Much Ado About "Nothing"

By Jeff Laird

Not long ago, the phrase "something from nothing" was used as a caricatured attack on atheistic beliefs. Atheists would bristle at the suggestion they really believed that "something" came from "nothing", for "no reason". And yet, recently, that very phrasing is coming directly from atheists themselves. Lawrence Krauss' book A Universe From Nothing puts the idea in fairly direct terms, but other atheists have hinted at the same general idea.

The biggest problem with this approach is that it's not really rooted in scientific observations, or evidence, or even logic. It's just a cheap attempt to re-define words, fuelled by a desire to avoid God. (Read to the end before you dismiss that as mere assumption on my part.) The "something from nothing" tactic is like claiming that rain comes from "nowhere", and then saying that clouds are "nowhere". But that's not what the word in question means, or has ever meant. Another example would be like trying to tell your employer that you went to "work", then explaining that sleeping in your bed is "work". Trying to change words doesn't change reality.

Nothing in modern physics has ever suggested we can get anything from an actual "nothing". Nor could it. If there is any possibility of change, or growth, or movement, then there has to be "something" there to change or grow. That's more than just logical, it's fundamental to how we approach science. Models and theories which go against this are totally unsupported by evidence or observations, and rely on breaking the basic rules of logic, or the principles of cause-and-effect, which are the basis of science in the first place. As soon as we claim that logic or causality doesn't apply, we've stopped doing science and have started trying to perform magic.

For the sake of simplicity, we can focus on Krauss' claims and how they've been received. In A Universe From Nothing, Krauss claims that quantum physics explains both why there is "something", rather than "nothing", and how matter and energy come from "nothing" and by "nothing". Fellow atheist Richard Dawkins calls the book devastating to religion in the afterword…because of course he does.

A fundamental rule of logic is that you cannot change definitions mid-argument. In short, any meaningful impact of Krauss' approach dissolves on this very error: claiming that particles come from "nothing". Nothing has always been taken to mean "no thing", as in not anything, at all. But Krauss tries to re-define "nothing" to mean quantum vacuum states, which he says produce matter. This is nowhere close to the actual definition of "nothing", as used for millennia by philosophers and theologians.

Krauss can refer to these quantum states by whatever name he chooses…but calling a bird a fish doesn't make it swim. The source of everything, per Krauss' argument, is some system of forces, particles, and interactions, which produce matter and energy. But, in any sense relevant to theology, philosophy, or even reality, that quantum vacuum state is not "nothing" — it's "some thing". This is like claiming that eggs come from "nowhere", because the inside of a chicken is not a "where". But that's not what people have ever meant by "nowhere", and the inside of a chicken is a "where", so such a claim would be totally meaningless.

Science has always viewed the universe as a system of fundamental rules working on fundamental units of matter and energy. Our opinion of where that bottom level is has changed, however. At one point, we thought there was nothing more fundamental than atoms. Later, we learned about protons and neutrons, and considered that the fundamental level. Still later, it was quarks, and in the future it may be something else. So, Krauss' ideas, suggested long before by others, do nothing more than move this fundamental level one more step. However, at any level, there are still rules, effects, changes, interactions, and so forth. In other words, we're still starting from "something", not "nothing", albeit a "something" we don't fully understand.

Another way to think of this would be explaining the origins of a cake. Early on, we might have said the cake originated in the cake pan. Then, we said its ultimate origin was the oven. Later, we learned about the mixing bowl. Further discoveries might tell us about the grocery store and the oven factory. Krauss' theories, regardless of scientific validity, accomplish nothing more extensive than that. His argument is the equivalent of saying that, since we know about ovens and mixing bowls, we don't need a baker to explain the cake, because the mixing bowl is "nothing". Logic, however, tell us that purpose and design are still required, and none of these are examples of something coming from an actual "nothing".

Worse, for atheists, if the scientific aspects of Krauss' arguments are taken seriously, they provide a mechanism for unexpected, unpredictable, rule-breaking events…which is how atheists typically define miracles. And even Krauss has noted that his arguments allow for the existence of some kind of God. Accepting that the omnipresent "nothing" can spontaneously produce "something" means rejecting the atheistic argument that miracles are impossible. Atheists had to abandon reason-and-evidence-based belief in an eternal universe because of the Big Bang. Perhaps now, they'll have to abandon rejection of miracles, leaving them even less substance for their arguments.

Krauss also tries to argue, in essence, that at some point the universe just stops making sense, so we shouldn't expect to understand it. But that's just an indirect admission that his position is absurd. We can't use causality and reason to build the science of physics, then suddenly claim neither apply after some convenient point. At most, Krauss' suggestion would draw a line beyond which human understanding is impossible; but we could never make any meaningful claims about what's beyond that barrier. Once we reject basic cause-effect relationships, there is no longer any "science". It's becomes too convenient, and inevitable, for people to theorize any silly idea, and justify it with the argument that "reality just doesn't make sense at this point".

If these sound like glaring, catastrophic errors in Krauss' philosophical approach, it's because they are. Krauss is an example of an atheist so convinced of his own intellectual superiority that he purposefully ignores other disciplines. During a debate series with William Lane Craig (in which Krauss was so soundly beaten he actually resorted to sneaking a buzzer on stage so he could interrupt Craig), Krauss said this:
I was at the Vatican, invited to the Pontifical Academy, and I said to them something that sounded facetious but it wasn't. I was amongst theologians and philosophers and I said, "Look you have to listen to me, but I don't have to listen to you." I wasn't being pompous, although it sounds like it.
Krauss went on to claim that only science produces knowledge, so philosophers have to listen to him, but he doesn't have to listen to philosophers. Too bad, since conferring with a first-year philosophy student might have helped him avoid the fairly obvious errors in his reasoning. Krauss' disdain aside, philosophy is the science of logic and language, and both are important in our understanding of the universe. His dismissal of philosophy (theology is a form of philosophy) is as silly as dismissing mathematics on the grounds that it "doesn't involve real things".

Krauss all but admits the weakness of his arguments near the end of the book, albeit in a very few sentences and right at the end. He's done the same in interviews. These flaws have been widely noted by fellow atheists, neutral reviewers, and philosophers alike. But they continue to pop up, and dogmatist atheists like Dawkins continue to fawn all over them. It's not hard to see these and similar arguments are fuelled more by prejudice against religion than affinity for real reason.

Before you brush that off as presumptuous, consider what Krauss said in an interview with Sam Harris:
I cannot hide my own intellectual bias here. As I state in the first sentence of the book, I have never been sympathetic to the notion that creation requires a creator. And like our late friend, Christopher Hitchens, I find the possibility of living in a universe that was not created for my existence, in which my actions and thoughts need not bend to the whims of a creator, far more enriching and meaningful than the other alternative. In that sense, I view myself as an anti-theist rather than an atheist.
That's just one more in a long line of quotes by atheists admitting that a distaste for God is at the core of their philosophical approach. Or their "we-don't-need-no-stinkin'-philosophy" approach, as it were. It was literally the first thing he said in the book. Like so many others, Krauss doesn't want there to be a God, so he'll do whatever it takes to get away from Him. Purposeful denial is much more in play than detached reasoning.

Sadly, the Bible does have a few things to say about people like Krauss, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. Their real intent is finding some way — any way — to remove God from the universe (Ephesians 4:18). So they go to great lengths, including irrational and illogical arguments (Romans 1:18-22), in order to justify that rejection in their own minds. When a person is determined to fight against God, no matter what, bad thinking is just the beginning of their problems (Galatians 6:7).

Published 4-4-14