Rosenbaum: Read Jim Holt’s Brilliant Book About the Origins of the Universe

Scrutinizing culture.
July 23 2012 2:53 PM

Has the Meaning of Nothing Changed?

In his quest to understand the origins of the universe, Jim Holt stands up for the big 0.

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Elsewhere Albert summarizes his objections by calling Krauss "dead wrong" about this fundamental assumption of his that the laws of quantum physics have anything to say about their own origin—how they materialized from nothing, thus how something came from nothing.

Wow. Not surprisingly this brutal putdown caused a big bang in the world of cosmologists. Staying classy in an interview in the Atlantic, Krauss called Albert “a moronic philosopher” (despite Albert’s doctorate in—and book about—quantum mechanics).

In another attack, he denied the very idea that philosophers had any right to critique him, arguing that “philosophy hasn’t progressed in 2000 years” and that historians of science have nothing to say. (There’s a nothing for you.)


He later backtracked a bit from his dismissal of all philosophy and philosophers of science, but not from his claim to have explained something-from-nothing. In fact, as we'll see, he dug himself a deeper hole.

But before getting into that, I think it's important to note one of the byproducts of Krauss' attack on the uses of philosophy, and their philosophers to dispute him, was a beautiful essay by Gary Gutting, a Notre Dame professor of philosophy, in the Times “Opinionator” online section:

While Krauss could appeal to philosophy to strengthen his case against ‘something cannot come from nothing,’ he opens himself to philosophical criticism by simply assuming that scientific experiment is, as he puts it, the ‘ultimate arbiter of truth’ about the world. The success of science gives us every reason to continue to pursue its experimental method in search of further truths. But science itself is incapable of establishing that all truths about the world are discoverable by its methods.

Precisely because science deals with only what can be known, direct or indirectly, by sense experience, it cannot answer the question of whether there is anything—for example, consciousness, morality, beauty or God — that is not entirely knowable by sense experience. To show that there is nothing beyond sense experience, we would need philosophical arguments, not scientific experiments.

Krauss may well be right that philosophers should leave questions about the nature of the world to scientists. But, without philosophy, his claim can only be a matter of faith, not knowledge.

But perhaps the most decisive, indeed sensational, take-away from it all came from Krauss himself.

Something he said in that excellent, probing interview with the Atlantic’s Ross Andersen, who was trying to be sympathetic but nonetheless evoked a major unwitting concession if not a confession from Krauss: “What drove me to write this book,” Krauss said of A Universe From Nothing, “was this discovery that the nature of ‘nothing’ had changed, that we’ve discovered that ‘nothing’ is almost everything and that it has properties.”

Where to start? There’s been a “discovery” that the nature of nothing had changed. Who’s discovered that? Krauss and his colleagues may have discovered that there’s a lot of potential stuff in a quantum vacuum, but he doesn’t seem to realize—or want to admit—that a vacuum is not nothing. Of any kind. Sure, he throws in some caveats—about how his book and his theories can’t answer the ultimate questions—but he also takes swipes at philosophers and theologians, and stakes out that big, provocative claim with his bold title, A Universe From Nothing. And the truth is, he and his colleagues haven’t “discovered” anything at all about the nature of—or definition of—nothing changing.

Of course, once you change the strict meaning of nothing (cf. Holt and Vilenkin’s definition), it’s a lot easier to claim you’ve proved how the universe came from nothing. Once he had a compliant definition of nothing that included a lot of something, the proof was a snap.

(Imagine I had written a book about how to make the best blueberry pie in the world, and when it turns out I have no blueberries and all the recipes in the book include raspberries, I just say, "Silly, the meaning of blueberries has changed!”)

Thanks to his new definition of nothing, Krauss can no longer accurately call his book A Universe From Nothing. He’s proving nothing of the sort. He’s “proving” that something came from something(s).

I can’t overemphasize how important this is. The entire edifice of pop cosmology, which depends on getting us to accept the “inflationary universe” theory without looking too closely at the nothing that supposedly inflates into a galactic something, and which has inflated, post-Hawking, into a major publishing and pop culture phenomenon, has just had the rug pulled out from under it by one of its leading practitioners. Who reveals that he and his colleagues know nothing about nothing. Give this man a Nobel for his inadvertent truth telling.

When I emailed Krauss’ remarkable give-away quote about the way the meaning of nothing had changed to Holt, he replied: “What Krauss says is absurd.”

The search goes on. Holt has taken it further—and with greater stringency—than anyone before. He leaves us with the question Stephen Hawking once asked but couldn't answer, “Why does the universe go through all the bother of existing?”

We still don’t know. Let’s not pretend we do.



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