A Universe from Nothing? David Albert Owns Lawrence Krauss

In a recent review for the New York Times, philosopher David Albert explains the basic thesis of physicist Lawrence Krauss’s new book, A Universe From Nothing, in terms that are clear as a bell, then he skewers it just as effectively. The whole piece is worth reading, but here are the key paragraphs (for those short on time):

The particular, eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world, according to the standard presentations of relativistic quantum field theories, consists (unsurprisingly) of relativistic quantum fields. And the fundamental laws of this theory take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of those fields are physically possible and which aren’t, and rules connecting the arrangements of those fields at later times to their arrangements at earlier times, and so on — and they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.

What on earth, then, can Krauss have been thinking? Well, there is, as it happens, an interesting difference between relativistic quantum field theories and every previous serious candidate for a fundamental physical theory of the world. Every previous such theory counted material particles among the concrete, fundamental, eternally persisting elementary physical stuff of the world — and relativistic quantum field theories, interestingly and emphatically and unprecedentedly, do not. According to relativistic quantum field theories, particles are to be understood, rather, as specific arrangements of the fields. Certain ­arrangements of the fields, for instance, correspond to there being 14 particles in the universe, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being 276 particles, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being an infinite number of particles, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being no particles at all. And those last arrangements are referred to, in the jargon of quantum field theories, for obvious reasons, as “vacuum” states. Krauss seems to be thinking that these vacuum states amount to the relativistic-­quantum-field-theoretical version of there not being any physical stuff at all. And he has an argument — or thinks he does — that the laws of relativistic quantum field theories entail that vacuum states are unstable. And that, in a nutshell, is the account he proposes of why there should be something rather than nothing.

But that’s just not right. Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff. 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! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those 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.

In other words, the fields themselves, not the particles that emerge (or fail to emerge) from their arrangements, are not nothing, they’re something, and Krauss takes both the laws that govern the arrangements of those somethings, and the somethings themselves, for granted—as brute facts not necessarily in need themselves of explanation.

Therefore, Krauss’s book title and thesis—that physicists have an explanation for how a material universe can come from nothing—is actually two-levels removed from nothing: you need laws and you need fields to get particles.


The cosmos, when you think about it, is akin to Mozart’s music as depicted in this scene from Amadeus, don’t you think? How to explain it?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to A Universe from Nothing? David Albert Owns Lawrence Krauss

  1. Ramases says:

    Have you read Krauss’s book?

    I’m sorry, but from the above it does not seem like you have, or at least not very carefully. Or perhaps you just did not understand it.

    Krauss explicitly addresses this kind of thinking quite early in the book – in the preface to be exact.

    He makes it clear that he does NOT take the fields or the elemental rules of the universe for granted, but claims that in a state of true nothing there would be nothing stopping laws arising spontaneously. As he point out this does not stop the critics, who argue that the POTENTIAL for a universe to arise is not “nothing”. As he also points out, this is like arguing for “turtles all the way down”. It is obsurism, and ultimately meaningless.

    This is also taken up by Victor J Stenger, who is both a particle physicist, Emeritus Professor of physics at the University of Hawaii, and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado. With a foot in both the physics and philosphy camps, it would be hard to find anyone better qualified to comment. He says it better than me, so have a look.


    He also points out that Krauss’s position is in fact not new, and typical among theoretical particle physicists and cosmologists.

    This is an interesting debate, and I have not fully made up my mind. But it is not nearly as simplistic as you suggest.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      If it was simple, obviously most educated people would agree. But Krauss has rhetorically positioned his book as the solution to a long-standing puzzle. According to Krauss, the physicist has stepped in and basically answered a fundamental question that has long puzzled philosophers. David Albert clearly explains why, in actuality, the physicist has done no such thing. The problem continues. It’s not an oversimplification to say so.

      Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could ground our metaphysical premises securely in science, ending forever ambiguity?

      Thoreau wrote in Walden the following: “To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”

      David Albert, by the way, is not just a philosopher at Columbia. He happens to also have a PhD in physics and has written books on quantum mechanics. Did you know that?


      • Peter Smith says:

        Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could ground our metaphysical premises securely in science, ending forever ambiguity?
        That would be possible if our universe was a closed system with every part of it available to inspection by science. This is the basic assumption of naturalism, that we have a closed WYSIWYG universe. But this is only an assumption, not a scientific or metaphysical necessity. If it is true, there are no boundaries to science and all riddles will eventually be answered by science. If this assumption is not true we will discover boundaries to enquiry that are impenetrable to scientific investigation. This is not a God of the Gaps argument, this is a God of the Boundaries argument. If God exists we will discover boundaries to enquiry and these boundaries will delineate the outline of the unseen God. The verdict is out and much more science must be done though I am beginning to think some boundaries might be in sight.

        Krauss’ book is an act of desperation to shore up his metaphysical prejudices against this uncomfortable realisation.

  2. Pingback: Why Are Physicists Hating On Philosophy? « Στα ίχνη της Γνώσης … Tracing Knowledge

  3. brendan says:

    But ““turtles all the way down”. is not unreasonably, he seems to accept turtle all the way up, so what is his problem looking down at the turtle?
    If he can look up he most surely can look down.
    His answer is basically a cop out, the cop out he need to create the title for a book that will shift a lot of copies!!
    He don’t fool me

  4. guggebonds says:

    David Albert is unfortunately a bit narrow minded in his critique. Lawerence Krauss’ use of the word nothing is pretty much in conformity with the traditional christian theological idea of “nothing” in the context of “creatio ex nihilo” – creation out of nothing. The way theologians used this concept implied that the universe come from nothing in a very specific sense. It implied that the universe lacked a material cause in the Aristotelian sense. It still had an efficient cause, namely God. It just meant that the universe was not molded from any preexisting material. Apparently this interpretation of “creation ex nihilo” was good enough for Christian theologians.

    In exactly the same way the theologians argued that the universe lacked a material cause, Krauss argues that the matter of the universe was not molded from any preexisting matter. Krauss’ matter also lacks a material cause in the Aristotelian sense. The laws of the vacuum field are the efficient cause in Krauss’ model. God himself is the efficient cause in Christian theology. The existence of an efficient cause didn’t discourage the theologians from talking about a creation from nothing. The only real distinction I can see is that we talk about a “spiritual driving force” as efficient cause in one case and a “physical driving force” as efficient cause in the other.

    • cisco says:

      Although Krauss definition of his “deeper nothing” (absence of space itself) almost agree with the Christian view point it differs greatly in one aspect – potentiality for existence. The “deeper nothing of Krauss retains this potentiality for existence for his “deeper nothing.” The Christian understanding is absolute. Nothing is the state of non-being or “what rocks dream about.” Only God can bring existence from out of this “nothing” or “creation ex nihilo.” For Krauss the Universe can bring itself into existence from this “deeper nothing.” On page 174 of his book he even speculates that his “deeper nothing” may even be eternal. Krauss simply doesn’t understand what he is talking about. Krauss criticizes Theologians for lack of empirical basis for their belief in God while his faith in the Universe from nothing and existence of the multiverse is also without any empirical basis.

    • Anonymous says:

      No, a “physical driving force” cannot serve as First Cause of physical things, since it is itself part of the “physical” universe.

  5. guggebonds says:

    I think it’s good to be perfectly clear about what David Albert says:

    They way I interpret Albert is that he thinks that Krauss is making a mistake in not breaking the tradition within modern science (popularized by Stephen Hawking) to use the word “nothing” to signify the starting point of the universe. It is better to admit that Hawking was wrong. Modern science has shown that the universe didn’t come from nothing – it came from quantum fields.
    So Hawking was wrong and you can no longer like for example Christian apologist William Lane Craig claim that: “The person who believes in the creation of the universe out of nothing stands solidly within mainstream science.”

    I think that Albert has a fair and clear point but as I explained in my last post I also think it’s not entirely far fetched to use the expression “from nothing” to signify a process completely lacking a material cause (i.e. the Aristotelian causa materialis).

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      If there is anything in the universe that lacks a material cause, then we are very far out to sea indeed. And since we can never discover the answer to this question, a little humility might suit all sides better.


      • Anonymous says:

        Think u Santi needs to find some humility
        You seem like one of those people who thinks they are above everyone…..

        You know u can have an opinion and also read or listen to others.
        Isnt it annoying to be always right and to know everything??
        The way u write doesnt show any originality….. but then again u are smarter than everyone else….every clouud hey

      • Alan says:

        One should no confuse being original with simply being sloppy or lazy.

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