Much Ado About Nothing


Lawrence Krauss
Lawrence Krauss (photo: Wikipedia)

“Why is there something rather than nothing?”

This question, as formulated by Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), the “last universal genius,” is a great starting point for philosophical inquiry.

It has not only metaphysical but psychological significance. There is no need to account for nothing. There is nothing there to account for.

But if I have nothing in my pocket one moment and find, to my astonishment, $100 there the next moment, I know that there must be some reason or explanation for its sudden appearance.

Philosophy begins with astonishment when we know there must be some reason, but we do not know what that reason is. “Nothing is without reason” (Nihil est sine ratione) is one of the fundamental principles of philosophy. It is also the principle that energizes scientists.

For Leibniz, as well as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas before him, the ultimate reason for the existence of any of the things we find in our current universe is God, since only a divine being with infinite power can create something out of nothing.

No finite or contingent being can create itself.

Not so fast, says Lawrence Krauss, director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University.

He has shown, in his bestselling book A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (Free Press, 2012), that we do not need God (or philosophy or theology for that matter) in order to explain the present state of the universe. Physics is our sole reliable intellectual guide.

At the same time, Krauss is hardly the bearer of glad tidings.

He argues that the universe started from nothing, became something and is heading back to nothing with accelerating speed.

As a consequence, human life is meaningless as we complete our petty lives rushing headlong toward oblivion. Nonetheless, some readers find Krauss’ bleak view of things somewhat exhilarating, since it allows them to create their own meaning.

The late Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, agreed to write the afterword to Krauss’ book but was not able to because of his illness.

Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, took his place. This triumvirate of avowed atheists has raised questions about the objectivity of the author’s purposes.

Is physics so broad as to devour both philosophy and theology?

The essential question is whether Krauss has proven scientifically what he set out to prove. Are all intelligent people now obliged to live in moral despair? Should philosophers and theologians seek new employment?

The main problem, however, with Krauss’ approach, and it is a huge one, is his misrepresentation of nothing. He thinks that nothing is really something, albeit something extremely tenuous, such as a “quantum void” in which the principles of quantum mechanics are still operative.

He does admit, although parenthetically and close to the end of his work, that he takes the principles of quantum mechanics for granted: “I have no idea if this notion can be usefully dispensed with,” he states. “At least I don’t know of any productive work in this regard.”

He never gets back to pure nothing and, consequently, never explains how anything came out of nothing.

He actually complains that “some philosophers and theologians define and redefine ‘nothing’ as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe” and that he is told by his religious critics that “I cannot refer to empty space as ‘nothing,’ but rather a ‘quantum vacuum’ to distinguish it from the philosopher’s idealized nothing.”

The philosopher’s notion of nothing is not “idealized”; it is accurate. Krauss’ notion of nothing is not only fabricated, but retrogressive.

In the fourth century, St. Augustine explained: “We are perfectly right in believing that God made the world from nothing, because even if the world was made from some kind of matter, that matter has itself been made from nothing” (On the Faith and the Creed, 2).

Augustine was most astute in referring to “some kind of matter,” allowing for the recognition of forms of matter that were not only unknown in his time, but also unimaginable.

Aquinas maintained that the more imperfect the matter to be transformed, the greater must be the active power that transforms it.

To transform a quantum vacuum ultimately into human beings, therefore, is a greater divine accomplishment than transforming, let us say, one species of mammalia to a higher one.

Aquinas’ logical conclusion is that when the passive power is nothing, the active power must be infinite. Consequently, only God can create from nothing.

Dominican Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange makes unambiguously clear the notion of “nothing” when he states the following: “Creation from nothing means a productive act where there is no material cause, no subject matter to work on, so that the entire being of created things comes from their creative cause. Before creation, nothing of the created things existed, not even its matter, however unformed you may suppose it [to be].”

The phrase “however unformed” is also most astute, since it allows for the kind of gossamer, nebulous, even hypothetical speculations that emerge from theoretical physics.

Krauss does not show how something comes from nothing, but theorizes how something came from something prior. His wildly extravagant claim that the universe came from nothing is just that — wildly extravagant.

Treating something as if it were nothing is, according to one reviewer, a kind of philosophical cheating. Writing for The New York Times, David Albert, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University and author of Quantum Mechanics and Experience, states, rather tartly, “As far as I can see is that Krauss is dead wrong, and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right” (New York Times, March 25, 2012).

But Albert goes further and laments that what Krauss’ book offers “is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.”

More than a million people have listened to Krauss’ lecture about his book on YouTube. It seems that he is more interested in a conjurer’s trick, pulling a rabbit out of a hat, than in pure science. Just as people know that the rabbit was in the hat at the beginning, Krauss has failed to convince us that the universe emerged from nothing.

It is not the office of the scientist to trick people, but to inform them.

There never was a nothing that had the power to generate something.

Donald DeMarco, Ph.D. is a senior fellow of HLI America, an initiative of Human Life International.

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