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"Pale, Small, Silly, Nerdy": NY Times Gives a Devastating Smack to New Atheists' Favorite Cosmologist

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Not long ago if you got a review like this from the New York Times, that would be the absolute end of your book and a horrendous blow to any reputation for seriousness you once had. Those days are gone, but it's still pretty devastating for a guy like Lawrence Krauss, with pretensions to do for cosmology what Darwin did for biology.

Philosopher David Albert at Columbia University laments that in recent memory arguments against religion centered on moral and historical objections -- worthy of adults, at least -- whereas now, critics of faith are reduced to "pale, small, silly, nerdy" attempts like the one Krauss offers in A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing.

Besides leaving Dr. Krauss looking like a noisy little schnook, Albert ridicules Richard Dawkins for wildly inflating the book's importance in an Afterword.

What it comes down to is Krauss's refusal to reckon, anywhere near adequately, with the fact that explaining how existence burst forth from nothing requires more than simply positing an initial quantum vacuum state, unstable and therefore capable of generating physical particles:

Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from? Krauss is more or less upfront, as it turns out, about not having a clue about that. He acknowledges (albeit in a parenthesis, and just a few pages before the end of the book) that every­thing he has been talking about simply takes the basic principles of quantum mechanics for granted. "I have no idea if this notion can be usefully dispensed with," he writes, "or at least I don't know of any productive work in this regard."
Real nothing is not a vacuum state. It's nothing:
The fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those [quantum] 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.

Krauss, mind you, has heard this kind of talk before, and it makes him crazy. A century ago, it seems to him, nobody would have made so much as a peep about referring to a stretch of space without any material particles in it as "nothing." And now that he and his colleagues think they have a way of showing how everything there is could imaginably have emerged from a stretch of space like that, the nut cases are moving the goal posts. He complains that "some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine 'nothing' as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe," and that "now, I am told by religious critics that I cannot refer to empty space as 'nothing,' but rather as a 'quantum vacuum,' to distinguish it from the philosopher's or theologian's idealized 'nothing,' " and he does a good deal of railing about "the intellectual bankruptcy of much of theology and some of modern philosophy."

But all there is to say about this, as far as I can see, is that Krauss is dead wrong and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right. Who cares what we would or would not have made a peep about a hundred years ago? We were wrong a hundred years ago. We know more now. And if what we formerly took for nothing turns out, on closer examination, to have the makings of protons and neutrons and tables and chairs and planets and solar systems and galaxies and universes in it, then it wasn't nothing, and it couldn't have been nothing, in the first place. And the history of science -- if we understand it correctly -- gives us no hint of how it might be possible to imagine otherwise. [emphasis added]

Krauss, author of the The Physics of Star Trek and other works, has been something of a hero to the New Atheists. It will be interesting to see how they regard him now. Albert has slain the dragon, burned its body, buried the ashes, and salted the earth over the grave. He hasn't given some superficial criticism of Krauss's argument that is politically correct and leaves Krauss with a platform. He has not only shown why Krauss's argument is wrong, but why it can't be right -- because it incoherently gives physical causal properties to "nothing."

This is an argument we all take for granted, but it's surprising to see it stated so unambiguously in the New York Times, by a philosopher at Columbia University who has written on quantum physics. Well, there must be more diversity at the Times than one would expect. First, they hired Ross Douthat, and let him write pro-life columns. Then they ran a balanced story on Alvin Plantinga. And now this. It's hard to imagine that such things happened by chance.

Someone might want to inform the Wall Street Journal, which continues inexplicably running op-eds by Krauss.

Image Credit: Eastern Seaboard at Night, NASA