David Albert pans Lawrence Krauss’s new book

I have a confession.  I was not keen on Lawrence Krauss’s new book on the origin of the universe, A Universe from Nothing: Why there is Something Rather Than Nothing. I couldn’t share the chorus of approbation and acclaim for the book, and wondered if I, as opposed to everyone else, was blind to its merits. (Let me hasten to add that I am a big fan of Krauss’s public lectures, and also that I haven’t read any of his other books.)

I found A Universe from Nothing awkwardly written and poorly explained; indeed, in places I felt completely at sea, and had to reread bits of it several times to figure out what he was trying to say.  Even then some of it baffled me, and since I have a Ph.D. and have read a fair amount of popular physics literature, I figured this must have been a case of unclear writing rather than simple ignorance on my part.

Further, I felt to some degree cheated:  much of the book was not about the origin of the universe, but dealt with other matters, like dark energy and the like, that had already been covered in other popular works on physics. Indeed, much of Krauss’s book felt like a bait-and-switch.  It also seemed to me that Krauss came to grips with the real problem—how do you get matter from an initial condition of nothing?—only in the last 40 pages of the book. The whole argument could have been written more concisely, and clearly, in a smallish book the size of Sam Harris’s Free Will.

Further, Krauss defines “nothing” as a “quantum vacuum,” without giving us reasons why that would obviously have been the initial default state of the universe.  Is that a sensible definition of “nothing”? If not, whence the quantum vacuum?  And so on to more turtles. . .

The padding and poor writing made me peevish, but so too did Richard Dawkins’s afterword, which claimed that Krauss’s book would do for physics and cosmology what The Origin of Species did for biology: dispel the last evidence for God as seen in natural “design” or the idea of ex nihilo creation. I saw virtually nothing in the book that hadn’t already been said by Sean Carroll (see his post on the same question here) or, especially, Victor Stenger, and so couldn’t understand Richard’s over-the-top encomiums.  I didn’t feel, after having digested the book, that it was anywhere close to Darwin in the thoroughness of its treatment or in its final disposal of the design-from-materialism problem.

But I didn’t say anything about this.  Chalk it up to cowardice. Better, I thought, to say nothing, or even offer insincere praise, for a book by a fellow atheist and a friend-of-friends, than risk making enemies of someone with whom I’m allied in many ways.  But I was uncomfortable with this, for it’s intellectually dishonest to critique those books by religious people, or people whom I don’t know, and then give a pass to a book that I didn’t like just because it was penned by a fellow atheist.  So now I’ll speak out: I didn’t like A Universe from Nothing, and I think that there are other things to read that do the same job better.  It wasn’t a horrible book, just a mediocre one, and has all the earmarks of being written hastily and not edited properly.

What emboldens me,I suppose, is David Albert’s scathing review of the book in yesterday’s New York Times.  Albert,  a professor of philosophy at Columbia University with a Ph.D. in physics, seems pretty well qualified to review this book. (He’s written his own popular books on quantum mechanics and, like Krauss, is a terrific public speaker [see here, for instance].)

I agree with much but not all of Albert’s take. He starts by deconstructing Dawkins’s comparison of Krauss’s book to Darwin’s:

Well, let’s see. There are lots of different sorts of conversations one might want to have about a claim like that: conversations, say, about what it is to explain something, and about what it is to be a law of nature, and about what it is to be a physical thing. But since the space I have is limited, let me put those niceties aside and try to be quick, and crude, and concrete.

Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from? Krauss is more or less upfront, as it turns out, about not having a clue about that. He acknowledges (albeit in a parenthesis, and just a few pages before the end of the book) that every­thing he has been talking about simply takes the basic principles of quantum mechanics for granted. “I have no idea if this notion can be usefully dispensed with,” he writes, “or at least I don’t know of any productive work in this regard.” And what if he did know of some productive work in that regard? What if he were in a position to announce, for instance, that the truth of the quantum-mechanical laws can be traced back to the fact that the world has some other, deeper property X? Wouldn’t we still be in a position to ask why X rather than Y? And is there a last such question? Is there some point at which the possibility of asking any further such questions somehow definitively comes to an end? How would that work? What would that be like?

Although this may resemble the ontological argument (and perhaps the proper answer to “where do quantum-mechanical laws come from?” might be “they just are“), it’s still proper to ask, “Is our idea of ‘nothing’ really a quantum vacuum”?  And here I think Albert gets at the major flaw of Krauss’s book: the failure to explain how he decides what “nothing” is. I’ll quote in extenso:

The fundamental physical laws that Krauss is talking about in “A Universe From Nothing” — the laws of relativistic quantum field theories — are no exception to this. The particular, eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world, according to the standard presentations of relativistic quantum field theories, consists (unsurprisingly) of relativistic quantum fields. And the fundamental laws of this theory take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of those fields are physically possible and which aren’t, and rules connecting the arrangements of those fields at later times to their arrangements at earlier times, and so on — and they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.

He goes on to explain the meaning of Krauss’s solution better than Krauss did:

What on earth, then, can Krauss have been thinking? 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 of elementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-­theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. 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.

With respect to Krauss’s complaint that now that a quantum vacuum might explain the origin of the universe, religious people have moved the goalposts and rejected his definition of “nothing,” Albert responds:

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.

Where I part company with Albert is in how he deals with Krauss’s critique of religion that imbues the book.  Formerly somewhat of an accommodationist, Krauss  (perhaps because of his association with Dawkins) is now a much more vociferous atheist. If you’ve read A Universe from Nothing, you’ll know that it’s larded with critiques of religion and an overweening satisfaction that at last physics has explained the final redoubt of religion: the origin of the universe from empty space.  The atheism seemed a bit over the top to me, but I also thought it was directly relevant to the book’s goals.  But Albert thinks otherwise:

. . . the whole business of approaching the struggle with religion as if it were a card game, or a horse race, or some kind of battle of wits, just feels all wrong — or it does, at any rate, to me. When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for every­thing essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.

Now I’m not sure whether Albert is religious, but he’s totally off the mark here, and he should know it.  For religion rests on beliefs that are assumed to be true, and if you erode those beliefs you erode religion—and with it many of its inimical effects.  Albert knows this because in his youth one of the critiques of faith was that it was a “lie.”  Well, that’s pretty much what both Darwin and (to some degree) Krauss have shown.  If you can explain what is considered strong evidence for God as the result of a purely materialistic process, then that does a lot more than simply show that “religion is dumb.” It is showing that the buttresses of faith are weak or nonexistent. That is no small accomplishment. If religion really is as bad as the critics of Albert’s youth really thought, then one of the best ways to dispel that evil is to show that the evidence for God just isn’t there.

Perhaps Albert’s critique was sharpened by his dislike of Krauss’s attacks on faith, but nevertheless I think that his criticism of the book’s substance is largely on the mark.  I remain baffled at the praise that A Universe from Nothing garnered when, after all, it says pretty much the same thing that Victor Stenger has published in several books, but more lucidly.

143 Comments

  1. Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    In his lecture with the same title, Lawrence Krauss says that he always has “to lie a little bit”. I agree, since the math on which much of theoretical physics is based is simply way over the heads of most of us.

    In the same lecture, he claims that the universe comes from nothing, but that this doesn’t mean nothing, but nothing.

    My guess is that he means “no thing” as opposed to “nothing”. That would be acceptable if it is assumed that “virtual particles popping in and out of existence at random” are not “things”.

    I have not read his book. I don’t intend to either. I think that Krauss’ vision is problematic at best. It seems to me that he is not talking about “the universe” at all, but only about our corner of it, the part that sort-of came into existence with a big bang.

    I do see some similarity with Darwin’s theory of evolution, in the sense that Darwin did not explain the origin of life, only its diversity. In the same vein (sort of), the Big Bang adequately describes the expansion of our corner of the universe, but certainly not its origin.

    It seems to me that Krauss attempts to explain the origin of our corner of the universe, but fails to emphasize that this corner is but one speck of dust in a more general universe, or -as Steven Weinberg would call it- “the whole shebang”. As a result, When Lawrence is talking -or writing- he is confusing because he does not adequately describe “the whole shebang”.

    It is a bit as a glass of sparkling water: he describes a possible origin for a single CO2 bubble, but fails to show it is only one single bubble in a whole glass of bubbles and that all these bubbles are intimately connected, even though they are independent of each other.

    • Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

      OTOH, no religion, afaicr, has a conception of the universe as being anything other than a single bubble (at most).

      /@

      • Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:43 am | Permalink

        The point is that “the whole shebang” has always existed, and that what we generally call “our universe” is simply a local and quite possibly temporary phenomenon in this “whole shebang”, in much the same way that “life as we know it” is the result of random chance in a “whole shebang” of chemicals in which any life could be the result.

        Once “life as we know it” occurred, its evolution was no longer purely random but the result of interactions of life with itself and the environment in which it occurred.

        In the same vein “our universe” started to evolve in a less-random fashion once it occurred, taking into account that “our universe” is not THE universe, but simply a local and temporary phenomenon in THE universe.

        The confusion comes from using the term universe for both. That’s why I like to use “the whole shebang” for the all-encompassing whole and “the universe” for the thing we call “the observable universe that sort-of originated with the big bang”.

        In other words “the universe” is an element, a part, not the whole thing.

        • Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:44 am | Permalink

          In other words, “the universe” is an element, a part, not the whole thing in much the same way that a trunk is not an elephant.

        • Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink

          How about this:

          “Universe” for our pocket of existence, “Diasty” for “the whole shebang”?

          “Diasty” (an intentional mispelling of “dynasty) could refer to the larger space in which our universe resides… the multiverse, if you will.

          • Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:22 am | Permalink

            I have no problems with any terms, really, as long as it is made very clear that one is “the whole thing” and the other the thing we like to call “the observable universe” or “the universe we live in”. In my opinion, much confusion is caused by using the same term for both. It doesn’t bother me, as it is almost always clear from the context which is meant, but since people have a problem with it, using clearly defined terms in popular literature would probably be a good idea.

            • Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:46 am | Permalink

              Agreed. Whenever I get into a discussion about the origins of existence itself, I have to ensure that terms are specifically defined.

              Carl Sagan used “cosmos” to refer to the whole, and “universe” to refer to our observable pocket.

              I proposed “diasty” because it’s a word I came up with to refer to the multiverse in a now-aborted (thrown out) science-fiction/fantasy trilogy I was attempting to write (aborted because it hinged on the idea of God vs. Satan, which I now reject… I no longer have any interest in writing it). However, I don’t care what terms are used as long as what’s being talked about is clear.

              So what’s meant by “universe” is the observable pocket of the universe in which we live (as shown by the WMAP CMBR). We need a word to refer to, as you called it, “the whole shebang”. Be it “diasty”, “cosmos”, “multiverse”, or whatever… terms need to be defined clearly to make conversation possible.

              • Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:46 am | Permalink

                We are of one mind.

              • Filippo
                Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

                If I correctly recall the beginning of the series “Cosmos,” Sagan defined the Cosmos as “all that ever was, and all that ever will be.”

        • Dan L.
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink

          The point is that “the whole shebang” has always existed, and that what we generally call “our universe” is simply a local and quite possibly temporary phenomenon in this “whole shebang”, in much the same way that “life as we know it” is the result of random chance in a “whole shebang” of chemicals in which any life could be the result.

          And you know this factually…how exactly?

          Note I’m not arguing that the universe is finite in time or space, only that you could not possibly know whether it is actually finite in time and space or not.

          • Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

            I *don’t* know. I was merely trying to show that there are (at least) two meanings to the word universe and that many people do not seem to (be able to) appreciate that.

        • Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:55 am | Permalink

          Yes, I was already very clear on that.

          How does that bear on what I said?

          /@

      • Apashiol
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

        Actually, the Indian Puranic literature talks of innumerable universes.
        In the Bahagavat Purana, there is an incarnation of Vishnu called Maha-Vishnu who creates seed universes by breathing and the seeds expand till he then enters all the universes as another avatar of himself and from his navel the Brahma of that universe is born who goes on to create all the diverse form of that universe.

        You will hear Hindu creationists try to use this to show that the Vedas already had knowledge of the multiverse and that this proves the Vedas are true revelations.

        • Apashiol
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

          This comment was supposed to be a reply to Ant’s not knowing of a religion having a conception of the universe as being anything other than a single bubble, but ended up disconnected.

          • Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

            And it was! +1 for correct nesting.

            Ah, I might have heard that before… a seed of doubt made me add “afaicr” at the last moment!

            /@

    • Achrachno
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:05 am | Permalink

      “as Steven Weinberg would call it- “the whole shebang”.

      Weinberg? Are you thinking of Timothy Ferris, who wrote a book called “The Whole Shebang” on this very topic?

      I thought the Ferris book was quite good, but I’m probably not the best judge. A physicist could sneak a lot past me.

      • Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

        That would be a plausible assumption, but I did indeed mean Steven Weinberg. You can hear him use the phrase in an interview with Richard Dawkins, as can be seen on YouTube. This is the first part of this entertaining interview, which I highly recommend: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edsDrqfDVKY

        • Achrachno
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

          Ah! Must be a technical term among physicists, then.

    • cesiumfrog
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

      Doesn’t having “to lie a little bit” sound a little too close for comfort to “lying for Jesus”?

      Or does he just mean that by expressing the mathematical theory into simpler words one is necessarily departing from the most correct account?

      PS: Read Feynman’s little pop’ book QED: with skill it is possible to be understandable to laypeople without compromising technical correctness.

      • Steve Smith
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 3:32 am | Permalink

        No. Krause is referring to an effective pedagogical tool used to help students grasp the difficult truth, not deceiving them by misrepresenting the truth.

        Donald Knuth, from The TeXBook:

        Another noteworthy characteristic of this manual is that it doesn’t always tell the truth … The author feels that this technique of deliberate lying will actually make it easier for you to learn the ideas. Once you understand the simple but false rule, it will not be hard to supplement that rule with its exceptions.

        • Posted April 3, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

          While I am certainly in favour of simplifying things as much as possible, I am very much against going any further than that. Science has enough problem getting accepted as it is, we really don’t need to add deliberate lies to this. Striving for truth is what science is about. Let’s not forget that.

          • rlwemm
            Posted April 10, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

            The same technique was used by my Year 11/12 (Australian level) Biology teacher to teach the concepts of meisos and mitosis and the origins of near infinite variation on the basic species genome . We got the simplified version in Year 11 and the complicated version in Year 12.

      • Posted April 3, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

        Doesn’t having “to lie a little bit” sound a little too close for comfort to “lying for Jesus”?

        That’s indeed what I meant. And that’s why I can’t read Lawrence’s books. He’s giving me every reason to distrust what he says. It’s a pity, because he is a brilliant speaker.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 4:10 am | Permalink

      “I have not read his book. I don’t intend to either.’

      Then please don’t comment on it.

  2. Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    Ah… One to cross off my “to buy” list…

    But didn’t Hawking and Mlodinow already “dispel the last evidence for God as seen in natural ‘design’ or the idea of ex nihilo creation”?

    /@

    • newenglandbob
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:25 am | Permalink

      They tried, in a poorly written book.

      • Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:31 am | Permalink

        So, who would you recommend? Stenger? Greene? Randall?

        /@

        • Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:45 am | Permalink

          Yes — I’d recommend Stenger, Greene, Randall, Cox & Forshaw, Carroll…and Krauss. For starters. (how many others depends on how deeply you wish to go — maybe need a linear algebra refresher, perhaps another vector calculus course, then some heavier physics textbooks?).

          Young-Earth creationists are always asking me for the one single argument (or source, or book on evolution) that will persuade them or teach them everything they need to know to understand and be able to judge whether to accept evolution (historical fact and/or theory attempting to explaining the historical fact).

          Well, despite Jerry’s excellent WHY EVOLUTION IS TRUE and Dawkins’ excellent THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH coming mighty close to being perfect, one-stop-shopping OVERVIEW books presenting some of the most persuasive evidence for the evolutionary diversification of life, even they do not come close to teaching someone everything they need to know to judge and accept (or reject) evolution (fact and/or theory). It takes many books, many classes and courses. And so when asked that question, I reply that I do not know of any one book or writer that will do it for them (and then I recommend they START with Jerry’s book and Dawkins’ book, if they really want to embark on the journey that will prepare them to make a sound judgment of the case for evolution).

          Same respecting cosmology and cosmogeny — understanding of special relativity, general relativity and quantum physics is needed to get the present picture or view from science.

          So, for STARTERS: Stenger, Greene, Randall, Cox & Forshaw, Carroll…AND Krauss.

          Perhaps those will satisfy and collectively be ENDERS too — possibly any ONE book MIGHT satisfy any given reader (people and their science, math and >gasp< philosophy backgrounds and savvy differ, as do the depths and thirst of their respective curiosities about physics), and possibly all of those authors' books collectively might just whet the appetite of other readers for even more.

          To show you how different even science-trained folks can be, I have read Jerry's book, one of David Albert's books, three of Stenger's books, all of Greene's books, and three of Krauss' books, and I liked them all very much, including Krauss' A UNIVERSE FROM NOTHING (each of them taught me new things, revised some of my former understandings, and provoked much thought, which is all I can expect from a science book).

          I will admit that Krauss did not answer all the burning questions, nor gave even one utterly unequivocal Final Answer to ANY of the opening questions — but I will be surprised if Krauss claims or thinks he did. Nor did I expect him to when I embarked on reading his latest. Remember what Richard Feynman said (in several places):

          "I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics."

          Of course, Feynman was not meaning that nobody understands ANYthing about quantum mechanics. In the rest of Volume 3 of his FEYNMAN LECTURES ON PHYSICS he proceeded to expound at fair length, depth and grittiness on what modern physics does understand about quantum mechanics (if memory serves me right — my copy is not handy right now).

          • Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:15 am | Permalink

            Thanks, Frank!

            /@

          • josh
            Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink

            I’m a particle physicist and I have to say I didn’t get very far through Lisa Randall’s book, “Warped Passages”. Not because it was too difficult to read, but because she is terrible at constructing analogies for a lay audience. Actually, I suspect this is true for a lot of physics popularizers. It’s a lot easier to come up with a metaphor that is sort of apt and makes people think they get it than to construct one that really conveys the central issues.

            • Posted April 2, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

              Thinking of analogies:

              Rory: What is this place? The Scrapyard at the End of the Universe?
              The Doctor: Not end of. Outside of.
              Rory: How can we be outside the Universe? The Universe is everything.
              The Doctor: Imagine a great big soap bubble with one of those tiny little bubbles on the outside.
              Rory: Okay.
              The Doctor: Well it’s nothing like that.

              — “The Doctor’s Wife”, Doctor Who

              /@

              • josh
                Posted April 2, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

                Heh. Reminds me of Douglas Adam’s negative phrasings: “almost, but not quite entirely unlike tea.”

              • Posted April 2, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

                Coincidentally, Adams was script editor for Doctor Who during the Tom Baker era.

                /@

            • Filippo
              Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

              Perhaps she can do better, and is receptive to any apt metaphors anyone might care to suggest. Perhaps anyone and everyone can do better. There are only so many metaphors and analogies. (Who is to be credited with the aphorism/maxim, “All analogies are imperfect by definition.” [If I have that right.]) There comes a time when a reader ought not expect to have to be so engaged and entertained, but rather reasonably and appropriately to do a bit of intellectual heavy lifting.

              • josh
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

                Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of the book at hand so I can’t rattle off a good example for you. But, there’s no practical limit to the analogies one can use and it’s a question of putting the time and consideration in to find a good one. I’m not complaining about doing “intellectual heavy lifting”, I’m complaining that the book didn’t offer the lifting to do. I’m much more familiar with the technical details than the average reader, so for me the book was a simplification for the non-expert that didn’t answer a lot of the questions that interest me. That’s not a problem in general since I support popular science books, but I thought her sloppy use of analogies sometimes conveyed the wrong impression to an uninformed audience. (And let me be clear that I’m not trying to pick on Randall particularly or to seriously discourage anyone from reading her books. I just happened to recall that impression when I saw her name in a list of recommendations, but I think its a common problem. C.f. the popular uses and misuses of Schroedinger’s Cat and the Uncertainty Principle, or the awful media habit of calling the Higgs boson the “god particle”.)

      • Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:18 am | Permalink

        I didn’t think their book was poorly written. I’m not sure how I feel about their conclusion (putting the burden of creation on gravity), partly because I have soft spot for the Membrane idea, which would suggest, at least from my limited, layman’s understanding, that time did exist before the Big Bang because time assumes action, and the fluttering and clashing of brains is certainly action, which suggests time.

        Of course, I’m no Physicist. I’d like to take an Intro to Cosmology or Astrophysics class, but the math scares me quite a bit as I need a calculator to figure out 2+2. So it’s quite likely (most likely, in fact) my understanding is flawed.

        I felt Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s book was actually good but perhaps misguided in its conclusions…

        • newenglandbob
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:26 am | Permalink

          Their book ( Hawking and Mlodinow) contained nothing new and what they did write about was covered better by others. It is good from a words-written-in-sentences point of view and it was entertaining, but off the mark.

          • Tim Harris
            Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

            I got rather fed up with the very unfunny and sophomoric attempts at humour, in both Hawking and Mlodinow’s book and Krauss’s (though in this respect the former book was, as I recall, worse).

  3. John Scarborough
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    I just started reading AUFN for the second time because I thought I mustn’t have understood it the first time but after reading this I think maybe there wasn’t much to understand after all.
    When I tried to explain the premise to a knowledgable friend all I could think to say was that LK had just changed the meaning of nothing around to suit his argument.
    Also, as Jerry mentions, a lot of it is a rehash of ideas mentioned in many other pop science books.
    I do have to disagree about the religious references.
    I abhor religion as much as anyone but I don’t see the need to trash it in science books.
    I loved Dawkins GSOE but the anti religious sentiments did tend to jar.
    Facts can stand on their own.
    As Hawking said, ‘science will win because it works’.

  4. newenglandbob
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    I am just starting to read “A Universe from Nothing: Why there is Something Rather Than Nothing.”.

    • Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

      Please read it ALL, thoughtfully — don’t be discouraged and side-tracked by what you read here about AUFN, read it for yourself, then re-read the judgments here, and judge for yourself after that. You will benefit from that approach regardless of how you judge Krauss’ book in the end (in my feeble, admittedly fallible opinion at any rate).

      • newenglandbob
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

        I will read it ALL, because I already paid for it on my Kindle ;)

        I have always read all of a book once I start , even if it takes me three months (like it did for Evolution: A View from the 21st Century By James A. Shapiro) instead of the usual one week.

        • Posted April 2, 2012 at 9:36 am | Permalink

          ‘Er ya go, you have a good reading habit!

        • Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

          I’m about 70% through AUFN right now. I can see what Jerry is talking about, though I still find it an interesting read. This is the first actual physics related book I’ve ever read though, so the things I learn outweigh the things that outright confuse the crap out of me, and it’s good to know it’s not just because I’m an idiot. I dearly want to read the Feynman lectures next though.

  5. Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    I largely agree with your criticisms, in that I don’t think the book addresses the fundamental question of why there is something rather than nothing.

    “… perhaps the proper answer to “where do quantum-mechanical laws come from?” might be “they just are“”

    Part of the confusion in writing by Krauss and others is treating “laws of physics” as though they were entities in their own right that can “exist”, and that then direct the existence and behaviour of other entities.

    This seems to me confused and wrong: “laws of physics” are simply descriptions of how things behave. Thus the above question is far better posed not as “where do the laws come from?” but as “why do particles behave this way?”. That’s the same question but makes it clearer what has and has not been explained.

    • David Leech
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:31 am | Permalink

      This is the way I see it. Looks like it will be worth a visit to your Blog:-)

  6. Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    “…is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.”

    If an idea is aburd (religion) I would think it’s appropriate to at the very least point it out.

    • Filippo
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

      I wonder if Albert thinks all religions are equally (not?) dumb?

      Does he think that they are equally all true?

      • DiP
        Posted October 25, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

        I’m fairly sure DA is an atheist. It doesn’t look to me as if he’s defending religion, he’s just criticizing the quality of Krauss’s criticism.

  7. Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    I see Albert’s point about how, in some sense, the abuses of religion are much more important than the technicalities of why it is obviously false. But a) not everybody accepts that it is obviously false, so it is still worthwhile to attack that from every angle possible; and b) not everything can be about everything that’s important. If I write a blog post about Trayvon Martin, I don’t feel the need to also mention in the same post the HIV crisis in Africa, even though arguably the latter is far more important.

    I have not read Krauss’ book so cannot comment, but I do find it a tad annoying when physicists face the philosophical question of why there is something from nothing, show how a quantum vacuum state is unstable, and then wash their hands of it. I am not convinced that the philosophical question is itself even meaningful — though Albert poses a quite meaningful and relevant philosophical question when he says this:

    And is there a last such question? Is there some point at which the possibility of asking any further such questions somehow definitively comes to an end? How would that work? What would that be like?

    There are tremendous epistemological and philosophical challenges when we get this far back in the origins question. The more I learn about, the more I suspect that these challenges are a defect in our own cognitive conceptions rather than a defect in the universe or our description of it, but the challenges remain nonetheless. You can’t simply sweep them under the rug.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

      Is there a last question, where all further questions come to an end?

      Empirically, no. Not being all-knowing beings, we can never know there isn’t some other reason behind why reality is behaving the way it is behaving. Adding in “God,” of course, gets us no further since we can always ask questions about why God is rather than isn’t — and why it is the way it is and not some other way.

      Theists think they can get around this problem with God by trying to put “God is the last answer, where all further questions come to an end” right into the definition of God — which is ludicrous. Mind-like beings which have needs and intentions evolved from things that had neither. As Dawkins puts it “… whatever lies behind the universe will not be an intellect. Intellects are things that come as the result of a long period of evolution.”

      But conceptually, we have a response to “why is there something rather than nothing?” Because reality is what is real. If there were a real state of ‘nothing’ — no, not even a relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum state, but nothing at all — then such a state is a state of reality. Existence exists. If reality isn’t the way it is, then it’s some other way. And so forth and so on.

      You can play all sorts of games with a tautology.

      But at least they’re honest games. Trying to sneak the tautological nature of “reality is real” or “existence exists” into God’s nature is disingenuous. It’s a trick.

  8. eric
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    I very much liked Atom and have Quintessence in my ‘to read’ list. But I guess I won’t be adding this third one.

    If you’ve read A Universe from Nothing, you’ll know that it’s larded with critiques of religion and an overweening satisfaction that at last physics has explained the final redoubt of religion: the origin of the universe from empty space.

    I got the same sense of overweening-ness from his 1-hour lecture circulating on YouTube. The science was great, but in the initial 5-10 minutes he he tacks on some anti-religious commentary that honestly detracts from the science.

    As for the complaint that quantum field theory/quantum vaccuum is merely another turtle whose origin we have to explain, its worth pointing out that over the past hundred or so years, science has dramatically shrunk the number of ‘independent’ variables and laws by showing hidden dependencies. If this trend continues (and do we have any reason to think it won’t?), we may find that quantum field theory and everything it entails is necessary/logically dependent given a few extremely simple principles. IOW, we may find that the laws we see are the only possible set of laws given a few axioms. Axioms such as “its possible to return to a point in space that you started from.” (I pick that one because Feynman pointed out: that axiom + QM = logically entails conservation of momentum. That dependency is a limited but real example of the sort of discovery of logical dependency that I’m talking about.)

    • Kevin
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

      I enjoyed Atom as well. I’ll probably read both of the others, but will wait until they show up at the library.

    • Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:52 am | Permalink

      DO read AUFN and then judge it for yourself. You will benefit from that no matter how you judge the book for your own self.

    • cesiumfrog
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:15 am | Permalink

      Exactly, we may find that the laws we see are the only possible set! There may not be turtles all the way down. (We even might need no less motivated axioms than “agents perceive.”)

      Such a discovery truly would do for physics and cosmology what Darwin’s O.o.S. did for biology. But it simply hasn’t happened yet, so it’s unfortunate if some comparatively mundane result in cosmology is being misrepresented as if it were that.

      • Tulse
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

        we may find that the laws we see are the only possible set!

        Presumably such restriction is caused by some further pre-existing set of constraints, which gets us back to the same general problem — why do those constraints exist?

        • josh
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:46 am | Permalink

          What if we can’t conceive of any way for those primordial constraints not to exist? I.e., what if they are at the same level as “one and two are not the same number”?

  9. Chris Branch
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne, thanks very much for this post; I was considering reading the Krauss book, but I trust your opinion and now I’ll probably pass.

    However, since you mention Stenger among others as an alternative, I have to add that I recently read The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning and I had some similar reactions to what you describe for AUFN. If the Stenger book is the clearest possible explanation of how the universe is not fine-tuned, it’s not surprising that some people think it is. I’m a reader of popular physics but I just could not recommend that book to someone who’s not a physicist. Are there other Stenger works that you think paint a clearer picture?

    • Gareth Price
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      I agree. I haven’t read The Fallacy of Fine Tuning but I read God, The Failed Hypothesis and felt that Stenger did not explain the fine tuning fallacy at all well. But maybe I am just thick!

    • Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

      I haven’t read any Stenger books but perhaps I can point out that there are non-theist physicists and mathematicians and philosophers who argue the universe is fine-tuned (not necesssarily deliberately, but apparently). I tend to agree with them that it does have an appearance of fine tuning. Roger Penrose, Lee Smolin, Max Tegmark, and Huw Price have all written about this. The Penrose argument about the initial smoothness required after the big bang, required to obtain the entropy gradient necessary for free energy and life I believe came up recently on this very website. This issue is discussed at length in Huw Price’s book Time’s Arrow and Archimedes’ Point, which I recommend. I once heard an interview with Stenger in which he said the entropy gradient could be explained by the rapid expansion of the universe, but I think this is contrary to the accepted scientific wisdom per Penrose’s argument. If Stenger knows better, perhaps he should write a paper about it. (Perhaps he has for all I know, though.)

      Smolin wrote the book Life of the Cosmos attempting to explain how the apparent fine-tuned character of the universe could be explained as arising in a natural process.

      On the other hand, if you are a Tegmarkian Platonist who suspects that physical existence is but a special case of mathematical existence, with all mathematical systems existing, then it’s perfectly reasonable that we might be living in a universe that has a certain appearance of fine tuning.

      • Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

        I’m currently reading AUFN.

        The whole point Krauss makes against the fine tuning argument is simply that we could not have evolved in any other universe.
        He says simply “…it is not too surprising to find that we live in a universe in which we can live.”

        Now he is certainly not the first to say this, but it can’t be said too often.

        • Posted April 3, 2012 at 12:18 am | Permalink

          Douglas Adams. Puddle. Hole in the ground. ’Nuff said.

          /@

          • Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:51 am | Permalink

            I should have added that I understand that Krauss isn’t the first to say this. But just like reading different books like “WEIT” and “The Greatest Show”, I feel there is something to gain from most versions of science books.

            For me, Krauss’s book is a keeper.

  10. Kevin
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Fascinating.

    I can’t help but think that physicists have fallen in love with the beauty and symmetry of the math at the expense of what can be demonstrated.

    Higgs boson or no, I think we’re far, far away from the final Theory of Everything.

  11. Andrei
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    The main point of Krauss is not about existence some sort of natural laws that we are unaware of (and where do they come from), but whether we can explain the origin of the universe with what we already have. The already known laws of quantum mechanics and general relativity seem to be enough already, we don’t need to postulate anything beyond that.

    He also makes a good point about the definition of “nothingness” — if you want it to be observable/detectable/coherent, it has to be quantum vacuum. Otherwise is is not much different from a religious concept, such as God or Nirvana.

    • Naked Bunny with a Whip
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      But that’s the sort of definition that is usually being used when discussing this issue, since it generally is a religious debate.

      You don’t advance this debate by redefining “nothingness” any more than you advance a different debate by redefining “free will”.

      • Andrei
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 9:08 am | Permalink

        Yes, maybe that was Krauss’ mistake. Krauss obviously was not interested in religious or philosophical debates, he wrote a book on physics. He did point out, though, that whatever is meant by “nothingness” in such “debates”, is not only not observable, but also incoherent, and has zero value for physics and science in general.

      • Andrei
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

        He also pointed out that while some time ago the concept of “nothingness” in physics was about the same as in philosophy (if defined as empty space devoid of any fields and particles, in other words, energy), things changed two or three decaded ago, when it turned out that empty space itself has energy, and probably may exist in different energetic states. After that the philosophical concept of “nothingness” diverged from the one of physics.

    • Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

      Nirvana is not a concept, it is even not a place. It is a state. A state you reach when you stop to grasp the world through opposites.

      In that state, nothing and something aren’t seen as such because what makes you grasp the world through opposites (the ego) has stopped its activity.

      So you are in Nirvana when you can remain in a non-dual state. Which makes irrelevant any book about Nothing…

  12. Egbert
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    Dissent and scepticism are healthy stances to take for any freethinker, even if it is to your allies or friends. So I fully support your desire to express your true opinion and feelings, as I hope you likewise allow others to say the same back!

    I haven’t read Krauss’s book, but I do agree that he is a brilliant lecturer and public speaker.

  13. Graham Martin-Royle
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    ?

  14. cesiumfrog
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    As a general relativist (and I’ve seen some of Krauss’ recent youtube talks but not the book), bait and switch sounds like a fair assessment.

    Sometimes it is truly valid for science to redefine common terms. We can analyse how people use words like “morality” (in principle we can simulate Harris’ moral landscape and compare possible metrics) and then we can conclude that the proper precise technical definition most consistent with natural usage would be something akin to maximising human wellbeing. (We could go as far as to declare that anybody using a sufficiently different definition is guilty of miscommunicating, like when some people suddenly pretended words like “torture” and “POW” have new meanings so as to convenience the US).

    Hawking pointed out that our understanding of gravity has directed science to amend the understanding people used to tie to the words “time” and “space”. And therefore, we can authoratively say the sentence “what came before the big bang” (in the nonmetaphorical sense) is just as nonsensical as “what is to the left of the universe” or “what is to the west of the Earth”. So sure, Krauss has a point, that it is legitimate to defer to quantum physics for the definition of “vacuum” and “nothingness”.

    But like you say, this absence of particles (and even energy) is not the “nothing” we mean in the context of the figurative phrase which Krauss used as his title. It is merely a homonym to that, and it is misleading to conflate them. What we really want to know is whether the laws of physics could have been different? — and we’re not just referring to the emergent/derived laws (such as biology); we really are asking why QFT/GUT instead of any conceivable alternative? Conflating the homonym constitutes “begging the question”. (And if we do accept Krauss’ posing of the problem, then the conclusion seems trivial, though I’ll be surprised if it isn’t still contingent on some fairly speculative quantum-gravity “results”..)

    I still think Dawkins’ “ultimate gambit” was a worse example, where it involved presuming every hypothetical creator to be pre-shackled by the laws of physics (thermodynamics) which would have been yet to be chosen to be created.

    • Linda Jean
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      duhhhh?

  15. Marta
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Nuts.

    Albert’s review (a lovely bit of writing, it looks like) is behind a paywall.

    • Marta
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

      Oh, pardon. I am not correct about it being behind a paywall, I think. It looks like you just have to sign up for an account.

    • Andrei
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      Try to google it and click on the Google’s link. NY Times ususlly open freely through Google.

  16. Yi
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    I had similar feelings while watching his hot-hit Youtube video. The question “why” seems not clearly addressed in the video, which, instead, covers a lot of popular physics.

  17. Posted April 2, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    You go Jerry! I had very much the same reaction as you when I read the book. I have a PhD and have read a lot of popular science books also, and I felt cheated by this one. The whole thing, especially with RD’s Afterword, felt like it was overreaching in an attempt to take some swipes at religion. IMO RD, who is not a physicist, swallowed what Krauss had to say uncritically and then tried to make too much out of it (take that, religious idiots! we can now say why there is something rather than nothing!). Ignoring the blatant attempts to whack religion, I found the technical material and arguments that Krauss made to be confusing and in some places incomprehensible. I agree, not a good book, and IMO RD’s attempts to push it do not reflect well on the motivations of the New Atheists.

  18. Posted April 2, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    What kind of answer do we reasonably expect to the question, “How can something come from nothing?”

    Of course first we need to understand what we mean (or what anyone who asks that question means) by “nothing.”

    I think philosophers mean by “nothing” the state of “Nothingness” one obtains by adding nothing to nothing (or zero to zero):

    0 + 0 = 0, or nothing+nothing=”Nothing”

    The “Nothing” of philosophers may well simply not actually exist or obtain in physical reality; possibly the only kind of “nothing” state that can obtain in physical reality is that which results from adding a something to a -something (like a 1 to a -1):

    1 + -1 = 0

    This latter seems to me to be the physical “nothing” of quantum potential or “quantum vacuum” as Krauss names it. We call it “nothing” the way we call the sum of 1 plus -1 “zero.”

    What Krauss explained to ME when I read AUFN was that (in my own fallible, inadequately feeble words) in essence, our current state of “ultimate” physical knowledge is shaping-up to look, waddle and quack like a physical “nothing” which is constituted of precisely equal amounts of “something” and “-something” that has always existed without cause or beginning (again, my interpretation, not Krauss’s words per se) out of which varying amounts and kinds of “something” and “-something” are forever occasionally or frequently popping (gratis quantum uncertainty) and enduring for varying periods (some exceedingly brief, some astonishingly long).

    I can understand accepting this (at least as a tentative working hypothesis, as I do) or rejecting it, but I do not understand complaining that THAT doesn’t explain why there is (physical) “something” rather than (philosophical) “nothing.” I mean, what the HECK could (even in PRINCIPLE) an end-all ANSWER to that question look like???

    I cannot imagine what the heck an end-all answer to that question would look like.

    And sure, if a writer of a treatise presenting new thinking assumes all readers have all abundant scientific (back)grounding needed to readily grasp the treatise, the treatise can indeed be thin (on the order of the thinness of Harris’ FREE WILL). But Krauss wasn’t targeting fellow physicists or even Ph.D. life scientists, he was writing to the citizenry-at-large.

    I (for one oddball) much appreciated the abundant relevant history, review and reminder background and peripheral explanations Krauss included between the covers of AUFN; evidently some readers are in a much bigger rush with a lot sharper focus than I am, but I do enjoy sniffing all the familiar flowers along with the new flowers when I walk through a new flower garden (so to speak — liguistic purists please forgive me). In virtually every non-fiction book I read I learn something new AND revise and tweak some of my old (mis)understandings of what I thought I had already fully scoped-out, and I found Krauss’ AUFN to be thoroughly worthwhile, I recommend it highly.

    I also thought Dawkins’ afterword (which was to my feeble mind about the implications of the physics and present state of the universe Krauss was writing about, not about Krauss’ book and writing style per se or an effort to compare Krauss book itself with Darwin’s most famous book) was just terrific and right on point! Especially the implication that we exist at a time in our universe where detecting this particular look, waddle and quack of the cosmos which reveals our universe’s early natural history is unique and that for MOST of the universe’s total lifetime MOST intelligent life that may subsequently arise and gaze at the universe will not be able to discover and come to know the front-end of the universe’s natural history that we are privileged to discover.

    Clearly opinions vary however, which means: Situation normal.

    It occurs to me that just as women sure seem to come from Venus and men sure seem to come from Mars (and yes, there are overlap examples), practitioners of life science disciplines and practitioners of physical science disciplines sure seem on occasions to come from different planets (and again, there are overlap examples).

    Oops…I have evidently rambled off on a rant; I didn’t intend a tome, sorry ’bout that!

    • Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      Given that the existence of stuff is self-evident, isn’t it the null hypothesis that something exists rather than (truly, philosophically) nothing, even if that something is “only” a vacuum state?

      If someone wants to claim that nothing prefigured something, isn’t the onus on them to demonstrate that it was the case at some point that nothing “existed”?

      Meanwhile, in the real world, cosmologists are quite happily seeking the most minimal of somethings.

      /@

    • Tulse
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      What kind of answer do we reasonably expect to the question, “How can something come from nothing?” [...] I cannot imagine what the heck an end-all answer to that question would look like.

      Right, but there’s nothing wrong with that being the case. I do think that there are certain issues that are just not amenable to scientific, or even philosophical, answers — we may indeed be “epistemically bounded” in certain domains. (That of course doesn’t mean that postulating a sky fairy helps.)

  19. Neil
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    If someone could prove the impossibility of nothing (no quantum field, no anything), we’d be done. But that is not going to happen. Instead, we have to boot our questions about existence on something, and the quantum field is it. The answer to “why a quantum field?” is simply “Because!”. That is the way it is.

    IMO, Krauss’s book is a good read.

    And yes, Dawkins’s blurb was over the top.

  20. Stephen Barnard
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the link to David Albert’s interview. The theme, brilliantly presented, is that there are serious foundational issues in physics, particularly regarding quantum mechanics and symmetry laws under time reversal; and furthermore, these foundational problems are especially relevant and baffling with respect to any theory of mind and of consciousness and presumably of free will. If you take Albert seriously, and you agree with Jerry Coyne (and Lawrence Krauss) about the nonexistence of free will, it should at least give you pause.

  21. Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    I read the book immediately after hearing Krauss’ interview on Think Atheist and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I too had to read a few sections twice before I understood them but that was not because of the writing, rather it was because of the nature of the discussion and the underlying physics. I’ve read other books on the topic, but this was the first time that my attention was held and I read to the end in a short time. In my opinion, the book was just the right length. Like others who have commented, I did find the discussion specific to “nothing” and how the universe could have emerged from it to be a little disappointing, but then I shouldn’t really expect Krauss to have the ultimate answer. Perhaps we’ll never know that answer, so it’s not a reflection on Krauss that this part of the book was perhaps not as satisfying as the earlier part.

    As I understand it, Krauss had intended to have a foreward written by Christopher Hitchens but his illness prevented this from coming to fruition.

  22. SLC
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    The notion of a “quantum vacuum” is one of those aspects of relativistic quantum mechanics that nobody really understands. It exists and at the same time it doesn’t exist.

    However, the existence, however virtual, of the quantum vacuum has observable consequences. The interaction of physical electrons with the quantum vacuum is responsible for them having an anomalous magnetic moment, the computation of which, using quantum electrodynamics, yield a computed value that agrees with the observed value to 10 significant digits. As Feynman once observed, this is equivalent to measuring the distance between the Empire State Building in New York City and City Hall in downtown Los Angeles to the nearest inch.

  23. Dan L.
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    I can understand accepting this (at least as a tentative working hypothesis, as I do) or rejecting it, but I do not understand complaining that THAT doesn’t explain why there is (physical) “something” rather than (philosophical) “nothing.” I mean, what the HECK could (even in PRINCIPLE) an end-all ANSWER to that question look like???

    I’m with Frank on this. One of my earliest memories is of being in preschool or Kindergarten and trying to imagine what the universe would be like if there was nothing rather than something (yes, strange child). Tough to do. The best I could do at the time looked like one of those scenes from the old Warner Brothers cartoon where Bugs Bunny would cut the film on which the story was occurring and then show up, carrot in hand, on a featureless bright white background.

    What would it even mean for there to be nothing rather than something? By “nothing” do we mean empty space? That’s certainly how I imagine nothing to be but that can’t be right because where did the space come from? And why is there space at all if it’s going to be empty? Is there such a thing as time in empty space? How would you know (no oscillators to measure its passage)? What would the universe be like if there was no such thing as time and space? Does it even make sense to ask such a question?

    What does a lack of empty space look like? Does the double negative turn it back into something again?

    Those (like Jerry) insisting that “redefining” nothing to mean quantum vacuum are making very little sense to me. It was once thought that vacuum WAS actually the sort of nothing we’re talking about. That was before quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics implies that pure nothing might actually be an impossible state of affairs. And worse, the charge of “redefining” implies that “nothing” had a stable definition to begin with.

    It doesn’t. It meant “empty space” until “empty space” was found out to be impossible (violates uncertainty principle). Now it’s not clear what it means. And in a cosmological context it makes even less sense because we need to explain space as well; empty space won’t cut it, we need a lack of empty space. But what does that even mean?

    I guess what I’m getting at is that I’m not sure this criticism of Krauss is really valid. Of course he can’t explain how something comes from nothing for vague or paradoxical values of “nothing.” I’m also a little confused at what it would take to satisfy Albert and Jerry, for example, on this sort of question. It seems to me that if you’re not willing to accept updates to the, again, vague and paradoxical intuitive sense of “nothing” then there’s really no way you’ll ever be happy. And in that case maybe you shouldn’t be so quick to reject the “ground of all being” nonsense of sophisticated theologians. If you’re not willing to accept new perspectives on what “nothing” might mean then there’s probably no non-theological explanation of the universe that will ever satisfy you.

    • Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      ‘Er ya go, Dan! It is gratifying to not be all alone here on this .

    • Andrei
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      I am with you, guys. David Albert’s babbling about “particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff” makes much less sense to me than what Lawrence Krauss says in his book.

    • Dan L.
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      I should be clear I haven’t read any of Krauss’ books. I’m just trying to make the point that josh made much more capably a few posts later, that any explanation that can be adduced can be met with a new objection: “well, your explanation is SOMETHING. Explain that!”

      • Sastra
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

        The average person — or perhaps it’s only the average religious person — intuitively believes that ‘pure mentality’ is Nothing, in that it’s not physical. Our thoughts exist nowhere, come from nowhere, and are not made out of anything — or so it SEEMS.

        That’s why God, a mental agent, seems like such a satisfactory explanation to them. They are working on the misconception that Minds are not physical somethings, so therefore they aren’t part of the infinite regress of why we have something physical instead of nothing physical. Thus, they require no explanation: they ARE the explanation. Matter and energy exist the way they do because someone WANTED them to exist the way they do. And the reason why ends up most satisfactory: it has to do with LOVE.

        I think that taking that apart — and showing them why it’s wrong — probably gets closer to the basic problem than does either evolution or cosmology.

    • couchloc
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      I can sympathize with this way of looking at the issue of “getting something from nothingness,” but this is part of the problem with his book. What Krauss should have done is explain carefully why the traditional debate about “nothingness” is confused and has no sensible answer. This would mean rejecting that there is anything to really discuss on this matter. But that’s not what he did. He attempts to answer, or purports to answer, in some way “How the universe comes from nothing.” Tell us you don’t like the question, or tell us it’s illformed……but don’t redefine your terms and then pretend this has something to do with answering the original question. That’s just unhelpful and willfully misleading.

      • Dan L.
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

        Well, as I said I haven’t actually read Krauss and I’m just reacting to the objection voiced by Albert and reiterated by Jerry. If I had to guess I’d probably say that Krauss has probably been thinking about this a long time and has internalized a lot of the conclusions that he’s come to, so that when he says “nothing” he’s referring to a different concept than the layman’s “nothing” or even the evolutionary biologist’s “nothing.” And perhaps he doesn’t even consciously realize this.

        These are deep ontological puzzles about the nature of existence and nothingness, no doubt, but the historical track record on ontological puzzles is that philosophers argue about them for a few hundred years then some upstart physicist cuts the Gordian knot and comes up with a very satisfying solution by doing so.

        • couchloc
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:00 am | Permalink

          While I agree with your first paragraph, I wouldn’t agree with your second one. Did you miss the fact that Albert is a PhD in physics? The complaints he raises in the article are based on his understanding of physics.

          • Posted April 9, 2012 at 8:15 am | Permalink

            And also (I respectfully submit to you, Couchloc) based on Albert’s being a TEMPLETON financial beneficiary (the Templeton folks not pleased with godless understandings of the universe’s ultimate origins, which Krauss’ perspectives tend to underpin (Krauss, too, being a Ph.D. physicist).

            Thus, I do not share your disagreement with Dan L’s second paragraph.
            _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

            Although Krauss did not express it this following way in AUFN, there is a kind of “nothing” (or “species” of nothing if that works better for the life-sciences-oriented folks here as a so-to-speak) that differs from the “Nothing” of (most) philosophers and citizens-at-large:

            If (so-to-speak) philosophical/popular “Nothing” is what is obtained by adding nothing to nothing, or…

            0 + 0 = 0 (zero, capital-N “Nothing”)

            …then perhaps the ONLY kind (or species) of “nothing” that can obtain in physical nature/reality is the sum of something added to -something, or…

            1 + -1 = 0 (zero, little-n “nothing”), or
            7 + -7 = 0 (zero, little-n “nothing”), or
            1 + 3 + 9 + -3 + -9 + -1 = 0, etc.

            …zero/nothing out of which occasionally (or perhaps often) pops a 1 and a -1, or a 9 and a -9, and so forth(thanks to quantum uncertainty), pop-outs which endure very briefly (or perhaps for a long time, or for a really, REALLY long time, depending). Again, all so-to-speak.

            Just a thought (one that “works” for me but may not “work” for everyone) that I offer for pondering — reject it if it makes no sense to you (I get that a lot and have grown to not mind).

        • MH
          Posted April 29, 2012 at 6:14 am | Permalink

          “These are deep ontological puzzles about the nature of existence and nothingness, no doubt, but the historical track record on ontological puzzles is that philosophers argue about them for a few hundred years then some upstart physicist cuts the Gordian knot redefines several key terms in a way that changes it to an entirely different, empirical question and comes up with a very satisfying hand-wavey solution to the new question by doing so and proceeds to declare that philosophy is useless because of how easily physics can resolve serious problems that philosophers had been worrying about .”

          Fixed that for you.

  24. Gareth Price
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    I read A Universe from Nothing and felt similarly that Krauss didn’t do a great job of explaining some of the stuff. Having seen a couple of youtube videos of him, I was a little disappointed with the book. Perhaps he is better suited to lecturing.

    I read a couple of Brian Greene’s books and feel that he explains concepts much better. However, he happily takes plenty of pages to do the explaining. Perhaps Lawrence Krauss went for something more concise at the expense of patient explanation.

  25. josh
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    “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. ”

    I haven’t read the book but I strongly suspect I would agree that Krauss oversells his conclusions. That being said, the quote above demonstrates a serious problem with critiques like Albert’s. Basically it boils down to, “If you provide an explanation of what is, then that explanation is something (since it’s obviously not ‘no explanation’ and therefore not ‘no thing’) so it’s not nothing, therefore you haven’t REALLY explained existence.”

    But on this line of reasoning, one can NEVER explain ‘something from nothing’ in principle because you have defined ‘nothing’ as ‘not an answer’ from the start. ‘Something from nothing’ becomes an incoherent phrase and “How do you get…” an unintelligible question.

    So I think there are interesting questions that Krauss doesn’t have a complete answer for, but Albert and co.’s “you haven’t really got something from nothing” is a bit off the mark. One of the great lessons of the history of science is that paradigmatic advances in our understanding often don’t answer the hard questions of a previous age, they render them obsolete. Like asking “How do you measure the exact position and momentum of a photon?”.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      I agree that the advance of knowledge has probably rendered incoherent the question of “why is there something rather than nothing?” But in that case Krauss shouldn’t be claiming to have the answer to it. If the question he wanted to answer was “how did the observable universe of matter and energy emerge from vacuum?” then that’s what he should have called his book. Pretending to address the deeper philosophical question while actually avoiding it is bait-and-switch, as his critics rightly point out.

      • josh
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        Well, I agree that Krauss shouldn’t be claiming to answer the question if he doesn’t. But we also shouldn’t pretend that it’s necessarily a “deeper philosophical question” if it isn’t coherent.

  26. couchloc
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Let me make a few observations about Albert’s review of Krauss’s book.

    (1) First, I haven’t read all of Krauss’s book, but what I did read made it clear that he was not addressing the original problem of how the universe comes from nothing. All he did was ignore the traditional formulation of the problem and discuss some other notion of “nothing” which is really a “something” because it has properties of various sorts. Albert is right that there are sensible issues here Krauss is ignoring. Why this way of approaching the problem is an intelligent approach for someone with a PhD in physics is hard to fathom. I’m not suggesting that the traditional formulation of the problem is well-posed, or has a clearly defined answer, but don’t pretend you are answering or in some way addressing one of the great, longstanding puzzles in western society when you are doing little more than playing games with terms (“nothing is really a something, and everything came from that”). If this is what passes for interesting debate about philosophical issues, I’m somewhat puzzled. So I would agree with Jerry in his assessment of this book. What’s interesting in this book about cosmology has already been said by others, and what’s novel with respect to the philosophical issues is so simplistic as to be embarrassing.

    (2) I would like to call attention to the fact that David Albert is a professor of philosophy (physics PhD). There seems to be a lot of criticism of philosophers on this site, but this fact should be considered. Many philosophers have complained that Krauss’s approach is too simplistic and makes various sorts of mistakes. In the book he attempts a reply to those who raise worries about his approach to the traditional notion of “nothing” and says “I’m inclined to reply that theologians are experts in nothing.” This is not helpful to link the problem with theology. Maybe the fact that philosophers like Albert are making a related complaint should give him pause. As philosophers keep saying about problems of religion, free will, ethics, etc…there are problems that should be carefully considered and not simply shrugged off. I’m an atheist myself, but given the low intellectual quality of books like this, I can sympathize with those who find new atheism less than compelling.

  27. Steve Smith
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Alan Guth’s Inflationary Universe is the must-read book on this subject, both for its deep-yet-simple physical explanations of how a universe ex nihilo could work, and for a superb personal account of how science works. In this it can be compared with Gentleman Jim’s Double Helix. And Guth was turning out great gnu atheist quotes before there were gnus:

    The question of the origin of the matter in the universe is no longer thought to be beyond the range of science—everything can be created from nothing…it is fair to say that the universe is the ultimate free lunch.

    I haven’t read Krauss’s book, but it would be a disappointment if he really failed to be explicit about what “nothing” means in physics. Physicists necessarily take known physics as a prior to explain why we see stuff (rather than nothing), and though there are a few interesting metaphysical speculations about why QFT exists (rather than “nothing”), it’s universally acknowledged that no one knows, and that this question may forever be a mystery.

    That Krauss intended Hitchens write a forward is quite interesting. I personally recommended Guth’s book to Hitchens two years ago, and Hitchens immediately went off on a tangent praising Krauss, declaring that Krauss would win a Nobel Prize. Of course Hitchens was a brilliant writer and speaker, but I knew that his judgement on technical matters was highly suspect, if only for once asserting that his friend Ahmad Chalabi was a “mathematical genius”. Krauss has done some great stuff, but it’s no slight to say that Hitchens was wildly off the mark.

    Anyway, read Guth.

    • Andrei
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      …it would be a disappointment if he really failed to be explicit about what “nothing” means in physics.

      He did not. The problem is, not everybody liked it. Krauss was well aware of that:

      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. 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.”

      So be it. But what if we are then willing to describe “nothing” as the absence of space and time itself? Is this sufficient? Again, I suspect it would have been . . . at one time. But, as I shall describe, we have learned that space and time can themselves spontaneously appear, so now we are told that even this “nothing” is not really the nothing that matters. And we’re told that the escape from the “real” nothing requires divinity, with “nothing” thus defined by fiat to be “that from which only God can create something.”

      It has also been suggested by various individuals with whom I have debated the issue that, if there is the “potential” to create something, then that is not a state of true nothingness. And surely having laws of nature that give such potential takes us away from the true realm of nonbeing. But then, if I argue that perhaps the laws themselves also arose spontaneously, as I shall describe might be the case, then that too is not good enough, because whatever system in which the laws may have arisen is not true nothingness.

  28. Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of David Albert and Sean Carroll, they did a couple bloggingheads episodes which were very fun. I can’t say that I can really grasp most of the material, but it’s still a great listen.

    http://bloggingheads.tv/videos/1728

    and the first one was excellent for David recounting his mistake of getting involved in What The Bleep…

    http://bloggingheads.tv/videos/1646

    • Posted April 6, 2012 at 5:27 am | Permalink

      That reminds me of several years ago when a neighbor (a theist with whom I, an atheist, had had a number of robust discussions about theism/atheism and the conflict between science and religion) excitedly thrust a DVD of “What the Bleep do We Know?” at me and said, “Watch THIS, Lovell, then let’s talk.”

      So I did watch it. And I was baffled mightily by it, so I watched it a second time a day later (after several rounds of preparatory Old Fitz 100 in Vernors Ginger Ale, just in case that might help me understand the video better), but I was still baffled by it.

      Several days later when I handed the DVD back to my neighbor, he challengingly asked me, “Well, so tell me, what the Bleep DO we know?”

      My reply was: “Not so terribly much, perhaps, but we know one HELLUVA lot MORE than THAT video suggests!”

      Over the next several years, I think I’ve persuaded my neighbor that we do indeed know a helluva lot more than THAT video suggests; I think he now understands that scientists understand that empirical science cannot (even in principle, let alone in practice) answer ALL questions, particularly not questions about ultimate origins. However, he remains a theist, but that’s OK, I remain an atheist, thus preserving parity.

  29. OliversArmy
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps Albert’s critique was sharpened by his dislike of Krauss’s attacks on faith…

    I suspect you are right. David Albert is a leader on a project that has received a $1M Templeton grant: Investigations in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

    One of the aims of this “ambitious” project:

    Create a network of researchers from philosophy, physics, astronomy, theology, and allied areas of research who are working on these issues

    • Heintje
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

      I think this can be construed as an ad hominem towards Prof. Albert, but I will say it nonetheless and I stand by it:

      I am extremely suspicious of what an academic beneficiary of Templeton’s money has to say, especially in matters that religions traditionally like to claim authority.

      • couchloc
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

        This is just irresponsible, anti-intellectualism. Albert gives specific reasons for his complaints in his NYTimes review that come from his understanding of physics, and these can’t be shrugged off with ad hominem’s like this.

        • Andrei
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

          I did not find much physics in his review. It’s just some silly babbling about “if anything can arise from nothing, then this ‘nothing’ is anything but nothing”. He does not give his own definition of “nothing”, though, so it is hard to grasp what he is talking about.

          His whole argument is based on “what if”-s. What if the laws of quantum mechanics are an effect of some other, “deeper” property X, etc. Krauss’s book is down to earth, it is not about philosophy, and it is not about some murky theories such as strings or M-theory. No need to invoke anything “deeper” than quantum gravity (which is not yet fully developed, but we have some clear clues about what it must be.)

          Albert’s last passage about “the whole business of approaching the struggle with religion as if it were a card game, or a horse race, or some kind of battle of wits” is totally off the mark. Krauss’s book is anything but “struggle with religion”. He was even accused of “accomodationism” once, as far as I can remember.

      • Posted April 6, 2012 at 5:45 am | Permalink

        “I am extremely suspicious of what an academic beneficiary of Templeton’s money has to say, especially in matters that religions traditionally like to claim authority.”

        Me too, Heintje, me too! Perhaps I am biased, but so too are beneficiaries of Templeton’s money, so my bias at least contributes towards establishing bias parity .

        I have (and liked) Albert’s “Quantum Mechanics And Experience,” and I was very baffled by Albert’s knock on Krauss’ AUFN, but I am less baffled by it now (I had not realized Albert was a Templeton beneficiary, I need to pay closer attention to such connections). I’m like professors Dawkins and Coyne in that I know not even ONE single, solitary thing that theology (or any theologian) has contributed to objective knowledge that godless empirical science/scientists could not have discovered and disclosed.

  30. Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    For the second time I am responding with surprise and disappointment to a post by you Jerry, that seems to me to stem from some kind of gut reaction on your part.. I haven’t responded to the review by Albert simply because it seemed to me not worthy of response.. and nothing has changed my mind about that. Perhaps he didn’t read the book as he certainly didn’t describe anything that was actually in the book and that wasn’t in either the preface or the afterword.. I suspect those two things upset him to the point that he clearly didn’t read or understand the key physics concepts and his comments about religion at the end were irrelevant (as if, in a cosmology book, I should devote time talking about why religion is bad for humanity.. I think it probably is bad for humanity.. but that is irrelevant to the origin and evolution universe.. all I care about is understanding how the universe evolved, and if possible originated, and the issue there is whether God helps understand that.. and it doesn’t as far as I can see). Ultimately it seemed a poorly thought out illogical and tangential book review by someone who had something they perferred discussing rather than the actual book, and not worth responding to..

    I guess I am responding to his (albeit briefly and I don’t plan to write more than this note) because I think you are confused, and you seemed earnest in trying to read the book and for whatever reason I guess I care more what you think..

    In any case, as you make clear, you didn’t understand the book, which also surprised me as I tried very hard to make a concise and up to date, and accurate history and explanation of the physics of our current understanding of the present strange and remarkable universe .. I was also surprised that as a scientists you would prefer me to focus more on the origin of the universe before explaining the properties of our universe that I feel must inform and precede such a discussion.. (indeed I would argue that in this sense you are taking a philosophical approach rather than a scientific one.. having your arguments derive from questions and concepts you make up rather than questions and concepts the universe leads us to..)

    And you seem to have missed the key point. It is not lost on me that the goal posts have changed..I was honest about this.. my point is that the question of ‘nothing’ is one that needs to be explored from a scientific perspective.. and when one does so, the whole meaning of the question becomes less important.. nothing is not so simple anymore.. and moreover, the claims that I define nothing to be the quantum vacuum is something I keep reading in some of these reviews, but that is disingenuous. I carefully tried, in 3 steps, to progressively explore different versions of what one might operationally call nothing from a physicists perspectve.. The first version is indeed the empty vacuum of space–the eternal void of the bible if you wish. Such a version of nothing can quickly be dispensed with as easily leading to something, and not really that different from something.. as I point out. ( and for some reason this bothers some people who think it shouldn’t be so..) But then I talk about how the complete absence of space itself, of our universe, can lead to the creation of space.. our universe.. when quantum gravitational considerations are included…. Now, in this case, there may be ‘something’..perhaps an eternal multiverse out of which our universe may arise.. but in no sense did OUR universe, or OUR vacuum state in our universe, exist before such spontaneous creation may occur.. Finally I point out that the laws of physics themselves may be unique to our universe. (It is true as I point out that quantum mechanics itself may be common to all universes or not.. I have no idea.. but that is not the point..it is a side issue).

    I made the point somewhere in the book that when one considers these things the question why is there something rather than nothing (where we live to ask the question) is like asking why some flowers are blue and others red.. it may not be a fundamentally interesting question from a scientific perspective.. That may be disappointing, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be true.. If it is a bait and switch that is because science as done the switching.. I may not be focusing on the classical question that has bother philosophers, but I don’t think I ever claim to.. I am more interested in the questions of the real universe…

    Moreover, the point of the book is to carefully show that the characteristics of our universe are more or less precisely those characteristics of a universe that could spontaneously arise and evolve by physical, and not supernatural causes.. and that didn’t have to be the case! I think that alone is worth celebrating, and explaining, and with all due respect, having read the literature, I don’t think that has been described carefully and knowledgably (with both the particle physics and cosmological issues treated) and in an up to date fashion in the public literature before..

    And finally, without the pretense that it may appear that this sentence, I do think in spirit that what it does is similar to what Darwin’s book tried to do.. albeit I agree without being the monumental piece of new exploratory science that his masterpiece uniquely was in the history of science.. it simply tries to plausibly understand how the diverse and wonderful universe we see, which appears naively to be designed, can arise by purely physical processes that might be both understood and predictive…

    I would hope you would give it another go and try and puzzle your way through the cosmology, but I am sure you have other things to do.

    Best

    Lawrence Krauss

    • Stephen Barnard
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

      I read you book (Kindle edition) and enjoyed it. First you were accused of “accomodationism” (the horror!), and now you’re accused of bashing religion. Damned if you don’t and damned if you do. I don’t give a shit about Albert’s religious beliefs, if any. His review was not persuasive or even coherent, but I very much liked his video interview that Jerry Coyne linked to. Physics has serious foundational problems that are swept under the rug in this forum when people speak so confidently about determinism and the nonexistence free will.

    • Posted April 6, 2012 at 6:30 am | Permalink

      I read the Kindle edition of AUFN too, I found it to be very thought-provoking; I enjoyed it VERY much and I learned much from it that I thought I already knew and understood but actually didn’t, and I have strongly recommended AUFN to pretty-much everyone I know. The fact that AUFN left unanswered questions about the ultimate nature and origins of reality “on the table” strikes me as, um… preeminently normal and right!

      In my (feeble, admittedly fallible) personal experience and thinking, any book that doesn’t leave unanswered questions about the ultimate nature and origins of reality “on the table” is a book most deserving of skeptical suspicion.

  31. Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    typo..

    “I guess I am responding to his” should be “I guess I am responding to this”. If you can fix that Jerry then that would be good.

  32. Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    p.s I admit I skipped the part of your discussion about religion on first since I usually don’t care about those debates so much.. but I think you got suckered too when you suggest the book is littered with comments about God and religion, as some others have implied.. it isn’t.. In the book I think you will find I mention religion or God on very few pages.. 5 or 6 perhaps.. I may be dismissive on those pages, but they are hardly a key part of the book.. As I said at the beginning.. the book is not an attempt to discredit false beliefs as much as it is to explore the beauty of the universe we live in..

  33. Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I too am having to read sections of this book a couple of times to get the full meaning (I was just mentioning this to someone today). However, I am truly enjoying Krauss’s style and method of explaining things. I loved the historical perspective he includes as many of these things help me counter those who tout “quantum” woo. That’s one reason I am working to understand just what Krauss says. I know how woo-mongers can distort these things and I would like some ammunition when they start to call out to modern physics to support their myths.

    I’m sorry to say that I just don’t get your complaints. Perhaps I will understand more when I have finished the book, but so far I find this book to be a nice complement to his talks.

    I will, however try to read more by Stenger and Carroll’s.

    • Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

      Uggh, please ignore the “‘s” at the end, up there, where maybe no one even noticed it until I pointed it out here.
      (It makes me feel better to point it out first.)

  34. phosphoros99
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    “Richard Dawkins’s afterword, which claimed that Krauss’s book would do for physics and cosmology what The Origin of Species did for biology: dispel the last evidence for God as seen in natural “design” or the idea of ex nihilo creation”.

    Knowing what we know now I’m amazed that Professor Dawkins could make the claim that the Origin of Species dispels the last evidence of God.

    It may have seemed that way in the 1800s not today. A little reflection shows that it actually produces the opposite effect today.

    We are living Super Marios.

    • Tulse
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink

      We are living Super Marios

      Gosh, that’s even more opaque than you usually are, Phosphy — do you mean we are merely characters in the Matrix?

      • phosphoros99
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        What are Mario and Luigi ?

    • Posted April 6, 2012 at 6:12 am | Permalink

      “Knowing what we know now I’m amazed that Professor Dawkins could make the claim that the Origin of Species dispels the last evidence of God.”

      Knowing what we know now, it seems to me clear that Darwin’s TOOS did indeed herald the dispelling of the last of [alleged] God (there NEVER WAS any objective EVIDENCE of [alleged] supernatural creator God, for unanswered questions are not evidence of anything OTHER THAN that not all questions are presently answered, which nobody disputes), in that what we do now objectively know eliminates any need for [alleged] God in explaining our natural history.

      “It may have seemed that way in the 1800s not today. A little reflection shows that it actually produces the opposite effect today.”

      That is not what a little reflection shows me, nor does even considerable reflection show me that.

      I’m not saying you ARE wrong in your present conclusions (about whether there does or does not actually exist a supernatural creator God, as many allege), just pointing out that reflections on the present state of knowledge about the character of physical law and the natural history of the universe, Earth and life does not factually or logically compel one to conclude that any [alleged] supernatural creator God surely (or even likely) exists.

  35. Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    WHY THE EVOLUTION IS TRUE ? ? ?

  36. Posted April 3, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Hey everyone! Lawrence Krauss responded!

    Anyone notice?

    Jerry?

    Bueller?

    (I kind of want to see a dialogue form between Coyne and Krauss… that would be *fascinating*…)

  37. Posted April 3, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Seriously? Krauss writes a book titled “A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing” and then doesn’t claim to answer the question “why is there something rather than nothing?”.

    Essentially, Krauss’ reply is:
    “Yes, it’s bait and switch but science made me do it.” I’m with Jerry and David Albert.

  38. Posted April 6, 2012 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    Of possible interest relevant to this thread of commentary: “The National Science Board (NSB) announced today that renowned cosmologist and author, Lawrence Krauss, is the recipient of its 2012 Public Service Award for an individual.”

    To read more, visit…

    http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=123633&org=NSF&from=news

    …which mentions (among other things) “A Universe From Nothing.”

  39. Posted April 7, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    I read Universe From Nothing soon after it came out and felt disappointed by it so I wrote out the following review for my own benefit as a way of verbalizing my misgivings:

    I’ve read many books about the latest scientific discoveries and theories, so I read “A Universe From Nothing” with considerable interest. The authors of popular science books are handicapped by not being able to use the language of mathematics, and this book is no exception. While it was interesting I found it to be less than convincing in establishing that the universe could have originated from “nothing”. Part of the problem, of course, is the definition of the term “nothing”, as the author notes. But beyond that the book is filled with so many ifs, buts, and howevers that it reads more like informed speculation than scientific fact. No problem there, as many recent books have that flavor (e.g., “The Hidden Reality” by Brian Greene). What is different about “A Universe From Nothing” is that it makes a point of arguing against belief in God and religion, especially the Afterword by Richard Dawkins, in which it is apparent that he wants to use the book to knock down the “you can’t get something from nothing, ergo God” argument. But the book contains so many caveats that in the end it seems that the only real conclusion one can draw is the one drawn by Steven Weinberg: Science does not make it impossible to believe in God, but rather makes it possible to not believe in God, which is a modern re-phrasing of Laplace’s famous dismissal of the God hypothesis (“I have no need of that hypothesis”). In my opinion RD’s Afterword tries to claim more than the book’s content supports, making it sound like “special pleading”. So even though I think the book falls short in its attempt to smack down belief in God, I think it is not emphasized nearly enough that there is no reason to believe that a “Creator of the Universe” God has any relation to the anthropomorphic God of the Abrahamic religions (the author does mention this, see p. 173). As scientists we must admit that we cannot disprove the existence of “God”, but we certainly can marshal many devastating arguments against the Biblical and Koranic “God” being anything other than the foolish ideas of our ignorant ancestors (see The God Delusion).

    Having said this let me add that I’m a big fan of RD and LK and what they are doing; I just happen to think this book tried to make more of its contents than was actually there.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 9, 2012 at 7:17 am | Permalink

      I think Weinberg is a bit dated. Today we have enough observations to claim that local systems are natural and the universe too, they obey the energy principle.

      So we can certainly test and reject the notions of gods, including deistic and agnostic versions that clads together as “not natural”.

      But if you are looking for mathematical disproof you are out of luck. Science don’t do that.

  40. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 9, 2012 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    Too late for the party. Oh well, I can at least leave my calling card:

    I’m not very impressed by Krauss much of the time and certainly not with Alberts. It isn’t a good criticism of evolution that it doesn’t explain the transition from chemical to biological evolution and its species.

    Likewise it isn’t a fair criticism of a theory that explains the transition from what string theorists call “nothing”, absence of spacetime, to spacetime and its universe. This type of explaining the previous era backward or more generic theories downward is expected in science. I can see how Dawkins were happy with it, and I can see why Krauss is miffed by the goalpost moving of pretending that something out of “nothing” hasn’t been predicted.

    You can pretend that the theological “cause-effect” chain continues, but as regards spacetime causality the buck stops there. If you want to understand time, its potential evolution without causality, quantum mechanics and so on, you need further theory.

    If you are asking for a meta-theory that predicts all of this we already have some. Environmental selection over multiverses are one which encompasses all earlier history, Stenger’s ideas are another. I don’t think Krauss would have been comfortable to go there, he has a good reputation as a physicist to protect and would be bound to use what is largely accepted already.

  41. derekw
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    Late into this thread (was on vacation) but here’s an old earth creationist critique of Krauss’ AUFN…

    http://www.reasons.org/articles/universe-from-nothing-a-critique-of-lawrence-krauss-book-part-1

    http://www.reasons.org/articles/universe-from-nothing-a-critique-of-lawrence-krauss-book-part-2

    • rlwemm
      Posted April 13, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink

      Could you suffer from the Smart Idiots Effect or do you just suffer from emotionally motivated reasoning?

  42. Posted November 24, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    All those who don’t believe the universe could explode out of nothing should check this out:

    http://thescientificworldview.blogspot.com/2012/06/dutkiewicz-blasts-krauss-interview-on.html

  43. John Schutt
    Posted May 5, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    “religion rests on beliefs that are assumed to be true…”
    The only thing that this review shows is the worldview assumptions of the author. As a PhD and biology and a Christian, my faith is based on evidence. I get weary of this sort of drivel from atheists who simply don’t understand rational faith. (Or, the philosophical assumptions of science for that matter.)

    • Posted May 6, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      So, please educate us!

      What is the evidence for your rational faith?

      How does it compare to the evidence you used in your biology research? Is what you believe the *best* explanation for that evidence? Are your beliefs falsifiable, as any worthwhile hypothesis in biology would be?

      /@

      • John Schutt
        Posted May 6, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

        Tulse, I’m overwhelmed by your logic. I submit. I don’t know what the words, “rational” and “faith” mean. You alone are the source of truth. I bow to your superior intellect.

        • Tulse
          Posted May 6, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

          Not a fan of “The Princess Bride”, eh?

          In any case, to provide an argument more rigorous than a pop culture quote, the very notion of “faith” is that it is a belief that is not justified through rational means — if it is, it isn’t “faith”, at least as both of those words are usually defined. “Rational faith” sounds like it is simply “knowledge”, a belief that is justified via standard objectively-verifiable means.

          Perhaps to advance this conversation with more light and less heat, you could unpack what you mean by “rational faith”.

      • John Schutt
        Posted May 6, 2013 at 9:24 am | Permalink

        Hello, Ant,

        The study of historical biology, historical geology, historical astronomy, and historical religion use the same techniques.

        As for “educating you”… well, that would depend on your presuppositions. But, you have already revealed your hand. Game over.

        • Posted May 6, 2013 at 9:53 am | Permalink

          Hmm… the study of historical religion (a sociological phenomenon) is different from faith.

          “Game over.”

          Thank you. I accept your surrender.

          /@

          • Posted May 6, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

            Hmm… I saw JS’s reply to my comment above in my email, but (cp. #45) it also seems to have evaporated.

            I have noticed that atheists are both illogical and, in the end, vulgar. Thank you for verifying the first.

            And we have noticed that when people (not just believers!) have no rational arguments, they evade direct questions and fall back to unsubstantiated rhetoric.

            If I were you, I wouldn’t have wasted an opportunity to enlighten us!

            I take your non-answers to my questions above to indicate that your evidence-based rational faith is not on the same epistemic footing as your quondam biology research, and is, in the end, simply faith: “Pretending to know things you don’t know.” [Peter Boghossian] If I am mistaken, please put me straight.

            /@

            • rlwemm
              Posted May 7, 2013 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

              It is clear that this guy wants to preach and sling mud, not have a rational conversation. Trolling Christian.

    • Tulse
      Posted May 6, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      “Rational”, “faith”…You keep saying those words. I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

  44. Timothy Utley
    Posted December 14, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Follow me here. The kind of nothing people seem to be confronting Krauss with is an absolute nothing: no God, no laws of physics, no vacuum of space. That’s what people mean when they respond that Krauss’s “nothing” is not really “nothing “. I see what they mean, but think about it, how could such a “nothing” – no laws of physics/no creator, even exist? We are here. So *something* had to have existed prior. I guess people can argue that a creator, God, existed before the laws of physics. But then you are left explaining the existence of a being vastly more complex than the universe it is alleged to have created.

    Whether Krauss was the first to say it or not: evidence that a vacuum state can produce a universe is pretty significant, cosmologically speaking.

  45. Tulse
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Nope. That’s not what I mean by “faith.”

    So, to repeat, what do you mean then?

    I have not found an atheist who is interested in discussion.

    …he said, while trying to be engaged in discussion by an atheist.

    How about we actually address the substantive issue, rather than slinging insults?

  46. Posted May 6, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Hmm… JS’s comment, to which Tulse’s comment above is a reply, seems to have evaporated… 

    /@


10 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  2. [...] from Nothing got a scathing review in the New York Times.  Jerry Coyne finds the courage to pile on, although he disagrees with the reviewer’s remarks about religion (rightly, I think — I [...]

  3. [...] from Nothing’ has gained widespread attention and approval in diverse quarters (including Jerry Coyne’s).  Here Professor Victor J. Stenger offers his own [...]

  4. [...] Jerry Coyne, known for his antagonistic attitude towards religious belief, showed integrity, writing [...]

  5. [...] of the book in the New York Times. And discussion has gone back and forth since then: here’s Jerry Coyne (mostly siding with Albert), the Rutgers Philosophy of Cosmology blog (with interesting voices in [...]

  6. [...] of the book in the New York Times. And discussion has gone back and forth since then: here’s Jerry Coyne (mostly siding with Albert), the Rutgers Philosophy of Cosmology blog (with interesting voices in [...]

  7. [...] David Albert pans Lawrence Krauss’s new book (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com) [...]

  8. [...] Fisher also usefully points out this response by Krauss, which is closer to the substance of the issues raised, above.   One could, of course, think [...]

  9. [...] critic,  Jerry A. Coyne, author of “Why Evolution is true”, joins in: “Krauss defines “nothing” as a “quantum vacuum,” without giving us reasons why that [...]

  10. […] Jerry Coyne agreed with Albert, Krauss claimed that his book was not “focusing on the classical question that […]

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