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Is ‘A Universe from Nothing’ the most misleading book title ever?

January 28, 2015

I’ve recently been dipping into Lawrence Krauss’ book, ‘A Universe from Nothing: why there is something rather than nothing’. It’s certainly a very popular book and has propelled Krauss to become one of the best known atheists in the world today. Krauss’ book has received a lot of praise and also a lot of criticism. I met Krauss a couple of years back when he did some dialogues with William Lane Craig. You can see me do the opening address to the Melbourne dialogue: I quite enjoyed meeting Professor Krauss. So I thought I’d actually get around to reading his bestselling book. Unfortunately, without reading a great deal I worked out that the book has one of the most misleading book titles ever given. Krauss admits within the book itself that he doesn’t actually speak to the title nor answer the question raised in it. I give Krauss credit for his honesty on this point, but this then raises the obvious question about the title – is it disingenuous? A Universe from Nothing? The first part of the title is ‘A Universe from Nothing’. Yet on page 152 closing the chapter on ‘Nothing is Something’ Krauss writes,

While inflation demonstrates how empty space endowed with energy can effectively create everything we see, along with an unbelievably large and flat universe, 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, and one uses the laws o physics like general relativity to calculate the consequences. So if we stopped here, one might be justified in claiming that modern science is a long way from really addressing how to get something from nothing.

This is an astonishing statement. He’s saying that ‘nothing’ really means ‘something’ and we’re really a long way from working out how we can get a universe from ‘nothing’. Yet the book title, ‘A universe from something’ doesn’t quite have the same appeal. Why is there something rather than nothing?  Yet it gets worse as Krauss also contradicts the subtitle: ‘why there is something rather than nothing’. On page 143 he addresses this question,

In science we have to be particularly cautious about “why” questions. When we ask, “Why?” we usually mean “How?” If we can answer the latter, that generally suffices for our purposes. For example, we might ask: ‘Why is the Earth 93 million miles from the Sun?” but what we really probably mean is “How is the Earth 93 million miles from the Sun? That is, we are interested in what physical processes led to the Earth ending up in its present position.”Why” implicitly suggests purpose, and when we try to understand the solar system in scientific terms, we do not generally ascribe purpose to it. So I am going to assume what this question really means to ask is ‘How is there something rather than nothing?’ “How” questions are really the only ones we can provide definitive answers to by studying nature

I found this statement quite astonishing. Not only has he redefined the question, but proposes that the old philosophical chestnut of why is there something rather than nothing is a less interesting question because science can’t actually answer it! Hence a much more accurate title for Lawrence Krauss’ book based on his own argument should be: ‘A Universe from Something: how is there something rather than nothing’. However I doubt that this would have sold nearly as well.

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From → Comment, New atheism

14 Comments
  1. Hi Rob,

    …‘A Universe from Something: how is there something rather than nothing’. However I doubt that this would have sold nearly as well.
    It may well be the case that Krauss’ title was somewhat provocative, but keep in mind that whenever many folks have cogitated on the origin of the universe, they’ve tended to drift in the metaphysical realm of thinking about ‘why’.
    Krauss is simply taking that tendency and attempting to lead the reader down a different path – the path that asks the thinker to re-cast the question as ‘how’ instead of ‘why’.
    To him – and indeed, to many of us – there is no ‘why’. It’s the wrong question, and if we really want to understand our place in the universe, we should explore the ‘how’, without assuming there is some kind of purpose that exists beyond us (the ‘why’).

    Is ‘A Universe from Nothing’ the most misleading book title ever?
    Think you might be over-stating things just a tad there, Rob. But then, I wouldn’t want to accuse you of sensationalism or anything. 😉

    • Paul,

      Of course I may have overstated things a little on being the ‘most misleading book title’, but I do want people to read the post (and it was a question – so you can say no! 😉

      I think your comment is broadly correct, but it’s also misleading. There are two related but distinct questions about the origin of the universe: How did it happen? This is the question that Krauss correctly observes is the realm of science. This is a valid and important question. The other question (still valid) is ‘Why did it happen?’ This question tends to move to the realm of philosophy and even heology. Now just because Krauss (and yourself) find that question uninteresting doesn’t de-legitimise the question. Actually both of you have answered it as ‘for no reason’, which is sort of an answer, but it’s one that I find very unsatisfying.

      My original point of the post was that Krauss has attempted to answer the second question, with that question firmly emblazoned on the front of his book. I think this is misleading. As I said, if he had the first question on his cover it wouldn’t nearly have piqued people’s interest.

      Great to hear from you as always and talk again soon I’m sure 🙂

      Rob

  2. Oh – and on the point about the ‘something’…
    I’ve seen theists jump on this before, as if they’ve proven a fundamental flaw about the limits of science in the argument and therefore the requirement for a supernatural something-that-isn’t-nothing (ie., a god) to kick off the process.
    My argument to those theists, and to you, is to read all of Krauss’ book before you jump on that particular misguided bandwagon.
    You don’t have to be a quantum physicist (I’m not!) to get at least a vague handle on the notion of particles (and energy) fluctuating into and out of existence. Keep in mind that we know of no examples of the ‘nothing’ that excludes those probablistic quantum movements. Like anything else spiritual, we have no intrinsic reason – no evidence – for assuming those states can exist.

    • Just to clarify, I’m not attempting to jump on a theistic bandwagon here to suggest that god must be the answer. I’m demonstrating that Krauss doesn’t actually answer the questions that he sets out to answer. He actually does demonstrate the limits of science. It’s not a ‘flaw’ in science, but to answer primarily philosophical questions (which the why question is), science isn’t the tool. I’m unclear how reading all of Krauss’ book is going to answer the two questions which are of most philosophical interest and of theological importance, i.e. why is there something from nothing and where did the quantum field come from. If Krauss admits that these questions are either uninteresting or not truly ‘nothing’, then I can’t see by reading it all, it’s going to answer the questions. Can you?

  3. We don’t yet know how the universe came into existence. Inflation, string theory, and all of that are just conjectures with no experimental evidence (the BICEP2 result was probably just dust). What we do know is that the universe used to be very small and very hot. What happened at t=0, the exact moment of the Big Bang? We don’t know, because it’s a mathematical singularity where our existing theories of physics break down.

  4. Ed Atkinson permalink

    Rob I don’t want to argue on this too much as the title of the book is less important than the content. “A Universe from Nothing” is a good response to the large numbers of people who think (through lack of information) that that science did claim that and so misguidedly thought theism was rational. “why there is something rather than nothing” is answered in the book (merely judging by your post) with something like ‘because science shows that nothing is not possible.’ I agree this may not be that satisfactory an answer, but it does answer ‘why?’

    [Rob – I am promoting a group “Ex-Christian Atheists Still Married To Believers” it’s to support our marriages thriving. Can I contact you on it? I am happy to post my email here if you need.]

    • Ed, Thanks for the comment, although I must confess that I’m a little confused by your comment. My post was to demonstrate that the title was misleading relating to the content. But I’m not sure what you mean by ‘the book is a good response to the large number of people who think that science did claim that and so misguidedly thought theism was rational’. My point is that even Krauss admits that he doesn’t answer the questions he supposedly sets out to answer.

      To reiterate the ‘why is there something’ isn’t answered in the book. Science can’t answer where the initial quantum field comes from. It shows us ‘how’. How does science show that that nothing isn’t possible? It assumes it, but I’m not sure it demonstrates it.

      Also, please contact me about the other group. Happy to chat.

      Great to hear your comment.

      • Ed Atkinson permalink

        Thanks Rob. My basic point is a that when a question has an embedded false assumption in it, a good answer is to point out the false assumption.

        “How does science show that that nothing isn’t possible?” by showing that is an unstable state. The science laws that generate this can be termed ‘something’ but not in normal language, that level of definition-discussion cannot be included in a book title.

        Thanks – how do I contact you?

  5. sekharpal permalink

    A Fundamental Flaw in the Thesis: A Universe from Nothing

    Most of the modern physicists maintain that the universe has actually originated from nothing, thus requiring no supernatural agency for its creation. Here their logic is something like this: as they have found that the total energy of the universe is zero, so they have argued that no outside agent was at all necessary to provide the initial input energy for starting the universe; therefore, it can simply originate from nothing. If the total energy of the universe were having some very big non-zero value, then it would not have been possible for them to maintain the same thing that the universe had actually originated from nothing. Because in that case they would have to explain as to where all the energies of this universe had come from, because all those energies cannot simply come from nothing. However, the total energy being zero, this problem no longer bothers them. Although the total energy of the universe is always zero, still there are lots of energies in this universe, all originating from nothing in the form of positive and negative energies, thus keeping the total energy of the universe always zero. The same thing can be said about matter also. As the total matter of the universe is zero, so they say that all the matter of the universe can simply come from nothing, because zero does not have to come from anything. But what shall we have to say about space and time? Can nothing generate so much of space and time that we find in this universe? Or, was there some supernatural agent that had actually provided space and time to our universe? Or, would they say the same thing about space and time also that as the total space as well as the total time of the universe is indeed zero, so space and time can simply come from nothing? Was it then that space had actually originated from nothing in the form of positive space and negative space, thus keeping the total space of the universe always zero? Was it the same case for time also? Can it also be said about time that it has actually originated from nothing in the form of positive time and negative time, thus keeping the total time of the universe always zero? If there are negative space and negative time, then where are they? Are they in this universe? If they are not, then how come that so much of space and so much of time have simply come from nothing? Scientists believe that from nothing, nothing comes. The universe started with zero energy and zero matter, and its total energy and total matter always remain zero. Neither any extra energy nor any extra matter added to, or subtracted from, the initial zero value of them. So, from nothing, nothing has actually come. But if there is neither any negative space nor any negative time in our universe to counterbalance the positive space and the positive time respectively, then there is a real problem here. This is because here nothing has given rise to something really positive.
    To remove this imbalance in the quantity of space and time, scientist Victor J Stenger has proposed in an article (The Other Side of Time, 2000) that there is another side of time, opposite to our time axis. As our universe goes on expanding from zero time to positive infinity, so in the other side of time there is another universe that goes on expanding from zero time to negative infinity. If in our universe space and time are considered to be positive space and positive time, then in the universe located in the other side of time space and time can be considered to be negative space and negative time, thus keeping the total space and the total time always zero. Two objections can be raised against this proposed solution. First of all, this can never be verified, and Stenger himself admitted that: “…this scenario cannot be proven, just presented as a possibility that provides a non-supernatural alternative to the theistic creation.” This is tantamount to saying something like this: we suffer lots of injustice in our earthly life. All this will be properly compensated for in our heavenly after-life. Even if it is true, it can never be verified, and therefore it will be purely an act of faith if we accept it as true and live accordingly. So, we cannot accept Stenger’s proposal as a viable solution here, because it will also be an act of faith. The second objection is that initially both energy and matter were zero when the universe originated from nothing and that the total energy and the total matter of the universe always remain zero in this very universe. We have not gone to the other side of time for seeking a solution to any possible imbalance that could have arisen in the totality of these two entities. So, why should we have to go to the other side of time for setting right the imbalance that is definitely there in case of space and time? Why cannot the total space and the total time of this universe always remain zero in this very universe itself? Perhaps there is some substance in this universe that helps keep the total space and the total time of the universe always zero. At least Einstein’s general theory of relativity suggests something like that. At one place Einstein has written about GTR: “When forced to summarize the general theory of relativity in one sentence: Time and space and gravitation have no separate existence from matter.” If time and space and gravitation cannot have any separate existence from matter, then the total matter of the universe being always zero, the total time, the total space and the total gravitation of the universe should also always remain zero. Therefore we can say that there is definitely some substance in this universe due to the presence of which the total space and the total time of the universe always remain zero. And so, we need not have to go to the other side of time at all for setting right any imbalance or asymmetry that can be there either in case of space or in case of time. Due to the presence of this substance we can say that the universe starting from nothing with zero space, zero time, zero matter and zero energy will always contain zero total space, zero total time, zero total matter and zero total energy, thus not showing any asymmetry or imbalance anywhere.
    But what is this substance? Whence has it originated? What are its properties? These are the questions that are to be answered by scientists only. As a layperson, I can only suggest something here. This substance must have the properties of light and it must be able to be all-pervading. For this substance to be all-pervading no known forces of nature must have any slightest effect on this. It must never be absorbed, repelled, attracted or deflected by any known particle of this universe. Not even any super-massive black hole will be able to devour this substance. If these conditions are fulfilled, then it will pervade all of space, and having light-like properties it will always keep the universe in a spaceless and timeless condition. And then we can say the following:
    1) From zero space, so much of space, the total space always remaining zero;
    2) From zero time, so much of time, the total time always remaining zero;
    3) From zero matter, so many forms of matter, the total matter always remaining zero; and
    4) From zero energy, so many forms of energy, the total energy always remaining zero.
    Here scientists may perhaps say that like life, mind and consciousness, space and time are also emergent entities. So for these two entities they need not have to answer the question ‘whence’; rather it will be enough and sufficient if they can answer the question ‘how’ for them. But, are space and time really emergent entities?

  6. I have read the book, I have enjoyed the read and I don’t agree with you. I even have studied some models regarding this topic, ‘the origin of the universe’. You have to understand what Prf. Krauss is really trying to imply.
    The model suggests universe came from empty inflationary space by quantum fluctuations causing density fluctuations. And as you said, he admits that empty space has energy and it cannot be called ‘nothing’. But the most vital point is, he clearly describes how empty space itself can come out of rather more fundamental form of nothingness, in this case, no space, no time, not anything! I can’t see how you missed the remaining part. So this ‘nothing’ is exactly the nothing people will think of after reading the book title, so at last, it is not misleading in that part.

    Next, to the point ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’. I must admit ‘how there is something rather than nothing?’ does not fulfill itself as a question to which Prf. Krauss answers to. ‘Why’ presumes purpose, what if there is no purpose? Ultimately ‘why’ to a scientist means ‘what physical matters forced it to be the way it is’, so to a honest reader, it is not misleading either.

    • Hi there, Thanks for your comments and sorry for the delay in responding. I’ve been away on holidays and have kept myself away from all phones and electronic media – which has been good. But really happy to engage and respond to your comments now.

      I think you might have misunderstood my point. It is less controversial and interesting for space to come from a ‘more fundamental form of nothingness’ rather than to emerge from completely nothing at all. As Krauss himself admits (and I quoted): “So […] one might be justified in claiming that modern science is a long way from really addressing how to get something from nothing.” Does Krauss ever explain how we really get something from absolutely nothing? I concede that once you redefine nothing then Krauss’ book is less misleading, but the way Krauss redefines nothing is really ‘nothing’.

      Thanks for your comments. Hope you’re going well.

      Rob

      • The quotation you gave, I will quote the remaining part of that chapter: “But we will see that how empty space can simply represent a cosmic tip of an iceberg of nothingness”. If completely nothing is ‘No space, no time, no radiation, no particles, not anything’, then yes, Prf. Krauss describes how something can come from it.

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