Philosophy Presented as Science

More Confusion about “Nothing”

In the post First Cause, we mentioned a book by Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing, (Free Press 2012). The basic point of the post was that Krauss seemed not to have adequately grasped what “nothing” is, when he argued that material things came from nothing. One has to read more closely to understand that what he really means by “nothing” is only “the nothingness we normally call empty space” (chapter 4).

Scientism Twisting Theology

Well that’s not nothing. And this isn’t a small point. This isn’t a quibble about Krauss using hyperbole to amp up the awesomeness of scientific discovery. Krauss didn’t just set out to show us a theory of the material mechanisms involved in the origins of the universe. He deliberately set out to negate the idea that God had anything to do with it. Krauss quite intentionally set out to answer the persistent, as-yet-unanswered question posed by theists to materialists like Krauss: Why is there something rather than nothing?

Lest there be any doubt on this object of his book, Krauss enlisted Richard Dawkins to further spell it out.  According to Dawkins in his Afterword to Krauss’ book, Krauss delivered the same blow to supernaturalism on behalf of cosmology, that Dawkins believes Darwin to have done on behalf of biology.

Walking It Back

Krauss got some blowback on his assertion that something came from nothing. The criticism is, correctly, that Krauss’ “nothing” was actually something. So he hadn’t explained how the universe sprang from nothing, after all. At best, he only explained how it might have transitioned from one kind of something to another kind of something.

Fall-back to Atheist Bias

Scientists like Krauss who are engaged in atheist polemics instead of science often borrow scientific credibility to apply to their philosophical arguments. They wear the mantle of truth-telling, as scientists.  They insist that in science, they “follow the evidence where it leads,” so we’re to assume they continue to do so when they leave the discipline of science altogether.

As a scientist whose only goal is supposedly to follow the evidence where it leads, you might expect Krauss to own up to his mistake. He might have acknowledged confusing meanings of the word “nothing.” There is a difference between, on the one hand, the absolute nonexistence that is meant when we ask why there is something instead of nothing; and, on the other hand, the relative emptiness of space, which is nonetheless physically something. Having made such an acknowledgement, he might then have gone on to acknowledge that his “nothing” was the latter kind. In other words, that he did not in fact establish that something came from nothing.

But no:

Can one ever say anything other than the fact that the nothing that became our something was a part of “something” else, in which the potential for our existence, or any existence was always implicit?

Such his fey dismissal of the central philosophical question of his thesis. He neither disavows nor doubles down. Instead, he now says the question is irrelevant, and tries to divert our attention elsewhere. These debates about the nature of nothingness are “abstract and useless,” he says. We should get on to what matters (and disregard his fumble). What matters is “useful, operational efforts to describe how our universe might have actually originated.” Well, that would be fine, but Krauss leaves his false thesis in place, a stumbling block to discovering truth.

Pesky Words

To be completely fair, Krauss also betrays some of his own confusion on the subject. Here is a sampling of his utterly incoherent explanation of the nature of nothing:

[S]urely “nothing” is every bit as physical as “something,” especially if it is to be defined as the “absence of something.”  It then behooves us to understand precisely the physical nature of both these quantities.

He might as well have said “non-existing things are every bit as existing as existing things,” and so on.

To say that material things can come from the absence of material things is incoherent. It is not a matter of explaining something from science. It is just a matter of bending words to mean something they don’t mean. “Nothing” means the total absence of material things. “Something” means the presence of material things. Neither Krauss nor anyone else has explained how a rock might materialize not from space or from emptiness or from far away, but truly from non-existence.  Materialism becomes persuasive only if its proponents dumb-down ideas, concepts, and words.

Krauss Again

Krauss published his book in 2012, and the paperback edition came out a year or so later, but Krauss remains a spokesman for materialism in the culture, most recently with his comments in All Scientists Should be Militant Atheists, in the New Yorker (Sept. 8, 2015). From this article we get absolutely no explanation for why scientists should be atheists, much less “militant” atheists, except for the proposition that science is the study of material things by definition; therefore, again by definition, study of supernatural things is not a part of the enterprise. Uncontroversial propositions, as far as they go.  But they certainly do not explain why scientists should be atheists.

It would be tempting to ridicule the absence of support for his thesis, but it has been done well already by philosopher Edward Feser, in his guest blog for the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse: Scientists Should Just Tell Lawrence Krauss to Shut Up Already. It’s helpful when the title leaves you not having to explain its thesis further.

Horror Justified by “Science?”

Also disturbing in Krauss’ piece is that he launches into public policy discussions far outside his field. There’s nothing wrong with that, by itself. We used to say “it’s a free country,” after all, back when it was. Actors do it all the time, spouting off about things they know nothing about. They’re just using their platform, and that’s what Krauss is doing here.

But is he doing it honestly? You decide. Krauss asks us to

Consider the example of Planned Parenthood. Lawmakers are calling for a government shutdown unless federal funds for Planned Parenthood are stripped from spending bills for the fiscal year starting October 1st. Why? Because Planned Parenthood provides fetal tissue samples from abortions to scientific researchers hoping to cure diseases, from Alzheimer’s to cancer.

Just when you thought it would be impossible to put a positive spin on encouraging abortion in order to harvest and sell babies’ body parts, along comes Krauss. If we’re disgusted to the point of physical illness over what Planned Parenthood does (and God help us, if we’re not) then we’re just anti-science.

Be careful. There is a war on religion, but it is not waged by “science.”

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