Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Universe From Nothing book review plus Commentary

Review: Much Ado About Nothing 
I finished Lawrence Krauss' new book A Universe From Nothing this week. In it he addresses the philosophical, physical, and theoretical implications behind the question why there is something, namely a universe with the sort of matter and energy that we find ourselves living in, rather than nothing. Krauss goes into great detail to explain, in layman's terms, how nothingness gives rise to something like the universe.

Overall this was a very easy physics book to read--or maybe it should be categorized as a philosophy of science book because it is dealing with the philosophical implications of science instead of being a straight forward explication of science. However, if you're into heavier physics reading then this book may seem rather on the light end of the spectrum. Which is why I downloaded The Quantum Universe by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw to read along with this one. Luckily, I read Krauss' prior book on Richard Feynman Quantum Man, which is one part biography and one part introduction to the history of quantum mechanics, a good medium level read that helped prime me for the advanced physics concepts being discussed in Cox and Forshaw's new book.

At any rate, I feel like Krauss' book is a valuable addition to the ongoing debate between science and religion. I recommend religious believers read it and get updated as to the latest evidence based knowledge we have regarding the origins of the universe and why we observe something instead of nothing at all. One reason it is important is because it tackles an age old theological debate and really tears it apart with a current 21st century understanding of the world. I am certain most theologians and theists will simply not know how to defend their position after reading this book.

Commentary: A Theological Chestnut Cracked
The age old theological chestnut has been to claim that God created the universe from nothing. This, seemingly, fits with the Biblical account of creation. So, when faced with die hard empirically minded rationalists and those who deny the existence of God, the theologian has grinned wide, and fallen back on their trump card, the first cause argument, "Why is there something rather than nothing? What caused the big bang?"

Unable to answer such a question, the non-believer is then forced into having to accept the obvious truth of the matter--God did create the universe. For the theologian, all creation is a testament to God's existence. After all, it's the only explanation.

Or is it?

Lawrence Krauss, a renowned American physicist, begs to differ. There is another explanation. Once science can now provide us with. Of course, this has the theologians sweating bullets. Their trump-card argument has apparently become another God-of-the-gaps type argument. In other words, the first cause argument is a lame duck which will, in all likelihood, die off.

Krauss starts of by making the distinction that there are various conceptualizations of nothing. There is a physical nothingness which means the abscence of something, and their is a philosophical nothing which is an esoteric form of absolute nothingness--of non-being even. This type of nothingness, entirely void of being, is the one which theologians concern themselves with. But the problem is that such an esoteric concept is largely useless when it comes to talking about the nothing which has typically been thought of a an emptiness of physical space with literally nothing in it. For Krauss, the false vaccum, or quantum field, which makes up all space is as close to nothing you can get. On the other hand, the reason we find the philosophical question to be quite useless, Krauss observes, is that one of the reasons we have science is so that "we may supplement this understanding with reflection and call that philosophy."

Science reveals that absolute nothing akin to non-being only exists in the mind of theologians, because the properties of the universe are a lot more complex and cannot easily be reduced to an absolute nothingness. That's just not how it works. The surmising of theologians, in fact, has no sway on how the universe actually is. Perhaps if they studied their science a little better they would learn to ask the right sorts of questions. Highly doubtful, however, coming considering theology is a bankrupt institution that borrows it's knowledge from invented truths, unlike science which can only test the evidence and information we do have perchance to figure out which is true knowledge and which is not. Falsifiability, then, is the key that allows science to work wonders in explaining to us what is and isn't true. Theology can merely make assertions--most of which aren't even falsifiable.

Science informs us how reality really is whereas philosophy allows us to come to terms with understanding the our place in the natural world.

For this reason, Krauss largely ignores the purely esoteric concept of nothing. It is merely a fancy which isn't sustainable because it has no valid relationship with reality as we know it. We can't just erase quantum fields. They are proved to exist. So we must accept the evidence and let the chips fall where they may. I must caution though, that it seems reckless to me, to place God outside of reality, as an eternal, immutable, transcendent being (and often wrongly claimed infinite being--which is impossible since infinitude depends on special relativity. Basically there is no sense of time outside of time--which makes the theologian mistaken to call God infinite).

All these descriptions of God, as well as any others, are not based on any actual observation or evidence but are merely surmised. To place God outside reality, beyond all space and time, is the same as saying God exists in a non-reality. How is that possible? (Theologians will often make the statement that the problem isn't God's supposed ability to exist in a non-reality, but rather, us humans simply cannot fathom the true complexity of God; due to our finite minds. Finite minds, the theologian harps, cannot understand infinite minds. Again, they make the mistake of misunderstanding infinitude, but worse, the claim is a cop-out. There is no evidence to suggest a finite mind cannot detect and comprehend to X degree a infinite mind. It is just another baseless assertion. Besides, if the theologians are right, and we cannot truly comprehend God, wouldn't they be out of a job--theology being the study of God and all? How can you study something which is impossible to comprehend in the slightest?) As Krauss reminds us throughout the book, defining God as anything so platitudinous is simply a case of semantics.

Krauss continues on to inform us that

"Implicit in the question of why there is something rather than nothing is the solipsistic expectation that "something" will persist--that somehow the universe has "progressed" to the point of our existence, as if we were the pinnacle of creation. Far more likely, based on everything we know about the universe, is the possibility that the future, perhaps the infinite future, is one in which nothingness will once again reign."

This quote really made my mind race. I, for one, have never actually thought of the question why something rather than nothing in this way: why nothing, then a flicker of something in the corner of one's eye, but then nothingness forever after that brief (barely perceptible) something? Why so much nothing before that blip, only to be followed by a never ending nothing?

To assume the question "Why something rather than nothing?" is important, as most theologians do, you have to make the assumption, as Krauss points out, that the universe was intended for us and not just a random quantum fluke. The science, however, suggests the fluke is much more likely. In fact, the entire filed of quantum mechanics practically guarantees it.

So the truth of the matter is, nothingness is headed our way with a vengeance (to paraphrase the late great Christopher Hitchens).

As for the decay of all matter and energy in the universe, Krauss points out, "our universe will then re-collapse inward to a point, returning to the quantum haze from which our own existence may have begun... our universe will then disappear as abruptly as it probably began."

Nothingness is inevitable.

"In this case, the answer to the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" will then simply be: "There won't be for long.""

So what of God? Does this prove that there wasn't any supreme deity outside of space and time that supposedly created the universe? Krauss says we can't rule it out, but it doesn't seem very likely given what we know. Of course, this shows the objectivity of the scientist, since you would never hear a theologian say the same about the competing claims made against his God--that God might be imagined, we just don't know. No theologian I know, at least, has admitted as much.

So what then is the role of science with respect to God? Krauss quotes physicist Steven Weinberg who emphasized, when it comes to science and religions, "[science] does not make it impossible to believe in God, but rather makes it possible to not believe in God."

Emphasis mine.

Richard Dawkins closes the book with an afterword which basically summarizes the key points of the book. The one point he makes worth repeating is this:

"We may not understand quantum theory... but a theory that predicts the real world to ten decimal places cannot in any straightforward sense be wrong. Theology not only lacks decimal places: it lacks even the smallest hint of a connection with the real world. As Thomas Jefferson said, when founding his University of Virginia, "A professorship of Theology should have no place in our institution."

That's just it though. If we really want to know the answer to the question "why something rather than nothing" it will not be the theologians who provide it. Their answer is--God did it. So much for understanding.

Rather, real knowledge comes from observation, evidence, testing, and applying science to weed out the bad theories and find the correct theories--always inching towards a better understanding of the universe. So far it seems the scientists are making good headway, while the theologians, well, they're sticking to the same fruitless, dead-end, answer they have stuck with for over two thousand years.

The question we must ask ourselves is, who do we really think will win this argument? I for one am placing my bet firmly in the camp of science.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist