April 23, 2012 | 60
When predicting something that science will never do, it’s wise to recall the French philosopher Auguste Comte. In 1835 he asserted that science will never figure out what stars are made of. That seemed like a safe bet, but within decades astronomers started determining the chemical composition of the Sun and other stars by analyzing the spectrum of light they emitted.
I’m nonetheless going out on a limb and guessing that science will never, ever answer what I call “The Question”: Why is there something rather than nothing? You might think this prediction is safe to the point of triviality, but certain prominent scientists are claiming not merely that they can answer The Question but that they have already done so. Physicist Lawrence Krauss peddles this message in his new book A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (Free Press, 2012).
Krauss’s answer is nothing new. Decades ago, physicists such as the legendary John Wheeler proposed that, according to the probabilistic dictates of quantum field theory, even an apparently perfect vacuum seethes with particles and antiparticles popping into and out of existence. In 1990, the Russian physicist Andrei Linde assured me that our entire cosmos—as well as an infinite number of other universes—might have sprung from a primordial “quantum fluctuation.”
I took this notion—and I think Linde presented it—as a bit of mind-titillating whimsy. But Krauss asks us to take the quantum theory of creation seriously, and so does evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. “Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?,’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages,” Dawkins writes in an afterword to Krauss’s book. “If On the Origin of Species was biology’s deadliest blow to supernaturalism, we may come to see A Universe From Nothing as the equivalent from cosmology.”
Whaaaa…??!! Dawkins is comparing the most enduringly profound scientific treatise in history to a pop-science book that recycles a bunch of stale ideas from physics and cosmology. This absurd hyperbole says less about the merits of Krauss’s derivative book than it does about the judgment-impairing intensity of Dawkins’s hatred of religion.
Philosopher David Albert, a specialist in quantum theory, offers a more balanced assessment of Krauss’s book in The New York Times Book Review. And by balanced assessment, I mean merciless smack down. Albert asks, “Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from?” Modern quantum field theories, Albert points out, “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.”
If you want a more satisfying exploration of The Question, check out Why Does the World Exist? by the science and philosophy writer Jim Holt, to be published this summer by W.W. Norton. Holt is neither foolish nor arrogant enough to claim that he or anyone else has answered The Question. Rather, he ponders and talks about The Question not only with physicists, notably Linde, Steven Weinberg and David Deutsch, but also with philosophers, theologians and other non-scientists. And why not? When it comes to The Question, everyone and no one is an expert, because The Question is different in kind than any other question posed by science. Ludwig Wittgenstein was trying to make this point when he wrote, in typically cryptic fashion, “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.”
In my favorite section of Holt’s book, he chats with novelist John Updike, whose work explored our yearning for spiritual as well as sexual fulfillment. Updike prided himself on keeping abreast of the latest scientific ideas, and one of his novels, Roger’s Version (Random House, 1986), features characters who debate whether science can displace religion as a source of ultimate answers. Updike told Holt that he doubted whether science would ever produce a satisfying answer to The Question. Science, Updike said, “aspires, like theology used to, to explain absolutely everything. But how can you cross this enormous gulf between nothing and something?”
The theory of inflation, Updike noted, which Linde and other theorists have promoted as a theory of cosmic creation, “seems sort of put forward on a smile and a shoeshine.” Updike, who died in 2009, a year after Holt interviewed him, toyed with the idea that, if there is a God, He created the world out of boredom. Thirty years ago, I had a, shall we say, experience that left me pondering a slightly different theological explanation of creation: If there is a God, He created this heart-breaking world because He was suffering from a cosmic identity crisis, triggered by His own confrontation with The Question. In other words, God is as mystified as we are by existence. This idea, which I divulged in The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and Rational Mysticism (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), is totally wacky, of course, but no more so, to my mind, than the preposterous claim of Krauss and other scientists that they have solved the riddle of existence.
Science has told us so much about our world! We now understand, more or less, what reality is made of and what forces push and pull the stuff of existence to and fro. Scientists have also constructed a plausible, empirically founded narrative of the history of the cosmos and of life on Earth. But when scientists insist that they have solved, or will soon solve, all mysteries, including the biggest mystery of all, they do a disservice to science; they become the mirror images of the religious fundamentalists they despise. Comte was wrong about how science is limited, but not that it is limited.