Saturday, March 9, 2013

Something From Nothing

Lawrence Krauss, author of A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, is an atheist cosmologist at pains in his book to give a completely naturalistic answer to the question why there is a universe at all. His explanation, however, has failed to impress David Albert, a philosopher of science at Columbia University who penned a review of Krauss' book in the New York Times last March in which he pretty much demolishes Krauss' argument.

Krauss contends that the universe arose out of the quantum vacuum, a state which he insists is tantamount to sheer nothingness. Thus the universe popped into being out of nothing, but, according to Albert, that's all hogwash. Albert writes:
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!
In other words, real nothing is not a field (fields are areas of influence where forces operate - like gravitational or magnetic fields). It's the complete absence of any field. The quantum vacuum state is not nothing, it's a particular arrangement of the basic stuff of the universe. Albert explains:
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 neighborhood of a creation from nothing.
Just as a fist is a particular arrangement of one's hand, but the hand is not nothing, so, too, the universe is an arrangement of a particular kind of quantum field that manifests itself as particles (atoms). A vacuum state is a field that manifests no particles at all, which is why it's sometimes misleadingly referred to as "nothing." But the vacuum is still physical stuff, it's still something, just as a hand that's not clenched is still something even though it's not a fist.

Albert has much more to say about Krauss' argument, but the significance of it all is this: Krauss wants to argue that the universe doesn't need an explanation for its existence. He's trying to make the idea of a Creator superfluous. The universe doesn't need a cause, he maintains, to explain its coming into being. It's simply something that popped into existence out of nothing just as particles pop into being out of the primordial relativistic quantum field. Thus Krauss flatters himself to have obviated the cosmological argument for God's existence.

But, as Albert points out, he's done no such thing. Even if he's correct that the universe formed out of a particular configuration of the primal field, all he's achieved is push the problem back a step. We still need to ask where the relativistic quantum vacuum field came from. It's as though having explained that the fist is simply an arrangement of the fingers of the hand, Krauss is satisfied that he has explained all that needs to be explained. The question, though, is where did the hand come from?