I was left with a pretty negative view of Larry Krauss after his collaborations with Richard Dawkins – “The Unbelievers” (2013) and Dawkins breathless afterword to Krauss “A Universe From Nothing – Why is there something rather than nothing?” (2012)
In that recommendation – oft repeated in public sessions since – Dawkins concluded “The title means exactly what it says” despite the fact Krauss himself doesn’t claim that. It’s not unusual for publishers and editors to hype titles and headlines, but we’d hope for more honesty from professional scientists. Sadly in the whole New Atheists’ publicly declared war against God, the gloves were off – all’s fair in love and war apparently – so honesty and factual science are sacrificed. See “The Unbelievers” Dawkins and Krauss, (2013)
The most Krauss claims here is that the more complex structures in the cosmos evolved Darwinian fashion from our understanding of its simplest elements of space, time, energy, matter, particles, waves etc, without need of any intelligent design. I agree. (Any “intelligent design” has itself evolved the same way in the same time – after Dennett). What he is at pains to point out is that even “empty space” is full of potential and virtual instances of these elements. He’s talking about evolution of complex reality from empty space. Not from nothing.
Empty space is not nothing.
Frankly myself, I’m more interested in epistemology – what do we really know – than picking sides in a war, so I put this whole unfortunate episode behind me when in 2014 he was advertised to appear at the “Bang Goes the Big Bang” themed HTLGI event. I’d already had issues with Krauss science from back in 2006 / 2010 (below) and having failed to get his attention during the Unbelievers circus with Dawkins I had another try. To no avail. Sadly he appeared only by video link for a single session. Doubly disappointing there was no overlap with other physicists at the event, relevant to his 2006/10 work. Trebly sadly, he was lined-up against two philosophers, and was defending the line that science had made all real human progress since the time of Plato and even Aristotle had got most things wrong, so philosophy and philosophers were entirely redundant and discredited today. Science has no need of philosophy.
Strangely in 2017 – the Humanists UK “Darwin Day” lecture, also hosted by Dawkins, Krauss was pretty honest despite Dawkins over-selling Krauss claims again. He did a potted version of his 2012 (something from
nothing empty space) work only very briefly before spending most of his time on the population evolution arguments of science and his heroes from Galileo & Faraday onwards. Fine and honest. (Plato again the only philosopher he’s prepared to acknowledge and even then I suspect his lesson from the cave was the reverse of mine.) He’s a great communicator, but I’d really already left him behind in 2014.
“Something rather than Nothing” is a much bigger philosophical question than this post, and fortunately despite the critical noise generated, we and Krauss already know he has nothing to say about it. The lesson is in the noise and spurious claims of public science communications. So something from nothing is NOT our topic here.
But, as I said, I’d first noticed him as a great communicator between 2006 and 2010 and it was the following earlier work of his I had been trying to follow-up.
The Anthropic Copernican Point:
Following the “Confronting Gravity” conference of hand-picked physicist colleagues – across the whole range and scales from quanta to cosmology, theoretical and empirical – Krauss was interviewed by John Brockman (of The Edge dot org) with the title:
(The page has a partial transcript and a partial video version of the same interview – embedded top right – they’re not inconsistent in any contradictory way, but as a result of editing they have different content & omissions – eg @ ~13mins? Worth reading / viewing both.)
Long story short – the inability of quantum theory and general relativity to combine to accommodate gravity in any consistent way – explain the gravitational constant and/or the energy of “empty space” – is (or should be) a major headache for fundamental physicists. (Why isn’t it zero? why is cosmic inflation at an accelerating rate? etc). Clearly then for Krauss it was the headache he was focussing on, but many simply appeared to have thrown up their hands (his words) as just one of those things we’re never going to solve by observation from our circumstantial human perspective in the universe we happen to inhabit. If ever there were an aspect of 21st C fundamental science that might be interested in philosophy, this is surely it? Anyway I’m interested. Metaphysical questions around the ontology of existence, what it means to exist as something rather than nothing, never go away. Something that can never be objectively verified by science isn’t science but a metaphysical choice.
Now, mentioned in the transcript but not the recording is the question I’ve been trying to get Krauss to revisit since 2006. Any mention of it is even missing from his 2012 work, despite many mentions of the importance of Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) observations (as reverberations from the Big Bang). Because the question is in Krauss’ words:
There appears to be energy of empty space that isn’t zero! This flies in the face of all conventional wisdom in theoretical particle physics. It is the most profound shift in thinking, perhaps the most profound puzzle …
… when we look out at the universe, there doesn’t seem to be enough structure not as much as inflation would predict …
… when you look at CMB (Cosmic Microwave Background) map, you also see that the structure that is observed, is in fact, in a weird way, correlated with the plane of the earth around the sun. Is this Copernicus coming back to haunt us?
That’s crazy. We’re looking out at the whole universe. There’s no way there should be a correlation of structure with our motion of the earth around the sun, the plane of the earth around the sun, the ecliptic …
… telling us that all of science is wrong and we’re the center of the universe, or maybe the data is simply incorrect, or … maybe there’s something wrong with our theories on the larger scales.
He mentions the word “Anthropic” just once in the video recording edit, and this claim of “craziness” at the heart of physics is doesn’t make the video edit either. As I say, nor does any of this appear in his 2012 book, despite 30+ references to CMB and even addressing “fine tuning” Anthropic anomalies, in his story of cosmic evolution. That’s weird.
I’ve written lots about this before (see below) and I’m not an advocate of (any of) The Anthropic Principle(s) but I see an Anthropic anomaly in our scientific observations that needs explaining?
In some sense “our” model of physics does appear to have some dependency on “our” place in the cosmos. This undermines scientific claims of objectivity and, as above, the possibility or validity of empirical observation. Gödel was there before everyone. As Brandon Carter, the originator of Anthropic discussions, pointed out in 1974, science’s decision to ignore this non-scientific question is actually a political one.
In ignorance of metaphysics,
science is compromised by politics.
Post Notes: Revisiting the above, in the light of Krauss appearance at Teesside Skeptics in the Pub November 2023.
Before Krauss TS-SitP Appearance:
Those last few paras form my question to Krauss in a Teesside Skeptics in the Pub” session later this week reframed as a question below. Standby for update 🙂
Previously on Psybertron:
In the absence of detailed references above this 2010 post contains many important linked papers: “Before The Big Bang?“. (Since Rick Ryals has died since then, I may need to secure copies of his work.)
Or simply search for Krauss on Psybertron for now (more links to be added).
This very brief post on Krauss summarises 3 key questions. 80% through my read of “A Universe From Nothing”.
My 100% review of the same – where I air my disappointments despite it being a great read in terms of cosmological evolution.
UPDATE 9 Nov: Assuming this is the talk we are seeing tonight – (it was) – no science is fundamental at all scales, all is always contingent, so science must always be changing its mind, revising its model – is this one?
Awful “New Atheists” (!) production – but – a fine talk on the same content I mentioned from the 2006 Brockman interview above. And mentioning several “crazy” observations and predictions about the gravitational constant / cosmic expansion / energy of free-space that led to radical re-framing of fundamental laws / equations – and indeed completely new concepts like dark matter and dark energy needing to be added. Except – the one crazy observation (outlined above) which he has never responded to from 2006 to 2010 nor even in his 2012 book.
QUESTION For Larry Krauss (question updated 9 Nov in line with the above). A question about whether you’ve changed your own mind:
A lot of what you described in your talk was the same as you shared with John Brockman (at The Edge) in 2006 following your “Confronting Gravity” conference with the great and the good of fundamental physics – all scales theoretical and observational. Several “crazy” things that demanded new elements in the theories and equations of fundamental physics – dark matter, dark energy, energy of empty-space etc.
After that, your 2012 book “A Universe from Nothing” covered the whole Darwinian evolution of the universe from the vacuum of empty space (not from nothing incidentally, despite the publisher’s title and the Dawkins afterword, but we can ignore that here). A great book, I reviewed and recommended at the time.
In the book you mention the importance of Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR) observations many times, and you also address several Anthropic questions of apparent “fine tuning” (most people just dismiss Anthropic questions, but you addressed them).
BUT YOU DID NOT mention (so far as I can see then or since) your position – restate, correct or explain – the Anthropic anomaly in the CMBR Map. That the observations themselves displayed a “crazy” correlation to the place of our planet and solar-system – in the cosmos? Are you still haunted by Copernicus? Or how have you since satisfied yourself with an explanation of this specific Anthropic anomaly?
Have you changed your mind, Larry?
(Or did I miss something in your book or since?)
Krauss Answer: (1) Stopped worrying about it, no-one talks about it any more. Assume later measurements (eg by Planck) have not reproduced the local ecliptic correlation in the CMBR anisotropy observations. And (2) even if there were correlations in angular alignment of the anisotropy with the earth’s solar system, there would be enough circumstantial reasons to conclude that’s just how it ended up, without need of further explanation.
(2) is the dismissive response to Anthropic views, where I just believe we deserve more sophisticated causal arguments in either direction, the cosmos to us or us to the cosmos? Even that meta-argument – whether such an argument is or isn’t needed – is worthy of discussion, philosophically even if not empirically? Certainly Krauss took many other Anthropic indications seriously enough to address them in his 2012 book. (This is actually my main agenda about science’s political motivations in providing public explanations – Brandon Carter’s original point – no space for more here.)
(1) Is what leads one to question motivations – the passivity? Clearly it was such a “crazy” scenario, and massively disruptive – a disaster – for much of the foundations of cosmology and cosmogeny, the whole of science – that one way or another science hoped it would go away. Hence Krauss’ Copernican jibe. But, given that hope, you’d maybe think people would be actively looking out for the disconfirmation and an explanation of the effect of previous observational arrangements that caused the spurious anomaly?
Now, as I said, I left this behind in 2014/16 and only revisited it given the opportunity of Krauss’ appearance at TS-SitP. And I was never close to the empirical science, nor even expert enough, just concerned for the philosophical question of what counts as a “quality” explanation.
Looking at (say) these two more recent post-Planck papers, lots of discussion of interpretation of many different kinds of anisotropy, but not one direct reference to the particular prior “ecliptic” anomaly. Surely it would be easy for an expert like Krauss, to construct a conclusion of the form “[This observation / reference] shows that is statistically most likely the ecliptic anomaly was spurious and caused by [some local effect of the observation arrangement]”. Still seems odd not to want to do that?
Martin Bucher (2015) (Comprehensive review paper)
Scott and Smoot (2019)
My own answer?
I think the better model of the cosmos at all scales – including humanity within it – is essentially epistemological rather than ontological. Primarily about what can be known, with what exists and happens relegated to our secondary “model” based on that primary view. So those most fundamental elements of existence – space, time, energy, matter, particles, waves etc – are themselves derived from even more fundamental particles of knowledge – bits of information.
With this metaphysics, limits to knowledge are more properly recognised and anthropic limits with what we humans can know are also more properly explained- and in fact many other existential “human” questions in the cosmos – and on the planet – are better addressed.
It’s pretty clear why the scientific “sacred” attitude to empirical objectivity resists this politically, but equally clear (from so many other “sacred naturalism” issues beyond this post) that this is where many of our real human problems lie.