Book Review: A Universe From Nothing; (Why there is something rather than nothing)

A Universe From Nothing (Why there is something rather than nothing), by Lawrence M. Krauss. Atria paperback, published 2013.

From the Merriam-Webster (on line) Dictionary:

1a : a branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of the universe
1b : a theory or doctrine describing the natural order of the universe

2 : a branch of astronomy that deals with the origin, structure, and space-time relationships of the universe; also : a theory dealing with these matters

Cosmology is one of my interests. When I was a kid, my first ‘real’ book (opposed to comics) was one of the early editions of A Guide to the Planets, by Patrick Moore. I recall that was in 1959 or so (for my birthday in the Ides of March). So I was an ‘astronomy’ buff to start, then spread out into other reaches and finally decided cosmology – not to be confused with ‘cosmetology’ (look it up yourself) – was my real interest. I also have a affection for particle physics, string theory and such.

Consequently I read a lot of books on the subjects mentioned. There are nine such books on my (home) library wall with authors from Michio Kaku to Roger Penrose and two by Dr.Steven Hawking. Additionally, I read most all the books in the Torrence or Redondo Beach library – I can’t remember which. To be completely honest, I don’t speak the level of math for some of them, but I have a fair grasp of the concepts of most.

The other angle from which I approach cosmology is Christianity. I am a long-time Christian and some of the teachings attributed to Christianity relates to the origin and composition of the Universe – which is a fair working definition of cosmology.

The Bible teaches God created the Universe from an absence of everything. Not even a vacant lot. Please recall this, as it comes up later. The Bible teaches God created ‘everything’; ‘everything’ includes the basic “laws of physics”.

This “laws of physics” is a somewhat nebulous (meaning not completely defined, agreed to, and finished) term including the discovered principles of how everything works – like water flowing downhill (gravity and fluid dynamics in science jargon). The “laws of physics” also includes not yet discovered principles, such as the Grand Unified Field Theory (if there is such a thing, it is still open to debate), the reasons photons are both wave functions and particles and probably why one’s nose itches when one’s hands are greasy. Not to mention some rather serious concepts like the actual trigger mechanism and function of the expansion of the Universe and the properties and limitations of ‘Dark Matter’ and ‘Dark Energy’.

If the reader doesn’t know what the latter two items are, don’t feel bad. Neither does anyone else. However, they can be measured, just not identified. Well, not identified exactly. Sort of like why one has ‘better days’ and ‘worse days’.

The book A Universe from Nothing is an attempt to explain the history and current status of the scientific principles of why – from a mechanical standpoint – the Universe exists instead of not being. From my background in casually (and not so casually) reading about such things, it does a pretty fair job. Do not misunderstand my thoughts, motivations or conclusions about this book; it’s a good book for the intended purpose. No one with a high school education should feel terribly out classed in reading this book, nor should anyone with a Christian background feel intimidated or threatened by it. At least not any Christian who has passed into the adult realm of thought. It may be a bit confusing to someone who has stultified in the primary levels.

Anyone interested in such matters could do much worse than to read this book. It does not have all the answers and explanations, but it doesn’t claim to have them, either. Seemingly, no one else has those answers either. So far.

The book deals with the discovery of ‘Dark Matter’ – discovery in the sense of realizing it’s there, not collecting a jar of the stuff. Also covered is the idea of ‘Dark Energy’, which explains the expansionary movement of the Universe, but doesn’t identify a particular ‘Dark Energy’ generator (and why there is no ‘Dark Energy’ generator). Dr. Krauss goes into Quantum Fluctuations, which seem like self propelled magic wands, but can be demonstrated in ‘real life’.

Some of the historical aspects include the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR) study and the verification of the age of the Universe. Not directed connected, but associated is the ‘shape’ of the Universe (flat, positively curved or negatively curved).

At this point, the Theologian in me looks up at the absence of the mention of God. Actually, the absence is not surprising, as all of the explanation so far is a mechanical explanation of how the Universe operates and changes over time. (Lots of time.) One might well not notice the mention of God in an explanation of a an internal combustion engine or a vernier caliper. Usually, no need of mentioning the Almighty when designing or constructing an automobile engine. (At least not until the wrench slips and one smacks a knuckle.)

Dr. Krauss, in the opening chapters (or introduction?) admits he is not a ‘religious’ man. He is an atheist. As mentioned on one of Ian McKellen’s tee shirts, “Some Are and Some Aren’t”. So there’s no mistake about this.

Yes, I know there are some Christians who quiver and run from the idea of reading anything by or even talking to an atheist. However, the reality is there are many atheists who have an excellent idea of their subject or field – regardless of their understanding of deity or religion or the Bible. Dr. Krauss strikes me as one of these. He is knowledgable in his field. At the same time, I would expect Dr. Krauss to convey the same respect to Christianity and Christians. Whereas I don’t expect Dr. Krauss to attend my or any Christian church every Sunday, I would not think he either commits or abets the arson of Christian church buildings. Those who fear hearing anything EXCEPT what they already believe are very, very limited. That applies to both sides of the ‘origin’ question, by the way.

However, I have – personally – some reason to suspect perhaps Dr. Krauss’ atheistic ‘bent’ may have colored some of the explanations and rationale presented in his conclusions, not his evidence. And so begins some of my observations which may lead the unwary or non-thinking to believe I don’t like the book or Dr. Krauss.

Probably my first ‘quibble’ or difference with Dr. Krauss is on page xiv of the preface. Dr. Krauss explains the question beginning with the word ‘why’ can only be handled in science by substituting the word ‘how’. In chapter 9, titled “Nothing is Something”, he expands on this subject and implies no one should ask ‘why’ questions but only ‘how’ questions. Since much of Christian doctrine – and a bit of theology – predicated on ‘why’, Dr. Krauss summarily dismisses any question not answerable by science. In other words, only scientific answers count.

This is the exact sentiment expressed by many of the Divine “Creationist” faction. If the explanation doesn’t begin with “God, in His wisdom …” they reject it out of hand. (I’ve always found it curious it applies to the origin of the Universe, but does not apply to arithmetic: They never recite, “God says, ‘Two and two make four!'” when counting change or balancing a checkbook.)

Beginning on page 125 and mentioned in other places is the “Anthropic Principle”. In dog years, this essentially says, “…if is not too surprising to find that we live in a universe in which we can live”.

Perhaps a bit more formally: Humans exist here and now because the conditions were and are right for humans to exist.

I find of note the principle applies to both ‘naturalistic’ and Divine situations. To wit: Humans breathe oxygen (in mixture, of course.)

Naturalism: Human evolved on Earth during a period when Oxygen was the primary ‘oxidizer’ in the atmosphere available; this would not have happened if the Earth had a significantly different element in the atmosphere. (I’m not a biologist, but I’m not aware of any other extant candidates for an ‘oxidizer’.)

Deist: God would not make oxygen-breathing animals on Earth IF Earth had a methane atmosphere.

The “Anthropic Principle” is not a primary principle in determining why some chemical reactions became important in the history of living things or in the mechanical functions of nonliving things; it is merely a way of simplifying concepts of potentially competing hypotheses, as above.

Mentioned in Dr. Krauss’ book is the “God of the Gaps” answer. Historically, those who objected to a non-Theistic explanation of the origin and history of the Universe have employed this answer any time a particular discipline did not have an immediate ‘answer’ to some scientific mystery. Prior to the development of Newton’s ideas and laws of gravitation, some theologians suggested God sent angels to push the planets around the Sun. (This was after the same theologians had their nose rubbed in the fact planets did indeed revolve about the Sun instead of the Earth being the center of the Universe.) The “God didit” suggestion may indeed be correct, but it gives no information mankind can use.

If mankind were satisfied with “Why does water flow downhill?” “Well, God didit!” Mankind would never have invented flush toilets and indoor plumbing.

On a similar note, we would not have two way radios, commercial radios, televisions or computers. I’m not going to argue the merits and disadvantages of those items at this point, but we would not have them.

Please note, this applies to naturalist and deist alike. (With the exception of the Amish, I suppose. They get along without flush toilets and television. But that’s a different discussion entirely.)

How different is the “Anthropic Principle” from the “God didit” principle? Both offer a rather pat solution to a problem that immediately dead ends. Of course, the “Anthropic Principle” doesn’t come with a moral code obligation.

Here and now I’ll mention this as well. The Person and intention and work of God does not remove the need to examine the ‘mechanics’ of a phenomenon. For instance, when a Christian has a flat tire, he or she accepts such as the allowed will of God. Which does not stop said Christian from looking for a puncture and attempting to repair said flat. (Or take it to the tire repair guy.) Homeowners (Christian ones) examine the roof and repair leaks (or call the roof repair guy) when the roof leaks.

In the Bible, the oldest manuscripts record men plowing the ground using animals and tools (plows) to raise crops for consumption. No where is there a commandment NOT to use technology and instead return to the ‘hunter-gatherer, living in the open’ sort of life-style. The Amish, who live a very simple life style with the intent of concentrating on God don’t eschew all technology. They build houses and sew at least. Cook food, rather than eat it raw and so forth. So the presumption God is the reason for lack of scientific progress is manifestly faulty and rather illogical.

In short, I’m a bit perplexed at the rather aggressive manner in which Dr. Krauss repeatedly concludes what has been discovered removes any consideration of the Christian God from the Universe. Dr. Krauss already said he was an atheist. One gets it without condemnation.

Dr. Krauss makes some – to me – extraordinary changes to his approach to cosmology.

Remember at the beginning of this essay I mentioned “God created the Universe from an absence of everything. Not even a vacant lot. Please recall this, as it comes up later.” Okay, it later and here it comes up.

“Nothing” is no longer ‘nothing’. “Nothing” (in this new sense) means empty space, with nothing in it, but all the laws of physics are intact. Attempting to be clear, “nothing” used to mean – and still does when used by a deist – empty space without the empty space. The word in the first sentence of Genesis (transliterated ‘bara’) implies a complete absence of everything. The Latin phrasing – a good deal later – rendered it ‘ab nihilo’ from nothing. Not even a metaphorical vacant lot.

Dr. Krauss explains the Universe could have begun resulting from ‘quantum fluctuations’ creating ‘virtual particles’ and this continuing on. That idea requires the laws of quantum mechanics already be in place. So, the Universe – according to Dr. Kraus – did NOT come from nothing, but from something. The metaphorical vacant lot.

So from what came the ‘something’ from which the Universe quantumly fluctuated? From where did the metaphorical vacant lot derive? Seemingly the ‘Bulk’. The ‘Bulk’ is a feature of M-theory and is essentially the background of our Universe, sort of the ‘container’ for the Universe. (Read up on M-theory, okay? It is too lengthy for me to write here. Not to mention it is not fully baked yet – finished – and even the proponents say there is no way to test the theory. Exactly. A very good book to understand M-theory is The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. Mlodinow is spelled correctly.)

So what brought this on?
So what is THIS all about? It’s an attempt to remove a beginning to existence. Ever since the theory of Fr. Georges Lemaitre – which became the offensively termed ‘Big Bang’ theory – there has been a movement among certain scientists to disprove it. This was first spearheaded by the late Fred (later in life Sir Fred) Hoyle who proposed the Steady State Theory. Now the ‘alternative’ is M-theory. The basis for the objection to Lemaitre’s concept and thinking? With the Universe having a starting point, the Biblical explanation has too much credence. According to Hoyle (smug smile) Lemaitre’s theory is ‘too close’ to the Biblical account. So obviously, it has to go.

What happened to simply following the facts? In fact, Dr. Krauss says in more than one place we must follow the data and see where it leads. Unless it leads to God, it seems.

Incidentally, science history has a number of emotional and ego driven ‘clashes’ between ‘this’ faction and ‘that’ faction. Check out the concept of ‘phlogiston’ for one example. Another clash occurred when Dr. A. Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity. The ‘classic’ physicists went ‘hostile’ for a while. There are other events. It’s almost like scientists think like theologians, isn’t it. (Actually, yes it is; far too many ‘religious’ conflicts have been based on who – individual or group – got the power and money; not to mention the conflicts over who got to be Pope or pastor of “First Church of the Open Wallet”. I find squabbles of this sort distasteful among scientists and disgusting and sickening among those who claim Christ. “Differences”, even some resistance from say – Buddhists – is to be expected and reasonable. I’m off on a tangent again.)

Has anyone read about M-theory yet? This is a quick and brief (emphasis on ‘quick’ and ‘brief’) synopsis on what has happened so far.

M-theory posits a background setting, the “Bulk”. (This can be identified by other titles depending on the scientist doing the explaining. Other terms with which I am familiar is ‘mega-verse’ or ‘omni-verse’.) Whatever it is, it has existed eternally. There is no beginning and no end to the ‘Bulk’. This demands then it is immune to (or does not have) entropy. (This Universe has entropy, and will therefore end some day. Look up “Heat death of the Universe” for details.) If the ‘Bulk’ had entropy, it could not last eternally; it would finally lock up from ‘heat death’. Since that hasn’t happened, the ‘Bulk’ could not have existed eternally in the past, or ‘heat death’ would have set it. The same argument applies to our Universe.

But even though the ‘Bulk’ does not have entropy, it has quantum fluctuations. This is one of the assumptions I really have to question: If the [greater part, by any name] of the Universe has some of the rules of physics – quantum effects, for instance – they why – there’s that hideous word again – does it NOT have entropy? I suppose the Anthropic Principle could apply, “IF the Bulk had entropy, then it wouldn’t exist eternally” but that strikes me as a bit pat. And please forgive me Dr. Krauss, I just couldn’t resist.

One of the other ideas Dr. Krauss mentions on more than one occasion is that of Occam’s Razor.

From the Wiki entry:

Occam’s razor is a problem-solving principle attributed to William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), who was an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher and theologian. The principle can be interpreted as stating Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

Or, as I learned it, the simplest explanation is probably the best choice – unless it cannot work.

Frankly, M-theory has far too many assumptions and one too many huge contradictions for me. And the quantum fluctuation explanation hangs on M-theory.

Finally. The book is a good book on the subject and worth reading. I am not against Dr. Krauss (albeit I’m not above demonstrating some logical fallicies) nor am I against either Cosmology as a science or science in general. Nor am I a (shudder) Young Earth Creationist. If anyone thinks this essay is rough on the subject, read one of my criticisms of the mindless followers of James Ussher, Bishop of Armagh.


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