Lost in Translation

a-universe-from-nothing-200x300Though I’ve discussed a few different versions of the cosmological argument, I’ve just realized that I’ve never addressed Lawrence Krauss’ claim that the universe can arise from nothing.

This is half-intentional, as the problems with his argument have been pointed out many times before. But, to give the briefest of summaries for those who are unfamiliar: Krauss has pointed out that empty space contains vacuum energy, from which virtual particles can arise. It is not impossible, then, that the entire universe is a massive quantum fluctuation.

To be equally brief in criticizing him, it has been pointed out that, even though scientists often use the word “nothing” to refer to the quantum vacuum, it is not actually nothing. Moreover, this addresses only the Kalam, and is irrelevant to the other cosmological arguments.

I bring this up, however, because it is a good example of a common mistake. Philosophical arguments for God’s existence are often compressed into a scientific mold (often mangling them beyond recognition), then attacked for being poor science.

I’ll not deny that philosophical arguments are poor science, but one suspects that something has been missed here.

Using Krauss as an example, he clearly has compressed the Kalam (which is interested in the question “What is the original cause of physical reality?”) to “What caused the Big Bang?”. Thus, he thinks that by suggesting a cause of the Big Bang, he’s dealt with the argument, though the point being made is clearly not dealt with unless he can show that the quantum vacuum could itself be past eternal.

But the key point is that Krauss would never have made this mistake if he’d not assumed that a philosophical argument was an attempt at science.

Numerous attempts have been made to clarify these issues to Krauss and others. But, rather than speculate as to why they have failed, I’d like to make the point that one cannot press the idea that science will answer philosophical questions by simply assuming that these questions are scientific. That would, after all, be circular reasoning.

In fact, I think this is where we get the idea that there is some inherent conflict between science and religion. It seems more that there is a conflict between what is said in the name of science, and what is said in the name of religion. And a real conflict seems to depend on misusing one of the two of these disciplines.

4 responses to “Lost in Translation

  • paarsurrey

    Reblogged this on paarsurrey and commented:
    I agree with you that there is no inherent conflict between science and religion; whenever it seems to occur it is because of wrong interpretation either on the part of those on the side of science or on the side of religion due to the humans making mistakes of omission or commission on either side; otherwise science and religion support one another; these are in perfect harmony with one another.

    “Something” and or “nothing”; are both creations of the one true God; He only is eternal and immortal.

  • Hank Kimball

    I would have to ask; Even if the vacuum is ‘nothing’; “What intelligence turned the vacuum on.?” No matter how it’s sliced,diced,pulled apart, thought out, argued, even imagined; existence, in the final analysis, had to have an intentional ‘first cause’. It is only intelligent to deduce at least that. Just as an edge or end to the universe is logically not the end of, but a hurdle to more; if it were the case. I submit that our finite minds cannot as yet grasp more than they’ll ever have to in our current circumstances. That, it seems, it reserved to one that has been there and done that. I think it takes more faith to believe that this universe came out of nothing, means nothing, and goes nowhere; than to have faith that we are intelligent agents of a God’s ever advancing creation at the beginning of it all.

    • Debilis

      This really makes it clear that this is a question that science (amazing as it is) can’t answer for us. I wish I could be this succinct.

      But I know what you mean. I had great doubts about my belief in God before I began comparing it to the alternatives.

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