A Universe from Nothing?

Professor Lawrence Krauss’s book “A Universe From Nothing” invigorated and popularised the debate on the Leibznian question “why is there something rather than nothing”[1]. In his book, Krauss argues that it is plausible that the universe may have arisen from “nothing”. Absurd as this may sound, there are a few presuppositions and clarifications that need to be brought to light to understand the context of his conclusions.

Krauss’s Nothing is Something

Krauss’s “nothing” is actually something. In his book he calls nothing “unstable” and elsewhere he affirms that nothing is something physical. This is an interesting linguistic deviation, as the definition of nothing in the English language refers to a universal negation, but it seems that Krauss’s “nothing” is a label for something. Although his research claims that “nothing” is the absence of time, space and particles, he misleads the untrained reader and fails to affirm that there is still some physical stuff. Even if, as Krauss claims, there is no matter there must be physical fields. This is because it is practically impossible to have a region where there are no fields due to the fact that gravity cannot be blocked. In quantum theory, gravity at this level of reality does not require objects with mass but does require physical stuff. Therefore, Krauss’s “nothing” is actually something. Elsewhere in his book Krauss writes that everything came into being from a vacuum fluctuation, which explains a creation from “nothing”, but that implies a pre-existent quantum state in order for that to be a possibility.[2]

Professor David Albert (the author of Quantum Mechanics and Experience) wrote a review of Krauss’s book, and similarly concludes:

According to relativistic quantum field theories, particles are to be understood, rather, as specific arrangements of the fields. Certain ­arrangements of the fields, for instance, correspond to there being 14 particles in the universe, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being 276 particles, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being an infinite number of particles, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being no particles at all. And those last arrangements are referred to, in the jargon of quantum field theories, for obvious reasons, as “vacuum” states. Krauss seems to be thinking that these vacuum states amount to the relativistic-­quantum-field-theoretical version of there not being any physical stuff at all. And he has an argument — or thinks he does — that the laws of relativistic quantum field theories entail that vacuum states are unstable. And that, in a nutshell, is the account he proposes of why there should be something rather than nothing.

But that’s just not right. Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-­theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighbourhood of a creation from nothing.[3]

Philosophical Distinctions

Interestingly, Professor Krauss seems to have changed the definition of nothing in order to try and answer Leibniz’s perennial question. This problematises the whole discussion as Krauss’s definition blurs well known philosophical distinctions. The term nothing has always referred to non-being or the absence of something. Therefore the implications of Krauss’s “nothing” is that it could be reasonable for someone to assert the following:

I had a wonderful dinner last night, and it was nothing.

I met nobody in the hall and they showed my directions to this room.

Nothing is tasty with salt and pepper.[4]

These statements are impossibilities and therefore amount to meaningless propositions, unless of course someone changes the definition of nothing! It is no wonder that Professor Krauss hints that his view of nothing does not refer to non-being, he writes,

“One thing is certain, however. The metaphysical ‘rule,’ which is held as ironclad conviction by those with whom I have debated the issue of creation, namely that ‘out of nothing, nothing comes,’ has no foundation in science.”[5]

If it has no foundation in science then it clearly means Krauss has changed the meaning of nothing to mean something, because science as a method focuses on things, in other words the physical natural world. Science can only answer in terms of natural phenomena and natural processes. When we ask questions like, what is the meaning of life? Does the soul exist? What is nothing? The general expectation is to have answers that are outside of the natural world — and hence, outside of science.

Science cannot address the idea of nothing or non-being  because science is restricted to problems that observations can solve. The philosopher of science Elliot Sober verifies this limitation of science, he writes in his essay Empiricism,

At any moment scientists are limited by the observations they have at hand…the limitation is that science is forced to restrict its attention to problems that observations can solve.[6]

Therefore, Professor Krauss has changed the meaning of the word nothing in order for science to solve a problem that it could not originally solve. This is tantamount to someone not being able to answer a question, and instead of admitting defeat or referring the question to someone else, and resorts to changing the question!

It would have been intellectually honest to just say that the concept of nothing is a metaphysical concept and science only deals with what can be observed.

Inconclusive Research and Popularising Linguistic Gymnastics

Putting all of this aside, professor Krauss admits that his “nothingness” research is ambiguous and lacks conclusive evidence. He writes,

I stress the word could here, because we may never have enough empirical information to resolve this question unambiguously.[7]

Because of the observational and related theoretical difficulties associated with working out the details, I expect we may never achieve more than plausibility in this regard.[8]

In light of this, Krauss should have just said the universe came from something physical like a vacuum state, rather than redefining the word nothing. But Krauss seems to be adamant in popularising his linguistic gymnastics. During the debate on “Islam or Atheism: Which Makes More Sense?”  His opponent referred to his book to explain that his “nothing” is something, like some form of quantum haze. However, he reacted and said that his nothing is,

No space, no time, no laws…there’s no universe, nothing, zero, zip, nada.[9]

Krauss seemed to have deliberately omitted a very important hidden premise: that there is still some physical stuff in his nothing, something which he clearly admitted to in a public lecture. He said that something and nothing are,

…physical quantities.[10]

Conclusion: God’s Existence is Not Undermined

In summary, Professor Krauss’s nothing is something. The universe came from something physical which Krauss calls nothing, and therefore failed to answer Leibniz’s question, “why is there something rather than nothing.” In reality, Krauss answers only one question, and that is “how did something come from something?” Which is a question that science and physics can answer, and doesn’t require the linguistic acrobatics.

God’s existence is not undermined by Krauss’s view on nothing. The existence of God could be argued to be an unnecessary proposition if it is conclusively shown that the entire universe could come from nothing (nothing meaning the absence of something, an empty set, non being). But all that Krauss has really presented to us is that the universe (time and space) came from something. Therefore, the universe still requires an explanation for its existence, and that explanation must be God.


[1] Leibniz. The Principles of Nature and Grace, Based on Reason. 1714.

[2] Lawrence Krauss. A Universe from Nothing, p. xv.

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/books/review/a-universe-from-nothing-by-lawrence-m-krauss.html?_r=0

[4] Analogies taken from here http://www.reasonablefaith.org/a-universe-from-nothing.

[5] A Universe from Nothing, p. 174.

[6] Elliot Sober “Empiricism” in The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Science. Edited by Stathis Psillos and Martin Curd. 2010, pp. 137-138.

[7] Ibid p. xiii.

[8] Ibid p. 147.

[9] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSwJuOPG4FI

[10] http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=0NoqplPyBfQ#t=920s