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Something from Nothing?

A Conversation with Lawrence Krauss About Nothing


Thursday, August 1, 2013

In conducting a number of interviews with various experts over the last couple of years – and requesting interviews from some who have turned me down – I’ve learned, perhaps unsurprisingly, that people are far more inclined to be interviewed by someone friendly to their ideas.

Lawrence Krauss knew going in to our interview that I wasn’t very receptive to his ideas with respect to the roles of science and philosophy in our public discourse. I previously wrote a column on Krauss’s 2012 book, A Universe from Nothing, and his public spat with David Albert, a Columbia University philosopher of science (with a Ph.D in theoretical physics). My column was critical of Krauss’s views on the value of philosophy versus science, and of Krauss’s debating style. My main point was that there is no real dividing line between science and philosophy and that every scientist is implicitly a philosopher.

Tam Hunt
Click to enlarge photo

Tam Hunt

That said, I was happy to find that Krauss, while requiring some (polite) pestering to get our interview finished, was willing to address criticism and contrary views in the below interview.

A Universe from Nothing is a very interesting read from a foremost physicist of our time. Krauss’s goal is to show our universe could literally have come from nothing. He seeks to show plausibility rather than any kind of proof, recognizing that it is far too early in our understanding of cosmology to attempt any proof in such matters.

I didn’t find the effort entirely convincing personally, as I discuss in the interview below. My feeling is that it is more plausible that there has always been something, rather than a literal nothing, and our universe sprang in some manner from this eternal something. Regardless of my personal views, I can recommend Krauss’s book as a good read and great overview of modern cosmology and physics more generally.

I don’t know Krauss personally, though I did meet him briefly at a talk he gave earlier this year at UC Santa Barbara. He exudes a no-nonsense ultra-intelligent confidence. But as I wrote in my previous column, I feel like Krauss and his co-thinkers exemplify well the perils of scientism – the view that science can, at least potentially, answer all meaningful questions about life, the universe, and everything.

For me, the middle ground between muddled mysticism, dogmatic theism, and scientism is an acceptance of the ultimate mystery behind it all. We’ll never know the full extent of what we don’t know and, despite the amazing successes of science and technology in our modern world, this mystery should forever keep us humble. The ocean is deep and we’ll never exhaust the pleasures of discovering new things in those depths.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Krauss via email. Krauss lives in Arizona and Australia.

What makes you tick as a physicist and as a person?

Lawrence Krauss
Click to enlarge photo

Peter Ellis

Lawrence Krauss

I enjoy experiencing life, and the universe, in every way I can. I enjoy being surprised and astounded, and I like to have fun.

In your recent book, A Universe From Nothing, you argue that modern physics has provided a plausible narrative for how the entire universe could have arisen from literally nothing, which undermines yet another key traditional reason for religion: to explain the origin of the universe. Are you personally an atheist or an agnostic? What led you to this view?

I am a scientist, and therefore I don’t buy into absolutes. Things are either likely or unlikely. Everything I know about the universe tells me it is extremely unlikely, to the point of near certainty, that there is any divine guidance. I don’t classify myself by labels.

Many scientists have suggested ways to reconcile science and spirituality, such as Stephen Jay Gould, Alfred North Whitehead, and Alan Barbour. Do you think it’s possible to reconcile modern physics and spiritual views of the world? Or do spiritual/religious views simply need to be jettisoned? Would we be better off if they were jettisoned?

Science is spiritual. Religious views should be jettisoned because they are wrong.

How is science spiritual?

Science encourages awe and wonder, and the sense that there is more to the universe than we directly experience. The advantage of the spirituality of science is that it is real.

While your book attempts to present a plausible picture of how the universe could have come from nothing, don’t you gloss over what most people really mean by “nothing” - that is, nothing at all, nada, zilch? The types of nothing you address aren’t this type of nothing, so your approach seems to beg the question as to where this original something, whether it’s the laws of physics or what have you, came from.

No, I don’t. I describe initial conditions with no space, no time, no matter, no radiation, no laws. That is a good definition of nothing as far as I am concerned.

Following up on what “nothing” really means, you write in the Q&A section of the paperback edition of your book:

I then describe how it is possible that space and time themselves could have arisen from no space and time, which is certainly closer to absolute nothing. Needless to say, one can nevertheless question whether that is nothing, because the transition is mediated by some physical laws. Where did they come from? That is a good question, and one of the more modern answers is that even the laws themselves may be random, coming into existence along with universes that may arise. This may still beg the question of what allows any of this to be possible, but at some level it is, as I describe at the beginning of the book, ‘turtles all the way down.’”

I’m not trying to play gotcha (frankly I hadn’t seen your Q&A when I asked the previous question), but it seems that you’ve changed your position since writing that Q&A. If so, what prompted the change of mind? And isn’t the point of science and physics more specifically to avoid the “turtles all the way down” argument, which was exactly the point of this well-known metaphor!

I haven’t changed my mind at all. I simply tried to succinctly summarize my argument, and said it is possible. It could be that there was precisely no existence, before our universe’s existence, or not. We don’t know. And, indeed, the turtles-all-the-way-down argument is a red herring, and is a debate about something that we have no idea about, and may not exist. It doesn’t matter. The point is that our universe didn’t exist, then came into existence, and we want to understand how that can happen. And we now have a plausible picture of how that can happen. So the non-existence of our universe is the ‘nothing’ that matters. The rest is metaphysics and semantics and irrelevant to science, at least at the moment.

Isn’t a more helpful answer to how the universe came to be - which is the question your book addresses - simply that there has always been something, even if we don’t know what that something is or was? This answer avoids entirely the infinite regress and bickering over whether God was the first mover or whether the universe really came from absolutely nothing.

Science isn’t based on what we would like. We don’t know the answer yet. To assume ‘something’ is to make an a priori decision, which has no empirical basis.

I don’t follow why you think it is an a priori assumption that there has always been “something.” Clearly, we have something - an entire universe - and isn’t it pretty rational and empirical (that is, not really a priori) to assume that that something, the entire universe, didn’t come from literally nothing since we haven’t witnessed anything coming from literally nothing in the entire history of scientific exploration?

No. We witness things coming into existence, that didn’t exist before, all the time in physics. Our universe could be one of them. So you are assuming because you haven’t witnessed it that it cannot happen. That is an assumption, and indeed even if we hadn’t witnessed it, it is a pretty small-minded assumption that that has to be the case universally – a small-minded assumption that science teaches us not to have.

With respect to the first type of nothing that you address - empty space and the laws of physics that come with empty space - you rely on the theory of inflation for your argument that this type of nothing can produce our universe. Yet Paul Steinhardt, one of the creators of inflationary theory, has recently repudiated his theory. Do you think he’s wrong in repudiating inflation? Would your arguments still work if inflation was wrong?

Yes to both: I do think he’s wrong and my arguments still work even if inflation is wrong.

Doesn’t your book slide into philosophical territory more than science territory since you’re discussing ideas that are inherently unfalsifiable and speculative?

The ideas I discuss are speculative, but not necessary unfalsifiable. Even multiverses might, in principle, be probed, as I describe in the book.

You’ve criticized modern philosophy pretty definitively, so I’m curious where you draw the line between philosophy and science? Are you a Popperian or do you prefer some other criterion of scientific soundness than falsifiability?

I am not an anything. Unlike philosophers, I don’t classify myself by some ‘ism’ or ‘ian’ based on someone’s classification. Science derives knowledge from empirical inquiry. Philosophy, at its best, reflects on that knowledge, but doesn’t add to it.

Do you think traditional philosophical criteria of soundness (for example: logical coherence, adherence to known facts, and parsimony) are sufficient for rigorous thinking? Or do we need the stronger criterion of falsifiability?

Logical coherence derives from empirical investigation. Things that don’t seem logical classically may in fact occur, like an electron doing many different things at the same time.

Last, what is your response to those who suggest, like Kuhn, that science isn’t really that rational in how it operates – that is, that paradigms shift not because of incremental logical changes but, instead, in large shifts that are generally resisted by the old guard until the weight of evidence simply can’t be ignored anymore?

I think this is a simplistic view that has been discredited by all of my experience in science, and I am not alone in this view as far as I can tell. Scientists are skeptical, and do not change viewpoints easily, but the weight of any sound evidence cannot be ignored and is not generally ignored.

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