Lawrence Krauss’ book “A Universe from Nothing” and David Albert’s review

I was in the NYU bookstore on Broadway last week and I bought the last copy of the book A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence Krauss, director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University.

Lawrence Krauss, elaborates in his book on how what we previously thought was just empty space, in fact is teaming with energetic activity. Particles are being created and destroyed at every moment. Krauss argues that this “empty space” is unstable and that this “nothing” plausibly could be the cause of the whole universe.

I also read, the other day, a strange review in New York Times of the book by professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, David Albert.

The only thing that David Albert essentially goes on and on about is how terrible it is to misuse the word “nothing” the way Lawrence Krauss does.

David Albert argues that the word “nothing” the way Lawrence Krauss uses it doesn’t mean nothing at all. Lawrence Krauss’ nothing contains quantum fields and has physical properties. That’s not “nothing”.

The reason why I thought the review was odd was that it doesn’t really touch upon the real issue of the book.

As opposed to Albert I think that Krauss in his use of the word “nothing” is not completely out of line with the traditional use of the word in Philosophy.

I’m thinking of the Christian concept of “creatio ex nihilo” – creation out of nothing.

The way Christian theologians used this concept implied that the universe come from nothing in a very specific sense. It implied that the universe lacked a material cause in the Aristotelian sense. It still had an efficient cause, namely God. It just meant that the universe was not molded from any preexisting material.

Apparently this interpretation of “creation ex nihilo” was good enough for Christian theologians.

What I argue for is that Lawrence Krauss’ use of the idea “from nothing” is very close to the Christian concept of “ex nihilo”. In exactly the same way Christian theologians argued that the universe lacked a material cause, Krauss argues that the matter of the universe was not molded from any preexisting matter.  Krauss’ matter also lacks a material cause in the Aristotelian sense.

The laws of the quantum field are the efficient cause in Krauss’ model. God himself is the efficient cause in Christian theology. The existence of an efficient cause didn’t discourage the theologians from talking about a creation from nothing.

The only real distinction I can see is that we talk about a “spiritual driving force” as efficient cause in one case and a “physical driving force” as efficient cause in the other. Neither of them are truly “nothing”.

You could argue that the vacuum fields are a part of the universe and that the creation model for the universe elaborated on by Krauss doesn’t say anything about how those fields themselves could come into being. But I don’t see that as a significant problem. It’s not Krauss’ intention with the book to try to show how the physical properties of the quantum fields originated.

So the ultimate source of the universe isn’t truly “nothing” after all?

No. That’s actually a kind of trivial remark because no one has ever claimed that. Not theologians, nor scientists. Religious people tend to say that the ultimate source of the universe is God. No scientist has ever claimed that the ultimate source of the universe is a state which lacks all physical properties or laws – a condition that David Albert seems to think should be a requirement for you’re being entitled to use the word “nothing”.

Krauss’ book is a fascinating account of the progress of recent scientific discovery. David Albert’s critique doesn’t feel very relevant.

PS: A prominent theistic apologist of today that uses the word ”nothing” somewhat dubiously is William Lane Craig. Concluding this interview he says: “The person who believes in the creation of the universe out of nothing stands solidly within mainstream science.

Really? How many “mainstream scientists” does he think will say that the universe came out of a state which lacks all properties whatsoever?

”None”, is my guess. I think that cosmologists in general would rather go with Krauss’ quantum field nothing rather than David Alberts ontological nothing.

PPS: A very interesting interview where Lawrence Krauss answers to criticism and discusses his views upon the relationship between physics and philosophy was published in the Atlantic.

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