While not typically classified as one of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheist movement, Canadian-born theoretical physicist, outspoken skeptic, and critic of religion Lawrence Krauss is one of the few living physicist referred to by Scientific American as a “public intellectual”, and he is the only physicist to have received awards from all three major U.S. physics societies: the American Physical Society, the American Association of Physics Teachers, and the American Institute of Physics. He earned his PhD from MIT in 1982 and has been active ever since, garnering acclaim from scholars and laypeople alike. He was one of the first to suggest the notion of dark energy, served on Barack Obama’s campaign science policy committee, and was even interviewed by NPR.
In an interview, audio excerpts from which can be found in the February 23rd episode of the podcast “Reasonable Faith”, Krauss belies a fundamental philosophical error concerning a premise on which the thesis of his recent book hangs:
I’m amused that people keep redefining their definition of “nothing” whenever I point out that nothing can create something. But they always want to sort of define nothing as “that which something can never come from”. And that’s sort of [unintelligible] semantically. I think if you’d asked philosophers years ago “what is nothing?” they’d say “empty space nothingness”. But then when you show that that can create something you’d say “well that’s not really ‘nothing’, cause there’s—cause space exists”. And then I could show that while maybe the laws of physics that we now understand tell us that even space itself could be created from nothing. And they’d say “well that’s not ‘nothing’ because the laws, the potential for existence, is there”. And then I could argue, based on multiverse ideas, that even maybe the laws of physics arrived spontaneously. And moreover I think it’s kind of silly to say the potential for existence is different than nothing, that that’s the same as existence. If there’s no potential for existence, then not even a creator can create it, I assume. And moreover, as I argue in the book a little graphically, I think, the potential for existence is very different than existence. I mean as I point out the fact that I walk near a woman implies the potential for creating life, but it’s very different than creating it.
Krauss’ book claims to answer a question that Leibniz notoriously posed as the basis of a philosophically technical argument for the existence of God from contingency, “why is there something rather than nothing?”. Obviously a critical issue to clarify when discussing “nothing” is the definition of “nothing”. Krauss unconventionally uses “nothing” to refer to the quantum vacuum instead of the object of universal negation, and in doing so fails to even address Leibniz’s argument, which uses “nothing” conventionally.
What piques my interest in this segment in particular is the bearing that the de re/de dicto distinction has on the discourse. Krauss acts out a dialogue in which “philosophers years ago” point ostensibly to “empty space” in response to the question “what is nothing?”. All historical contentions aside, if Philosophers Years Ago were to engage such a dialogue using the conventional definition of “nothing” as the object of universal negation (“not anything”), then their pointing to empty space as an example of “nothing” would indicate the belief that there is not anything in empty space. However, Krauss would have us take their ostentation to mean that “empty space” (and whatever it is found to be or to contain) is “nothing” by definition. Then he shows that empty space is, or contains, vacuum energy such that, given his definition of “nothing” as “empty space”, he becomes warranted in using “nothing” to refer to “vacuum energy”. If he successfully shows that vacuum energy can give rise to the universe as we know it, then he can claim to have shown how the universe could have arisen from “nothing”. In fact one of the chapters in his book is entitled “Nothing is Something”, and in his interview with NPR he says,
…both nothing and something are scientific concepts, and our discoveries over the past 30 years have completely changed what we mean by nothing.
In particular, nothing is unstable. Nothing can create something all the time due to the laws of quantum mechanics, and it’s — it’s fascinatingly interesting…
…Empty space is a boiling, bubbling brew of virtual particles…
So you can see that he never even intends to address why there is something rather than there not being anything, nor does he attempt to explain how something can arise without anything. He merely attempts to show how things like planetary bodies might be able to arise from a state of affairs in which there is a “bubbling stew of virtual particles” that he refers to by the word “nothing”. If those Philosophers Years Ago whom Krauss depicts as pointing to empty space as an example of “nothing” used “nothing” to mean “not anything” as opposed to “vacuum energy”, they would cease pointing to empty space as an example of “nothing” upon being shown that it is, or contains, a particular kind of energy, and would dispute Krauss’ identification of the two. This would not be a redefinition of the word “nothing”, but would simply reflect a new understanding of “empty space” as “vacuum energy”, which would mean that it is no longer an example of “nothing”.
If we were to temporarily adopt Krauss’ own redefinition of “nothing” and temporarily grant the success of his attempt to show that vacuum energy could give rise to the universe as we know it, we could simply restate Leibniz’s question as “why is there something rather than there not being anything at all?” or “why was there vacuum energy rather than there not being anything?”, or even “why was there ‘nothing’ rather than there not being anything?”. To my knowledge there is no documented attempt by Krauss to answer this question.
In addition to improperly handling de re/de dicto distinctions by rigidly defining “nothing” as “empty space and whatever it is found to contain” (which, by the way, also treads on what we conventionally mean by “empty”; in fact the NPR interviewer asks “…empty space is really not empty, correct?”, Krauss’ answer to which is “That’s exactly right. Empty space is a boiling, bubbling brew of virtual particles…”), Krauss fails to recognize distinctions in uses of the term “potential”. He says,
I think it’s kind of silly to say the potential for existence is different than nothing, that that’s the same as existence. If there’s no potential for existence, then not even a creator can create…
If the potential for existence is something, and it exists, then something exists. If the potential for existence is something, and it does not exist, then there is not a potential for existence. If the potential for existence is not anything, then there is no question that it does not exist, and therefore there is not a potential for existence. Contra Krauss, in none of the three states of affairs is there simultaneously a potential for existence and nothing.
It may be reeling to think of the potential for existence as something that exists, but that is only because of the self-reference latent in the statement, and the confusion may be mitigated by looking at the statement from its other side. If one sees that every actuality indicates its own potentiality, the statement becomes obvious. That is, if something exists then it must be possible that it exists! If the potential for existence is something, and it exists, then therefore something exists. If something exists, then it must be possible for something to exist.
The potential for existence, if it exists, exists.
What Krauss may actually be trying to argue is that the existence of a metaphysical potential for the existence of physical objects is not equivalent to the existence of physical objects, and that if there were not a metaphysical potential for the existence of physical objects, then it would not even be possible for an omnipotent being to create physical objects. This is coherent, however I think it obviously unproblematic for the theist. He seems to imply that the implication of such statements is that both theists and skeptics must admit that there is a potential for existence, and that a potential for existence is all he needs to demonstrate the possibility of a universe arising “from nothing” and without any agent of change. This later statement is, independent of its unconventional use of “nothing” and mutual exclusivity with the Principle of Sufficient Reason, obviously not implied by its antecedents.