A column about nothing

  • On Lawrence Krauss’s Universe from Nothing


After ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ arguably the most fundamental question that has ever been contemplated by humans is: ‘How can something come out of nothing?’ For centuries now philosophers have been perplexed by this question. There must have been a time, they argue, when no physical things existed. How then could something (the universe) come out of nothing? Theists have always maintained that, though they don’t– and can’t– know the mechanism, it was God who did it. Of course, there have been atheists who have sought to nullify the question by claiming that the universe has always been there. Indeed, this was a favourite retort to the theist who contended that the universe must have needed a trigger for its genesis. However, this position is untenable for quite a while now because the Big-Bang theory conforms to observational evidence, while the steady-state model fails to do that.

Lawrence Krauss a few years ago, attempted something that nobody had achieved before him: namely, to explain how the universe came out of nothing. Krauss deserves full marks for courage and optimism, because it isn’t at all an easy question to answer. Scientists have traditionally chosen (wisely) to answer the question as follows: To ask what was before the Big Bang is a faulty question because time and space themselves originated with the bang. To ask what caused the Big Bang is equally faulty because cause-and-effect (the backbone of science) itself only works within the framework of time and space, the Big Bang being a singularity that is not amenable to equations that explain the subsequent expansion of the universe. This was a safe answer because its limited science to its rightful domain: science had a lot of valuable things to say about how the universe had evolved over the millennia; but the question about the origin of the universe was outside its domain.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the ‘nothing’ that Krauss is talking about is not anything like nothing. The best the book does is attempt to explain the ‘beginning’ of the universe from a quantum vacuum, which is governed by physical laws and takes place in space-time

Enter the so-called new atheists led by Richard Dawkins and the latest wave of scientific enthusiasm, and this answer was felt to be not nearly good enough. For it apparently failed to show science in its full glory, as the answer to every question there could be. ‘Something can come out of nothing, and we are working on it’ replaced the ‘That’s outside science’s domain’ as the official position. Krauss’s Universe from Nothing was the first claim that it had all been figured out. Dawkins compared the book to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and suggested that it might be cosmology’s ‘deadliest blow to supernaturalism’. Sam Harris observed: ‘As it turns out, everything has a lot to do with nothing– and nothing to do with God. This is a brilliant and disarming book.’ Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is all praise for the book, remarks ‘Nothing is not nothing. Nothing is something. That’s how a cosmos can be spawned from the void– a profound idea conveyed [by Krauss].’ Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?

The title entitles one to expect to find out, upon reading the book, how Krauss proposes the universe came out of nothing. Unfortunately, it turns out that the ‘nothing’ that Krauss is talking about is not anything like nothing. The best the book does is attempt to explain the ‘beginning’ of the universe from a quantum vacuum, which is governed by physical laws and takes place in space-time – which (as explained above) is obviously not nothing. The title is thus grossly misleading as the book fails to deliver what it promised with such fanfare. In fact, it doesn’t even attempt to live up to the title. Now I don’t care what one’s religion is– or even if one has a religion– there’s hardly any disagreement about the undesirability of advertising what one is not actually selling. Dawkins, while talking about a universe from nothing, had once let slip that one could dispute exactly what Krauss meant by ‘nothing’; ‘but whatever it is, it’s very, very simple’. Which had prompted Cardinal George Pell to rightly accuse him of trying to dumb down God and soup up ‘nothing’. A pity many readers heard that exchange after buying the book, otherwise they could have been spared spending their hard-earned money on the book. Dawkins, having written the afterward of the book, ought to have known all along; and indeed, about six pages before the end of the book, Krauss comes clean about what he means by ‘nothing’; which is not nothing by any stretch of the imagination.

On a more positive note, husbands around the globe would be in harmony with Krauss and Dawkins on the definition of ‘nothing’. Any man who has been married for three months or more knows that ‘nothing’ isn’t the nothing that it used to be when he was a bachelor. It certainly isn’t the nothing that one could look up in a dictionary. Because when he asks the sulking missus what’s the matter, and she says ‘Nothing’, he knows that he has cause for serious concern. Not that he can do anything about it, because though he knows it’s not nothing, he isn’t aware of exactly what it is. But sure enough, his worst fears are realised every time before the day is out. Husbands, then, would vouch that something can indeed come out of ‘nothing’.