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.

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

Difficult Father Nathaniel

Flickr | camil tulkan

At the First Things blog, Wesley Smith tells the story of Father Nathaniel, an Orthodox monk whose tom-foolery was a thorn in the side of his abbot and the local Soviet authorities alike.

The church in Russia suffered eighty years of violent persecution at the hand of the Soviets, yet survived and is now thriving, thanks to faithful Christians like Nathaniel. The monk’s gift was rebelling even as he was doing the very thing he had been asked:

Fr. Nathaniel repeatedly thwarts attempts by the abbot to inspect his cell. Finally, the dreaded invasion could be prevented no longer. As the abbot enters the room, he asks, “Why is it so dark in here? Don’t you have electricity? Where is the light switch?”

Fr. Nathaniel tells him mildly that it is on the right. “Just turn the handle.” A horrible cry rent the air, as if some unknown force had cast the abbot straight out of the pitch-black darkness of the cell, into the corridor. Speeding out after him into the light came Father Nathaniel. Within one second, he closed and triple-locked the door of his cell once again.”

His domain safely secured, Fr. Nathaniel tells his (literally) shocked superior about how the light switch broke back in 1964 “on the occasion of the Feast of the Protection of the Mother of God,” the very day that Khrushchev was removed from power. “That was a sign!” he tells the abbot, explaining why he never repaired the switch. “Come, I’ll just open the door again, and we’ll slip back in!” But the abbot had already fled in ignominious defeat, never to mount another incursion.

But Nathaniel’s gift for obedient rebellion was felt most sharply by the Soviet authorities on an election day:

The First Secretary of the Regional Communist Party insisted that the “black beetles” vote in town rather than at the monastery as a way of teaching “the atavistic deviant non-working-class element of society” a lesson. Before the abbot could protest, Father Nathaniel whispered into his ear “a piece of advice that was both innocent and extremely subtle in its defiance.”

On election day—a Sunday, of course—“from the monastery gates came streaming forth a magnificent procession of the cross, with priests bearing crosses and icons . . . in a long line, singing hymns and in full ceremonial dress towards the polling place.” When horrified bureaucrats protested, the abbot declared that they were just doing their duty as Soviet citizens as required by the First Secretary.

Nathaniel’s story and those of other faithful Russian Christians is told in a little book Everyday Saints and Other Stories, newly translated from Russian. I haven’t read it, but maybe I’ll put some other stories up when I do.

Difficult Father Nathaniel

Animals on trial

Flickr | a_kep

In the middle ages, animals were often put on trial for their crimes and misdemeanours. This article in Slate points to a sow and her piglets, who in 1457 attacked and killed a five-year-old boy. These days the bad piggies would be immediately put down, but instead they faced a court. And it was serious – a judge, witnesses, a prosecution and a defence. The sow was found guilty, but the piglets got off, partly because they were young and partly because the court found they had a rough upbringing.

Why go to all this trouble?

According to the article, historians generally give two explanations:

The dominant explanation from legal scholars and historians is that, in a society of people who believed deeply in a divinely determined order of being, with humans at the top, any disruption of God’s hierarchy had to be visibly restored with a formal event. Another hypothesis is that animal trials may have provided authorities an opportunity to intimidate the owners of animals—especially pigs—who ran roughshod through the commons. A sow hanging from the gallows was, in essence, a public service announcement saying, Control your pigs or they’ll die sooner than you hoped.

Either, or both, of these could be the case. But there’s also a third explanation – that people in the middle ages thought that the animals were responsible, that in some way they know what they were doing. In short, they had more respect for their animals and gave them more credit than we do.

Overlooked by these interpretations is something that, as we increasingly remove animals from public view, becomes harder to appreciate: These people saw aspects of animal behavior that we don’t see anymore. In this sense, these seemingly odd trials have much to teach us about how fundamentally our relationship with animals has changed over time and how, more poignantly, we’ve lost the ability to empathize with them as sentient beings.

Unless you were rich enough to hire someone to do it for you, in the middle ages you lived with your animals. You got to know them and appreciate the way they think and behave. It wasn’t possible to imagine that animals are lumps of meat that happen to move around for a while before they are loaded on to a truck and taken away for processing.

If you live with animals, you are confronted every day by the fact that there are other thinking, feeling beings in the world, and that as your animals, they deserve your care and respect. Everyone who has owned a pet knows this on some level.

When God created the world, he chose not just to create one thinking, moving thing. God loves diversity, so he created animals of all shapes and colours and levels of tastiness, and he made us responsible for their care. Maybe the sanitized, out-of-sight way we keep and kill animals has desensitized us to these facts.

Animals are meant for food and work, as well as for companionship and beauty. But they are never a utility or a commodity.

Animals on trial

Worry, weeds and the Pope

The landscape is changing

One of the surprising things about Jesus is that he was usually pretty relaxed about things. In fact, he spent a lot of time telling people not to worry. Over and over in the gospels, while teaching the crowds or talking with his disciples, Jesus basically says, “Don’t worry; God has things under control.”

Beside the obvious sayings in the Sermon on the Mount, where he compares us favourably with the birds and the grass (if God looks after them, how much more will he look after us), there’s a similar message in a number of Jesus’ parables and other teaching.

The seed sown among thorns is choked by the worries of this life. The rich fool dies in his bed with barns full of grain because he worried about body more than soul. Martha is told to stop worrying and to sit down with Mary.

In Matthew 13, Jesus tells another such parable, this time specifically about the kingdom. A man sows his field with wheat, and during the night an enemy comes and sows weeds among the wheat. They both sprout and grow, and when the servants see the weeds, they get ready to go and cut them down. But the master tells them not to worry. Let the wheat and weeds grow together, he says. Wait until harvest time, and then separate them, the wheat into the barns and the weeds into the fire.

Jesus tells the disciples this parable just after he’s explained the parable of the sower. He knows that soon the disciples will be starting churches, and when they do, there will be hard ground and good ground, wheat and weeds. So Jesus says, don’t worry. Don’t worry about trying to pick out the weeds. Instead, leave it up to Jesus to judge at harvest time. Until then, wait and look after the field.

(Jesus is not, of course, talking about false teachers, which he elsewhere calls ferocious wolves.)

One of the glories of the Church is its diversity – there’s a place for everyone, and a hundred ways of doing things. We’re blessed to live in a time when the Church is doing many different things with many different people. But this diversity can also be worrying. What if there are people in our churches who are weeds? What if some of the churches in our denomination are weeds? What if this or that way of doing things is a weed in the kingdom?

Jesus say, don’t worry. There will always be weeds. Instead, work out your own faith, care for your own church, and wait for harvest time, when the wheat will be gathered.

Last night the Pope announced that he would abdicate at the end of this month. He is 85 and he is feeling his age, and he has wisely decided to step aside for the sake of the Roman church. It’s a courageous decision, and a surprising one, but I have been dismayed to see brothers and sisters use the news as an opportunity for jokes at Catholics’ expense, or worse.

There may well be some weeds in the Roman Catholic church. There may be weeds in our own churches. There could quite possibly be churches in your city which are weeds. Some of the things we do might be wheat, and some might be weeds. Your church may be the only stalk of wheat in your whole weedy suburb. But Jesus says, don’t worry. Wait until harvest time, and he will deal with the weeds. Until then, he just asks us to tend the field.

Worry, weeds and the Pope