Why Nothing Matters

Reflections on A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing by Lawrence Krauss

In his new book, A Universe from Nothing, Lawrence Krauss explicitly acknowledges that, to fully understand the genesis of our cosmos, we have no choice but to face the nothingness that preceded it. But, in so doing, he inadvertently exposes the seemingly insurmountable obstacles to this project that are inherent to the positivistic methodology of modern science.

Lawrence Krauss’ new book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, performs two invaluable services – one intentional and the other unintentional. With regard to the former, and not to imply that broaching this topic is entirely unprecedented, Krauss has, in a conventional and respectable way, introduced nothingness as a legitimate topic of cosmological study. At the same time, this effort of his to discuss nothingness in a conventional manner has inadvertently exposed the main shortcomings of that very convention – its need to assume up front exactly what it is trying to prove, namely, the quantum/mathematical substructure.

Reading his book from these dual perspectives, we can simultaneously celebrate the emergence of a crucial avenue of research and at the same time examine, up close, the methodological strictures that must be loosened in order to conduct that research. It has become abundantly clear that nothingness cannot be avoided any longer – modern cosmology has been pushing up against the origins of the universe for decades now – but inviting such a radically irrational concept (nothingness) into the sanctuary of science threatens to undermine the positivistic foundation that supports the whole enterprise. To my mind, this is exactly the sort of basic conflict-of-principle that presages exciting new possibilities.

The main benefit to science of Krauss’ book is not that he succeeds in explaining cosmic genesis from nothing, but simply that he raises the issue. It is hard not to judge this unexpected development as real, genuine progress. Of course, not to get too carried away, the nothingness Krauss describes is nowhere close to the complete and utter emptiness with which philosophers have traditionally grappled. Indeed, what he attempts to pass off as nothing is exactly the comfortable old positivistic, mathematical substructure upon which physicists build all of their theories. But his success or failure is of only secondary importance. What is most newsworthy here is that Krauss, a card-carrying member of the club, felt compelled, even at the expense of his credibility, to acknowledge nothingness as that from which the universe must have originated.

The Problem with Positivism

The last few chapters are where Universe gets interesting, and it is here that Krauss succinctly sums up the rationalist’s positivistic dilemma:

…the “something from nothing” argument really tries to focus on the original act of creation and asks whether a scientific explanation can ever be logically complete and fully satisfying in addressing this specific issue. (emphasis mine)

Note that “fully satisfying” is defined as “logically complete.” This is as clear and concise a statement of the positivist’s faith as you are ever likely to find. To his credit, Krauss at least admits that this is an open question, an answer to which is not guaranteed, even by science. But what he does not admit is the possibility that a satisfying answer might be other than logical. Indeed, throughout his book, the only alternative he can imagine to reason is theology.

Surely the requirement of an all-powerful deity who somehow exists outside of our universe, or multiverse, while at the same time governing what goes on inside it, is one such claim. It should thus be a claim of last, rather than first, resort.

It would appear that there are only two possibilities: genesis is either rational or divine. And Krauss spends an inordinate amount of energy disparaging religion, even inviting Richard Dawkins to pen a withering Afterward that extols the enlightened scientist at the expense of the Medieval theist. This reason-vs.-religion narrative is so familiar it has become something of a folk truth, compensating with repetition for what it lacks in logical force. But what if there is another alternative? What if neither reason nor God is appropriate here? In that case, Krauss and Dawkins are attacking a straw man and side-stepping the real issue, while at the same time exaggerating the force of their position by contrasting it with a weak but naively chosen opponent.

For my purposes, there are two critical aspects of reason: its intrinsic incapacity to derive first principles, and the urgent need of man to abandon the futile attempt and instead start searching for those principles by different means. In the overwhelming majority of cases, this shortcoming of reason arises with respect to the meaning and purpose of life – what could be called human truth or existentialism. In its most prosaic form, it manifests itself when we repeatedly ask “why” about any particular motive until we reach a point at which we are forced to admit that there is no ultimate reason for any of it. Why do I go to work? To pay the bills. Why pay the bills? To sustain my family. Why sustain my family? To perpetuate the species? To build a genetic legacy? Is that really why I’m going to work? To the innumerable armchair philosophers who find themselves thinking in circles about the meaning of it all, take heart, the professionals have not made any more progress than you have.

There is a reason for this impasse. Only after we have decided to, for example, perpetuate the species, can reason step in and help us figure out how to do it, namely, by starting a family and earning enough to support it. That is, if we want to perpetuate the species, then we must start a family. But reason is incapable of helping us come to the overarching decision, the organizing principle, or telos in the first place. That is, our justification for perpetuating the species, though it may be perfectly laudable, is not rational.

Reason cannot be used to deduce first principles because all forms of reasoning (e.g., modal logic, predicate calculus, mathematics, algorithms, philosophical dialectic) take the form of “if… then…” statements. They are hypothetical. In every case, reason proceeds by accepting inputs in the form of assumptions, premises, empirical data, start values, or axioms. It then performs a logical operation and spits out a rational, logical conclusion. However, the inputs (premises, assumptions, etc.) are never themselves proven true by the argument itself. Only the conclusion can be considered rational, not the inputs. If the inputs happen to be true, it is by virtue of something other than the argument in which they appear as assumptions. And that is why reason (including mathematics) cannot be used to discover first principles. Anything that qualifies as a first principle would, simply by being first, function as the primary input to the first piece of reasoning, and in that respect would be axiomatic, provisional or, in general, pre-rational, not rational.

As I said, this shortcoming of reason usually appears in the context of ethics, of life’s meaning and purpose, but there is one other notable example. The holy grail of cosmology is to explain the genesis of the universe – in essence, to discover the first principle of reality. And, hard as it might be to swallow, particularly for a discipline that prides itself on rigid mathematical reasoning, the inherent structural limitations of reason apply just as stubbornly here as anywhere else. Therefore, the first principle of the universe, whatever it is, is not rational. If and when this principle is discovered, it will function thereafter as the foundational assumption for all subsequent scientific reasoning, but will not itself be rational. Moreover, prior to that discovery, and in recognition of the fact that it will not be rational, there should be no expectation that this principle will even make sense to us or otherwise exhibit any of the coherence or logical consistency we have come to expect from math and reason. Indeed, we should have no expectations of any kind.

Let me state this idea as simply as I can. First, a proposition can only be called rational if it is the conclusion, not a premise, of some form of reasoning. Second, a first principle, simply because it is first, can only function as a premise, not a conclusion. Therefore, first principles cannot be rational. Throughout the history of Western thought, this conclusion has been drawn countless times in countless ways and is no longer considered particularly controversial by academics outside of the sciences. More than that, most schools of modern philosophy accept the impossibility of a rational first principle as the first principle. If you have ever wondered where relativism, subjectivism, perspectivism, deconstructionism, or nihilism came from, this idea is at the heart of those philosophies. Consider, there is only one logical step separating the futility of reason from the impossibility of truth, and that step was taken a long time ago.

Taking the First Step Into the Void

Armed with these two insights – that modern cosmology is incorrigibly rational while the first principle of the cosmos cannot possibly meet that requirement – provides a fascinating perspective on the last few chapters of Krauss’ book. In particular, it allows us to peek behind the curtain and examine, as from above the fray, the unproven assumptions at the core of positivistic science.

The faith of science in reason manifests itself as a strangely pathological fixation on its superiority to theology (and to a lesser extent, philosophy). A main theme – if not the main theme – of Universe is that reason is to be contrasted with religion, nothing else. Either the universe is logical or theological; there is no possibility that it is neither of these, that is, both non-logical and non-theological. And because theology (superstition) is just plain silly, argue Krauss and Dawkins, logic is the only choice. Looking critically at this curious assumption, we can see that religion functions here as a straw man that dramatically lowers the standard (as compared to the usual standards of science) that Krauss’ speculations must meet. Consider just a few of his own statements concerning the huge degree of uncertainty that remains in modern cosmology.

…the energy of empty space is not only not zero, but takes a value that is 120 orders of magnitude smaller than the estimate I described based on the ideas from particle physics…

…somehow, on the basis of fundamental principles, we would eventually be able to understand things such as why gravity is so much weaker than the other forces of nature, why the proton is 2,000 times heavier than the electron, and why there are three families of elementary particles. Put another way, once we understood the fundamental laws that govern the forces of nature at its smallest scales, all of these current mysteries would be revealed as natural consequences of these laws.

These gaping holes in our understanding would seem to recommend a healthy dose of humility. But then, in the very next paragraph, he says:

A purely religious argument, on the other hand, could take significance to an extreme by suggesting that each fundamental constant is significant because God presumably chose each one to have the value it does as part of a divine plan for the universe.

This straw man attack has the appearance of authority because of a very subtle, invisible to scientists, equivocation on the concept of non-rational. To Krauss, non-rational means exactly the same thing as superstitious (read, theological). And yet, as I explained above, the first principle of the universe cannot possibly be rational, if only because it must come first, before any act of reasoning can subsequently make use of it. Therefore, and ironically, if Krauss is right that religion is the only alternative to reason, and I’m right that the first principle cannot be rational, then we have no choice but to crack open our Bibles and start studying. Science has, whereas religion has not, slammed the door on a non-rational first principle, and that door must remain open if we are to make any progress.

Whether or not you are convinced that the first principle must be non-rational, you ought to at least acknowledge that, so far as non-rational options are concerned, Krauss has merely assumed, without even attempting a proof, that religion is the only candidate for this position. And by limiting his critical barrage to this facile target, he creates the illusion that even highly speculative theories are plausible, not on their own merits, but simply because they seem to have the authority of reason behind them. Not only that, but this assumption also seems to have lent itself to a tone of imperious condescension that reflects not the soundness of the ideas, but simply their superiority to a belief system with few if any scientific pretensions. In effect, Krauss celebrates the victory of reason, but only because he cannot conceive a more formidable antagonist than superstition. Then, allowing this unearned confidence to go to his head, he permits himself a good deal of latitude for intellectual sloppiness.

We can easily see how much less convincing Krauss’ speculations are when, instead of religion, we hold them up against the uncompromising standards of science itself. And though his book is full of examples that could serve our purposes here, there is one in particular that very clearly illustrates just how precipitous this sort of hypothesizing is.

In Chapter 8, Krauss attempts to show that our current theories might imply that our universe has its own unique set of physical laws (physical constants) and that our laws are special, perfectly suited for life as we know it. Understood as the Anthropic Principle, this only makes sense if it is assumed that there are many (perhaps infinitely many) other universes out there, causally disconnected from our own, that exhibit the full range of possible values for the fundamental physical constants. In that way our universe can be rare, but not dependent on divine providence. He makes this point by speculating about what would happen if the cosmological constant (understood as the pressure of empty space) were 50 times its measured value.

But remember that the energy of empty space is gravitationally repulsive. If it had come to dominate the energy of the universe before the time of galaxy formation, the repulsive force due to this energy would have outweighed (literally) the normal attractive gravitational force that caused matter to clump together.

The result of this increase in the pressure of space would be, among many other things, that life could not exist. In one limited respect, this speculation is reasonable; it follows logically from our current theories. However, all physicists, including Krauss, are more than aware that our current theories are demonstrably incomplete. Most notable is the ongoing effort to unify quantum theory and gravitation. Moreover, it is exactly this unification, it is hoped, that will shed some light on the cosmological constant. In Krauss’ example above, it is tacitly assumed that this constant could be increased by a factor of 50 without having any effect on the force of gravity; that the cosmological constant is somehow responsible for nothing more than the pressure of empty space. That, despite the fact that gravity manifests itself through the curvature of that very same empty space! Even after admitting almost total ignorance of the origin and nature of the cosmological constant, Krauss assumes, without any justification whatsoever, that it might vary independently of the other forces of nature.

It was not my aim here to resolve specific questions in cosmology. Maybe the cosmological constant really is independent of gravity. I have no idea. But neither does Krauss or anyone else. And, quite frankly, the speculation above is actually one of Krauss’ least fanciful. In most cases, he uses extremely tenuous or demonstrably incomplete theories, making myriad questionable assumptions, to draw conclusions that fall so far short of the requirements of scientific rigor that they could not even form the basis of credible science fiction.

This intellectual sloppiness seems to issue from an unjustified self-certainty in reason that is the result of contrasting it with religion alone, rather than with a more sophisticated and challenging form of unreason.


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