In the meantime, a reader asks about a less serious contribution to the debate: some remarks made recently by Lawrence Krauss in a video over at Big Think. I’ve commented on Krauss in a review of his book A Universe from Nothing for First Things and in a couple of earlier posts, here and here. Is there anything new to be said? Well, not by Krauss, that’s for sure. It’s the same superficial stuff, presented with the same arrogant and uninformed confidence, and as usual barely acknowledging, much less seriously answering, the objections that have been leveled against him by atheists and theists alike. But for that reason alone it is worthwhile exposing his errors now and again, as long as there’s a single benighted reader out there still inclined to take him seriously.
So let’s take a look. And in good Lawrence Krauss fashion, he doesn’t hide his fallacies under a bushel but puts them on a pedestal for all to see. This makes refutation not only easy but quick. Consider, then, his very first sentence -- wherein, after urging us to be “careful” in our thinking he immediately flings carefulness violently to the ground and starts pummeling it. Krauss asserts:
[N]othing is a physical concept because it's the absence of something, and something is a physical concept.
The trouble with this, of course, is that “something” is not a physical concept. “Something” is what Scholastic philosophers call a transcendental, a notion that applies to every kind of being whatsoever, whether physical or non-physical -- to tables and chairs, rocks and trees, animals and people, substances and accidents, numbers, universals, and other abstract objects, souls, angels, and God. Of course, Krauss doesn’t believe in some of these things, but that’s not to the point. Whether or not numbers, universals, souls, angels or God actually exist, none of them would be physical if they existed. But each would still be a “something” if it existed. So the concept of “something” is broader than the concept “physical,” and would remain so even if it turned out that the only things that actually exist are physical.
No atheist philosopher would disagree with me about that much, because it’s really just an obvious conceptual point. But since Krauss and his fans have an extremely tenuous grasp of philosophy -- or, indeed, of the obvious -- I suppose it is worth adding that even if it were a matter of controversy whether “something” is a physical concept, Krauss’s “argument” here would simply have begged the question against one side of that controversy, rather than refuted it. For obviously, Krauss’s critics would not agree that “something is a physical concept.” Hence, confidently to assert this as a premise intended to convince someone who doesn’t already agree with him is just to commit a textbook fallacy of circular reasoning.
Dutifully fulfilling his solemn pledge to give his readers “A fallacy in every sentence!”, Krauss goes on to say:
And what we've learned over the last hundred years is that nothing is much more complicated than we would've imagined otherwise.
So, “nothing” is complicated. That implies that it has diverse parts, elements, aspects, or some such. At the very least, a part or aspect A that is distinct from a part or aspect B. But if A is different from B, then there must be something about it by virtue of which it is different. In which case it isn’t true to say that there is nothing. Indeed, Krauss goes on to describe “a kind of nothing” that might seem a “void” or an “infinite empty space,” when in fact “due to the laws of quantum mechanics and relativity, we now know that empty space is a boiling bubbling brew of virtual particles that are popping in and out of existence at every moment.” Hence “nothing” is really “full of stuff.”
Well, somebody’s sure full of stuff here, but it isn’t “nothing.” Because “stuff,” “space,” laws,” “particles,” and the like are each something. In which case, what could it possibly mean to describe these things as aspects of “nothing”? Have you ever heard such self-contradictory gibberish before? Of course you have, because you’ve read Lawrence Krauss before.
The rest is another rehash of the same brazen bait-and-switch Krauss has been repeatedly called out on by friend and foe alike for almost two years now. Here’s how physics gives you something from nothing, where for “nothing” read “the laws of quantum mechanics,” which are, of course, not nothing but pay no attention to that sophist behind the curtain…
Yet Krauss does think he’s got an answer to this problem. The laws aren’t nothing, you say, but something? Well, try this on for size:
But even there, it turns out physics potentially has an answer because we now have good reason to believe that even the laws of physics themselves are kind of arbitrary.
There may be an infinite number of universes, and in each universe that's been created, the laws of physics are different. It's completely random. And the laws themselves come into existence when the universe comes into existence. So there's no pre-existing fundamental law. Anything that can happen, does happen. And therefore, you got no laws, no space, no time, no particles, no radiation. That's a pretty good definition of nothing.
End quote. What Krauss is referring to here is, of course, his preferred variation on the currently faddish “multiverse” idea, as set out in A Universe from Nothing. But on the multiverse scenario, it is not precisely correct to say that “there’s no pre-existing fundamental law.” By “not precisely correct” I mean “false.” For as Krauss himself says at pp. 176-77 of A Universe from Nothing, a multiverse might exist “in the form of a landscape of universes existing in a host of extra dimensions,” or it might instead take “the form of a possibly infinitely replicating set of universes in a three-dimensional space.” It would be governed by “the general principle that anything that is not forbidden is allowed.” Though “we don’t currently have a fundamental theory that explains the detailed character of the landscape of a multiverse,” to make progress in such theorizing “we generally assume that certain properties, like quantum mechanics, permeate all possibilities.” And it could turn out that there are “millions of layers” of laws.
Needless to say, “extra dimensions,” “three-dimensional space,” “general principles,” “the detailed character of a landscape,” “properties,” “quantum mechanics,” and “millions of layers of laws” are not nothing, but a whole helluva lot of something.
Recently we had the wood floors in one of the rooms of our house redone. Naturally we had to empty the room before work could start. Suppose that when the wood floor guy showed up to begin, everything had been moved out except for one large bookcase. Annoyed, he asks me why I didn’t empty the room as I had agreed to do. Suppose I haughtily replied:
No beds, no floor rugs, no chairs, no lamps, no bookcases. That’s a pretty good definition of an empty room.
My wood floor guy would no doubt reply: “No it’s not, dumbass. You have, by your own admission, still got one bookcase in there. Therefore it’s not empty. I thought you taught logic?”
Of course, the room might be close enough to “empty” for some purposes. We might even speak loosely of there being “nothing” in it. That’s fine for most everyday contexts, where we needn’t always use terms precisely. But of course, it’s not good enough for every context, as the wood floor example shows. And it certainly isn’t good enough for philosophical and scientific contexts, where we need precision. Krauss, a prominent physicist whose work drips with contempt for the philosophers and theologians he regards as sloppy thinkers, and who urges us to be “careful” in our use of language, can’t see what the wood floor guy can.
The reason, of course, is that the wood floor guy doesn’t have a vested interest in denying the obvious. He hasn’t spent two years loudly shooting his mouth off about how stupid people are who think that a room with a bookcase in it isn’t really empty, and he doesn’t have a New York Times bestseller, lectures, debates, or a Big Think video devoted to confidently promoting the view that a room with a bookcase in it is empty. Ergo he doesn’t face the utterly humiliating prospect of having to admit that since a room with a bookcase in it isn’t strictly empty, the people he’s derided as stupid actually have a point, and the book, lectures, video, etc. have all been a waste of time.
The irony is that admitting the pickle Krauss has gotten himself into would be the one thing that might save him. For Krauss has managed to parlay a set of completely worthless ideas into fame and fortune. He’s gotten a big chunk of the “reality-based community” to swallow the notion that a book-length exercise in committing the fallacies of equivocation and red herring counts as Big Thinking. He’s gotten an army of Dawkins Youth seriously to believe that while the rigorously worked out metaphysical demonstrations of an Aquinas or a Leibniz are really just loose “god of the gaps” speculations, the “multiverse” theory that is notoriously untestable and which Krauss himself admits lacks a “fundamental theory” is hard-headed empirical science. Krauss might present his own recent career as the surest proof of his thesis: “You think something can’t come from nothing? Just look at me!”