Victor Stenger: Nuthin’ to Explain


Nuthin’ to Explain

Victor J. Stenger

When you ain’t got nuthin’

You got nuthin’ to explain

-Bob Dylan (paraphrase)


In a recent book called A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, cosmologist Larry Krauss describes how our universe could have arisen naturally from a pre-existing structureless void he calls “nothing.”[1] He bases his argument on quantum physics, along with now well-established results from elementary particle physics and cosmology. In an afterword, atheist Richard Dawkins exults, “Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages.”[2]

Philosopher David Albert will have none of it. In a review in the New York Times,[3] he asks, “Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from?” Krauss admits he does not know, but suggests they may arise randomly, in which case some universe like ours would have arisen without a prescribed cause. In my 2006 book The Comprehensible Cosmos, I attempt to show that the laws of physics arise naturally from the symmetries of the void.[4]

In any case, Albert asserts that it doesn’t matter what the laws of physics are. They “have no bearing whatsoever on questions of where the elementary stuff came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular elementary stuff it does, as opposed to something else, or to nothing at all.”

Krauss says that the reason there is something rather than nothing is that the quantum vacuum state is unstable. His theological and philosophical critics claim that what he discusses is not really “nothing.” Krauss dismisses this criticism and says that the “nothing” of his critics is some “vague and ill-defined” and “intellectually bankrupt” notion of “nonbeing.”[5] Albert insists, “Krauss is dead wrong and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right.”

In fact, Krauss’s book is a good introduction to the latest in cosmology suitable for a layperson. If you, as Albert, do not find Krauss’s philosophical or theological views congenial, you should read the book anyway because these views are typical among theoretical particle physicists and cosmologists. If you want to dispute them, you should at least know where they stand.

Clearly, no academic consensus exists on how to define “nothing.” It may be impossible. To define “nothing” you have to give it some defining property, but, then, if it has a property it is not nothing!

Krauss shows that our universe could have arisen naturally without violating any known laws of physics. While this has been well known for a quarter century,[6] Krauss brings the arguments up-to-date

The “nothing” that Krauss mainly talks about throughout the book is, in fact, precisely definable. It should perhaps be better termed as a “void,” which is what you get when you apply quantum theory to space-time itself. It’s about as nothing as nothing can be. This void can be described mathematically. It has an explicit wave function. This void is the quantum gravity equivalent of the quantum vacuum in quantum field theory.

Krauss also describes how cosmology now strongly suggests that a “multiverse” exists in which our universe is just one member. So, the real issue is not where our particular universe came from but where the multiverse came from. This question has an easy answer: the multiverse is eternal. So, since it always was, it didn’t have to come from anything.

Albert is not satisfied that Krauss has answered the fundamental question: Why there is something rather than nothing, that is, being rather than nonbeing? Again, there is a simple retort: Why should nothing, no matter how defined, be the default state of existence rather than something? And, to bring religion into the picture, one could ask: Why is there God rather than nothing? Once theologians assert that there is a God (as opposed to nothing), they can’t turn around and ask a cosmologist why there is a universe (as opposed to nothing). They claim God is a necessary entity. But then, why can’t a godless multiverse be a necessary entity?

Now, one might still ask why there is something rather than nothing, where nothing means nonbeing including the absence of God. Here at least we can provide a suggestion based on our knowledge of the quantum void. As Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek put it in a Scientific American article back in 1980, which Krauss quotes, “Nothing is unstable.”[7]

The issues Albert raises are legitimate, but they can be addressed within existing physics and philosophical knowledge.

*For Stenger’s footnotes – see the first [of only] 2 comments below.

** Edit: I’ve now moved my verbose 2017 background commentary footnote into comment number two. It covers my solicitation of this article from Professor Stenger, responses to it here and elsewhere, and some of the Krauss/Albert affair. You might well want to give it a miss. It also explains, I suppose, why the comments section isn’t open. But the short answer to that unasked question is that I’ve simply no interest in (a) going over very old ground and (b) trying to moderate immoderate comments (again). Whether, given the passing of time, Stenger’s article or, far less likely, my comment below will be of any interest to [m]any here I don’t know. But you did, and still do, have the option to go elsewhere.  If I may be so bold, there’s an interview with philosopher Alex Rosenberg that I conducted (also back in 2012) which I recently ‘re-upped’ . That still gets a fair few ‘hits’…


  1. References

    [1] Lawrence Maxwell Krauss, A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing, (New York: Free Press, 2012).

    [2] Richard Dawkins in Krauss, A Universe From Nothing, p. 191.

    [3] David Albert, New York Times Book Reviews, March 25, 2012

    [4] Victor J. Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From? (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006).

    [5] Krauss, A Universe From Nothing, pp. xiii-xiv.

    [6] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, (Toronto; New York: Bantam Books, 1988); Victor J. Stenger, Not By Design: The Origin of the Universe, (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988).

    [7] Frank Wilczek, “The Cosmic Asymmetry Between Matter and Antimatter,” Scientific American 243, no. 6 (1980): 82-90.

  2. Verbose footnote commentary warning:

    This piece was, as is apparent, solicited in the context of philosopher of science David Albert’s critical review of Lawrence Krauss’ ‘A Universe from Nothing’ [now referenced in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Nothingness in its section titled Is there any nothingness?] At the time of first approaching Professor Stenger much of the ‘heat’ around the Krauss/Albert affair was yet to transpire. But Albert’s review had gained widespread attention and approval in diverse quarters (including that of Krauss’ fellow ‘New Atheist’ and scientist Jerry Coyne’s website (to whom Krauss replied in the comments) though it had been met with some criticism too.

    I had, to be frank, more sympathy with Albert’s ‘side’ at the time but had thought ‘something’ might be gained from hearing what might be said ‘for the other’. And though Professor Stenger had been initially disinclined to write on the matter, as I’d suggested, he did change his mind and was kind enough to get back in contact rather than just going straight to his blog at ‘HuffPost’ (it was re-posted there in only slightly different form  shortly after but Stenger chose to give ‘Talking Philosophy’ a ‘lead’ as it were).  My email exchanges with Professor Stenger at the time suggested he was a kindly, courteous and good-humoured man. Though I saw some possible philosophical issues with the piece I suggested only the most minor corrections to him which he made with good grace. And feeling as if a host to a speaker not able to stick round for the Q&A, I thought it less my place in the comments section to critique the article and more to push for charitable reading and speaking. I don’t recall feeling that I’d had much success with that.

    At the time most who commented here seemed not to think very well of Stenger’s piece at all. Given that much of the traffic here came from theistic philosopher Ed Feser’s blog after he attacked the article, a warm welcome was, perhaps, hardly to be expected. But theists seemed no worse than anyone else as far as unfair or unpleasant remarks were concerned and a good few made intelligent and philosophically informed points (and some of my fellow atheists failed to). The partisan pantomime that can ensue when ‘New Atheists’ , theists and more ‘accommodating’ atheists find online opportunity to disagree isn’t something I recommend anyone plays their expected part in. (And I’ve made my own mistakes in that regard.) It may be that I digress here but I hope that provides some part of the explanation for why, as stated, the comments won’t be staying open. As stated, I’ve no interest in going over very old ground and trying to moderate immoderate comments. Whether Stenger’s article or, far less likely, my own verbose and fairly pointless comments here) will be of any interest to [m]any TP visitors I really don’t know. But then you’d the option to go elsewhere throughout.