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On the Origin of Everything . . . Except Everything

Lawrence Krauss wants you to know that his new book, A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, answers the mystery of the universe—-or at least the mystery of where it came from. He uses the laws of quantum mechanics to give a thoroughly secular explanation to why anything exists. Richard Dawkins believes this book delivers a death blow to Christianity and any other religious explanation of the universe: “Even the last remaining trump card the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?,’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. . . . The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is devastating.”

In an NPR interview, Krauss explains a quick application of his theory of how something can come from nothing according to the law of quantum mechanics:

Well, the universe is a savvy stockbroker. It can borrow energy, and if there’s no gravity, it gets rid of it back before anyone notices. But if gravity is there, it can actually create stuff where there was none before. And you can actually create enough stuff to account for everything we see in the universe.

But, you know, it’s more than that because some people would say, and I’ve had this discussion with theologians and others, well, you know, just empty space isn’t nothing. You know, there’s space. How did the space get there? But the amazing thing is, once you apply in fact quantum mechanics to gravity, as you were beginning to allude again in the last segment, then it’s possible, in fact it’s implied, that space itself can be created where there was nothing before, that literally whole universes can pop out of nothing by the laws of quantum mechanics.

Did you catch that last phrase? “[L]iterally whole universes can pop out of nothing by the laws of quantum mechanics.”

Truly Devastating

If that sort of ex nihilo seems strange to you, you’re not alone. David Albert, professor of philosophy at Columbia University, agrees. To borrow the term used by Dawkins, Albert’s New York Times review of Krauss is truly devastating.

I don’t think Albert would claim to be a Christian, much less an evangelical, but he can tell the difference between good science and a poor excuse. And for Albert, Krauss’s book is the latter.

For example, if the laws of quantum mechanics can explain the origins of everything, “Where, for starters,” Albert asks, “are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from? Krauss is more or less upfront, as it turns out, about not having a clue about that . . . (albeit in a parenthesis, and just a few pages before the end of the book).”

Remember where Krauss explains that despite what theologians believe about space, space can be created out of nothing? That argument depends on a theory of vacuum states, where there are no particles at all—-no physical stuff. To which, Albert responds, “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.”

In other words, if Krauss’s explanation of how the whole universe popped out of nothing seemed like a stretch, according to Albert, it’s because that universe doesn’t exist.

But the real rub, according to Albert, is the distasteful battle against religion. It’s worth quoting his last paragraph in full:

And I guess it ought to be mentioned, quite apart from the question of whether anything Krauss says turns out to be true or false, that the whole business of approaching the struggle with religion as if it were a card game, or a horse race, or some kind of battle of wits, just feels all wrong—- or it does, at any rate, to me. When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for every­thing essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things—-it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world—-and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.

This is similar to the process C. S. Lewis wrote about where some claim to be “cutting away the parasitic growth of emotion, religious sanctions, and inherited taboos, in order that ‘real’ or ‘basic’ values may emerge.” It’s a process of debunking, Lewis claims, to which “they believe to be immune from the debunking process.”