Nothing Doing

by A. Jay Adler on April 20, 2012
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Cosmologist Laurence Kruass’s latest book is A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. Originally intended to contain a foreword by Christopher Hitchens, the book makes bold to tackle through physics a question to which religion has historically provided the comforting answer and over which contemporary philosophy long ago dismissively threw up its hands. Says Krauss,

If we live in a universe full of stuff, how did it get here? And many people think that very question implies the need for a creator. But what’s truly been amazing, and what the book’s about is the revolutionary developments in both cosmology and particle physics over the past 30 or 40 years that have not only changed completely the way we think about the universe but made it clear that there’s a plausible case for understanding precisely how a universe full of stuff, like the universe we live in, could result literally from nothing by natural processes.

The old existentialist joke in philosophy, when speaking of nothing (which is not, mind you, to be saying nothing or to have nothing worth saying) is to ask whether we are talking about nothing as nothing or nothing as something. Well, you could die laughing because that’s a serious point.

Krauss, like other contemporary physicists, posits matter and order (physical laws) spontaneously arising out of nothing, and he believes the physics and theoretical extrapolations from it can support the strong plausibility of that contention. Aside from taking on a subject traditionally believed to be the provenance of religion and philosophy, and not of science – a “why” question, a question of signification, of meaning – Krauss offers a disputed response to the joke.

And I guess most importantly that the question why is there something rather than nothing is really a scientific question, not a religious or philosophical question, because 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.

Take empty space, for instance. It isn’t actually, properly speaking, empty. (Sort of like an empty head or an empty promise….I kid.) It is empty of anything positive, but otherwise,

[e]mpty space is a boiling, bubbling brew of virtual particles that pop in and out of existence in a time scale so short that you can’t even measure them. Now, that sounds of course like counting angels on the head of a pin; if you can’t measure them, then it doesn’t sound like it’s science, but in fact you can’t measure them directly.

But we can measure their effects indirectly. These particles that are popping in and out of existence actually affect the properties of atoms and nuclei and actually are responsible for most of the mass inside your body. And in fact, really one of the things that motivated this book was the most profound discovery in recent times, and you even alluded to it in the last segment, the discovery that most of the energy of the universe actually resides in empty space.

Much of what – well, we cannot say ex-ists – shall we say in-sists? – is negative energy: what is called dark energy. What is permitting the cauldron of activity in “empty” space is quantum mechanics, which is the ground for all this activity. But these are still physical laws by which matter and energy act, and the question remains, if you are agreeable so far, from where the laws arise.

Part of the answer Krauss and others propose is clarified by the multiverse hypotheses, a concept of which Krauss says he is actually not a fond proponent, but which he uses anyway to advance the notion that the laws, too, like the matter, can spontaneously, randomly arise in multiple, differing sets in multiple universes, out of nothing. So, certainly contra what Spinoza’s probably would have argued, that we live in the only possible world, and splitting hairs with Leibniz that we live in the best of all possible worlds, this claim is that we live in one of them, the one that includes us and so permits the question “why.” But this is a random accident. In any of a presumably infinitely possible spontaneous arisings of verse (existence as eruptions of poetry!) different sets of physical laws will adhere, all with no greater weight in significance than an elementary particle flashing its existence in the “void” of space in the time span of a thought unthought.

Krauss makes bold to go where religion and philosophy only dream or defer –

the question why is there something rather than nothing is really a scientific question, not a religious or philosophical question, because both nothing and something are scientific concepts, and our discoveries over the past 30 years have completely changed what we mean by nothing –

even though he knows his ideas are still problematic:

But even the multiverse is not totally lawless, as Dr. Krauss acknowledged. We are not quite there yet. At the very least, there would still be the string equations and those quantum principles that undergird them. Is quantum randomness the secret of existence?

“Maybe in the true eternal multiverse there are truly no laws,” Dr. Krauss said in an e-mail. “Maybe indeed randomness is all there is and everything that can happen happens somewhere.”

Here is one problem. Even a random distribution of laws (quantum fields, in the mechanics) – sets of laws that all operate differently in different universes – requires a notion of randomness itself, which has no meaning without its opposite in a principle of order, the very idea of order, even “The Idea of Order at Key West”:

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Against what measure is the disordered universe disordered? On what ground of adherency do the laws of the apparently ordered universe maintain their order from one instant to the next? Why does the universe that randomly arises in order not immediately collapse into disorder?

Krauss declares,

As particle physics revolutionizes the concepts of “something” (elementary particles and the forces that bind them) and “nothing” (the dynamics of empty space or even the absence of space), the famous question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is also revolutionized.

Shall we declare in return that it is nearly tautologous that one can revolutionize any consideration if one simply redefines the terms of it? We shall.

David Albert reviewed A Universe from Nothing for The New York Times Book Review. Albert is Director of Columbia University’s M.A. Program in The Philosophical Foundations of Physics and an annoyingly (which is to say deliciously) good writer for someone who is already a physicist and a philosopher. His review needs to be read in full. Here is vital taste in culminating pronouncement on the subject of what is or is not, you guessed it, nothing.

A century ago, it seems to [Krauss], nobody would have made so much as a peep about referring to a stretch of space without any material particles in it as “nothing.” And now that he and his colleagues think they have a way of showing how everything there is could imaginably have emerged from a stretch of space like that, the nut cases are moving the goal posts. He complains that “some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine ‘nothing’ as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe,” and that “now, I am told by religious critics that I cannot refer to empty space as ‘nothing,’ but rather as a ‘quantum vacuum,’ to distinguish it from the philosopher’s or theologian’s idealized ‘nothing,’ ” and he does a good deal of railing about “the intellectual bankruptcy of much of theology and some of modern philosophy.” But all there is to say about this, as far as I can see, is that Krauss is dead wrong and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right. Who cares what we would or would not have made a peep about a hundred years ago? We were wrong a hundred years ago. We know more now. And if what we formerly took for nothing turns out, on closer examination, to have the makings of protons and neutrons and tables and chairs and planets and solar systems and galaxies and universes in it, then it wasn’t nothing, and it couldn’t have been nothing, in the first place.

So stop calling it nothing.

Krauss’s boldness in redistricting “something” and “nothing” out of philosophy and religion into science can lead him to the kind of philosophical and spiritual denseness to which some kinds of materialists are prone.

Does all of this prove that our universe and the laws that govern it arose spontaneously without divine guidance or purpose? No, but it means it is possible.

And that possibility need not imply that our own lives are devoid of meaning. Instead of divine purpose, the meaning in our lives can arise from what we make of ourselves, from our relationships and our institutions, from the achievements of the human mind.

Krauss offers not the least acknowledgement that in that second paragraph he has left physics and science behind like far Tortuga. Meaning, now, too, is the provenance of the particle physicist and string theorist; wisdom is a two-sentence bromide and existential philosophy is unmeasurable.

In Buddhism, endless consideration has gone into understanding the notions of sunyata, “emptiness,” and tathata, “suchness.” Both words are also translated “thusness.” Both are attempts to reach an understanding of the ground of reality, “being” we might say in Western philosophy, being without attributes and in itself. Says Richard H. Robinson of the Lankavatara Sutra,

The Lankavatara is always careful to balance sunyata with Tathata, or to insist that when the world is viewed as sunya, empty, it is grasped in its suchness.

There is a telling implication of being and nothingness in some of the work for which Krauss is most renowned, that concept of dark energy that fills the void of space. Previously, an open question about the Big Bang was whether it would eventually reverse itself and collapse back, or if the universe’s expansion would continue forever. There seemed to be insufficient matter, exerting inadequate gravitational pull, to prevent the endless expansion. Then came evidence of dark matter, and insufficient matter was no longer the problem. The problem now (if that’s what it is – what’s so great about a collapse back to the universe in the volume of an atom?) is that the dark energy is actually propelling the universe apart in its expansion at ever increasing speeds. Says Krauss of the galaxies’ withdrawal,

Eventually they will recede faster than light and will be unobservable.

This has changed our vision of the future, which is now far bleaker. The longer we wait, the less of the universe we will be able to see. In hundreds of billions of years astronomers on some distant planet circling a distant star (Earth and our sun will be long gone) will observe the cosmos and find it much like our flawed vision at the turn of the last century: a single galaxy immersed in a seemingly endless dark, empty, static universe.

Previously, the great dark backward was a past that offered up only partial, but so far enough evidence of itself for us always to be gaining on the truth. The vision of contemporary cosmology, however, is of a future without vision, as both the past and the future recede irretrievably beyond our grasp and advance faster than we can move through time to keep up. That future, Krauss seems not to recognize the implication, will be one in which the presumption of a scientist to formulate not just theories, but meaning, will lose its own self-defined basis: observability. Then something and nothing will be beyond measure and truly “things” to think about. Like this, in a darker moment, with a darker energy.


we would be light
as lifted burdens leave us when they go

we would that our greenhouse homes
glassy and round, cutless of corner, be
biospheres that ease us through
the hard vacuum
of all that outer space beyond

we would live
as if made to be here

our gardens grow
and that was last year in Provence
before Tuscany
when Lilith learned to fly

……………………………………………..the boys
would be grown now  so tall
and full of promise if we’d had them
if we’d made
that rock our thing

but all our particle charm        is not
massive enough, the dark matter
you can count on
the darker energy
a flight from what weighs us down

alas      poor Camus
we do not always find
our burden again
but sometimes are drawn
from what holds us together
expand forever in infinite drift
the cold dim death of the farthest lights
so far from their brilliant creation
invisible and cheerless and slow

originally published in Adagio Verse Quarterly, October 2005


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