Two philosophers walk into a bar…

This is primarily a response to commenters asking for my own opinion on the origin of the universe.  If this is not your bag, I beg your patience, and suggest you skip on to Crommunist’s and Edwin’s most excellent discussions.

This is written in two parts. First, I’m going to outline the general philosophical discussion on the origin of the universe. This is going to be long. Following that, I’ll express an opinion.

I’m going to begin with Aristotle, and to begin with the three classical laws of logic. You may, of course, disagree with these laws, or disagree that they apply, or whatever the hell you want. That’s fine. Not all Philosophers are committed to these laws. I am, however, not a logician. These rules are the logic that underpins the rest of this essay. I’ll then outline his original position, and how that position has been generalised (and wielded by the religious).

Following that: Kant. Some of you may be giving up on this already. I’d encourage you to bear with me, as I’m going to keep it simple. (Meanwhile, a Philosophy Professor at my Alma Mater will be dying of laughter that I’m going to try to explain Kant to people, should he get wind of this)

Finally, my position will follow, and I’ll rephrase/rehash Krauss’s error in the context of Aristotle and Kant. If all that sounds like a good time, keep reading. I can totally understand if it doesn’t.

Laws of Logic

Rule 1: A thing is identical to itself. Any thing which bears all the same properties of another thing (location in time and space is, in this instance, considered to be a property) is actually the same thing. A == A, the Law of Identity. (here ‘A’ represents any well-formed and well-defined proposition, usually stated as “it is the case that…….”)

Rule 2: “one cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time”. The proposition A cannot be both true and false at the same time. A V ~A, the Law of Non-Contradiction.  (~A  meaning “it is not the case that……”, the negation of whatever A is)

Rule 3: Either something is, or is not. If A is true, then ~A is necessarily false (and vice versa), the Law of the Excluded Middle.

If you don’t like these rules: that’s fine. That’s also irrelevant for the purpose of explaining Aristotle’s position. Note: Whether these are ‘true’ or not is a side issue to understanding Aristotle’s position.

Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover

Starting from a position that we can agree on: the universe currently exists. If you want to reject this premise: feel free to open a different bookmark. I’m not interested in debating this particular point.

We live within an enclosed space. Beyond our world are the celestial spheres. They move. We can see them move. Now, we know from watching stuff move, here in Athens, that objects at rest stay at rest unless they are acted upon by another force or object. Ergo, in order to move, an object must be moved. And since objects cannot move themselves, they must have been initially moved by another object. But for B to move A, B must have been in motion, so C must have moved B. But for C to move B, C must have been in motion, and so on, and so forth.

This chain either continues without end (aka an infinite regress), or it terminates at some special case: the mover that is, itself, unmoved. Aristotle ultimately argued that every celestial sphere had it’s own mover. Yup, not just one single deity kicking everything off, but that every moving object in space was constantly moved by something that did not require moving. This is not a monotheistic position. (it’s not even a theistic position)

There are three major assumptions motivating Aristotle’s position here.

Assumption 1: an object in motion requires a cause

Assumption 2: that cause cannot be the object itself

Assumption 3: infinite regresses are bad, so bad that we should violate Assumption 2 to maintain Assumption 3.

The Modern Generalisation of Aristotle

Rather than discuss ‘motion’, we’ll discuss ‘existence’.

That the universe exists now tells us nothing about it’s condition prior to our observation. So we can roll back and back and back, and there are ultimately two possibilities:

A: It is the case that the universe has always existed

~A: It is not the case that the universe has always existed.

In these premises, ‘the universe’ is pretty much anything and everything. Aristotle’s assumptions come into play here again, modified accordingly:

Assumption 1: anything that exists requires a cause

Assumption 2: that cause cannot be the thing itself

Assumption 3: infinite regresses are bad, so bad that we should violate Assumption 2 to maintain Assumption 3.

This is basically where “you can’t get something from nothing” springs out of (well, here and King Lear), and you end up oscillating between Assumption 2 and Assumption 3 trying to find a solution. I can appreciate that it’s frustrating for people without much background in Philosophy, who want to assert that ‘this thing here, it started it all!’ only to be responded to with ‘well… what created that, then? Or did it create itself by magic?’

All of this applies to Krauss’s quantum fields. On this understanding, to assert that “there are quantum fields, but no universe” is to assert a contradiction. To assert that ‘quantum fields exist, but require no cause’ violates Assumption 1. To assert that ‘Quantum fields came from nothing, but created themselves’ violates Assumption 2.

None of this is to say that “it’s not the case that quantum fields are the basic starting point of the universe, and are self-created and/or have existed forever”. But that’s an empirical claim, that Krauss has no evidence for. Ergo, it’s an unsupported assertion, and should be treated as such.


So… Up until Kant, this was considered pretty much the ‘hard problem’ of Philosophy. Then Kant wrote the Critique of Pure Reason. Unfortunately, he wrote it really, really badly, so it took a couple of years for folk to figure out that he had resolved it, kinda.

Kant is, as the title of the book says, critiquing pure reason, which is to say that he’s critiquing people speculating like mad and then claiming that they have ‘proved’ something, or that they ‘know’ something. I’m guessing that some readers are nodding along with this, but you must realise: this is exactly what Krauss did. (As an aside, as bad a writer as Kant is, I wholly approve of his title actually matching the content of his book. Krauss should take notes)

The point that I’m digging up can be found in his Prolegomena. Yes, he had to write a second book to explain his first book. Kant’s inability to write clearly cannot be overstated. The area of his that I want to focus on are his antimonies, specifically his first antimony. (on page 94 of the Prolegomena, the link is a page early to include the intro)

Kant reasserts the two main Aristotelian choices:

1. The World has, as to, Time and Space, a Beginning (limit)

2. The World is, as to Time and Space, infinite.

Kant’s purpose with this antimonies is to show that both propositions follow from basic Rationalist principles, and that there are good reasons to support those Rationalist principles. Proposition 1, however, lacks empirical support: we have (at the time of Kant’s writings, and also now) no grounds for believing that Time/Space are finitely bounded. Proposition 2 likewise lacks empirical support: we have no grounds for supposing that the universe is unbounded, either temporally or spatially.

Skipping on down to page 97 (or read on through the other parts if you have a spare hour or three):

Now if I inquire after the quantity of the world, as to space and time, it is equally impossible, as regards all my notions, to declare it infinite or to declare it finite. For neither assertion can be contained in experience, because experience either of an infinite space, or of an infinite time elapsed, or again, of the boundary of the world by a void space, or by an antecedent void time, is impossible; these are mere ideas. [my emphasis]

Kant’s fundamental point is any claims that go beyond empirical evidence have no justification. We can conceive of all manner of things, but the only way to know the truth is empiricism. Flights of fancy, imaginings, redefining the word ‘nothing’: this is not science. This is just speculation (and/or playing with semantics). And so long as Metaphysics engages in flights of fancy, imaginings, and semantic redefinitions, Metaphysics is not a science. This is the limit of reason, thus the Critique of Pure Reason.

My position

Kant is correct. When I say that ‘Krauss is wrong’, I’m not arguing that “you can’t get something from nothing”, I’m arguing that ‘Krauss is wrong’. When the religious argue that “you can’t get something from nothing”, I also assert that they are incorrect. This does not mean that I’m arguing that “sure, of course you can get something from nothing”. It means, simply, that their position is without support, not that the converse of their position is the Fact Of The Matter. I do not know what the fact of the matter is, and neither does Krauss.

I get that Krauss is doing/applying/insert-correct-verb-here-ing quantum mechanics, and I also get that I have zero freaking understanding of quantum mechanics. But to debate this issue, no understanding of quantum mechanics is needed: I’m not debating the ins and outs of quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics is a tool, a very powerful and accurate tool, but it (like all other mathematical models) is merely a model. While it may have had innumerous successes, that does not entail that continued success is inevitable. The universe is how it is, regardless of how quantum mechanics works. I am not arguing that the models wrong: I am arguing that evidence-free assertions are unsupported. I am arguing that making extrapolations beyond the data is nothing more than speculation. Sure, it’s an ‘educated guess’ kind of speculation, but it’s still nothing more than speculation.

It may well be the case that quantum fields are the ground-state of the universe, and that quantum fields have existed for all time (or whatever term you want to insert here). It may well be the case the concept of ‘nothing’, as posited as the negation of ‘something’, has never actually been the actual state of ‘the world’.

It may well be the case that there was a nothing that preceeded the quantum fields, and that those quantum fields (for reasons yet to be determined) did, indeed, spring wholly formed in their current configuration from ‘nothing’.

My position on this is simple: we do not have sufficient evidence to claim that any of the above are the fact of the matter with any certainty. My position is that not only that I don’t know, but that (at our current juncture in time) no-one (on this little ball of mud) knows, and that anyone who claims to “know” the fact of the matter about the start of the universe and whether or not there was anything prior is talking out of their nether regions.


Some additional resources:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosohy on Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy.

The Project Gutenberg Etext of The Critique of Pure Reason, by Immanuel Kant