A Universe from Nothing? A Critique of Lawrence Krauss’ Book, Part 1

A Universe from Nothing? A Critique of Lawrence Krauss’ Book, Part 1

In his latest book, A Universe from Nothing, famed astrophysicist Lawrence M. Krauss claims to have shown why the latest physics proves that God is not necessary to explain the universe’s existence and features.

He asserts that the universe came from “nothing” rather than from God. However, the different “nothings” that Krauss appeals to for his explanations are really “some things”—“some things” that demand nothing less than the existence and involvement of the biblical God.

Lawrence M. Krauss is one of the most public figures in today’s physics community. A theoretical physicist and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, Krauss’ charismatic personality and eight best-selling books have earned him frequent interviews on national television and radio. As famous as he is as a popularizer of arcane physics and commentator on Star Trek, he is even better known as a leader in the fight against creationism and intelligent design.

In his latest book, A Universe from Nothing, Krauss claims to demonstrate how quantum gravity not only allows our universe and other universes to pop into existence out of nothing (that is, without the agency of a divine being), but that quantum gravity actually appears to require nothing. Needless to say, such assertions are certain to gain Krauss even more fame and notoriety.

A Universe from Nothing is being touted as a game-changer in the debate over God’s existence. In the afterword for Krauss’ book, outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins boasts that just as Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species delivered “biology’s deadliest blow to supernaturalism,” so, too, Lawrence Krauss has delivered from physics “the knockout blow” against “the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’”1 The book has also garnered glowing endorsements from Sam Harris (another famous atheist) and such notable physicists as Mario Livio, Frank Wilczek, and Martin Rees.

In the flyleaf, the publisher writes that Krauss has provided an “antidote to outmoded philosophical and religious thinking,” and a “game-changing entry into the debate about the existence of God and everything that exists.” The same flyleaf quotes Krauss, “Forget Jesus, the stars died so you could be born.” Hence, it is no surprise that Krauss and his new book have become the weapon of choice by committed atheists in their quest to rid humanity of belief in God.

But has Krauss really proved that “God is dead”? His fans may say so, but Krauss himself backs away slightly from such a bold claim. Rather, he admits on the basis of physics and logic that “one cannot rule out such a deistic view of nature.”2 However, he does claim that this deistic view “bears no logical connection to the personal deities of the world’s great religions.”3 In other words, God may not be dead, but, according to Krauss, he certainly is not personal or presently active.

Before I critique the philosophy and science in A Universe from Nothing, I first want to commend Krauss for his excellent chapters on the recent history of observational and theoretical cosmology. Minus a few misattributions of research credit and a few minor points of fact discrepancy, I would highly recommend Krauss’ book if he had stopped at chapter six. It is the rest of the book that I find troubling.

Why We Don’t Need God

Zero Net Energy

According to Krauss, one reason why God, if he exists, may not be personal is that the universe appears to add up to nothing. As Krauss explains, only in a flat geometry universe (like ours appears to be) does the total “Newtonian gravitational energy” of each cosmic object equal zero. This happens because the negative energy of gravitational attraction cancels out the positive energy of motion. Therefore, the net energy of the universe is zero and if that’s the case, then the universe is essentially nothing. Krauss implies that if the universe really adds up to nothing, why then must we feel compelled to invoke “Someone” (like the biblical God) to explain its cause?

Little doubt remains that our universe is very close to manifesting a flat geometry (see figure). The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) satellite established the spatial curvature of the universe, Ωk, to be between -0.0174 and +0.0051, where 0.0000 represents perfect flatness.4 Consequently, Krauss does have a strong case for the total Newtonian gravitational energy of the universe being zero or very close to zero. However, there is more to the universe than Newtonian gravitational energy.

Imagine someone throwing a shot put straight up in the air. There reaches a point in the shot put’s trajectory where the upward kinetic energy exactly equals the downward gravitational energy. At that point, the shot put is moving neither up nor down. Its motion energy is zero. However, it would be wrong to conclude that the shot put is nothing. Even at that zero energy point, it is still a sphere of metal that weighs sixteen pounds.

Likewise, even though the total Newtonian gravitational energy of the universe is zero, the universe still contains a huge amount of heat left over from the cosmic creation event and enormous quantities of dark energy, exotic dark matter, ordinary dark matter, and visible galaxies, stars, planets, dust, and gas. Like the shot put, the universe does not reduce to nothing.

Creation ex Nihilo

By saying the universe came from “nothing” Krauss is reflecting, unwittingly, one of Christianity’s foundational creeds. Creation ex nihilo (Latin for “creation from nothing”) refers to the moment God created something (the universe) from nothing (that which lacks matter, energy, space, and time). The Bible implies creation ex nihilo in Genesis but Hebrews 11:3 states it explicitly, “The universe was framed by God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” “Seen” and “visible” refer to the stuff investigators can and do detect, namely space, time, matter, and energy.

Krauss’ Alternative Explanations for the Universe’s Origins

Virtual Creation

While Krauss ends up saying the same thing as Hebrews 11:3—that the stuff we humans detect was not made from detectable stuff—he does not start out that way. He first proposes that virtual particle production serves as an analogy for how the universe came to exist.

Virtual particle production is a natural outcome of the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics. This principle states, in part, that quantum fluctuations in the universe’s space-time fabric will generate particles, provided those particles revert to quantum space-time fluctuations before any human observer can detect their appearance. Typically, the particles so produced must disappear in less than a quintillionth of a second. Since these particles cannot be detected directly, physicists refer to them as virtual particles. Krauss suggests that the entire universe may have popped into existence by the same means.

However, this idea has caveats. To begin with, for a system as massive as the observable universe, the time for it to arise from nothingness (the space-time fabric) and revert back to nothingness (the space-time fabric) must be less than 10-102 seconds (101 zeroes between the decimal point and 1). This episode is a bit briefer than the 14-billion-year age of the universe!

A second inadequacy in Krauss’ suggestion comes from another principle of quantum mechanics. The probability of a quantum outcome occurring increases in proportion to the passage of time. That is, the larger the time interval, the greater the probability that a quantum outcome, like the production of a virtual particle, will take place. This principle implies that if the time interval is zero, the probability for any quantum event is zero.5

The space-time theorems prove that time has a beginning coincident with the beginning of the universe. Thus, the time interval at the beginning of the universe is zero. This eliminates quantum mechanics as a possible candidate for natural generator of the universe.

Hyper Quantum Mechanics

In A Universe from Nothing, Krauss never acknowledges the weaknesses of the virtual particle production analogy for cosmic creation. However, he does hypothesize a second way the universe could have arisen from nothing without divine agency. Krauss proposes that—in addition to the observable quantum mechanics constrained to space and time—there is an unobserved hyper quantum mechanics that exists beyond our universe. Here some dimension (or dimensions) of time, entirely distinct from cosmic time, would permit space-time bubbles, independent of the space or time dimensionality posited to exist beyond our universe, to pop into existence spontaneously. However, if the hyper quantum mechanics is anything like the quantum mechanics we observe, then the space-time bubbles must also disappear spontaneously within extremely brief time episodes.

Krauss acknowledges that his appeal to some imagined hyper quantum mechanics to explain the origin of the universe leads to a time episode problem. He suggests that the problem might be solved if the universe experiences a very aggressive inflationary expansion event before the hyper quantum mechanics forced the newly generated space-time bubble (our universe) to disappear.

Inflation is now an integral part of big bang cosmology. It refers to the brief but rapid exponential expansion of the early universe by a factor of at least 1078 in volume. For our universe, the inflation epoch lasted between 10-36 and 10-33 seconds. It occurred near the very beginning of the electroweak era, during which three forces of physics existed: gravity, the strong nuclear force, and the electroweak force.

The electroweak force is actually a blending of electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force. This blending occurs only when the universe is very young and, hence, very hot. However, if the universe is too young, the electroweak force will blend with the strong nuclear force. When our universe was about 10-35 seconds old, the strong-electroweak force separated into the strong nuclear force and the electroweak force. Accordingly, an inflation episode cannot begin in our universe until the universe is 10-35 seconds old.

A hundred billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second might not seem like very much time, but it is far too long to make Krauss’s hyper quantum mechanics a viable “creator” of our universe. This albeit extremely brief time interval is 1067 times longer than the time duration for a universe like ours to appear and then disappear via the quantum pathway that produces virtual particles.

It is important to note here that many viable inflationary big bang creation models (that is, those capable of explaining the possible existence of life) predict that the act of inflation between 10-35 and 10-32 seconds will spawn a large number of space-time bubbles. These bubbles, however, differ from the kind generated by Krauss’ proposed hyper quantum mechanics. These bubbles are generated well after our universe’s creation event. Once formed by the inflation event, they subsequently never overlap. This means humans can never detect the existence of any of these possible bubbles.

Nevertheless, though we cannot prove their existence, we can determine that all these bubbles, if they exist, require a transcendent causal Agent. The space-time theorem proved by Arvind Borde, Alan Guth, and Alexander Vilenkin6 established that in all viable inflationary big bang models—no matter the quantity of space-time bubbles they predict—the universe and all of its bubbles are subject to a beginning in finite time. The implication is that they thus require a causal Agent beyond space and time to explain their existence.

Thursday I will continue this critique by showing how theistic explanations for the universe trump naturalistic ones.

  1. Lawrence M. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012), 191.
  2. Krauss, 173.
  3. Ibid.
  4. E. Komatsu et al., “Seven-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Cosmological Interpretation,” Astrophysical Journal Supplement 192 (February 2011): id. 18; N. Jarosik et al., “Seven-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Sky Maps, Systematic Errors, and Basic Results,” Astrophysical Journal Supplement 192 (February 2011): id. 14; E. Komatsu et al., “Five-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Cosmological Interpretation,” Astrophysical Journal Supplement 180 (February 2009): 330–76.
  5. Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, “The Singularities of Gravitational Collapse and Cosmology,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series A 314 (1970): 529–48; Arvind Borde, Alan H. Guth, and Alexander Vilenkin, “Inflationary Spacetimes Are Incomplete in Past Directions,” Physical Review Letters 90 (April 2003): id. 151301; Arvind Borde and Alexander Vilenkin, “Violation of the Weak Energy Condition in Inflating Spacetimes,” Physical Review D 56 (July 15, 1997): 717–23; Arvind Borde and Alexander Vilenkin, “Singularities in Inflationary Cosmology: A Review,” International Journal of Modern Physics D 5, no. 6 (December, 1996): 813–24; Arvind Borde, “Open and Closed Universes, Initial Singularities, and Inflation,” Physical Review D 50 (September 15, 1994): 3692–702; Arvind Borde and Alexander Vilenkin, “Eternal Inflation and the Initial Singularity,” Physical Review Letters 72 (May 23, 1994): 3305–308.
  6. Arvind Borde, Alan H. Guth, and Alexander Vilenkin, “Inflationary Spacetimes Are Incomplete in Past Directions,” Physical Review Letters 90 (April 2003): id. 151301.