A Krauss cheat sheet: things to know before Thursday (part 2)

Credit: Flickr/World Economic Forum

Lawrence Krauss argues (part 1) that the universe came from nothing, all by itself – no God necessary – as long as ‘nothing’ is a ‘quantum field’. Where did the quantum field come from? It’s just there, he says.

Why does Krauss think this is the best answer to the question of origins? And why is he happy to say ‘it’s just there’ when it comes to the quantum field?

Krauss is comfortable to make this claim because he has a deeper commitment. He believes that science will eventually answer every question you can possibly ask.

This means that if you have a question, there are two possibilities. Either:
1. science will one day answer your question, or
2. your question is a stupid question.

This commitment gives Krauss the confidence to offer a simple answer to perhaps the most enduring question in philosophy (and also in, you know, life): why are we here?

Science has been really good at answering a lot of our questions. From science we know how the earth’s crust works, so we can predict earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. From science we know how electricity works, so we can make hair dryers and iPhones. And from science we know how chemicals in our bodies work, so we can make drugs to lower blood pressure or ease pain.

These are all ‘how’ questions. Science is really good at answering our ‘how’ questions. But it’s not so good at answering our ‘why’ questions, like, why do people hurt each other? Or, why can’t I get a girlfriend? Or, why is there something rather than nothing?

Actually, science can’t answer ‘why’ questions, because science looks at how stuff is arranged, and, by trial and error, working out how else it could be arranged to get interesting results. So, we arrange the molecules in a drug to treat pain, and we arrange the metal and electricity in an iPhone to play Candy Crush Saga. Science needs stuff to work with, and when it comes to asking ‘why?’ there isn’t a whole lot of stuff there.

This confidence in the power of science, that it would eventually answer every question, was very popular about 100 years ago, when it had the upbeat name ‘logical positivism’. But it wasn’t long before philosophers realised that there’s actually nothing logical about it. For example, the statement, “All true statements can be proved by science,” can’t be proved by science. There are questions science can’t answer.

The vast majority of scientists get this, and happily stick to the ‘how’ questions. There are, after all, huge and important ‘how’ questions that we’re yet to answer.

But a lot of pop-science authors, like Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson, never got the memo. They’re still keen on vintage logical positivism. There’s a few reasons for this, but I think the main one is this: if science has all the answers, it’s good to be a pop-science author. You don’t have to worry about thousands of years of philosophical, theological and historical discussion of the big questions of life. You have all the answers.

When it comes to the ‘quantum field’, Krauss is happy to say ‘it’s just there’ because that’s all science can say on the matter. If science is the only legitimate way to answer questions, and science can’t tell you why the quantum field is there, then either:
1. one day science will discover why the quantum field is there, or
2. it’s a stupid question. It’s just there.

***

I think the real question at the end of the ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ question is this: What is necessary? That is, what has to exist?

We desperately want to believe that we are necessary, that whatever made something come from nothing, that something had to be us. We exist only because we have to. We rely on nothing and no one.

That’s why Krauss’s book sells so well, because it tells us that even back then, in the ‘quantum field’ nothing, we were there in potential. Given enough time, the universe was always going to arrive at Us.

But the gospel bursts that bubble. The only one who is necessary is God himself. If God had never created us, he would still be God; just as good, just as perfect, just as self-sufficient. God didn’t create us because he needed to. He didn’t create us because he needed to be loved, or didn’t have anything better to do, or because it somehow made him more God than he already was.

God created us out of sheer love and generosity. So we are unnecessary. The answer to the question, ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ is not, ‘because we are the natural outcome of the quantum field’. The answer is God. There is something rather than nothing because God is God and his love and generosity overflow beyond him.

***

I hope this gives you a few more handles on the discussion tomorrow. If you can’t make it and you’re on Twitter, #lifeuniversenothing and #lunqa should keep you up-to-date.

In the meantime, watch Krauss and John Dickson get along famously on Q&A earlier this year.

And if you want to know more about Krauss’s logical positivism, this review from Be Thinking is helpful.

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A Krauss cheat sheet: things to know before Thursday (part 2)

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