Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing is long overdue for The Discarded Image. After all, the question of why there is something rather than nothing is at the heart of religious, philosophical, and scientific pursuits, all of which we like to talk about.
Krauss, a Canadian-American professor of theoretical physics, Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, proposes that philosophers and theologians have the idea of “nothingness” entirely wrong and should start listening to scientists if they want real and testable answers.
What does religion say? Christian theologians generally argue for a universe from nothing, or ex nihilo, by which is meant that God formed the universe using no prior material. Creation has a cause and a starting point, but the cause—God—exists outside of the universe.
Of course, the rich theological heritage of this idea gets complicated, involving things like Aristotelian discussions of form and matter, and versions of ex nihilo in which God, as the only true act, repeatedly creates out of nothing called occasionalism, or the question of whether God repeatedly creates a soul at conception from nothing. Most Christian theologians agree, however, that the universe eventually must have a supernatural cause.
Theologians like St. Thomas argued against an infinite regression of natural causes by pointing to a First Cause and saying, “this all men speak of as God,” who is, of course, an immaterial something. Krauss takes issue with this theological solution, particularly since he, like many others, does not believe in God. The “…declaration of a First Cause still leaves open the question, ‘Who created the creator?’,” writes Krauss. “After all, what is the difference between arguing in favor of an eternally existing creator versus an eternally existing universe without one?”
According to Krauss, “an infinite regression may actually be closer to the real process by which the universe came to be than a single creator would explain.” In A Universe from Nothing, he sets out to show how modern science changes the way we talk about origins and, as Krauss sees it, how it eliminates the need for a divine creator altogether.
Krauss sets out to re-imagine the idea of nothing. Theologians and philosophers often discuss nothingness as the absence of anything. Nothing is, therefore, a conceptual zero, or better yet, a complete non-existence. Krauss sees this concept as only residing in the imagination, but not in reality of the physical universe. When combining relativity with quantum physics “we have learned that space and time can themselves spontaneously appear.”
Krauss’ nothingness is a type of somethingness. An empty stretch of space is never truly empty, as he sees it. The bottom floor of the universe is always an unstable something that contains energy. More specifically, he is concerned with quantum fields, the foundation for constructing existence. Certain particles (quarks, for example) exist as a result of the structure of a quantum field, popping into existence where there were no particles originally. That is what Krauss means by “nothing.” Since we know that something can pop into existence within a quantum field, that is how you eventually get a universe. With the recent (potential) discovery of the Higgs-Boson, Krauss concludes that this idea is further substantiated, writing at The Daily Beastthat “Higgs field validates the notion that seemingly empty space may contain the seeds of our existence.”
Krauss dismisses theologians and philosophers who are yet to find his explanation of the origins of all things a closed-case, even leaving him to face criticism from his friend, cognitive scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett. (Krauss gave an interview with The Atlantic in which he spoke disparagingly about philosophy.)
Philosophers, like David Albert writing at the NY Times, wanted to know where the quantum field and laws of physics that make this possible come from? Does Krauss need to offer an explanation for these as well?
In making his case, Krauss has not helped himself either. A reading of A Universe from Nothing makes it clear that Krauss never took the adage, “you make more friends with honey than vinegar” seriously enough. He has a good sense of humor, but his sarcasm could create a serious impasse for some sensitive readers on the other side of the discussion, leaving his most successful audience to be the proverbial “choir.”
This is not to say that, when it comes to pushing for a change in thinking, the world doesn’t need a hitter as well as the poet, but not every question requires a brawl.
And this brings me to a point that I think is essential for any conversation of this nature. If Krauss raised this issue as a scientific discussion ready for collegial collaboration with philosophers of science, and had not immediately made it a banner of atheism, he may have made more friends and headway. Instead, he is continually on the defensive—though it appears clear that he has the fortitude to take that on and enjoys that position.
Still, Krauss may not win the populist heart, but he raises an important question. If the laws of physics only take us so far, is that where we stop? Do we resort to a divine creator? This is a question that led Thomas to make the leap from a string of natural causes to a supernatural one, but the premise for that leap remains an unproven, unfalsifiable one. So if you are a theologian, what is your next move?
Lastly, Christians theologians have made creation ex nihilo a hallmark doctrine of orthodoxy. But can theologians look at the universe differently here? As John Walton has pointed out in his recent books The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate(2009) and Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology(2011), the ancient Near-Eastern universe presented in Genesis is not the story of creation from nothing. It is not about the creation of the material, but a mythological story of how the already existing material found “function” or order.
Perhaps this means that creation ex nihilo is open for revision in such a way that theologians can reconsider new options and engage in conversation with scientists like Krauss without an immediate defensiveness. I’m not a theologian, but given Walton’s conclusions, there appears to be no need to accommodate Genesis to modern science in this case. They are entirely different animals.
I would not be surprised to find Krauss’s Universe, if it becomes a standard model for cosmology, to be appropriated in some modified form by certain creative theologians who remain resourceful. Maybe Krauss’s universe can co-exist eternally with an eternal God, then again, maybe some should just resort to Stephen Colbert’s question to Krauss (see video below):
“If there is “no thing” called God—if he is nothing—can’t something come from him?”
For those interested in learning more about the debate, I’ve included several resources below.
1) Lawrence Krauss versus Mark Driscoll
2) The now famous conversation between Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss.
3) Krauss’ famous lecture on Youtube with 1.5 mil views
4) A conversation (and an odd-coupling) between Krista Tippett and Lawrence Krauss on science, life, and spirituality