Brief Review: A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence Krauss

This is a brief review of A Universe from Nothing (Why There is Something Rather than Nothing), by Lawrence Krauss (2012).

ISBN-10: 1451624468 | ISBN-13: 978-1451624465. Amazon.

I loved making it through this book, but I have to admit that I couldn’t follow much of the physics described by Lawrence Krauss. I am scientifically trained, but my own field was biology and more specifically neuroscience and physiology, with a little bit of biochemistry. My physics is very much limited to the basics covered by first year university science programs (from nearly 30 years ago)!
Having said that, I feel that if I persisted – probably by re-reading the book a few more times and/or following up some of the fundamentals from other sources (I reckon Wikipedia would suffice!) – I would probably appreciate the material a lot better. However it is certainly straightforward enough to follow the key points, such as the flat, eternal expansion of the universe, dark energy and cosmic background radiation, that the total energy of the universe is zero, and the outrageous but statistically balanced properties of virtual particles (see Ch 10: Nothing is Unstable).

One of the excellent features of Krauss’ coverage is that it is very much an outlined history of the major discoveries in cosmology and particle physics over the past century or so and their significance to our existing understanding of physics on the sub-atomic and the whole-of-universe scales. Credit is paid to the vast array of famous and not-so-famous physicists that have made the important contributions to the field. The material is all presented honestly, from the ground breaking findings that are not in dispute, to false paths that some researchers have taken in their quests for the truth, as well as the poorly-understood and even highly-speculative fields such as string theory.

However, it really isn’t necessary for the reader to follow precisely every description of every important discovery in cosmology or quantum mechanics in order to appreciate the circumstances of the origin of the universe. The physics basis is critical to the conclusions, of course, but the most important implications come out in Krauss’ final chapters and the Epilogue. A distinction between science and theology that is highlighted here (and indeed, throughout the book), is that scientists don’t claim to know all the answers. The very fact that we don’t know it all is indeed the main driver for further exploration and experimentation:
…That is why we have science. We may supplement this understanding with reflection and call that philosophy. But only via continuing to probe every nook and cranny of the universe that is accessible to us will we truly build a useful appreciation of our own place in the cosmos.
In contrast are “…those who have decided in advance […] that the supernatural (i.e., God) must exist so they define their philosophical ideas (once again completely divorced from any empirical basis) to exclude anything but the possibility of a god.

Furthermore, Krauss doesn’t need to get bogged down in esoteric metaphysics. All he does is highlight a few salient points and questions about our origins, and whether there really is any need for God in our rationalisation for existence. The philosophical discussion has now been pushed back, to beyond whether ‘something can come from nothing’ by virtue of rational, physical, natural causes, because we now know that it definitely can. Instead the metaphysical ponderings are now about the laws of physics, and the question apparently first highlighted by Albert Einstein. To paraphrase: “did God have any choice in the creation of the universe?”. Or more specifically now, did God have any choice in the laws of physics? (“God”, in this context, can be taken as the omnipotent deity if you’re theistically inclined, or as Einstein and Krauss would contend, simply the profound nature of all reality that doesn’t require intelligence, morals, or any other anthropomorphised attributes.)

Despite what theologians might have to say on this matter, no one yet has the answer to this question (was there any ‘choice’ in the laws of physics for our universe), including Lawrence Krauss. Importantly, the question is a human one, and while we can ‘supplement our understanding’ of it with philosophy, the most robust approaches we have to address it, as well as any other question of relevance to humanity, are those of scientific enquiry.

Superstition and scepticism

This post is a further reply to the conversation started on the Atheist Forum blog, here.

Our Different Backgrounds and Cognitive Processing
The last few comment posts here are certainly highlighting our impasse, but also provide some important indicators for me about our different backgrounds, education, and beliefs.
I mentioned previously that I’ve had some formal training in the sciences, which include the neurosciences in particular. Throughout this part of my education, I was often struck by the capabilities and capacity of the human mind for cognition, abstract thought and imagination. And also by some of the profound effects that ‘natural’ external influences, and our own physiology, can have on these processes.
I am convinced there is nothing more complex that we have ever encountered (so far!) than the human brain. I am also convinced that this capacity of the human brain has evolved ‘naturally’ over the course of millions of years, driven initially by environmental pressures that favoured the most primitive behaviours of planning and decision making. (More on this in another post, perhaps.)
The entire body of human scientific knowledge has demonstrated overwhelmingly that the world – in fact the whole universe – is natural . And this is very important: This includes the astonishing capability of the human brain to imagine, construct and assume the existence of the supernatural.

Psychological Predisposition to Superstition
On the subject of Port Arthur ghosts – and this may sound offensive, although I don’t mean it to – you (and many, many others, I’ll grant) are inclined to believe that ghosts exist because you are more psychologically predisposed to accepting superstitious claims. This is a normal, natural, human property, perhaps an evolutionary side-effect of the important and very valuable emotion of fear. I must admit that I take for granted that most Western educated adults understand this, so I continue to be surprised when apparently smart people seem to be drawn in to what are obviously (to me) bogus claims.
Beliefs, hallucinations, odd feelings: These are things that are certainly very real. Scientists have measured these things for decades, perhaps even a century or more. Ghosts themselves: These things are as-good-as-definitely not real. I’m convinced that if they were, scientists would have ‘measured’ them too by now. More on that in a moment.

‘Quick to Dismiss’
In some of your comments there is an implication that I (and presumably other sceptics) are ‘quick to dismiss’ miracles and the supernatural, in particular when no strong alternative hypotheses are offered. I’d like to counter this by asking you to step into the shoes of a sceptic, just for a moment. Many of us sceptics (although again, I speak only for myself) have not formed our world views hastily. Over the course of decades of our own lives, we have read, studied, experienced, experimented on and observed the world and the people around us. Those of us with questioning minds exempt nothing from enquiry and challenge. That includes deeply-held societal beliefs and behaviours and even the nature of our own existence and creation. So while ‘quick to dismiss’ seems like an accurate description of our response when it comes to some supernatural claim, please understand that an enormous amount of thought and analysis has already gone into considering that something belongs in the category of superstition.

Ghosts Revisited
As mentioned above, this includes ghosts. Consider any report of ghosts: What do they comprise of? At their strongest, they interfere physically with the ‘natural’ world and people within it. These interferences must therefore be measurable objectively, and yet they have never been shown. We are left to rely on people’s personal (and occasionally, collective) verbal accounts. Hearsay. Not evidence.

Coming down the spectrum of ghost interferences, we have the more common accounts of visualisations (seeing them!), sounds, and even tactual accounts (ie., feeling their touches). Again, if these experiences are true to human senses, they are measurable by objective means – cameras, sound recorders, etc. Yet again, never has there been conclusive evidence recorded. Within a couple of years, the large hadron collider in Europe has allowed us to measure the effects of sub-atomic virtual particles. These must be some of the most elusive things in the entire universe. Ghost experiences are so ubiquitous that I suggest they are a daily occurrence throughout the entire world. And yet, no scientist has ever published a single picture of a ghost in the nearly 200-year vast and pervasive history of accessible photography, and been taken seriously. The logical contrast is astounding: We can measure virtual frikkin’ particles!, and yet the ghosts that apparently visit us every day remain statistically non-existent.

Moving on, at the simplest end of the ghost experience then is the basic visceral sensation of another presence. The hard-to-describe ‘feeling’ of someone else being present, but not physically. I imagine every single thinking, feeling person on earth, and who has ever lived, has experienced such a feeling, perhaps many times during their lives. Again, these sensations are measurable. Heart rates quicken, skin temperatures drop, pupils dilate, stress hormones are excreted into the blood stream. Physiological feedback loops are invoked and these responses can be amplified. Hallucinations – visual, auditory, and tactile – can be experienced. And the human brain, with a little bit of the right kind of environmental stimulation (like a dark room, or even a verbal suggestion), is capable of producing all of this. These things have been demonstrated in the laboratory, countless times. The evidence is falsifiable. The experiments are repeatable.
Staying within the shoes of the thorough and honest scientific researcher, prepared to lay bare all of his/her materials, recordings, conclusions to their independent peers, how readily will you stand up and say, “I’ve seen a ghost.” In light of all our knowledge and all the logic described above, it is this type of conclusion that is hasty.

Rationalising Superstition
The sceptic does not dismiss people’s accounts of seeing ghosts as readily as it might seem. Instead, the sceptic considers these reports against an exhaustive and well-understood history and science on the nature of superstition and human physiology and psychology. We then ask simply, what is more likely – that a ghost really was present? Or that the astonishingly powerful human mind imagined it?
Given the above background, hopefully this helps you understand why the sceptic turns to Occam’s Razor. We favour the natural explanations, not simply as the more logical, but also as the obvious.

Joseph Smith Revisited (Briefly)
I haven’t come back to the Mormons in this post, but it’s somewhat reassuring to learn that you treat these claims with scepticism: “…it appears the most reasonable explanation is that Smith created the story of Mormon.”
Indeed – this entire cult is differentiated from the rest of Christianity on the basis of a mythology that is utter bullshit.
And yet, 14 million people in first-world countries are vested heart and soul in this bizarre collection of beliefs. What are they seeing that the rest of us are missing?

And Finally, The Resurrection Revisited
“…Yet, if I do demonstrate that this is unlikely [that one or more persons made up the resurrection story], I would suggest that it is on the sceptic to either revise their theory or accept the thesis? Would that be fair?….”
Rob, if you have successfully been able to get into the shoes of the sceptic as I’ve tried to describe above, then you’ll understand that I see your question almost as a kind of logical non sequitur.

By all means, give it your best shot. If you have some compelling evidence that is truly new, I’ll be open to it (and I reckon you’d be in the running for a Nobel Prize).
However, I do doubt, in the strongest, most sincere terms, that you will be able to get within a million miles of convincing me that the resurrection wasn’t made up. If the evidence really was overwhelmingly convincing and truly incontrovertible, I’d already believe in it.
I suspect that applies to the other five billion non-Christians on the planet too.