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A Universe From Nothing

February 14, 2012     Time: 00:19:50
A Universe From Nothing


Dr. Craig looks at the basic claims of Lawrence Krauss' new book A Universe From Nothing. What are the philosophical and scientific definitions of "nothing". Is this something only science can consider?

Part 1

Kevin Harris: This is the podcast of Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. Glad to have you here. I'm Kevin Harris. A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing—that's the latest book by Lawrence Krauss. He's a theoretical physicist and professor of physics at Arizona State University, very influential atheist, and you can check the podcast concerning the debate that Dr. Craig had with Dr. Krauss. [1] Just go back a few weeks in the podcast. Bill, the title in the book is quite a familiar phrase. I think we already know where this is going.

Dr. Craig: Well, it plays off of Leibniz's famous question: why is there something rather than nothing? Leibniz said this is the first and most fundamental question that ought to be asked: why does anything at all exist? And Leibniz argued that the ultimate reason for the existence of anything is that there must be a necessary being, a being who's non-existence is impossible, and this is the sufficient reason for why anything else exists. And Leibniz identified this metaphysically necessary being as God.

Kevin Harris: What we like to do today is listen to some excerpts from Dr. Krauss on this particular book. In our limited time in the podcast we can be as succinct as possible and hit the highlights. His first segment talks about why he wrote the book.

Lawrence Krauss: The question 'why is there something rather than nothing?' is one obviously that is at the basis of all the world's religions at some level, and is often used as a crutch that there must be a creator. And I want to use the hook of that fascination with that topic to get people actually interested in the real universe. You know, the book is not designed to necessarily attack religion. While it is true it will point out what I view is the truly remarkable fact that the revolutionary developments in science over the last fifty or sixty years have brought us to the cusp of the plausibility of understanding just how a universe could come from nothing.

Kevin Harris: Well, he says he doesn't want to attack religion, but he already calls it a crutch.

Dr. Craig: Exactly. And that simply shows, I think, his lack of understanding of the history of philosophy. The question of why anything at all exists is a question that philosophers have struggled with for millennia. It is not an attempt to be a crutch for religion. This is a philosophical question: why do contingent beings exist when their non-existence is perfectly possible? Given that it's possible that things don't exist, why do they exist? Why is there a universe at all? Why is there anything at all rather than just nothing? And so you cannot, I think, denigrate this fundamental, philosophical, and metaphysical question by characterizing it as a crutch for religion.

Kevin Harris: All worldviews try to answer this question. Metaphysical naturalism and naturalism, they try to answer this question; this book tries to answer this question.

Dr. Craig: Yes, exactly. The fundamental contention of the book is that it's plausible that the universe came from nothing. Now, I think it's very important, Kevin, to understand or to say a word about the word nothing because I think that Professor Krauss misunderstands and misuses this word throughout his work. The word “nothing” in English isn't the name of something. It's simply a term of universal negation. It means not anything. So when you say “I had nothing to eat for lunch” you mean “I did not have anything for lunch.” You don't mean that you did eat something and it was nothing.

Kevin Harris: I ate some nothing and it was delicious.

Dr. Craig: Right, it would be utterly inappropriate for you to say, “I had nothing for lunch,” and somebody said, “Well, how did it taste?” And you said, “Oh, it was real tasty; it was great.”

Kevin Harris: Yeah, nothing tastes better with a little whipped cream. [laughter]

Dr. Craig: Right, or if you say, “I saw no one in the hall, and then he directed me to the office.” That would be obtuse. You mean, “I did not see anyone in the hall.” So, the word nothing is simply a term of universal negation, meaning not anything. And so when you say it's plausible that the universe came from nothing what you would have to mean is it's plausible that the universe did not come from anything. Now that could mean that either the universe is eternal, that it's always been there, or you could mean that it popped into being uncaused. But it is simply a misuse of language to, shall we say, nominalize nothing or to reify nothing as though it were something, [2] and then say that that thing is responsible for bringing the universe into existence. That is simply a failure to understand how the word nothing works.

Kevin Harris: In that segment that we just heard he also is setting up his contention that science is coming to the rescue on this. You can throw away the crutches in that this is the realm of science and not theology and philosophy and so we're starting to do some research on this whole thing.

Dr. Craig: Yes, and I think what we'll see, Kevin, is that in fact he's not really talking about nothing at all. He is using the word nothing in a nonstandard way to actually refer to something that exists, so that it's not true on his view that the universe did not come from anything. It most certainly did come from something, and he will simply use the word nothing as a name for that entity but he is misusing the word nothing as it's standardly used in English.

Kevin Harris: We'll see how he defines it a little bit later. Let's go to the next segment.

Lawrence Krauss: Much like, although we should try not to be as pretentious, perhaps, as to make the comparison, but at least in some sense it's comparable to what Charles Darwin was trying to do, and what he did, by showing that the origin of the diversity of life on earth didn't require divine intervention but could be understood from natural physical laws. And just from the fact that evolution happened and that diversity did arise because of that, of course doesn’t immediately rule out or make impossible the idea that there's some divine purpose to the universe, nevertheless it tells us that it's certainly possible that the universe, and in this case life, arose naturally by physical laws. And what I'm talking about is the fact that the universe could arise naturally by laws that we're beginning to understand, and in the process have discovered that the universe is far more remarkable than we ever thought it was before.

Kevin Harris: So in the same way that Darwin showed that biological diversity can be explained apart from God, the universe from nothing, Big Bang cosmology and everything can also be explained apart from God due to all the new research or where the research is going.

Dr. Craig: Right, which is a remarkable claim on the face of it if 'nothing' is understood in its standard usage because science only deals with what exists. Science by its nature is an exploration of the physical natural world and its properties, and there is no such thing as a physics of non-being. Science only studies what exists, so the whole claim that science could explain how something came from nothing, when that word is used in its standard meaning, is absurd.

Kevin Harris: Here's segment number two.

Lawrence Krauss: Pure thought, philosophy and theology, are kind of impotent on these questions. Because if you're asking the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” you have to ask what is something and what is nothing. And those are scientific questions; they're not philosophical or theological ones.

Kevin Harris: Do you agree with that? [laughter]

Dr. Craig: That is fundamental to this whole issue. He says that what is something, what is nothing, are not philosophical questions; these are scientific questions. And here he is simply mistaken. One of the tasks of philosophy is to analyze the terms that we use; to make distinctions and to help us understand and use them properly. In an article by Gary Gutting, who is a professional philosopher who we're going to discuss on another podcast, he makes this point so well. I wanted to just read a portion of Gutting's article because I think it speaks to this issue. Gutting says,

In addition to defending our basic beliefs against objections, we frequently need to clarify what our basic beliefs mean or logically entail. . . . Answering such questions requires careful conceptual distinctions . . . Such distinctions are major philosophical topics, of course, and most non-philosophers won’t be in a position to enter into high-level philosophical discussions. . . . It’s true that philosophers do not agree on answers to the “big questions” like God’s existence, free will, the nature of moral obligation and so on. But they do agree about many logical interconnections and conceptual distinctions that are essential for thinking clearly about the big questions. . . . Such distinctions arise from philosophical thinking, and philosophers know a great deal about how to understand and employ them. In this important sense, there is body of philosophical knowledge on which non-philosophers can and should rely. [3]

Now that is absolutely fundamental to this claim by Lawrence Krauss. He ignores the philosophical distinctions between something and nothing, [4] and says science is going to define these terms; it's going to tell us what nothing is. And what he winds up doing is not using the word nothing as a term of universal negation to mean not anything, he just uses the word nothing as a label for different physical states of affairs, like the quantum vacuum, which is empty space filled with vacuum energy, which is clearly not nothing as any philosopher would tell you. It is something. It has properties. It is a physical reality. So this is, I think, one of the most powerful object lessons, I think, Kevin, that I could think of about how ignorance of philosophy can lead otherwise intelligent people into cul-de-sacs and absurd conclusions because they don't understand fundamental conceptual distinctions that need to be philosophically clarified. And certainly the distinction between something and nothing is one such metaphysical distinction.

Kevin Harris: What is this trend that I am seeing among physicists to try to divorce themselves from philosophy, and philosophy of science all the while engaging philosophical speculations about it?

Dr. Craig: I think it's a result, Kevin, of what Harvard philosopher W. V. O. Quine called naturalized epistemology. In the aftermath of the collapse of verificationism earlier in this century – verificationism, remember, was the view that the only sentences which are meaningful are those which can be scientifically verified, and that soon collapsed as a theory of meaning – in the aftermath of the collapse of verificationism came naturalized epistemology which says that we shouldn't ask these deep fundamental metaphysical questions. Instead you just begin with what science tells you and then you try to work out your worldview based upon the teachings of science, and treats metaphysics as led by the nose by naturalistic science. And so I think that this has led to this sort of hubris on the part of certain scientists, plus the fact that they have no training in university in philosophy, to think that they have the answer to all of the fundamental questions of life. And as Gutting points out, that is simply wrong-headed. There are deep conceptual distinctions and logical implications that need to be made and isolated and that is the work of philosophers, and those who are not trained in this discipline will often simply become muddled in their thinking because they don't have these conceptual distinctions clear.

Kevin Harris: Let's continue with this segment.

Lawrence Krauss: And you don't make any progress just sitting either staring at your navel or coming up with musings about what being or non-being is. The question is, and I try to elaborate on this in my book, really, when we ask for 'why' what we really mean is 'how.' We mean: how could the universe come into existence from nothing, if it did? And until we explore the universe – which is what science is all about – until we measure and observe and test our ideas, we don't get anywhere. And so if these are really not philosophical questions then science has completely changed the whole fabric of understanding the whole playing field of the question of something and nothing. It's changed what we mean by something and nothing.

Kevin Harris: Now, he really views philosophers and theologians as those in dark towers shut off from any research and exploration, contemplating their navels, as he will say, and he says that's totally counterproductive. You got to have men in the field, the scientists.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, he doesn't understand philosophy. For example, philosophy of science is itself a burgeoning discipline today where philosophers reflect upon the data of science. So it's not navel gazing and it's not at all isolated or cut off from the real world in which we live. Rather we want to ask what are the philosophical implications of certain scientific views? What are the philosophical presuppositions of certain scientific theories?

Kevin Harris: Oh, like cloning. I mean, if scientists found out how to clone you or me there would be philosophical speculations on what the ramifications of that bald research and experiment does—right?

Dr. Craig: Sure, ethical implications, also implications about human personhood. That's right. And we would want to reflect on those, and we will need to draw certain conceptual distinctions in order to keep our thinking clear. And what Dr. Krauss does is simply fail to keep these distinctions clear by using the word nothing in an aberrant sense as a name or a label for something that actually exists. [5]

Kevin Harris: He continues in this segment:

Lawrence Krauss: . . . and made the question very different than what it was before. It's like, to some extent, it's like that certain questions that once seemed important are not. It used to be in the old days, why are five planets so important? And people thought of the five platonic solids and thought that there was some profound reason. And now we understand this is really an accident of the formation of our solar system and there's no profound purpose or meaning behind it. And our understanding of something and nothing has changed that question so that in some sense we now understand that there's really not a great deal of difference between something and nothing, that nothing can turn into something all the time, that nothing is unstable, that not only can space produce particles but space itself can spontaneously come into existence, and as I say, and as you pointed out, science has changed the whole fabric of the discussion.

Dr. Craig: This is almost laughable, Kevin. Here he admits that the question that he is dealing with is not the same question. He says, it's a different question than before, the question has changed. So he's not addressing Leibniz's question “why is there something rather than nothing?” Why does anything at all exist? Rather, he's asking the question how does our material universe that we observe today emerge from, say, the quantum vacuum state, this state of empty space filled with this sea of energy? And so it's a different question, but he retains the same words as the original question so that it makes it look like he's answering the original question, and therefore has disposed of the need for any sort of a cause for the universe or sufficient reason for why there are contingent beings at all. But he actually admits that he's answering a different question. So when he says there's not a great deal of difference between something and nothing it's very evident that he's not talking about nothing in the sense of universal negation – not anything. He means the quantum vacuum or a state of affairs, a physical state of affairs, where classical space and time don't exist.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, Bill, and also when he mentioned that about the five planets I think what he's leading to is that we no longer need to impose some kind of a meaning on why there are five planets rather than six. You know, people try to derive some kind of a platonic significance, and so on. And I'm sure that what he's getting at is that we don't need to impose God upon cosmology and physics any longer.

Dr. Craig: Right, it's a totally different question – isn't it Kevin? – the analogy is not good. The question is still very important: why are there these planets? Why do these planets exist? There's just no symbolic significance in the number five, as you say. But we still ask the question why do these five planets exist? That is a question that astronomers will want to know the answer to. Similarly, why does anything at all exist when it could have failed to exist? That question still remains to be asked. So his analogy is simply not a good one; they're not parallel questions.

Kevin Harris: Let's listen to one more segment in this podcast.

Lawrence Krauss: We don't have a theory of what the universe is like at the very earliest moments because we don't have a quantum theory of gravity. So we have many ideas about what may have happened, but as we develop new theories that are tested and shown to be correct obviously we'll change our picture greatly. I mean, it won't change the fact that the Big Bang really happened. We can understand the Big Bang back to the earliest moments, microseconds after the Big Bang, and we can test those ideas. And so we can understand the universe back to a fraction of a second after the Big Bang, and so those ideas aren't going to change. But the idea of what happened at t=0 or maybe even what produced that and whether our universe is one of a multiverse of an infinite number of universes. All of these ideas are going to develop as our understanding of nature develops.

Kevin Harris: Well, Bill, Dr. Krauss seems pretty confident that our basic understanding of Big Bang cosmology is not going to change.

Dr. Craig: Right, he says right back to the first microsecond we have a firm knowledge of the history of the universe. What could change, he says, is what happened at t=0, if there even was a t=0. Is the universe part of a wider reality? A multiverse? He says this could change, and that's certainly a question in which we'll be interested. We want to follow the science where it leads. We have no ax to grind in these discussions and are open to follow the evidence where it leads.

Kevin Harris: Let's continue this discussion on our next podcast as we look at this new book from Lawrence Krauss A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing on Reasonable Faith. Thank you for joining us. [6]