Updated: Apr 24, 2022
In 2012, renowned physicist and cosmologist, Lawrence Krauss, published A Universe from Nothing. The purpose of the book was to debunk the idea that some sort of transcendent entity (e.g. ‘God’) is necessary to account for the universe as we experience it. He subtitled his book: Why there is Something rather than Nothing.
Of course, this subtitle implies a prior question: Why is there something rather than nothing? Krauss did not need to spell that question out because anyone who might read a book like this is already well acquainted with it. In fact, this was probably the first question serious thinkers ever asked and it is still as relevant and thought provoking today as it was 3,000 years ago.
At least since Parmenides (b. 515 BC), philosophers, theologians and scientists have struggled with this question. To answer it, we first need to define our terms; but at least that part should be easy: after all, everyone, even a toddler, knows the difference between ‘something’ and ‘nothing’.
Or do they? Do we really know exactly what we mean when we use the word ‘something’? Is a dream ‘something’? How about an illusion…or a delusion? How about a unicorn? A squared circle? How about virtual particles that we ‘know’ exist but that, according to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, must annihilate one another before they are directly detected (i.e. measured)?
Well then, what about ‘nothing’? At least that should be easy. But is empty space nothing? How about a perfect vacuum? What about durations and volumes below Planck scale? How about the ‘potential’ my parents and teachers claimed to see in me as a child but that was never realized?
Krauss offers us three possible definitions of ‘nothing’. He begins with the notion that ‘empty space’ is ‘nothing’ and he shows, convincingly I think, that so-called empty space inexorably spawns virtual particle pairs, radiation, and various space-filling ‘fields’:
“Empty space can have a non-zero energy associated with it, even in the absence of any matter or radiation…The gravitational ‘pressure’ associated with such energy in empty space is actually negative…The energy of empty space (nothing) gets converted into the energy of something.”
The problem with Krauss’ argument is that it is a bit too convincing. On closer examination, it turns out that ‘empty space’ is never really empty. It cannot be conceived without its virtual particle pairs, its ‘pressure’ (albeit negative), and its radiation and fields. We do not begin with empty space and then suddenly flip a switch and ‘create’ these constituent phenomena; these phenomena are part of whatever empty space is! ‘Empty space’, then, is clearly not ‘nothing’.
Krauss admits as much: “…It would be disingenuous to suggest that empty space endowed with energy…is really nothing. In this picture one must assume that space exists and can store energy…”
Actually, though, Krauss’ empty space argument is odd for a quite different reason. Sir Isaac Newton believed that space was a passive receptacle that (logically at least) preceded whatever might populate it. Few, if any, cosmologists believe this today.
First, Einstein taught us that space and time are aspects of a single reality: 4 dimensional spacetime. Now, modern cosmologists seem to be of two minds; either:
Spacetime is not a primary (substructural) property of cosmos but rather a secondary (emergent) property. Spacetime is not logically prior to what populates it but subsequent; or,
Spacetime is an illusion, pure and simple.
A summer 2018 special edition of Scientific American showcases both points of views. The issue is titled A Matter of Time but, as we now know, space and time are aspects of a single 4-dimensional reality, so the same arguments should be applicable to space.
In this issue, Craig Chandler (Is Time an Illusion?) argues that time, if real at all, is an “emergent property” of the cosmos, not its substructure:
“Space and time are secondary concepts…”
But Chandler has a foot in both camps:
“…Many in theoretical physics have come to believe that time fundamentally does not even exist.”
He synthesizes these views using a ‘block’ model of spacetime:
“Spacetime is like a loaf of bread that you can slice in different ways, called either ‘space’ or ‘time’ almost arbitrarily.”
According to this model, spacetime is like a 4-dimensional loaf of bread. If you slice it vertically, you get slices of time. Everything that happens at a given ‘moment’, no matter where it happens, is captured on that one slice. On the other hand, if you slice it horizontally, you get slices of space. Everything that happens at a given ‘location’, no matter when it happens, is captured on that one slice. One can imagine that slicing the loaf diagonally would reveal the effects of relativity.
Astonishingly, this 21st century idea is not at all novel. The so-called ‘father of Western philosophy’, Parmenides (see above), had essentially the same idea 2500 years ago:
“…what-is is ungenerated and imperishable…unbeginning and unceasing…whole, single-limbed, steadfast and complete; nor was it once, nor will it be, since it is, now, all together, one, continuous…” In other words…a loaf of bread.
In contrast, Krauss’ argument seems to rely on the all but discarded Newtonian model.
Krauss grudgingly acknowledges these objections to his theory. But then he asks a much more intriguing question: ‘What if not even empty space is presumed to exist?’ What if we use ‘nothing’ to define the ‘state of things’ (whatever that might mean) before even empty space appears?
“…The rules of quantum mechanics would apply to the properties of space and not just to the properties of objects existing in space…Should one consider the possibility of small, possibly compact spaces that themselves pop in and out of existence?…As Stephen Hawking has emphasized, a quantum theory of gravity allows for the creation, albeit perhaps momentarily, of space itself where none existed before…”
Just as Krauss argued that virtual matter, radiation, particle fields and negative pressure emerge spontaneously in empty space, now he argues that empty space itself emerges from an even more primitive state of being (or should I say ‘non-being’?) which he also calls ‘nothing’.
In this spirit, he titles his tenth chapter Nothing is Unstable. He does not mean by this that everything is stable, which it obviously isn’t, but rather that instability is ontologically substructural, that it is a fundamental characteristic of ‘Being’ itself, and that it applies to ‘nothing’ as well as to ‘something’. This argument is so challenging that the arguments against it do not come from physics but from linguistics and philosophy.
Contemporary scientists who dare wade into the waters of philosophy are invariably influenced by three men: A.J. Ayer, Ludwig Wittgenstein and John Austin. (Or if they are not so influenced, they certainly should be.) These three pillars of ‘analytic’ English philosophy (first half of the 20th century) argued that many, if not most, problems of philosophy stem from an imprecise use of language.
While the three men’s views and methods varied widely, they were all laser focused on the way language is employed to frame philosophical problems. Collectively, they argued that terms used to describe everyday events (‘ordinary language’) do not suddenly acquire new and different meanings just because they are applied to cosmic and metaphysical phenomena. Red is red is red.
Let’s apply that insight to Krauss’ assertion that “nothing is unstable”. Something is unstable if it possesses or exhibits the quality known as ‘instability’ (or lacks the quality known as ‘stability). But how can the quality of instability, or stability, be possessed or exhibited by ‘nothing’? Only an entity that is ‘something’ can possess or exhibit qualities, instability included. Therefore, the sentence ‘nothing is unstable’ is (in the parlance of analytic philosophy) ‘meaningless’.
In fact, we can frame this argument in terms that would be accepted by a fourth grader. “Nothing is unstable” is in fact a ‘double negative’ and therefore really means “Something is stable”; QED.
By stating that “nothing is unstable”, Krauss seems to be acknowledging that his pre-existent ontological reality (‘nothing’) is really ‘something’ after all. But then what could we say about it? Perhaps we could speculate that it is something that exists solely in the mode of pure potentiality; but that is still ‘something’ – all of which defeats the purpose of Krauss’ argument.
Another lion of early 20th century English philosophy, Alfred North Whitehead, built his complex and comprehensive “Philosophy of Organism” around just three undefined terms: one, many and creativity. Perhaps Krauss’ ‘nothing’ is Whitehead’s ‘creativity’, the restlessness at the heart of being.
Finally, Krauss offers us a third version of ‘nothing’. This version does not even allow for potentiality or quantum effects; it applies the definition of ‘nothing’ in the most rigorous possible way. Krauss rejects this version as ridiculous and he claims that philosophers and theologians who insist on applying this definition are acting in ‘bad faith’: they’re simply refusing to engage in the debate at any level. In the parlance of the playground, they have picked up their ball and gone home.
However, this is precisely the view of contemporary Italian philosopher, Emanuele Severino. Often called a Neo-Parmenidian (see earlier references to Parmenides), Severino holds that all being is eternal. Whatever is cannot not-be, nor can it have ever come to be; it just is:
“…It must be said of every thing that, precisely because it is not nothing, it cannot become a Nothing (nor can it have ever been a Nothing), and therefore it is and reigns eternal. Everything is eternal.”
By extension, of course, nothing can come to be because to be is always to have been.
On the other hand, Heraclitus, a contemporary of Parmenides, held that everything is perpetually in flux. He undoubtedly would have agreed with the modern business school cliché: change is the only constant! How does Severino square his view with the apparent ubiquity of growth and decay?
Severino writes: “…Being appears…as coming-to-be…Becoming appears.”
“…Becoming implies the not-appearing of Being rather than its not-being.”
Severino applies the concepts of Appearing and Concealing to Being in order to account for the phenomenal experience of Becoming. What we experience as ‘becoming and perishing’ is really just a function of the gradual ‘revealing and concealing’ of what is ungenerated, imperishable, unbeginning, unceasing, eternal.
However, in my view, Parmenides’s paradox, which so flummoxed Plato, has an even easier solution: Complementarity! Just as the elementary building blocks of our material world manifest both as particles and as waves, so too our universe manifests both as Parmenides’ block (Being) and as Heraclitus flux (Becoming). The eternal and the processional; they are two aspects of every real event.
Parmenides’ world consists of two realms: the realm of truth (Aletheia) and the realm of appearance (Doxa). The Parmenides’ fragment quoted earlier describes Aletheia – the loaf of bread. Doxa, on the other hand, is the realm of ‘Being’ characterized by becoming and decaying: “To come to be and to perish, to be and not to be, and to shift place and to exchange bright color.” Slice the ’loaf’ called Aletheia at any angle, et viola, you have Doxa (motion in space and/or change over time). Being, at least as we know it, requires both Doxa and Aletheia.
So now let’s return to the original question: Why is there something rather than nothing? Krauss sheds additional light: “Whenever one asks ‘Why?’ in science, one actually means ‘How?’ …When we ask ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’, we really mean ‘How is there something rather than nothing?’”
This is an enormous concession. Earlier, Krauss claimed to have solved the primordial riddle (why is there something rather than nothing?); now he admits that he has not solved that riddle but rather a completely different one (how is there something rather than nothing?). His justification: the original question is meaningless; the second question is all we can ever hope to answer. How so?
“’Why’ implicitly suggests purpose…”
‘Purpose’ – aye, there’s the rub! To most ears, the notion of purpose suggests the concept of God. (The Baltimore Catechism: “Why did God make me?”)
Of course, since the Enlightenment, as science has systematically pushed back the boundaries of human ignorance, the ‘God hypothesis’ has become less and less fashionable. That it is irrefutable (at least in its most generic formulation) is admitted by Krauss and other famous ‘atheists’ like Camus and Sartre. But it is also unverifiable! Plus it suggests that I might not be ‘the king of my castle’. All this rubs our modern sensibilities the wrong way. Today the word ‘God’ is close to ‘hate speech’ on most university campuses.
As a result, any inquiry into the meaning or purpose of life is essentially verboten. But where does this leave us?
Krauss titles one chapter ‘Our Miserable Future’ and toward the end of it he writes concerning his own proposed model, “A universe dominated by the energy of empty space is the worst of all universes for the future of life. Any civilization is guaranteed to ultimately disappear…Far, far into the future, protons and neutrons will decay, matter will disappear, and the universe will approach a state of maximum simplicity and symmetry.”
Remarkably, we did not need the insights of quantum mechanics and Big Bang cosmology to reach this conclusion. All we needed was the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (19th century). Entropy alone guarantees that all vestiges of ‘order’ will one day vanish. P.B. Shelley (d. 1822): “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair. Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
In the 20th century, it became fashionable to suggest that existence is ‘absurd’ and without purpose. We called it ‘existential angst’. Against this intellectual backdrop, a band of self-styled ‘ontological warriors’, including A.J. Ayer and Albert Camus, asserted their ability to live meaningful lives in the context of a meaningless universe. Somewhat late to the party, Krauss has joined this team:
“…We continue to marshal the courage to live meaningful lives in a universe that likely came into existence, and may fade out of existence, without purpose…”
Is that courage…or delusion? If the universe is meaningless and without purpose and I am part of that universe, how can my life acquire meaning and purpose? What could possibly be the source of that meaning, the reference point? How could I possibly validate it? And what end (teleos) could there be that might constitute my life’s purpose when the end of all things is ‘nothing’?
Consider Nietzsche: “…There exists nothing which could judge…our being, for that would be to judge…the whole…But nothing exists apart from the whole!” Let’s unpack this important insight: (1) There exists nothing which could judge (measure, evaluate) our being (actions); (2) If you judge me, you judge the whole, because I am a part and an expression of the whole; (3) The whole cannot judge itself; (4) If the whole is to be judged (measured, evaluated) it must be done by something outside the whole; (5) But nothing exists apart from the whole.
Consider also Wittgenstein (above): “No statement of facts can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value…all the facts described would, as it were, stand on the same level.” Again, the whole cannot judge itself; nor can it supply the absolute values necessary to form the basis of such a judgment; nor can it validate those values.
So here is our dilemma. The whole (world) is ‘absurd’ and without purpose. We are part of that whole and nothing exists apart from that whole. The whole is ‘flat’: i.e. everything stands on the same ontological level; there is no hierarchy. Yet certain of us claim to have discovered meaning and purpose where none can exist. Some of us claim to live meaningful lives in the context of absurdity. How is that possible? Where could such meaning come from? From ‘outside’ the world? From ‘inside’ the world? From the world itself? All three options are impossible because each contradicts the basic premises of Krauss’ argument (above).
If a part of the world (us, for example) has meaning and purpose, then the world of which we are a part must also have meaning and purpose. There can be no islands of meaning in an absurd world (Nietzsche). To paraphrase Lincoln, a cosmos divided against itself cannot stand. The world cannot endure, half meaningful, half absurd.
Deuteronomy (30:19) reads: “…I have set before you life and death…Therefore, choose life…” Krauss, unwittingly, has done the same. He has set before us his own special brand of nihilism: a meaningless universe that barely exists now and that will ultimately be erased by time. Although he does not realize it, this also vitiates any effort on our part to find or create meaning in our individual lives.
On the other hand, Krauss offers us his personal desire to live a meaningful life. Any such meaning would have to come from ‘outside’ the spatiotemporal world. Now ‘outside’ does not have to mean physically ‘outside’; it could mean logically or ontologically ‘outside’. If my life is to have meaning and purpose, then the world I live in has to have meaning and purpose; and that meaning, that purpose must refer to something that ‘transcends’ the spatiotemporal, i.e. that escapes entropy.
Ultimately, Krauss has failed to answer the primal question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ If that question is meaningful at all, the answer must be in terms of a transcendent source of values and/or a transcendent purpose (teleos). And yes, that source (Alpha) and that end (Omega) are what folks customarily call ‘God’.
So Krauss has set before us despair and hope; do we have the courage to choose hope?