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.