There is an interview over on Sam Harris’s blog that is worth checking out. It’s with physicist Lawrence Krauss about his new book on why there is something rather than nothing. The exchange is quite fascinating.

The question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, has long been a important philosophical question, not to mention a theological one (“Why are there beings at all, instead of Nothing?” the philosopher Martin Heidegger famously asked.). Those looking to find something more than the workings of matter in the activities of the universe have used this question as a pointer to a mystery not yet explainable in the physics department. Turning nothing into something, goes the argument, requires more than we’ve yet discovered in particle accelerators or mathematical speculations. Wherever one stands on questions of science, spirit, or God, it is certainly a question that gets to the heart what has been the source of creativity in our marvelous universe. I love the question itself, because it points to the beautiful mystery and extraordinary creative power that lies at the foundation of existence, no matter to whom or to what we might attribute that creativity.  As for myself, I don’t believe that an omnipotent deity reached down from on high and said “let there be light” or that supernatural interventions were the extra special ingredient in the pre-Big Bang cosmic soup, but I do think there is a mystery at the foundation of the universe that challenges many assumptions we make about life, no matter who we are.

Krauss, however, doesn’t seem quite as impressed with the profundity of this question. He suggests that the nature of this debate has fundamentally changed in the last decades with new discoveries in physics, and the resulting knowledge we have gained is a challenge to theology, not science. I excerpt part of his answer here:

Modern science has made the something-from-nothing debate irrelevant.  It has changed completely our conception of the very words “something” and “nothing”.  Empirical discoveries continue to tell us that the Universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not, and ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ are physical concepts and therefore are properly the domain of science, not theology or philosophy. (Indeed, religion and philosophy have added nothing to our understanding of these ideas in millennia.) I spend a great deal of time in the book detailing precisely how physics has changed our notions of “nothing,” for example.  The old idea that nothing might involve empty space, devoid of mass or energy, or anything material, for example, has now been replaced by a boiling bubbling brew of virtual particles, popping in and out of existence in a time so short that we cannot detect them directly.  I then go on to explain how other versions of “nothing”—beyond merely empty space—including the absence of space itself, and even the absence of physical laws, can morph into “something.”  Indeed, in modern parlance, “nothing” is most often unstable.  Not only can something arise from nothing, but most often the laws of physics require that to occur. 

I love the fact that science is exploring questions like this, so I should give Krauss some real credit for that. And I haven’t read his book, so please take that into account. But this is still problematic on several levels.  And calling the whole issue “irrelevant” is the height of overstatement. First, Krauss is right that our conception of nothing, in science at least, is changing. We once thought the vacuum was essentially a sort of nothingness. But now we know that as he says, in a wonderfully poetic phrase, it is a “bubbling brew of virtual particles popping in and out of existence.”  I’m not sure how something popping in and out of existence is entirely distinct from something coming from nothing, but leaving that aside, I don’t see how this constitutes any sort of statement about the larger question of creation itself, of something coming from nothing at that level. So the vacuum is not empty. Great, that’s fascinating science. For the most part, it has little bearing on the mystery of the “first cause.”

Second, notice how Krauss claims, just as an obvious aside, that religion or philosophy have added nothing to our ideas on the subject in millennia. Far be it from me to defend the extreme backwardness of much religious thought, but the statement is simply not true. And I hate that scientists get away with statements like this, casually brushing aside the idea that philosophy (or perhaps even mysticism or theology) could ever have anything to do with the advance of knowledge, as if they don’t even have to defend such a statement. (I suspect it has to do with a whole belief system about how knowledge advances, but I’ll leave that for another post.)

Third, are something and nothing really physical concepts?  Krauss asserts that they are and therefore claims them for science, but I wonder. It seems to be there can be a something that is not physical, like a thought or a natural law. Are such things physical? It’s not immediately obvious to me that the answer is yes. I guess Krauss defines science as having to do with physical things, and but not sure science is limited to that, or should be limited to that. Even physics isn’t’ really limited to physical things—not these days.

Then, Krauss goes on to point out two other ways that we are changing our conceptions of nothing—the nothingness of the absence of space, and the nothingness of the absence of physical laws.  I’m less versed in the science here, but again, these raise fascinating questions—like, when do the laws of physics enter into the picture of our universe? Were they there at the beginning, or were they there before the beginning, and if so, would that really be the beginning?

But none of these reconceptions of nothingness explain away the fundamental conundrum of how something emerges from nothing. In fact, if you don’t have space, time, objects, or even physical laws, then we are really talking about nothing, not just a metaphor or an approximation. And Harris, to his credit, immediately notices this. He queries:

You have described three gradations of nothing—empty space, the absence of space, and the absence of physical laws. It seems to me that this last condition—the absence of any laws that might have caused or constrained the emergence of matter and space-time—really is a case of “nothing” in the strictest sense. It strikes me as genuinely incomprehensible that anything—laws, energy, etc.—could spring out of it. I don’t mean to suggest that conceivability is a guide to possibility—there may be many things that happen, or might happen, which we are not cognitively equipped to understand. But the emergence of something from nothing (in this final sense) does strike me as a frank violation of the categories of human thought (akin to asserting that the universe is a round square), or the mere declaration of a miracle. Is there any physical reason to believe that such nothing was ever the case? Might it not be easier to think about the laws of physics as having always existed?

I appreciate this question because it is intellectually honest, and gets to the heart of the something-from-nothing mystery, which I’m not sure Krauss fully appreciates.

Harris seems to dislike the idea of a true nothingness giving rise to something, and I understand that aversion. It smacks so much of a non-rational, throw-up-your-hands metaphysical leap. Krauss’s answer is simply to point out that the universe is often averse to our preferences and we have to accept it the way it is whether we like it that way or not. Fair enough, but he sort of sidesteps the more basic issue of something-from-complete-nothing, which is what Harris is getting at here. Indeed, there is that true issue of creation out of zilch, and then there are a number of other issues connected to that basic philosophical issue. It seems that Krauss is mostly talking about all of these connected issues, which is fine, but it hardly makes the more basic issue irrelevant.  Truthfully, I’m not sure if it’s possible to say that much about the first cause. We just don’t know. (Turtles all the way down, I guess J).

The interview goes on to address where things stand in Physics’ quest to understand the universe, and Krauss’ s thoughts are compelling and interesting.

Reflecting further on the interview, I think that perhaps the more important question that gets sparked by all of this is not just “how does something come from nothing?” but “exactly what kind of something needs to be part of the nothing that was there at the beginning of the universe in order to get to the world of today?” In other words, what needed to be implicit in that original potential 13.7 billions years ago in order to evolve a universe of life, consciousness, human culture, and the enormous complexity of information, mind and matter that we now see before us. What, if anything, needed to be involved in order for it to evolve?

 

To paraphrase Brian Swimme, you take hydrogen gas, leave it alone for 13.7 billions years and it turns into rosebushes, giraffes, and human beings. How does that happen? I mean, that must have been some kind of special hydrogen gas. To paraphrase the movie My Cousin Vinny, this hydrogen gas must come from the same guy who gave Jack his beans. So to me, the fascinating question is: what needed to have been there at the origin of the evolutionary process to get the results we see after billions of years. Indeed, how does one achieve entire new categories of existence like biological life or human cognition along the cosmic evolutionary journey if some of those qualities were not already implicit in the origin—even if only in some kind of highly implicit, proto-form? That is why some people want to say that the whole universe is a “living universe” right from the beginning, because it helps avoid the issue of having life emerge out of an otherwise dead universe.  It is why some would like to place consciousness at the foundations of reality, implicit in some early, proto-form even at the quantum level, perhaps, because it helps explain why intelligence and highly individuated consciousness emerges in such a striking way later on the temporal process. Or maybe we are underestimating the sheer creative power of evolution. Maybe you don’t need those qualities there at all in the beginning, just a few natural laws and hydrogen. But then you really are talking about incredible creative leaps.

Of course, it’s cleaner, metaphysically speaking, if less is there at the beginning, but then the creative demand on the evolutionary process is greater. Emergence must then play a stronger role. I lean in that direction, but am not sure you can go all the way and fully scrub all of these higher potentials of evolution from earlier levels.  I do believe in the creative power of our universe, and the critical importance of real novelty in the unfolding of our cosmic timeline. Incredible leaps can and do happen. But magnificent somethings from next to nothing—over and over again? Well…that remains to be seen.

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