Ed Feser takes on Lawrence Krauss and Victor Stenger

From Ed Feser’s blog. (H/T Chris R.)


I recently linked to philosopher of physics David Albert’s take down of Lawrence Krauss’s bookA Universe From Nothing.  (My own review of Krauss will soon appear in First Things.)  A reader calls my attention to this blog post in which Victor Stenger — Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii, and author of several atheist tomes — rides to the rescue of Krauss against Albert.  (If only the other philosophically incompetent New Atheists had such a knight in shining armor!  O Dawkins, where is your Stenger?  O Coyne, where is your Victor?)

Unfortunately for Krauss, the intrepid Stenger shoots only blanks.  And misses.  Krauss, as you may know, argues that the laws of quantum mechanics (QM) show how a universe can arise from nothing.  Albert demurs, and Stenger responds:

[Albert] 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.

Later Stenger tells us that the “void” or “nothing” in question “can be described mathematically,” “has an explicit wave function,” and “is the quantum gravity equivalent of the quantum vacuum in quantum field theory.”

Of course, the problem with all of this is the same as the problem with the original suggestion that the laws of QM show that a universe can come from nothing.  The laws of QM are not nothing, and neither are “the symmetries of the void” nor anything that “can be described mathematically,” “has an explicit wave function,” etc.  In general, if you can characterize it in terms of physical law — which Krauss, Stenger, and like-minded atheists all want to do vis-à-vis “nothing” — then it isn’t nothing.  It’s something physical, and thussomething rather than nothing.  Obviously.

Obviously, that is, unless you are a New Atheist dogmatically attached to the utterly groundless proposition that all genuine questions simply must be susceptible of a scientific answer.  At this juncture Stenger does what an increasing number of atheists do when it is pointed out to them that their “explanations” of how the universe arose from nothing merely change the subject — they feign ignorance of English.  Writes Stenger:

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!

But this is the muddleheaded stuff of a freshman philosophy paper — treating “nothing” as if it were an especially unusual, ethereal kind of substance whose nature it would require tremendous intellectual effort to fathom.  Which, as everyone knows until he finds he has a motive for suggesting otherwise, it is not.  Nothing is nothing so fancy as that.  It is just the absence of anything, that’s all.  Consider all the true existential claims that there are: “Stones exist,” “”Trees exist,” “Quarks exist,” etc.  To ask why there is something rather than nothing is just to ask why it isn’t the case that all of these statements are false.  Pretty straightforward.

To admit the obvious, though, would be to admit that there are questions that physics cannot answer, such as where the laws of physics themselves came from — or more precisely, since “laws” are just abstractions from a concrete physical reality that behaves in accordance with the laws, where this concrete physical reality itself comes from.  That nothing in physics answers this question was Albert’s point, and Stenger says absolutely nothing to answer it.

Read the rest. It’s really good! and there’s a lot more goodness there. 176 comments at the time I am writing this.

UPDATE: Peter Sean Bradley note that Krauss is now walking back his rhetoric in response to criticisms from people like atheist John Horgan.

I have been writing about Stenger and Krauss a lot lately, so here are the links in case you missed anything:

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