Krauss is in Sydney to debate the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” - the traditional starting point for an ancient argument for the existence of God. Kraus, of course, is a cosmologist, known in the field for his work on the cosmological constant and dark matter, and to the wider public for books such as The Physics of Star Trek and A Universe from Nothing. Krauss’s opponent is the Christian philosopher William Lane Craig. He has built a career around the philosophical defence of theism, and is best known outside academia for his many public debates with atheists.
I am, like Krauss, a professional cosmologist and astrophysicist. I’ve also interacted with a philosopher or two, and I’ve read a lot of Craig’s work. So I thought it might be opportune to offer a guide to the uninitiated.
[...]Krauss’s latest book claims that advances in science have shown that we can answer the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” without invoking God. His argument can be summarised as follows:
- The basic stuff of the universe, as we now understand it, consists of matter and energy, space and time, governed by laws of nature.
- Particles of matter correspond to certain configurations of quantum fields. There is a configuration that corresponds to no particles (the “vacuum”). A state with no particles can evolve into a state with particles. Thus, matter can appear from no-matter.
- The universe as a whole may have zero net energy.
- There are theories that suggest that that space and time themselves are not fundamental, but emerge from a state without space and time.
- The laws of nature may be stochastic and random, in which case there may be no ultimate laws of nature.
- Since we can imagine the universe coming from a state with no matter, no particles, no space, no time and no laws, something can come from nothing.
Krauss’s book was far from universally acclaimed. Fellow unbeliever and physicist-turned-philosopher David Albert wrote a scathing review for the New York Times. Krauss responded by calling Albert “moronic” and generally dismissing philosophy as a waste of time. I’d love to stick up for a fellow cosmologist, but I’m with Albert and my reasons mirror his.
Fundamental physics is, always has been and – unless it undergoes a major identity crisis – always will be about what the basic stuff of the universe is and how it interacts and rearranges. There is nothing deeper. Thus, there can be no answer within science as to where that stuff came from, why it is that type of stuff, why it obeys laws, why those laws, or why there is anything at all. All scientific explanations stop at the basic stuff.
This is why Krauss’s argument fails. Particles can appear from no-particles, not from nothing. The underlying field is always there. A state with zero energy is not nothing. There must first be a thing before we can measure its energy, even if the number we get is zero. A physical state with no space or time, however strange, is still not thereby nothing. A universe with laws that vary from place to place and time to time is clearly not the same as one with no laws at all. It just makes the laws more complicated. Step 6 makes an unjustified leap from “something from not-these-five-things” to “something from nothing.”
There must always be questions that science leaves unanswered. Naturalism posits that there is nothing but the stuff of science. Here, then, is the challenge for naturalism. To believe naturalism, one must believe that these questions are unanswerable. Not just unanswered, not just awaiting a breakthrough, not just an open research question. They must be non-questions, meaningless strings of words, nonsense cleverly disguised as the oldest and deepest questions mankind has asked about reality. Unfortunately for Krauss, to have any hope of doing that he’s going to need to put on his philosopher’s hat.
Dr. Craig posted his comments about the debate after it happened:
The dialogue last night with Krauss went really well! We largely avoided the personal attacks and finally focused on the philosophical issues. Krauss did not mount much of a defense of his claim that physics can offer plausible explanations of why something exists rather than nothing and did not seem to understand Leibniz’s argument, taking it to be about the temporal origin of he universe. Now on to Melbourne, where the dialogue will be moderated by none other than Graham Oppy!
You can also find a full review of the debate by someone who attended it here.
Krauss decided not to primarily attack the premises of the contingency argument but rather the very nature of deductive syllogisms. To do this he presented the following syllogism (I admittedly did not get to write this down but this was the general idea):
- Mammals practice homosexuality.
- Craig is a mammal
- Therefore Craig practices homosexuality. (I honestly can’t remember the exact phrasing of the conclusion but you can see the general gist)
This shocked me. Not only was it an obviously invalid argument but it got a big laugh from the audience (who didn’t seem to see how bad it was). To Krauss’ credit he did at least say that the conclusion was obviously false (at least to his knowledge) but it struck me as very disrespectful. Krauss complimented Craig on being a genuinely nice guy but continued to make regular quips about his use of deductive logic and lack of intellectual honesty. He also attacked the second premise of the argument as obviously question begging.
Krauss concluded his last minute with personal E-mail correspondence between himself and Alexander Vilenkin concerning the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem, a piece of evidence that Craig often employs to demonstrate that the universe began to exist. Unfortunately there was a lot of text on the slide but the main point from Vilenkin seemed to be that the BVG theorem could break down if it turned out that a quantum theory of gravity held to be true. I look forward to this letter becoming public so we can have a better look at it. I was disappointed that Krauss did not raise this earlier or spend more time explaining it. Krauss appealed to evolution, the multiverse and the appearance of apparent “poor tuning” as a way of defeating the teleological argument. Clearly Krauss was conflating the teleological argument from cosmology with some sort of intelligent design argument for biological complexity; a forgivable error for a layperson but not someone of Krauss’ stature.
I am praying that Dr. Craig is able to help Dr. Krauss consider the existence of God respectfully and fairly, and I hope you will as well. I do admire Krauss for agreeing to have these debates. He’s not just having one debate or two debates, but several. And this is not the first time he’s debated Dr. Craig either. You have to admire the man’s willingness to defend his views. I think a lot of atheists in the universities are insulated from arguments like Dr. Craig’s, and they’ll stay insulated form them unless them make an effort to hear the other side.