The “Universe from Nothing” Brouhaha

Or maybe it’s a kerfluffle.  Clearly more than a spat.

When last we checked in on this, Lawrence Krauss’s book A Universe from Nothing had been savaged in the New York Times by David Z. Albert, a physicist/philosopher from Columbia. That’s gotta sting.

Krauss then gave an interview to someone at the Atlantic in which he referred to the reviewer as a “moronic philosopher.”  Ouch!  He also dissed philosophy in general.  He then had to walk that back in the Scientific American.  You can’t be messin’ with philosophers.

Sean Carroll at Discover Magazine attempts to referee the dispute:

Very roughly, there are two different kinds of questions lurking around the issue of “Why is there something rather than nothing?” One question is, within some framework of physical laws that is flexible enough to allow for the possible existence of either “stuff” or “no stuff” (where “stuff” might include space and time itself), why does the actual manifestation of reality seem to feature all this stuff? The other is, why do we have this particular framework of physical law, or even something called “physical law” at all? Lawrence (again, roughly) addresses the first question, and David cares about the second, and both sides expend a lot of energy insisting that their question is the “right” one rather than just admitting they are different questions. Nothing about modern physics explains why we have these laws rather than some totally different laws, although physicists sometimes talk that way — a mistake they might be able to avoid if they took philosophers more seriously. Then the discussion quickly degrades into name-calling and point-missing, which is unfortunate because these are smart people who agree about 95% of the interesting issues, and the chance for productive engagement diminishes considerably with each installment.

But he does grant one of Krauss’s major points, which is that modern physics has removed the need for a Creator:

If your real goal is to refute claims that a Creator is a necessary (or even useful) part of a complete cosmological scheme, then the above points about “creation from nothing” are really quite on point. And that point is that the physical universe can perfectly well be self-contained; it doesn’t need anything or anyone from outside to get it started, even if it had a “beginning.” That doesn’t come close to addressing Leibniz’s classic question, but there’s little doubt that it’s a remarkable feature of modern physics with interesting implications for fundamental cosmology.

You may not think that has interesting implications, but anyone who uses the argument from design will have to contend with this kind of rebuttal, in the way they have to contend with evolution as an alternative explanation for how humans came to be.

On philosophy: Clearly, bad-mouthing philosophers is going to land you in a heap of trouble, but I take Krauss’s point.  When scientific knowledge overtakes philosophical speculation, it must be frustrating for a scientist to see philosophers go on speculating, as if this hard-won knowledge didn’t exist.  But I think the criticism is more properly applied to theologians, for whom belief will always trump knowledge.

3 thoughts on “The “Universe from Nothing” Brouhaha

  1. Nope. Sorry, you’re just wrong. The issue isn’t that Krauss and the philosophers have different methods (“speculation” vs “scientific”) it’s that they were asking different questions but Krauss made the false assumption that they were asking the same questions and that physics had answered them.

    Second, the methods used by modern theoretical physics at the margins (such as string theory) are speculative. Highly so. They are philosophical arguments mostly and employ the same tools that philosophers use to analyse philosophical claims. The criteria are many fold such as

    1. explanatory power

    2. coherence

    3. elegance

    4. aesthetic appeal

    Currently, the evidence cannot be gathered to settle many of the mysteries in theoretical physics and cosmology due to technological limitations. Maybe in another 50 years it will be more “scientific” in the empirical sense but right now much of theoretical physics and cosmology is speculative. That doesn’t mean of course, it ain’t worth doing (much the same as philosophy).


    • Thanks for stopping by! On your first point, that’s at least partially what the brouhaha is about, isn’t it? I’m not equipped to judge who’s right, other than to read the experts.

      On your second point, in “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” Lisa Randall has an interesting chapter called “Truth, Beauty, and Other Scientific Misconceptions” that bears on these issues.


  2. Pingback: Yet another brouhaha: Did Shakespeare have a co-author on All’s Well That Ends Well? | richard bowker

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