As a student of the philosophy of science, I am fascinated by how scientific theories are marketed to the public. In the past few years, a growing number of physicists -- including Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss -- have begun to argue that science can now explain how the universe got here: it created itself, out of nothing. In my assessment, this is an embarrassing case of false advertising.
The belief that the universe created itself is increasingly in vogue among many scientists -- especially scientists who also happen to be atheists. For instance, in 2010, the Discovery Channel premiered a new TV show, "How the Universe Works." In the first episode, titled "Big Bang," theoretical physicist and outspoken atheist Lawrence Krauss makes the following statements:
"The philosophers in ancient times used to say, "How could something arise from nothing?" And, what's amazing to me, is that the laws of physics allow that to happen. And it means that our whole universe, everything we see, everything that matters to us today, could have arisen out of precisely nothing."
Krauss published a book in 2012, titled A Universe From Nothing, with generous endorsements from Richard Dawkins and other prominent atheists. The subtitle of the book is "Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing."
Likewise, Stephen Hawking (also an atheist) released a book, The Grand Design, in 2010. In it, he and his co-author Leonard Mlodinow claim that the universe created itself from nothing. Says Hawking:
"Bodies such as stars or black holes cannot just appear out of nothing. But a whole universe can… Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing… Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."
Clearly, the "universe-created-itself" argument is a growing trend among atheistic scientists; and they are quick to add that science has now eliminated the need for a Creator. With people like Dawkins jumping on the bandwagon, expect to hear more atheists parroting these claims in the coming years. Unfortunately, Hawking's and Krauss' claim that the universe created itself exposes an embarrassing level of philosophical ignorance -- a kind of metaphysical blind spot, on their part. And this blind spot inevitably leads them to exaggerate the reach and success of their theories.
Both Hawking and Krauss commit an equivocation -- they give the word "nothing" a misleading definition. Although there's been some debate, philosophers don't typically understand "nothing" to be simply empty space, or a vacuum (after all, as Aristotle argued, and as science has shown, even empty space is definitely something). Rather, philosophers have generally understood the term "nothing" to refer to non-being, or the total absence of some thing. Hence, Parmenides' (ca. 500 BC) famous claim that nothing cannot exist; because if nothing existed, it would then be something!
Krauss and Hawking unquestionably lead their audience to believe they are referring to "nothing" in the same way that philosophers do. In their attempts to answer the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Krauss refers to what "philosophers in ancient times used to say," and Hawking claims, "Traditionally these [questions of why there is something rather than nothing] are questions for philosophy..." Hawking and Krauss suggest that what has historically been a philosophical question can now be answered by science. Sadly, they don't even fully understand the question.
The question, "Why is there something rather than nothing," was made famous by German philosopher Martin Heidegger in the 1930s, when he characterized it as the most fundamental question of metaphysics. Philosophers understand this question to mean "Why does anything exist?" or "Why is there being rather than nonbeing?" or "How did it come about that something has being?" Hawking's and Krauss' answer is essentially the same:
"Quantum fluctuations lead to the creation of tiny universes out of nothing. A few of these reach a critical size, then expand in an inflationary manner, forming galaxies, stars, and, in at least one case, beings like us."
They propose that there is an eternal vacuum (i.e. empty space) of fluctuating quantum energy that periodically spits out universes. This, according to Hawking and Krauss, is why there is something rather than nothing. But, is this vacuum of "quantum fluctuations" really "nothing?" No, it's definitely something.
The "nothing" (i.e. quantum fluctuations) that Hawking and Krauss speak of presupposes a number of things that are not “nothing.” It presupposes (1) quantum entities, (2) energy, (3) processes of change and, supposedly, (4) some set of laws or forces to govern it all. That is definitely something. In fact, it’s a lot of somethings. And those "somethings" sound remarkably similar to things we find in our present universe.
A 2012 article in the New York Times, by philosopher (and physicist) David Albert, explains why Krauss' book is disingenuous:
"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! 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."
Thus, when Hawking, Krauss, and others claim that science can now answer the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” they are being misleading. They are not answering the question as philosophy understands it -- “Why is there being rather than nonbeing?” They are instead making a flagrant equivocation. They are equating "something" with "nothing." And so, contrary to their grand claims, science cannot explain how something could come from nothing. At best, it could merely explain how something might have come from something else, which is anticlimactic and unimpressive.
If Hawking and Krauss truly understood the concept of "nothing" on the philosophical level, perhaps they wouldn't exaggerate and mislead their audience; perhaps they would be more honest in their advertising. But, for scientists who are bent on denying a Creator, they don't have a lot of options. If they were to claim that the universe created itself from a literal nothing, then they would be guilty of spouting absurdities. As the Escher drawing above illustrates, in order for the universe to create itself, it would have to exist before it existed, which is nonsense. Apparently, for Hawking and Krauss, false advertising is better than nonsense. To me, one is no better than the other.
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*This article has been updated since its original publication to include the quote from David Albert.
1. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010), p. 180
2. Ibid., p. 5
3. Ibid., p. 137
4. It's really no surprise that they don't fully understand the philosophical nature of the question when you consider that both Hawking and Krauss think philosophy is useless. In the opening page of The Grand Design, Hawking states: "Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge." Likewise, in this video (at 20:25), Krauss lumps philosophy together with religion and describes them as "useless." In these superficial remarks, Hawking and Krauss cavalierly dismiss the thousands of years of philosophical investigation that all their "scientific" assumptions rest on.