Tag Archives: Lawrence Krauss

Playground Insults in the Name of Civil Discourse

3tscekThe London School of Economics is facing a controversy this week over it’s insistence that an secularist group not sport offensive t-shirts and signs. Unsurprisingly, Richard Dawkins has voiced his support for the group, calling the school officials “sanctimonious little prigs”.

I have no idea if Dawkins realized that he was demonstrating the exact sort of mean-spirited behavior the atheist group was accused of stooping to. If not, he can rightly claim to be as ignorant of basic courtesy as he is of theology (and, if so, it is not a compliment to say that he has no problem being mean-spirited).

In fact, the New Atheism (always taking its cues from Richard Dawkins) seems to have a long track record of garnering attention by specifically putting their message in offensive terms–then acting shocked and crying oppression when offense is taken.

And this was the issue with the group: not that the position of atheism (or even of close-minded, ranting atheism that confuses cheap slogans for reason) was unwelcome at the event, but that public discourse requires a certain level of civility in order to function.

The group complains “Our right to free expression and participation in the LSE student community is being curtailed for no other reason than that we are expressing views that are not shared by others”. But this is simply false. Rights to expression and participation were never taken away. The group was neither banned from participating nor hindered from distributing their literature. They were merely asked to remove offensive signs and t-shirts and present their case in a civil way–the exact thing that is expected of every group at the event.

Needless to say, this was not “for no other reason” than their disbelief. It was for the unnecessarily rude methods that characterize the New Atheism. But it seems that the movement, having made incivility its calling card, has trouble understanding the difference between offering reasons for disagreeing and resorting to ridicule.

All this reminds me rather of the behavior of Lawrence Krauss–who recently insisted on an informal debate format with William Lane Craig in order to “have a conversation”, then used that format to shout down and talk over Craig rather than listen to or address his points. This group, following the example of their leaders, seems far less interested in actual conversation or fairness than in using the rhetoric of civil society in order to excuse behavior more appropriate to the Jr. High playground than civil debate.

For all its claims of intellectual superiority, the New Atheism behaves far more like an angry mob than a coalition of thoughtful individuals. Atheists in general should be rushing to distance themselves from this group in the hopes of salvaging what’s left of the stereotype that atheists are a sophisticated lot.

If they’ve failed at dismantling theism, Dawkins, Krauss, and their fans have blown the lid off of the myth that an atheist can be expected to be particularly reasonable.

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.

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.

Dawkins Promoting Science?


Prominent New Atheists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss have released a trailer for an upcoming film, which seems to follow the same pattern as previous New Atheist productions: Documenting one or more of the New Atheists travels as they interview and debate people on the subject of religion.

Quite a few things struck me about this, actually. But my key issue is this:

The film claims to be promoting science

I don’t see how there can be people in western culture who are convinced that science’s main difficulty is a lack of trust being placed in it.

For my money, the biggest obstacle to a clear understanding of what science is and does is the scientistic philosophy being promoted by Dawkins and Krauss themselves.

That they have put so much energy into convincing people that science addresses spiritual questions, gives us an approach of how to live life, and is somehow advanced through political activism puts them more in league with the Scientologists than anyone doing legitimate research.

Personally, I’d be very interested in a film that promotes good science, rather than the creator’s personal philosophy masquerading as science.