Why “A Universe from Nothing” Is Garbage

The intention of this post is plural: to illustrate how patently unqualified Lawrence M. Krauss is to make any kind of philosophical statement; to convince the reader of how bad his book, The Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing, is; and to provide a moral about what happens when someone’s thought is so ideologically driven that the individual becomes set at all costs to demonstrate a particular result, even if it means affirming the consequent.  Having now read the book, my opinion has changed of Krauss (see my related post), and I can say that I no longer have any sympathy for him.  Perhaps the most interesting point about my take on the book is that I actually agree with what he is arguing for, so much so that I am preparing a paper for a graduate conference on just this topic: the universe from nothing.  Therefore, it should be clear from the outset that there is certainly no clash in ultimate beliefs between us.

Let me start by exhibiting that Krauss should have absolutely no credibility, right from the start, as far as philosophy of science goes.  He says, “Ever since Bob Scherrer and I laid out the challenge that future scientists will use falsifiable data and models —the very paragon of good science…” (Krauss pg. 117).  I have heard that there are scientists that think that the defining aspect of their science is Popper’s falsifiability criterion, but this was sort of a myth, until I read Krauss comment.  I am pretty sure there isn’t a philosopher alive that champions Popper’s criterion, but there is something that makes this all the worse for Krauss.  The whole book, front to finish, is about ad hoc addenda and redactions to theory to fit the data, the very kernel of Kuhnian normal science, which stands in stark contradiction to Popper.  No matter how poor a natural philosopher someone is, no matter how little exposure that individual has had to proper philosophy, one has to wonder what kind of intellectual goes about writing a whole book on how a theory has been added to and revised, then claims that indicators for suggesting the throwing out of a theory is the mark of good science.  If falsifiability were the paragon of good science, as Krauss seems to think, then I guess nothing but bad science has been done in twentieth century cosmology.  On top of all of this, Krauss talks about cosmology as though it is an empirical science, where controls and variables are being employed.  Cosmology is much more dependent upon passive observation and trying to devise different schemes for using the data and figuring out what to look for.  Cosmology is about modeling on the basis of known physics (and speculated physics), in conjunction with observation.  Krauss is obviously very confused, and hasn’t the foggiest about what he’s saying, and hasn’t even reflected on the constitution of his own profession on a qualitative level.

To give the reader an idea of how confused Krauss is when it comes to the explication of the science, consider the following quotes: “Nevertheless, all of these phenomena imply that, under the right conditions, not only can [“]nothing[”] become something, it is required to” (Krauss pg. 156) and “[“]nothing[”] always produces something, if only for an instant” (Krauss pg. 153).  Krauss can’t even keep his story straight for three pages.  Sometimes “nothing” always creates something, and sometimes, if under the right conditions, nothing will create something; sometimes conditions-dependent, sometimes not.  Bizarre.  Oh yeah, there are different “kinds” of “nothing,” too (Krauss pg. 149).  Go figure.

Among the most extraordinarily bizarre aspects of the book is what it is that Krauss thinks is “nothing.”  He seems to think that nothing is something, revealing the degree of cognitive dissonance that imbues the whole of his thought.  He knows full well, and says explicitly, that empty space is not empty, and that it is teeming with virtual particles and energy.  In his own self-incriminating words, he says “empty space is not so empty” (Krauss pg. 62).  (Special thanks, here, has to go to Krauss for supplying enough rope.)  In a world where it is acceptable —and this is what supposedly makes physics doable and profitable— to assume that causation is a real thing, it is wholly acceptable to ask what conditions were necessary to bring about any given state of affairs; that is, we have a state, so what was the prior state that necessarily (as in, “necessary causal connection”) gave rise to this later one?  If Krauss is saying that the first state was one of “empty space,” and, thankfully, he has informed us that this space was not really empty, what was the state that made that “first” state possible?  He wants the reader to buy into the idea that there was an initial state of “instability of something,” and that’s it.  No reason, no nothing.  For a man of reason, who is in the business of causal connections, it seems that he has nothing more than an ideological whim for saying that the magnificently unstable, fluctuating nothing-something is the cause of everything, though itself uncaused.  The fluctuating nothing-something is the NEW “by fiat”…the NEW “magic”…the  —dare I say it?— NEW & IMPROVED MIRACLE.  Purely on the basis of aesthetics, I do have to admit that Krauss’ magnificently unstable, fluctuating nothing-something is much more pleasing to the senses than the plain old, thoroughly antiquated, but no less ideological term, “miracle.”  What Krauss never establishes is why the initial vacuum would be that much more unstable to yield a Big Bang, rather than a few virtual particles; he never establishes physical criteria for gradations of instability.

Among the more humorous philosophical oddities is what Krauss does with metaphysics.  He claims (pg. 6) that no metaphysical speculations are independent of confirming the validity of the Big Bang.  This is not just a place where he has done a poor bit of philosophy, it is also where he has done poor physics.  His claim, though implicit, must be exactly this: a given data set necessarily uniquely determines the theory associated with it.  Krauss is guilty of not acknowledging that theories are underdetermined by the data set it is associated with, which means he is proposing the claim just given.  The challenge that Krauss cannot meet, and no physicist can meet at this point in time, is establishing why, precisely, the amount of stuff that exists does exist, as a consequence of instability.  That’s the challenge on physics’ terms.  In terms of philosophy, Krauss must defeat Hume: Krauss must show why the universe cannot be other than it is.  As is well known, physicists are leaning toward the idea of a “multiverse” —how empirical is that?— and have basically forfeited on that front.

There are a couple of points to be made about incorrect claims that Krauss makes regarding the history of physics —and this is a point I try to stress in my blog posts, because I really don’t think non-professional HPS specialists (especially technical experts) should be doing things like history of science, as evinced by the endless number of errors made throughout the literature.  The first oddity is that Krauss seems to think Lemaitre originated the idea of the Big Bang, but it was Russian mathematician, Alexander Friedman, who was working on solutions to Einstein’s equations.  An article on this appeared in one of the American Physical Society’s primary publications a little while ago, which makes this error the most bizarre of the ones found in the book: it suggests Krauss doesn’t pay attention to APS publications.  Another puzzling thing that Krauss says is that, in developing general relativity, “Einstein was always guided deeply by experiments and observations” (Krauss pg. 2).  It’s a good thing Krauss covered his tail by not providing a bibliography or citations, because he has no way of substantiating this claim.  This seems like a clear instance where he is showing his philosophy complex, and trying to distance thinkers like Einstein from the title “philosopher.”  The attempt is psychologically telling in more ways than one.

If there is one thing I have learned from Krauss’ The Universe from Nothing, it is that MIT should consider setting a precedent by taking the “Ph.” from in front of Krauss’ “D”.  (He probably wouldn’t even mind it.)  In all seriousness, the ideology of the book is thicker than most religious texts I have come across, and it stands as one of the worst books I have ever read in a subject matter of interest to me.  The moral I promised the reader: If you are capable of intelligent thought and sound reason, check your ideological baggage at the door, before writing a book, because, otherwise, you might just write a book as bad as Krauss’.

5 Comments

Filed under Cosmology, Philosophy, Physics, Popular Science

5 responses to “Why “A Universe from Nothing” Is Garbage

  1. W.Regnal

    Great blog and ‘rigt on’ review on Karauss’ garbage book. I agree this the worst pop-cosmo book I have ever seen (look at my 2* review on Amazon).
    Too bad you have come with your view soo late.

    Regnal

    • Hello Regnal,

      Thanks for the feedback. I liked your review. The ideological ax-to-grind tends to get me agitated with scientists, especially if it takes away from the book or lecture. It seems every scientist has something to say in every lecture, book, or article on religion, which gets old if you are someone like me, who is simply interested in the science. The overstepping of disciplinary boundaries is worse, and we have seen it more and more, lately. And sorry about the tardiness of the review. For the most part, the only thing I do with my day is read, but I still can’t read it all, and much of pop-science literature doesn’t make the list. I was alerted to this book after reading comments by philosopher of physics, David Albert (PhD in physics).

      –David

      • W.Regnal

        Thank you David for reply. It is upsetting seeing how many people have jumped on this particular book, while having such a large selection of much, much better presentations of modern cosmology by plethora of much better writers/scientists. I guess this is what sensationalizing can do.
        It was refreshing to read how you have clobbered Krauss’s pamphlet.

        Regnal

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on Physicists Versus Philosophers | milliern

  3. john

    so u believe the universe came from nothing without Jesus ?

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