Lawrence Krauss on “Nothing”

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.

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