must be noted that this idea [of quantum fluctuations] is extremely speculative, has not yet been formulated in a mathematically rigorous way, and is unable at this point to make any testable predictions. Indeed, it is very hard to imagine how it could ever be tested. It would be more accurate to call these “scenarios” than theories.

      Besides which, Aquinas famously made his first cause argument under the assumption of an eternally-existent universe. So the idea of an eternally extant quantum state is no more unsettling per se than Hawking's idea of an eternally extant multiverse manifold.
      + + +
      If nothing exists, then there is nothing to cause something to come into existence, but also nothing to prevent something from coming into existence, and nothing to say that the former clause would dominate the latter clause.

      So in the latter case, you would believe in an "uncaused cause" (or an "unmoved mover" or an "ungenerated generator"). But this belief has certain fall-out consequences in logic. You are well on your way.

    2. So in the latter case, you would believe in an "uncaused cause" (or an "unmoved mover" or an "ungenerated generator"). But this belief has certain fall-out consequences in logic. You are well on your way.

      Actually, it would be an uncaused event, motion without a mover, and generation from no generator. Nothing can not be a cause, mover, or generator.

    3. One Brow:

      First of all, you seemed to have refuted yourself. As you have admitted, an absolute understanding of the word nothing implies even the absence of potential. And, in your own words, you have said,

      "Nothing cannot be a cause, mover, or generator".

      However, earlier you say,

      "If nothing exists, then there is nothing to cause something to come into existence, but also nothing to prevent something from coming into existence...".

      If, "nothing cannot be a cause", then I think you have answered your own question regarding what there is to "prevent something from coming into existence". If nothing exists (which is an odd thing to say in my opinion, because nothing cannot BE--it is the absence of all things, including potential), if all there is is nothing, and nothing can't cause something, then, logically, there can never be SOMETHING. In other words, given only nothing, which in your own words cannot itself cause something, there can be no something.

      Second, to say that there is an "uncaused event" is a logically impossibility. As a scientist myself, it is meaningless to suggest that something arrives without a prior cause. The whole project of science is to connect a chain of events. Every event implies a prior event or state of being. Our job is discover these events, and describe them. To suggest an event with no prior event or state, is equivalent to stating that X and not-X are the same. If you are ready to accept that there are uncaused events, then you have already left the realm of science and logic entirely.

    4. mralles,

      If nothing exists (I agree that construction does sound odd, I had not noticed before), than in particular, the requirement to have a potential preceding an actuality does not exist. You are making the same error as Krauss, in that your depiction of nothing still contains some of the rules and properties that govern our universe.

      Having a prior state of being or prior event is not the same thing as cause, in particular when we are discussing different events with basically identical prior states of being. If an identical state can result in two different, exclusive events randomly, than it can have the potential for either event, but it is not the cause of either event.

      Finally, since logic is a construct of men, created so we can have an easier time understadning our world, I don't feel complelled to say that one must stay in the realm of logic when discussing our reality. Reality should determine our picture of reality, logic is a tool we bring in when it is useful and disregard when it is not. So when the reality describes something we call a logical impossibility, the onus is on us to improve our logic to match reality, not to insist that reality must conform to our logic.

  3. What it points to, One Brow, is that Kraus is as based in faith as the most primitive Astralopithicus throwing flowers on his mother's grave. Without assumption, without an assumption as to a first cause, and without the utterly illogical faith that his first cause is correct, he has less than nothing.

    ALL cosmology comes down to faith- because there isn't anybody yet who has room in their laboratory to create a universe.

  4. Theodore Seeber,

    In the sense that assuming a car will start is an act of faith, certainly Krauss is based in faith (namely, the faith that there has been no changes in the way the universe works). That seems to be an awfully broad notion of faith, though. When you make a category that large, it loses descriptive power.

    1. The root meaning of faith is "trust," as when husband and wife pledge to be faithful to one another. The driver is placing trust in the functionality of his starter; Krauss on the consistency of physical law. (Actually, he is placing his faith in the factual nature of certain scenarios in quantum theory that have not yet been established.)

    2. Your description does not really address the issue of the very broad categorization to which you would apply faith. By this categorization, the apostle Thomas showed faith when he believed after physically touching Jesus post-resurrection.

      The rot meaning of faith may be trust, but in common usage, we usually mean more than such a broad term.

    3. Actually, it means much less when one uses it to signify "to think that something is factually true," as some people do.

      A good comparison to Thomas would be if a man were to demand from his wife some sort of tangible proof that she had not been fooling around on her "girls' night out." It would show a lack of faith [trust], even though it would be more scientific to demand evidence. But happier the husband who believes without such proof.

    4. While I don't want to get bogged down in details, generally speaking proof of non-existence is not of the same character as proof of exiswtence, so I find your comprison unapt.

      I do agree that the happier husband is the one who believes in his wife's fidelity without such proof (would go further than that, even). I would disagree that the happier husband is the one who believes his wife exists when he has never met her, and has never met anyone who has met her.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. A quantum field is particularly unsuited to be 'eternally extant' first cause. Quantum fields are field of amplitudes that when squared yield probability for a particle to be on that space-time location.
    To go from probability amplitude to probability requires a measurement. And that implies an apparatus to detect particles. This is mathematically represented by wavefunction collapse.

    Careful formulation of quantum theory require (1) either a consciousness to collapse a wavefunction (Copenhagen interpretation)
    (2) An eternally bifurcating wavefunction that bifurcates at the moment of measurement (the Many-Worlds interpretation). This is what modern cosmologists prefer since it avoids the role of consciousness. But note that it still requires interaction with a measuring apparatus

    1. I beloieve all that is needed to collapse a wave function is an observation. If the observation is cuducted by a camera for later viewing, for example, the collapse still occurs. Since anything that could be affected by the outcome of the wavefunction collapse is an observation, consciousness is not required.


  7. It was a well-written article. Thank you for the link.

    You did not give any indication of your purpose for linking to it (I could see almost any combination of agreeing/disagreeing with Gyan, agreeing/disagreeing with me, just for the sheer joy of sharing it, and possibly other reasons), so I'll just say that 1) you and Gyan deserved better than the level of attention I gave to the typing of my previous comment (I apologize, and will try to be more careful), and 2) I didn't see anything in the article that would disagree with the notion of a camera or other device collapsing a wave-function, or supporting the notion that quantum theory requires a consciousness.


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