Much ado about ‘nothing’

Some of you may have heard about the acrimonious exchange that occurred last year between David Albert and Lawrence Krauss. I did not write about it at that time but now there is an even more unfortunate sequel to that story. What follows is a brief summary of what happened earlier so that you can understand the recent development that I address at the end.

Lawrence Krauss had published a book called A Universe from Nothing: Why there is Something Rather Than Nothing where he purports to answer this age-old question. Apart from its scientific value, it is a question that some religious people think the lack of an answer proves the existence of god.

David Albert published a highly negative review of Krauss’s book where he pointed out that Krauss’s idea of ‘nothing’ is the relativistic quantum vacuum which is in fact not ‘nothing’ in the commonly understood sense of pure emptiness, but consists of relativistic quantum fields and as such is quite a dynamic place in which all sorts of things are happening all the time due to the various ways in which these fields re-arrange themselves, sometimes resulting in material particles, sometimes without. As Albert says:

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!”

Since these fields are not ‘nothing’ and Krauss simply assumes their existence as unproblematic and does not explain where they came from, Albert says the book does not provide the answer promised in the title.

The merits of the book are not at issue here since I have not read it. But did I read the review and, though it was sharply worded, thought it was insightful and got to the crux of the issue. But it clearly got under Krauss’s skin and one can see why. After all, the entire premise of his book had been undermined badly. In response, he gave an extremely irritable interview in which he ridiculed the whole field of philosophy as dead and that philosophers were now merely parasites feeding off science and lacked the understanding and credentials to understand modern physics. In reality, Albert is a theoretical physicist and philosopher of science of some repute and seemed to me to be a perfectly good choice as reviewer.

Krauss then started getting flak from all sides for his pouty behavior and his trashing of philosophy and started walking back his comments, with fellow cosmologist Sean Carroll trying to mediate.

Now Jerry Coyne says that Neil de Grasse Tyson had invited both Krauss and Albert to be part of a panel to debate some of these issues at the American Museum of Natural History’s annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate. The topic this year was “The Existence of Nothing”. But several months after Albert had accepted, he was abruptly disinvited by Tyson, with Krauss seemingly glad that Albert will not be there. Albert suspects (but cannot prove) that Tyson was acceding to Krauss’s displeasure at having to share the stage with Albert. Tyson’s stated reasons for his reversal have been suspiciously vague and his action was definitely ungracious.

Coyne says that both Krauss and Tyson come out of this looking very bad and I agree.


  1. trucreep says

    Just goes to show you “politics” transcends everything. Sad.

    Awesome title for the post though!

  2. says

    Couldn’t the debate be resolved by saying something like: “there’s no such thing as ‘nothing'” it appears to me that quantum field theory says, pretty much, that. Nothing is what you get when all the things you know anything about are taken away, but I’m sorry Dave I’m afraid I can’t do that.

  3. Jeffrey Johnson says

    This is very unfortunate. All humans have weaknesses, and I think the pitfalls stumbled into by Krauss and Tyson are understandable mistakes. Krauss us developing quite a celebrity status for a physicist, and I’m sure he feels keen to protect his reputation and is interested in the popularity of his book, so the points made by Albert were unwelcome if true. Sadly I think Krauss damages the reputation he wants to protect, ironically, by trying to protect his reputation.

    At this point his best move to restore respect and dignity would be for Krauss to organize some kind of public reconciliation with Albert. If he fails to do this my opinion of Krauss will go down a bit.

    Tyson must have faced a real Sophie’s Choice if in fact Krauss threatened to cancel should Albert be invited. I don’t know how much control was in Tyson’s hands, and how much pressure he received from the sponsoring organization to ensure high attendance levels. I feel for Tyson getting stuck between a rock and a hard place like that, but his strongest move would have been to adhere to strict intellectual integrity and maintain open invitations or both men, allowing them to make their own personal choices.

    This is a kind of minor tragedy for science and atheism, the sort of melodrama humans seem to be unable to entirely avoid. Sad.

  4. Mano Singham says

    Yes, there is always infinite regression. Even if Krauss had been able to show how the relativistic quantum fields and the laws they operate under came into being, this would have raised how those causes came into being. At any given stage, you have to say that something just is.

  5. slc1 says

    As Prof. Singham observed in a previous thread, Prof. Krauss is a rather stubborn and somewhat combative fellow who is reluctant to admit that he has gone awry. However, in this case, IMHO, Albert’s position is a mere quibble. I have also not read Prof. Krauss’ book but, provided that he defined up front what he meant by nothing, I see nothing wrong about the title. The fact is that the concept of what is meant by nothing relative to what may exist in space is quite different in the relativistic quantum domain today then it was in the 19th century. The notion of the quantum vacuum is one of those concepts of relativistic quantum theory that nobody really understands.

    The quantum vacuum is understood to consist of virtual particles, which go in and out of existence over very short periods of time. It’s existence is only observed via quantum field theory because it interacts with real particles via, for instance, pair production and the anomalous magnetic moment of the electron. Thus, electrons can be promoted out the the quantum vacuum by interactions with photons, with the hole left behind being observed as a positron. The anomalous magnetic moment of the electron is a consequence of its interaction with the quantum vacuum, e.g. the vacuum corrections of quantum electrodynamics. Unlike, say dark matter and dark energy, the quantum vacuum appears to have no macroscopic consequences, e.g. it so far appears to have no effect on celestial mechanics.

    Relative to Albert’s credentials, the fact that he has a background in theoretical physics certainly gives him some credibility. However, Prof. Paul Davies of Krauss’ own ASU, who has a background in cosmology, has written and lectured rubbish on the subject of extraterrestrial life so credentialism is not everything.

    Finally, Lawrence Krauss’ dismissal of philosophy of science echos that of Richard Feynman, “philosophy of science isas useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”, so he is in some distinguished company there.

  6. steve84 says

    I somewhat agree with him. Modern philosophy is little more than mental masturbation. Philosophers haven’t had an original thought for a long, long time.

  7. Mano Singham says

    The point of the philosophy of science is not to be useful to science but as a means of understanding the process and development of science. My work as a scientist has not been influenced by the philosophy of science but my understanding of my place in the grand scheme of things has definitely benefitted from their work.

  8. says

    Yes, there is always infinite regression.

    Not necessarily so.
    For a regression to take place we need a sequence: quicquid causa causae, est etiam causa causati to brag a bitcite John Milton. To get a sequence we need something to put the individual acts into individual boxes which have to lie in a sequence themselves. We ordinary people might call this bucket-chain: time but time is something not nothing, so both proponents assume something in their respective arguments.
    I think it is very simple (hence wrong?):
    If we assume nothing to be nothing at all with absolutely no rules (and ignore the problem that “having no rules” is a rule itself which would already make “nothing” impossible but that would be too fast for my taste) we can call “nothing” being an empty set of rules and “something” as a set of rules with a cardinality bigger than 0. We must take into account every set of rules and every subset, too. As every powerset P(S) has a bigger cardinality than the set S itself the number of non-empty sets is bigger even with one single rule, e.g.: the rule “time” from above. Does that mean that “something” is simply more probable than “nothing”?

  9. says

    I have to agree with Krauss by way of The Atheist Experience. Confronted with the statement, “Nothing can come from nothing,” they responded by asking for some ‘nothing’ to experiment with. It makes perfect sense. If you’re going to make claims about nothing, you need to have some sort of nothing observations. Kraus has them, Albert does not.

    I am certain you, Prof., feel the same as I do on the important issue of understanding. I don’t care if your understanding of of an object hasn’t been met, I care only if the reality has.

    For example, if I was asked to explain why gas fills a volume with pressure x, and I begin to explain particle speeds and I’m interrupted, “No, not particles. Just gas.” So I begin to explain I mean atoms and molecules and again, “No, no. Just the gas. I don’t care about the stuff in the gas.” At this point I am well within my rights to paint this person as a scientific ignoramus. They understand ‘air’ to be empty. Okay. It’s not. I don’t care how many people think it is. I don’t care if most people think a hole in the ground is empty, or the glass is half empty, or, or, or…

    So the same could be said about nothing, and I gather Krauss is saying just that.

    I think the original Albert rebuttal was poorly phrased, if not horribly thought out. Albert could have rightly pointed out that Krauss didn’t address ‘nothing’ as is commonly understood (as he did), but in good faith offered the equally true statement that perhaps it’s because ‘nothing’ is commonly misunderstood. Albert went for the throat in an area of research he might have been ill equipped for.

    That said, I think Krauss and Albert need to put on their big kid undies and make up. There are too many great disagreements to be had in science to squabble over the petty crap, or if you are going to squabble, do it in public with fanfare!

  10. says

    I think Albert has a point, but it’s an irrelevant one. Yes, Krauss was talking about a different kind of nothing than the philosophical nothing, but since the philosophical nothing is a vacuous concept, Krauss was talking about the only kind of nothing that it’s even possible to talk meaningfully about.

    The problem becomes obvious if you simple ask someone to define “nothing”. A word that doesn’t refer to anything has no meaning and a word that does refer to something isn’t referring to nothing. Therefore, at any time that you use the word “nothing” you’re either actually talking about something, or you’re not saying anything at all. It is impossible to really talk about nothing. If you can talk about it, it’s not nothing.

    This is exactly the kind of thing that gets some people really annoyed with philosophy and results in them claiming that philosophy is dead, has no value, etc. Philosophers have no one to blame but themselves. Philosophy is only relevant to the extent that it makes sense and refers back to reality and the philosophical nothing simply doesn’t. So, toss out this pseudo-intellectual load of crap and lets talk about the real world.

  11. Mano Singham says

    The discussion in the comments illustrates exactly why it would have been good to have Albert and Krauss discuss this issue in the Asimov forum, to tease out all these subtleties.

  12. Brian Vroman says

    To me, the real problem is that in his book as well as in his popular youtube lecture, Krauss discusses two different “candidates for nothingness.” First he points out that what used to be thought of as empty space is full of virtual particles popping into and out of existence. It is to this “candidate” he refers when he says “nothing isn’t nothing anymore.” But this has nothing (no pun intended) to do with the sort of nothingness he contends the universe sprang from, which is the one criticized by Albert in his review. It seems that this has caused a great deal of confusion, and that evidence for or arguments based on the first kind of “nothing” have no relevance (that I can see at least) to the other kind of “nothing.”

    In any case, I think it is really sad that secularists are fighting each other over this issue in the comments sections of many of the blogs I read. This is not a matter of science vs. woo. It is possible to side with either Albert or Krauss and be a secularist, or of course to not take sides at all and remain a secularist as the debate runs its course. I certainly agree with Porfessor Singham that it would be great to have Krauss and Albert discuss the matter in a public forum, as long as they were to maintain their civility as is becoming of academicians.

  13. slc1 says

    The difficulty is that the statement, “before the universe came into existence” and where did the virtual particles that constitute the quantum vacuum come from are non sequiturs because time did not exist prior to its existence. Thus, the concept of “before”, as with the concept of “nothing” is meaningless. Just one of the reasons why, as Prof. Krauss put it in an interview with Richard Dawkins, “nobody understands quantum mechanics”. Or as Steven Weinberg put it, “quantum mechanics is a preposterous theory which, unfortunately, appears to be correct”. I have to agree with Prof. Singham that we just have to accept quantum mechanics as the best description of observed reality as we sit here today, with the, perhaps, forlorn hope that eventually a new theory that combines General Relativity and quantum mechanics will be discovered that rationalizes the many conundrums (of which the quantum vacuum is one) in the latter,

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