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.

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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.

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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)

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)

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