A Krauss cheat sheet: things to know before Thursday (part 1)

Credit: Flickr/smalljude

Lawrence Krauss will be in Perth this week for an event with our St Matthew’s City Church minister, Rory, on Thursday. If you’re going along (or just interested) here are some notes to help you get up to speed with the Krauss roadshow.

Krauss has largely assumed the mantle of atheist-that-Christians-love-to-debate, taking over from Christopher Hitchens (who passed away in 2011) and Richard Dawkins (who everyone got bored with around the same time).

He’s written a shelf of pop-science books, including the very popular The Physics of Star Trek. His latest book is A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing.

It’s in aid of this book that Krauss is speaking at the moment, and has been in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne over the last couple weeks with William Lane Craig.

As the title of the book hints (twice), Krauss’s big point is that the universe came from nothing, all by itself – no God required. In our culture, it’s taken for granted that once there was once nothing and now there is something. (This is actually not as obvious as it sounds – there are a lot of cultures that think the universe has always been here and will always be here.)

The big question is, of course, why is there something rather than nothing? As anyone who has done first year philosophy knows, nothing comes from nothing. So why is there something? The Christian answer (as well as the Jewish and Islamic one) is that God created the something.

Krauss, on the other hand, says that something can come from nothing, all by itself. To make this argument, Krauss uses a particular definition of nothing. Nothing doesn’t mean nothing-nothing, he says. Instead, there are three types of nothing:

1. Nothing is empty space. This is what Krauss (erroneously) argues Christians and philosophers have always thought ‘nothing’ meant. But as Einstein showed, empty space is still something. So then you ask, where did the empty space come from? And Krauss says:

2. Nothing is just the laws of physics. But then you ask, where did the laws of physics come from? So Krauss says (and this is the important bit):

3. Nothing is a ‘quantum field’. It’s just the laws of quantum mechanics.

It’s from this last type of nothing – the laws of quantum mechanics – that everything comes. Particles, Krauss says, can pop in and out of existence in a ‘quantum field’, and once the particles get popping, it’s only a matter of time before you get a universe.

There’s still one obvious question: where did the laws of quantum mechanics come from? According to this review, Krauss doesn’t get to this question until the end of the book, where he admits he hasn’t a clue where they come from – they’re just there.

So the universe can come from nothing, all by itself, as long as ‘nothing’ is the laws of quantum mechanics.

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Part 2 will look at why Krauss thinks that this is the best answer to the question of where everything came from.

In the meantime, you might like to watch Krauss try to explain his idea to Colbert (skip to 13:28 for the interview).

If you want a more detailed look at Krauss’s argument, there’s a great review  in the NYT.

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What are your thoughts on Krauss’s explanation? What questions would you have for him?

A Krauss cheat sheet: things to know before Thursday (part 1)

Can Christians handle literature?

A guest post by Nic Markham

By this I don’t mean the controversy or the ugliness to be found in literature. I don’t mean the explicit content, or the Nietzscheanism, or the violence. I mean what we consider to be good books – books that find something clean and pure in a mucky world, polish it up and present it to the reader with all the niceties of a simpler and more beautiful age. I mean those. Are we safe around those?

The triumph and sanctity of love are hugely popular themes in what we like to call literature. And there’s truth in it: love does triumph, love is sacred – when it comes from Christ. But as writers plot their many paths to that end, where love is extolled as The Greatest Virtue of Them All, and grace is confirmed to be Dwelling Between the Souls of All Men, the Christian may lean back a little and worry. If a really good book can satisfy, do we really need the Good Book?

Another way to put it: when a book or film not only agrees with Christian values but offers a way of holding them without actually being Christian, how do we continue being Christian?

Now, if this sounds like a question with some really obvious Sunday School answers, let me backtrack a little bit, and hopefully prove it’s a little more tricky than crying, “Jesus!” like a six year old.

Psalm 101:3 says, “I will set before my eyes no vile thing. The deeds of faithless men I hate; they will not cling to me.”

This seems to be speaking directly about the explicit content, the Nietzscheanism, and the violence, right? Sure – but is that all it’s saying? I think if we more closely examined the works that do pass our Christian censorship, things we would call Clean or G-rated, we would definitely discover untruth, inequality, faithlessness and disrespect for very special things.

We seem very confident in our ability to see through artistic construction. We assure ourselves that we’re so critically aware that we’re actually one step ahead of a filmmaker or an author. We’re not going to adopt any of his violent or lust-driven ideas, we promise. Don’t worry.

And we dismiss the notion that entertainment could dislodge our faith on the basis that we see through it.However, this awareness, if it does exist, is almost never applied to content that is subtler and more palatable to general audiences. We’re so sure we only need our gospel-based protective eyewear when the content is dodgy that we forget to do the same with the good books we would let our little sister read.

What a well written book does is put you in the story. When we are engulfed by good writing, we start to walk in the characters’ shoes, experience what they experience, and think what they think. Our worldview expands to include more than just ourselves.

When we are changed by the gospel, our worldview also gets a makeover, and the work of a pastor is to do the same as a good author – draw you in, show you something superior to how you are now, and help you to be changed.

But if the work is similar, the method differs. Faith is characteristically conscious. It requires eyes-wide-open choices. No matter what denomination you come from, at some point it is agreed that an individual needs to consciously “accept” Christ. The whole evangelistic apparatus of the church is built around this notion.

Art, however, does exactly the opposite. We don’t consciously step into the shoes of another, we’re led there. We’re put there. If we see the gears turning behind the images and words, we call it bad art (while still purporting to enjoy our critical awareness). No matter what we say, we want to be tricked. We encourage the illusion. First and foremost, our response is emotional and unconscious.

And so we resent the notion that we should interrogate messages we emotionally agree with. Confusingly, a lot of endearing things in modern literary discourse don’t work from a Christian framework, and while being half true forget the vital component to truth that is Christ, and so produce an idea that sounds good and at first tastes good, but goes bad a little while later.

When we watch the ‘good’ films and read the ‘good’ books, the ones that don’t assault us with obvious vulgarities and vile things, we let them

in without interrogation. And without really thinking about it, we adopt modes of truth and codes of morality that have their basis outside Christianity.

In the 2009 Woody Allen film Whatever Works, Boris makes a simple appeal to the viewer: “Whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works.” What attractive conclusions! They come from apparent experience, they are tempered by humility, and they seem somehow complete, not requiring any more questions. The film puts you in the shoes of a secular “good guy” and dares you to call him bad.

There is a little Christian You and a little non- Christian You deep inside your thought process fighting for moral superiority. In my experience, what attracts a Christian to secularism is not all the sin they would be free to do, but the moral lives they would be free to live without the “burden” of God.

It would be sad to leave this battle in the unconscious. Even if we’re watching a film we wouldn’t mind our parents walking in on, it doesn’t mean we should forget to think about the ideas we’re being tempted to adopt. Switching off for the sake of entertainment, no matter how wholesome, will, over time, deprive us of our choice of beliefs.

Paul put it well: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”

Or as Flight of the Concords would say: “You gotta think about it, think think about it.”

Can Christians handle literature?

Bless us, O Lord

A guest post by Thom Bull

One of the most regular prayers that most Christians will pray is some kind of prayer of thanksgiving for food. We’ll probably pray at least 365 graces in a year (366 in leap years), maybe up to 1095 if breakfast and lunch are included. And I reckon it’s pretty fair to say that if you want a prayer to become tired and a bit of a chore, then praying it anywhere between 365 and 1095 times a year is a pretty good way to do it.

But saying grace, far from a chore, is actually one of the most wonderful, joyful and simple ways to quietly celebrate the truth of the Christian story, and something that undercuts so many of the other stories that our culture tells us. Because, on the outside, saying grace actually seems pretty counter-intuitive. From the outside, I work hard to earn money, I take that money and buy food and bring it home, and

chop and dice and julienne and fry and roast, all to perfection, summon those who are eating with me and sit down to a meal. And it’s at that point, after I’ve done all that hard work of earning, buying, preparing and serving, and before I enjoy the first bite of the fruits of all that labour, that I close my eyes, bow my head and…give thanks to God. Before anything else, I acknowledge and give thanks to him as the only one who has, in fact, provided it all so freely and richly for my enjoyment. And so, when we give thanks to God for our food, we actually do more than just give thanks for food. In saying grace, we actually acknowledge a truth made known in Jesus, a truth that we probably wouldn’t come up with if we just looked at the bare facts involved in getting food on the table. When we say “Thank you” to God for our food, we’re confessing that, even though it might look on the outside as though we ourselves stand behind this meal, the truth is it is all pure gift, given by a generous, gratuitous God upon whom we’re completely dependent.

The other story, the one that our culture tells us, is that we ourselves are the source of the food we enjoy. There’s nobody to thank but ourselves. There’s nothing more to it than what we see – our working, our buying, our preparing, our cooking, our dishing up. And really, that’s taken as true not only of the food that we eat, but of everything we have, and everything we are. And I think a lot of us love that story, because it makes us the centre of our world – independent, empowered, in control. But if you chew on that story for a while, it’s actually pretty terrifying. Because in that story, the only thing that stands between order and disorder, between my life as it is now and the chaos of tomorrow, is me. Just little old, limited- in-every-way me. And when you think about it, that actually means that, in that story, I’m not independent at all! I’m completely dependent – but not on a loving and kind and trustworthy God. Instead, I’m dependent upon the completely random, completely unpredictable, cold hard knucklebone of chance.

Consider the alternative that Jesus gives to his disciples: “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, yet your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” As you can see in the last bit, it’s not a promise to be spared from trouble or hardship. But it is assurance that there is a God in heaven who is in control, who knows our needs, and who isn’t stingy and mean, but rather loves us and provides for us. So even if you say it 1095 times a year, don’t tire of saying grace. Thank God for your food – as well as everything else – and embrace and celebrate everything that it means.

Bless us, O Lord