By “Nothing” I Don’t Mean Nothing, I mean “Nothing”

hsc4364lI promise I’ll get back to my response to Chris Hallquist’s book, but, in the mean time, I’d like to comment on Lawrence Krauss. At the moment, he seems to be getting more press than the other New Atheists. And, as long as he’s still garnering attention for peddling bad philosophy as good science, I think it worthwhile to continue to point out the reasons why he’s wrong.

Really, I wanted to discuss his Big Think video, it is a good summary of his central argument, in which he takes the position that science has shown it plausible that the universe can come from nothing.

On the face of it, the claim seems ridiculous. This is, I would argue, because the claim is ridiculous. Krauss seems to think otherwise, and his fans seem to think that expertise in theoretical physics is required to understand the point–often accusing anyone who disagrees with Krauss of speaking out of ignorance of science.

In reality, the question isn’t scientific, but metaphysical. And it is Krauss who is speaking out of ignorance. His oft-repeated refusal to learn anything about philosophy maintains that ignorance. How so? That brings us to the video.

He opens with this:

[T]he simplest kind of nothing is the kind of nothing of the Bible. Say an infinite empty space, an infinite dark void of the Bible. 

My Bible doesn’t seem to have a dictionary attached to it–certainly not one that defines ‘nothing’ as ‘an infinite dark void’. The fact that Krauss can, with a straight face, claim that this is the ‘nothing of the Bible’ tells me that he’s spent a lot more time listening to fundamentalists and angry atheist rants than actually reading the Bible he claims to be explaining to the rest of us.

As Craig pointed out in the debate ‘nothing’ means ‘no thing’ or ‘not anything’. It’s always meant that, not ‘empty space’ or ‘void’ or anything else. And only someone either ignorant of both philosophy and the English language or with a deep personal motivation to dismiss theism could fail to understand this.

There’s more that could be said, but let’s move on:

Well, that kind of nothing turns out to be full of stuff

It’s an elementary point that anything which is ‘full of stuff’ is not nothing. And even Krauss admits this in A Universe From Nothing (albeit, not until spending the overwhelming majority of the book on it as if it were relevant to the point).

Of course, the fact that he admits this in his book doesn’t prevent him from constantly talking as if the quantum vacuum is, in fact, nothing:

So the difference between empty space with stuff in it and empty space with nothing in it is not that great anymore. In fact, they’re different versions of the same thing. So the transition from nothing to something is not so surprising.

Is Krauss insisting that the quantum vacuum is nothing? That seems to depend on whether or not he’s being challenged on the point. This a classic bait-and-switch, where Krauss claims to be answering one question (‘can something something come from nothing’) but is actually answering something else (‘can one physical state come from another physical state’).

Of course, Krauss isn’t done yet:

[A] more demanding definition of nothing is no space, but, in fact, once you apply the laws of quantum mechanics to gravity itself, then space itself becomes a quantum mechanical variable and fluctuates in and out of existence and you can literally, by the laws of quantum mechanics, create universes.

Krauss goes on to suggest that some might complain that the laws of physics aren’t nothing (which would be fair, they aren’t). But he never seems to realize that gravity isn’t ‘nothing’ either. It is, specifically, something. Isaac Newton never had a critic accuse him of ‘discovering nothing’.

Anyone who understands the subject realizes that neither the laws of science nor gravity is actually nothing, including Krauss himself. This is why he moves on to ever more ‘demanding’ definitions of nothing–but note that he never actually gets to the actual definition: not anything.

To the claim that the laws of physics aren’t nothing, he has this to say:

But even there, it turns out physics potentially has an answer because we now have good reason to believe that even the laws of physics themselves are kind of arbitrary.

There may be an infinite number of universes, and in each universe that’s been created, the laws of physics are different. It’s completely random. And the laws themselves come into existence when the universe comes into existence. So there’s no pre-existing fundamental law. Anything that can happen, does happen. And therefore, you got no laws, no space, no time, no particles, no radiation. That’s a pretty good definition of nothing.

Here, Krauss is invoking the concept of the multiverse. But it never seems to occur to him that an infinite number of universes, each with random values and more universes popping into existence isn’t nothing. I think it’s pretty obvious that it’s a whole lot of something.

In fact, if ‘anything that can happen, does happen’, Krauss has no reason why Thor, Zeus, and the whole string of ancient deities he likes to cite when mocking theism don’t exist. And discovering that one’s defense of atheism supports the existence of Zeus should give one pause. But apparently Zeus isn’t ‘nothing’ in the same sense that an infinite number of physical universes are ‘nothing’.

This is his climax, then. Proposing a physical thing (the multiverse) that may-well be infinitely larger than the universe and calling that ‘nothing’ is so strange as to be beyond parody. It’s not a ‘pretty good definition of nothing’. If Krauss’ materialism were correct (it isn’t), it would be a lot closer to ‘everything’. But Krauss didn’t title his book ‘A Universe from Almost Everything”.

The implication here seems to be that, since science has found causes that are smaller and harder to detect as it advances, it will someday find a cause that is literally nothing. This makes as much sense as the man who, after halving his gas bill by cleaning his oven, cleans it again expecting that this will reduce his gas bill to zero. Science simply isn’t in the business of studying nothing for the very simple reason that nothing is not a ‘thing’ that can be studied.

And Krauss would know that if he’d learn something about logic and philosophy, rather than demanding the right to remain ignorant about it.


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