Can science explain why anything at all exists?

This interesting post is from cosmologist Luke Barnes. (H/T ECM)

Dr. Barnes takes issue with Lawrence Krauss’ book about the origin of the universe, in which Krauss, an atheist and materialist, tries to explain how something came from nothing without God.

He writes:

Here is my argument.
A: The state of physics at any time can be (roughly) summarised by three things.

1. A statement about what the fundamental constituents of physical reality are and what their properties are.
2. A set of mathematical equations describing how these entities change, move, interact and rearrange.
3. A compilation of experimental and observational data.

In short, the stuff, the laws and the data.

B: None of these, and no combination of these, can answer the question “why does anything at all exist?”.

C: Thus physics cannot answer the question “why does anything at all exist?”.

And here is his conclusion:

Now, why think that neither the stuff, the laws or the data or a combination can answer the question of why anything exists?

1 can’t do it: A statement of the basic constituents of reality, in and of itself, obviously cannot explain why such things exist, any more than the statement “the sky is blue” can explain why the sky is blue. So 1 is out.

2 can’t do it: Mathematical equations describe properties, and existence is not a property. 5 dollars plus 5 dollars equals 10 dollars, but that fact will not tell you how much money is actually in my account. The same is true for all mathematical equations, even the more sophisticated ones used by modern physics. Write down any equation you like – you will not be able to deduce from that equation that the thing it describes really exists. Mathematical equations are abstract entities, they have no causal powers. They can’t do anything, least of all jump off the blackboard and pull entities into existence. So the answer cannot be found in 2.

1 and 2 can’t do it: 1 and 2 together give a theoretical description of reality as we know it, so succumb to the same problems as 2 alone.

3 can’t do it: for the same reason that 1 can’t. The statement “I observed an electron strike a screen” cannot explain why there are electrons at all, and thus (a fortiori) cannot explain why anything exists at all.

1, 2 and 3 can’t do it: Sitting and staring at 1+2 on one hand, and 3 on the other, will tell you why we think that 1+2 really describes our universe. They account for the data, which is what science does. But once again we see no resources to attack the question of why anything at all exists. We’ve successfully described our universe. But that is all.

Thus, physics cannot answer the question “why does anything at all exist?”.

It is important to realise that no amount of progress in physics will change this situation. Imagine the final equation, the law of nature, written on a blackboard to thunderous applause. After the adoration dies down, we will still be faced with the question “why does a universe described by that equation actually exist?”.

This reminds me of what the famous physicist Richard Feynman says about how scientists should speak to laymen.

He writes:

I would like to add something that’s not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you’re talking as a scientist. I am not trying to tell you what to do about cheating on your wife, or fooling your girlfriend, or something like that, when you’re not trying to be a scientist, but just trying to be an ordinary human being. We’ll leave those problems up to you and your rabbi. I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

For example, I was a little surprised when I was talking to a friend who was going to go on the radio. He does work on cosmology and astronomy, and he wondered how he would explain what the applications of his work were. “Well,” I said, “there aren’t any.” He said, “Yes, but then we won’t get support for more research of this kind.” I think that’s kind of dishonest. If you’re representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you’re doing– and if they don’t support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision.

It seems to me that Dr. Barnes is acting on Dr. Feynman’s advice, while Lawrence Krauss, in writing a sensational book that attempts to mislead laymen about what science can and cannot do, is not.

I think that science is a good thing, and that it is helpful to theists. It strengthens the theistic hypothesis in many ways, especially with research about the Big Bang, research about cosmic fine-tuning, research about the origin of life and DNA, research about the fossil record and the Cambrian explosion, research in astrobiology and habitability, and so on.

2 thoughts on “Can science explain why anything at all exists?”

  1. “Write down any equation you like – you will not be able to deduce from that equation that the thing it describes really exists.”

    Ha! That is pretty much the same thing I explained in my Sept. 2010 post, “Stephen Hawking, Science Fiction Writer.”

    And so Hawking now claims that the universe simply popped into existence from nothing whatsoever, resting his claim purely upon mathematical constructs that are no less fictional than seventh-grade quadratic equations.

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