Krauss Falls Short of Nothing

Disappointed in finishing Krauss’ “A Universe From Nothing”. He makes some good points (see previous post) but nothing entirely new – quantum fluctuations, big bang, matter asymmetry, inflation, flatness, cosmological constant, CMBR distribution – and most of the newer stuff is very speculative. If this is new to you then he is a strongly recommended read. (An updated Charlesworth & Gribben’s 1990 “Cartoon History of Time” for me; it’s proven hard to beat despite the amount of reading since.) He is a witty read, a cosmologist eyeing the funding of particle physics:

Particle physicists are way ahead of cosmologists. Cosmology has produced only one totally mysterious quantity: the energy of empty space about which we understand virtually nothing. However particle physics has not understood many more quantities for far longer!

The fact that a credible scientist takes anthropic indications seriously without dismissing them as mere truisms is a major leap forward. Of course as a good scientist, he’s always looking for the plausible speculations that may suggest or be suggested by empirical tests, however indirect, and obviously at these levels “evidence” is a hugely accumulative, constructed concept with the occasional empirical landmark. But, the bad taste is that the agenda is so clearly intentional and directed towards the anti-God agenda. Totally unnecessarily IMHO. The breathless afterword and sleeve notes from Dawkins, Harris and more compound the impression. Perhaps Larry is angling to be the 5th horseman, to replace Hitchens who died before he could write a foreward. Even philosopher Anthony Grayling describes it as

” … a triumph of physics over metaphysics (and theology) … “

Only Martin Rees (the “quisling” according to Dawkins, remember) is more neutral

” … deeply fascinating speculations … “

Ultimately, despite constantly saying he is talking about something from literally nothing, his nothing is a field of energy potential, a “quantum haze” – neutral zero energy “essentially”, as he keeps qualifying it, with balancing quanta and anti-quanta popping in and out of existence, blurred to “essentially nothing” within quantum time-scales. This “nothing” is inherently unstable, hence the existence of something other than this nothing. Whilst he liberally quotes heroes of science Feynman (his) and Bronowski (mine) his philosophy doesn’t progress beyond Plato and Aristotle. His faith (which I share) that science will constantly push back the boundary of where the first cause within physics can be described, however speculatively, is not a reason to deny the existence of the literally nothing boundary as a logical, metaphysical starting point. In fact he is effectively saying, it’s just not an interesting stance to take – it doesn’t tell you very much. True. In fact that’s a large part of my agenda, that there is little to argue about here. It’s just not contentious. So why turn it into an argument …. against …. anything else?

The real debate is what it means for a “universe” to “start” and what kind of universe you’re talking about, and the core of this question is how you respond to the anthropic “fine-tuning” in this universe. (That or radically non-intuitive models of causation and time.) If we’re talking totally disconnected (zero-inter-communicating) multiverses, where each may have totally independent physical laws, constants and boundary conditions – then we’re in the realms of pure metaphysical speculation as far as this universe is concerned. We just happen to be in the universe we are in, which happens to be the one in which we can come to exist, and the others just provide us with the convenient statistical population. (It still leaves first cause unanswered or any mechanisms outside any one universe that explains / causes the individual universes.) If we’re talking causally connected universes as part of one super-multiverse with common physical laws with constants and boundary conditions set by historical causality, then we have a meaningful physics story as to how universes arise each with their particular properties. (Still no first cause of course, which is why this is a separate non-science question.) This is Peter Rowlands stance in “From Zero to Infinity”

Again, we must reject the idea that a single cosmic creation event has structured the laws of physics in a particular way, and that they could have been different in different circumstances. The idea could, in principle, be true, but then we would have no abstract subject of physics, no generality, no absolute mathematics, and no meaningful concept of conservation, the process which makes physics universal. The very idea that we could discover a unified theory of physics is impossible in such a context. Physics is fractured in the very act of creation. In addition, such explanations have the habit of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. We simply refer difficulties to special conditions that occurred in the ‘early universe’, and deprive ourselves of understanding fundamental physical phenomena which ought to be valid at all places in all epochs.

[Update April 2014]

Taking a snip from the NYT review of Krauss book (linked by Rick in the comment below) confirms the view that not only is something from literally nothing a preposterous claim for science, but the act of writing the book, and acquiring hyperbolic endorsements from fellow horsemen simply exposes how utterly puerile their Science vs God agenda really is.

… it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, …. to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.

Agreed. Dumb and dumber. The pity as I said is, that as a read in terms of popularising bleeding edge physics it does have some excellent content and style, marred by disingenuous claims, a puerile publishing agenda and a denial of the actual (scientific) questions raised.

[Post Note 2018: A 2012 Piece by Sean Carroll summarising the “kerfuffle” around criticisms of Krauss here. Starts from the same NYT review mentioned here.]

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