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A Universe From Nothing

September 20th, 2012 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss (Free Press 2012)

Lawrence Krauss has put together a fine introduction to the current state cosmology that is marred only by a provocatively metaphysical title to which exposition attempts to hew. Authors often lose control of their titles, and Krauss may have argued that subtitle should have read “How there is something rather than nothing,” or even better “How there is something in addition to nothing,” (which would surely be more consistent), but, really it is the metaphysics of “nothing” in the title that make it less than it could have been. But I get ahead of myself.

Krauss appears to have two main aims in A Universe From Nothing. One would to make modern cosmology interesting and accessible to those, such as myself, who frankly don’t have the background to understand cosmology at its deepest level. Here Krauss is brilliant and elegant. Keeping analogies and diagrams—which tend to mislead more than they enlighten—to an absolute minimum Krauss moves from the relatively straight-forward (why it is that it appears all galaxies are moving away from when the Milky Way—or any other galaxy for that matter—is not the center of the universe) to the more obscure but profound, (just what is this thing called inflation that comes—in cosmic terms—hard on the heels of the big-bang, what is it suppose to explain, and why it is an integral part of cosmology rather than an ad hoc support). He even makes a foray—albeit somewhat non-committal—into string theory. Those who want to know about dark matter, dark energy, negative energy,1 virtual particles, or quantum fluctuations, could do much worse.

There is also much that is truly thought provoking on an existential level. For instance, Krauss clearly argues that given the state of our current knowledge, future advanced civilizations on worlds yet unborn would have far fewer clues than do we about the origin of the universe. The background radiation, that cold echo of the big-bang, will be too faint to detect. Galaxies will be so far apart that they will not be visible one from another. At such a time, the only reasonable conclusion one could reach would be that the universe is much smaller and never had a beginning. One cannot help but wonder, what is it that we have missed—could not help but miss because we have come upon the scene when we did—that would change our body of knowledge. On the other hand one might ponder, what phenomena might arise some billions of years from now that on a cosmic scale is simply hidden from our current view. Such a provisional view is quite humbling. On the other hand, minds such as Krauss, may delve in new directions and make these constraints moot. We just don’t know all that we can’t know.

Now for Krauss’ second aim—an aim which almost certainly is the reason for some of the effusive praise found on the dust-jacket—that cosmology shows that creatio ex nihilo is no big deal, that it happens all the time, and so that God either doesn’t exist or is not necessary (which really amounts to the same thing). Here Krauss engages the reader on a philosophical level—a discipline Krauss elsewhere has demonstrated little patience. However, the nice thing about philosophy is that just about anyone can participate. If one is willing to ignore a few gratuitous swipes,2 the philosophy is quite approachable. Moreover, while most of us cannot engage deeply enough to critique the physics in A Universe From Nothing, almost anyone can evaluate a philosophical argument delivered on the popular level.

Krauss deploys two basic arguments. The first runs something like this:

  1. The argument that philosophers and theologians3 offer for the existence of God is everything must arrive from something (ex nihlio nili fit4) but that the chain of one thing arising from another cannot be infinite. So, the chain must end with God.
  2. But, every instance of nothing that philosophers and theologians offer is either too vague to be evaluated by scientific means or is such that science has shown that something can arise from it. Moreover, philosophers and theologians fall back to ever more abstract and absurd notions of what nothing is whenever science is able to show that something comes from nothing, but this line of reasoning cannot go on forever either.
  3. God is not necessary for the creation of the universe.

Although the form of the cosmological argument that Krauss seems to be critiquing starts with something along the lines that everything that began to exist was caused by something else, rather than that from nothing, nothing comes, it is a safe assumption that Krauss would consider nothing that “something else,” so we can simply proceed to the second premise. For the first charge, Krauss maintains that the typical characterization used by philosophers and theologians of nothing as the negation of being is vague and untestable and so cannot be demonstrated as true.

Much of the rest of the A Universe From Nothing, can be seen as directly or indirectly supporting the position that any sensible idea nothing is enough for something to arise. Whether one is talking about virtual particles springing from empty space, the net energy in the universe being zero, or the false vacuum that propelled inflation in the early universe, Krauss would maintain that a physicist can come up with a more common notion of nothing than a philosopher. In fact, the progression of the book is such that we are led to ever rarefied versions of nothingness. One can picture Krauss prodding his implicated interlocutors, as if saying “Is this nothing enough? No? How about this?” Indeed, Krauss accuses philosophers and theologians of changing what they mean by nothing in the face of science showing that something can come from nothing.

In reply, one could reply that while “negation of being” might sound a bit esoteric and obfuscating (the notion of being is not easily approached), one could suggest that if something exists, then it isn’t nothing. Now, the idea of existence may be just as vexing as being, but philosophers would agree that if something exists it has being and both philosophers and physicist would agree that if such things as quantum fluctuations and such are real, then they exist. If existence as such isn’t the sort of thing physic can evaluate, then it says more about the limits of physics than it does the nature of existence. Unless Krauss would want to argue that things that exist arise from things that don’t, it would seem that adage “ex nihlio nili fit,” still applies.

Krauss’ further gambit that philosophers progressively move away from more common sense ideas of nothingness to more obscure ones as physics discover something arising out of nothing does not gibe with the history of philosophy. Krauss quips that he imagines that Aristotle and Aquinas thought of nothing as empty space. On what this imagination is based is hard to say. Aristotle argued against the existence of the void. The choices before us would seem that he either held empty space to be something or (and this seems more likely) impossible. One could also point to more modern reflections in the correspondence between Clarke and Leibniz. Clarke held (with Newton) that space was absolute, but would have hardly thought of it as nothing. Leibniz, idealist that he was, held to a relative view of space such that if there were no objects, there would be no space, empty or otherwise. One might further argue that Kant’s famous antinomies of time and space loose their force unless space is considered to be something.

The problem we have here is that while we might be able to conceive of nothingness, we can hardly be said to be able to imagine it. When trying to imagine—or if you will, picture—nothingness we can only go upon ever more rarefied things that are next to nothing. This is a problem of which Krauss should be very familiar. Human beings do not live at the scale of either the quantum world or the cosmic. We really cannot imagine things at those scales and explaining them by what we commonly experience is fraught with limitations. Common sense ideas tend to break down at the extremes. It seems shortsighted to reserve this judgment for science while denying it to philosophy, and it would seem that philosophers have held a very radical view of nothingness for millennia.

It may well be on account of this radical nature of nothingness that philosophers such as Aquinas never used ex nihlio nihil fit5 as a premise but only as a supporting argument.6 The shame is that the only conclusion on can draw from ex nihilo nihil fit is that existence as such is necessary, not that a necessary being exists. Perhaps The Necessary Universe: How There is Always Something When There’s Nothing There, just didn’t make for as good a title.

Although initially directed at the so-called fine-turing argument, one almost guesses that Krauss senses that nothingness is not the issue, because toward the end he pivoted to a different line of argumentation.

  1. The most promising explanation for the origin of the universe predicts the existence of multiple universes.
  2. Multiple universes dispense with the need for a creator of the universe in the same way that natural selection does.
  3. Even if one could argue that God is somehow behind the existence of these multiple universes, their very necessity renders God redundant and by Ockham’s Razor nonexistent.

One does not have to be a physicist to find multiple universes (along with string and brane theory) appealing and intriguing. While a thing’s being appealing (as Krauss frequently notes) doesn’t make it so, those of us who are not cosmologists should best allow those are to play out the promise of multiple universes. For now, let us who are not in a position to pass judgment accept that this is just one of an unimaginable number of universes.

The second line of the argument simply goes after the fine tuning argument. The fine tuning argument is merely Paley’s teleological argument on a much larger canvass, and so any successful critique of fine tuning only goes to show that a good analogy doesn’t prove anything.

Of these, it is the third that may be the most interesting because buried there is the idea that the cosmos is necessary insofar as all possibilities (and so all potential) are realized. Multiple universes hold out the promise that the cosmos is fully actual and so, in a way, a necessary being.

There are, however, some prima facia objections that A Universe From Nothing doesn’t address. Assume for the moment that there are multiple universes and that there always7 have been. Each universe is in a system of multiple universes that can be seen either as distinct state of affairs, or possible worlds8 (because they are mutually inaccessible, following David Lewis), or as a single state of affairs or possible world (because only as a whole would they constitute a maximal state of affairs, following Alvin Plantinga). For convenience sake, let us continue to call the former “multiple universes” and the latter a “multiverse.” Looking at multiple universes, it should be pointed out that while possible worlds are not sets but states of affairs that have mereological qualities, once one compares the properties of one state of affairs with another, one is talking about sets. Now the interesting thing here is that even if the number of possible worlds is infinite (and as best as I can tell, brane theory stops short of that) that in Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory not all possibilities are realized because there can be no universal set. One can argue about Zermelo-Fraenkel, but it is not at all obvious that set of universes is necessary at all.

So much for looking at things from the vantage of David Lewis. Looking at things from Plantinga’s point of view,9 the reason for the multiverse is that it is a consequence of physical laws of this universe and the Platonic horde of universes is necessary for this universe to exist. Anyone who has read Kant should see what comes next. Simply because the laws that make this universe possible necessitates the existence of a multiverse does not necessitate the multiverse itself. One could dispense with both the consequence and the antecedent without contradiction. It would still seem possible that none of these universes exist or that there could be universes that are superficially similar to ours (at least at the macro level) but whose underlying natures are radically different. That is to say, there might be a host of possible multiverses that could exist, but only at the exclusion of all the others if actual. One might reply that such speculation is quite out of bounds of any science as utterly unknowable and should not even be considered,. However, philosophers are inclined to ask such questions, and if it is unknown that such radically different universes exist that would exclude our multiple universes, it is unknown that this multiples is the only one. So, it cannot be said with any certainty that these universes, even if they as a whole always existed, are necessary.

While Krauss supplies no sustained argument, A Universe From Nothing displays a distinctly anti-metaphysical cast. For instance, while Krauss rightly observes that most “why” questions are really “how” questions. Questions such as “Why is the sky blue?” might be better recast as “How is it that the sky is blue.” Not only is this a more accurate—albeit less elegant—construction but is one that the sciences are ideal at analyzing. Krauss then maintains that all “why” questions that cannon be construed as “how” questions deal with ethics. From here it is easy to see that since asking why something rather than nothing is not a moral question it must be a “how” or mechanical question. The possibility that why something rather than nothing might be neither ethical or mechanical is never addressed. One could argue that question of existence rather than non-existence is fundamentally an ontological or metaphysical issue.

Krauss ends A Universe From Nothing with a reverie on the meaning of life. There is an almost Stoic resolve that although the universe itself has no purpose and his place in it is utterly insignificant, he is able to draw meaning from life. Krauss is at least polite enough not to point out that even if the universe has a purpose, there is no reason to conclude that any given member has one. It is also true that even if we do have a purpose (or purposes), there is no reason to conclude that the universe is the sort of thing that has one.10 What is curious is Krauss’ turn of phrase—drawing meaning from life. One would have thought it better for him to say that meaning was something he created (from nothing?) for himself. However, to draw suggests that there is something there, at least implicitly, that even if there is no meaning in the universe itself, meaning can emerge from the universe. Regardless, metaphysics looms close by whether one draws or creates meaning.

There is also the question of just what is meant here by “meaning.” Is it simply a feeling of fulfillment (in which case, what is one pursuing, the feeling or the fulfillment) or is it some agreement between one’s nature and one action or direction. Perhaps the feeling that one’s life has meaning is a defense against the fact we do indeed signify nothing.

These would seem to be perfectly reasonable questions for anyone to ask. Stoicism (or any other of a host of alternatives) is perfectly respectable. Yet the question of meaning has meaning, though it would not appear to be one within the canons of physics (or biology for that matter). Yet choosing a general ethical outlook is not something that can be done within any given ethical system but upon the nature of the good. That nature is essentially a metaphysical. If such a question is worth pursuing, perhaps others, including why there is something rather than nothing, are worth their while apart from physics.


1I’m erring in putting these two in close proximity. They have less in common than the nomenclature might suggests.

2There is the old chestnut about scholastic debating about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, treating the Euthyphro dilemma as if it were newly invented, and assuming that like physics, knowledge in theology must be cumulative and progressive.


3Krauss frequently lumps philosophers and theologians together. While there are a fair number of people who can be characterized both as philosophers and theologians, there are a great many from each camp who would rather not be associated with the other. Krauss’ target is likely philosophers who have strong theological commitments, e.g. Christian philosophers.

4From nothing, nothing comes.

5It is of passing interest to note that creatio ex nihilo can be taken in two ways, as creation out of nothing (the affrimation that God required nothing outside the divine nature, or the denial that God made the cosmos from some outside substance unrelated to the divine nature) and creation from nothing (that God used nothing whatsoever to create). One could argue that any theology that allows some meaning to divine attributes must deny the idea of creation from nothing [whatsoever].

6Actually, medieval philosophers were more concerned with ex nihlio nili fit as an objection to the traditional doctrine or creatio ex nihlio. The affirmation of ex nihlio nihil fit (with which these philosophers agreed) seemed to entail that the cosmos was eternal. Aquinas, for instance, did not attempt to demonstrate that the cosmos had a beginning, only that ex nihlio nili fit was consistent with the cosmos having a beginning.

7Always would almost certainly have be understood in a non-temporal or eternal sense here.

8“Possible world” is a term of art used by modal logicians for a state of affairs that can somehow be considered complete. Such state of affairs do not have to be very large in order to be considered worlds, but since the cosmos is an actual complete state of affairs, it qualifies as a possible world.

9Actually, I’m stretching things a good deal here. Even if Plantinga were to concede that multiple universes could constitute a signal state of affairs, he would still insist there are multiple multiverses.

10For instance, during a rush hour commute one may reasonably ask where each of the drivers is going, but it would make no sense to ask where rush hour is going.