This is point of inquiry for Monday, February 6th, 2012.
Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney. Point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs.
And at the grassroots. This is the first show in a new schedule for us, one in which I’m going to be hosting three shows each month rather than two to kick it all off. I wanted to bring back one of our most popular guests who has a new book out less than a year after his last new book was out, which proves he’s a machine or something. I’m talking about Lawrence Krauss, the internationally known theoretical physicist and the popular author. Krauss has published hundreds of scientific papers, as well as acclaimed books like the bestselling The Physics of Star Trek and Fear of Physics. He’s currently director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, and his latest book is causing quite a stir right now. A Universe from Nothing. Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing. And Krauss’s answer to this time old question. Let’s just say it doesn’t involve God. But let’s turn to the man himself.
Lawrence Krauss, welcome back to a point of inquiry.
Well, it’s good to be back, at least virtually.
We had you on, it seems like, less than a year ago, but you’ve put out two books in the space of under a year. So I guess you’ve just been you’ve been eating your Wheaties. Is that what it is? I don’t know. How did you do this?
Nervous energy. Nervous energy and lack of sleep.
Yeah. OK. Unfortunately, I know about that. You know, the latest one universe from nothing is really drawing a lot of attention. I read and I was thinking, you know, college kids are just quoting this right now to each other and to the people they disagree with as they debate the existence of God. Also, you must be producing all kinds of Lainio bull sessions.
Well, I give that the great it would agree they could provoke people to talk about this. That’d be wonderful. You have a reaction has been surprising in a way. I would think our party always hoped for these kind of things, but. But yeah, I think if I can provoke and motivate people to have these latent both actions that are most important, not just both fashions, I mean, that they’re what I really wanted to do was use this issue, which clearly produces discussion and sometimes arguments, but use it as a hook to get people back to learn how the real universe behaves.
I noticed I noticed that that was the trick. I mean, in a sense, not a trick, but, you know, in a sense, you know, east, we start off in the book. If I can just summarize, you know, with this question, we’re going to finally bring this old fruitless debate about is there something as or nothing? You know, this old Aristotelian chestnut, we’re going to bring it into scientific terms and we’re going to explain in a completely different way.
But then we’re also they’ll learn everything we know about physics in the process in order to get there Wolf.
Well, thanks. You got the point, I think I think that’s what I wanted to do. And I and also the other thing, of course, because I think science books should be short, history books should be long, science books should be short and because people are intimidated. And so I wanted to do it as briefly as I could. And I was I was happy ultimately to be able to get it into a brief book. I want to give a short of that, which is think a history, because the history is fascinating as well as the science and but do it in a brief enough way so that people wouldn’t be intimidated back against the issues. And it’s interesting. I mean, the reaction has been interesting. Of course, from one. And the reaction is it’s not surprising, I guess, which is. Oh, well, yes. How quaint of you scientists that you really don’t understand what what. Nothing is.
I want to talk about that. Yeah.
OK. You know, Mike, I. What am I. Well, my favorite line from the early part of the book is when I said that, you know, when I’m told that by theologians, a philosopher, that I don’t understand nothing. I’m always tempted to say that what theologians and philosophers are expert at nothing.
All week we should get into the semantics of nothing. Maybe we should just talk about that a little bit. I mean, in one sense, I can see how they can say to you, well, all right. There’s nothing you’re talking about is not the nothing that we recognize. Do they do they have an out?
Well, you know, that’s I that’s they’re out. But I mean, what they say is, well, this is what the philosophers nothing. But I feel like saying, well, what is the flaw. There’s nothing. I mean, you can say non being. But those are a bunch of words.
What does that mean? If you to put meaning to that operationally, I mean, nothing is a physical quantity. At some level it’s not a metaphysical quantity and it isn’t something. And. And ultimately, it seems to me when I am and I try in the book to actually try to book as a book, I can understand what you mean. Mean that what that this kind of nothing is nothing. The first kind of nothing I talk about is is what I think Aristotle and and later people and even the Bible would have said nothing is sort of an eternal dark, empty void. That is what I think a lot of people might have classified nothing as in the early days. And that, I quite clearly show, is quite unstable and great something all the time. And they say, well, that’s not nothing because there’s really space there. If he before empty spaces, OK, it’s nothing. But now, once I say that empty space can create something all the time and does and must in fact even love the core mechanics, then I say, well, you know that there’s space there. So I say, well, OK, well, if you apply the laws of quantum mechanics and gravity together, then in fact space itself and time can spontaneously appear for nothing. You can create universes, spaces where there was actually no space before. And you say, well, is that nothing? Well, no, that’s not nothing anymore, because, of course, of the laws that allowed you to create. So the laws are there. And even if there’s nothing there, there’s the potential for creation. And there’s two things I say that. But the first thing is I say, well, that’s true. But in fact, it could be. And then the last part of the book, I talk about current views in physics, which really is that even the laws themselves may spontaneous arise along with the universe. The laws of physics may be random and and they may be what they are in our universe, because if they were any different, we wouldn’t be here to to to to ask the question. And and ultimately, they’re not to fly with that.
And I think that the they finally say, and I think I even mentioned the book, is that they ultimately define nothing and that from which only God can create something.
But once you’ve done that, you sort of removed all the points, it seems to me. And and I know if there was no potential for it. I also. I also actually do stated there quite clearly there was no potential for existence. Then there’s then there then God forbid, created anything. And moreover, I I pointed out, I think the potential for existence and existence are two quite different things. And I try and I use a rather explicit example, which I’m happy to use here, if you want me.
Yeah. Yeah. Please.
Well, I point out that, you know, there’s a great if I’m walking past right next to a to a woman, there’s a potential for for creating a child. But it’s got it that, you know, that’s very different than a child being created. And I point out, I think it’s the potential for existence and existence where the same thing and then abortion wouldn’t be the hot button issue.
Masturbation would be you know, to me, this sounds like the last great goalpost shifting for theology, you know, moving them and moving them and moving them and you’re chasing them. I mean, do you feel that in some sense you are the guy who’s going to kick God out of physics?
Well, I don’t you know, maybe I could. You know, some people said that I. Richard Dawkins gives a very nice afterword to the end of the book, which he basically says that this is the book that’ll do for poor physics when when Darwin did for biology.
But but maybe I think.
I think that that is not the sole purpose, the sole purpose wasn’t to take God out of physics. The sole purpose was to point out something which is remarkable, that what we know and everything we’ve learned in the last century remarkably makes it more and more plausible that the universe could come from absolutely nothing. And moreover, the characteristics of our universe appear to be those which would would predict if you had a universe that was created from nothing. And that plausibility is, in fact remarkable because it brings to the domain of natural cause that effect, something that otherwise might consider natural. In that sense, try not to be pretentious. I would say it is somewhat similar to what what’s happened in biology. I mean, the diversity of life on Earth and the incredible parents design of life was shown by Darwin to resolve naturally from from the from genetic mutations and natural selection. And that was a remarkable thing. At the time, he couldn’t actually prove it so much as as argue that it was extremely plausible. And now, of course, we have tremendous evidence that evolution has happened. We know what happened. Now, we also don’t yet understand the origin of life. But we. But given what we now know in science is that the diversity of life can arise naturally.
Many of us and then pretty well all scientists suspect that maybe in the next decade or two we will understand the processes by which by which chemistry turns into biology, by natural and natural ways. And there’s no it’s certainly plausible. And so I think that the fact that it’s plausible for the universe is something that’s worth celebrating. And it reinforces, I guess, what what Steve Weinberg once said. And he said many great things. And one of them was that science doesn’t make it impossible to believe in God. It just makes it possible to not believe in God. And I think that’s the remarkable thing, that we now have a picture that that allows us pretty well to take that last final refuge of God in some sense and do away with it now. It doesn’t force us to do away with it. And I point out to people that that that I’m not saying the universe must have come from nothing, because we may actually never be able to ultimately prove that we’re limited. We have to realize and scientists do that we’re limited by what we can measure. And then that’s the other thing that’s kind of surprising me when I start talking about this or when I read some reviews of the book, people say, well, these scientists are so dogmatic and they assert that they know everything. And the whole point is that we don’t know everything we can. We are we are quite willing to say that we don’t know instead of saying, well, I know God created the universe and therefore everything else will follow because I know it. In this case, we’re saying we don’t know that. But in fact, if we look at the evidence that there is no evidence that that’s the case, in fact, there’s quite a lot of evidence that isn’t the case. And it’s plausible. And that’s all we can say in science. And we’re quite happy with that.
I think that’s that’s scary enough in some ways for those who disagree with you in the book. Of course, springs out of this YouTube bletcher, which I think we could fairly call viral, because you’ve got over a million views to people watching you talk for 60 Minutes. That’s that’s some serious, serious attention. I mean, for the people who were digging this so much. Do you think it’s resonating because they see it in the way I described it? Because it is finally, you know, we don’t have to listen to God created the universe anymore. Finally, we have a secular explanation.
I think there’s a lot of people. I mean, I’m getting a lot of letters and I see a lot people saying this is finally what I’ve been, I needed to be able to talk to people and as you say, to be able to have those arguments. So I think there’s a large part of that. And so in some sense, I’m preaching to the converted. I think I like to think that that.
Well, it’s hard to know. But I like to think that what what the other aspect that caused it to be viral perhaps, is that it is it does at least try and convey.
And what I hope is the cleric and at least. Digestible way. Maybe because of the humor or maybe because of the images.
A lot of the excitement at the forefront of physics, which which I think people are excited. I think people really are excited by science. They just don’t know they are most time.
And now they often feel intimidated and feel this great big barrier between what they know and what’s happening at the forefront. And and so I think people are extremely happy when that barrier is removed at some level and they feel that there might be something accessible and maybe it’s worth 60 minutes to try and find out. And I think it’s it’s really kind of amazing me that even the media in general don’t realize how I think that people really do have a thirst for for science. And then and most often, as a kid, for many people, they don’t even realize the science that they’re interested in. And in fact, this very question for many people isn’t a scientific one. And then when they when they realize that, you know, to address it, you can learn about the fact that they you know, we can measure the curvature of the universe. And we can learn about the properties of empty space for them. It’s a fascinating revelation that that that question is a gateway into into a universe that’s far more exciting than the fairy tales that they may have grown up with.
Mm hmm. Yeah. No, you give them you give them wonder and a sense of humor. I think that that that’s a winning combination. But I wonder also about the ultimate point, the meaning that people are taking away. I mean, you know, you describe in the talk and, you know, the book does this to a future in which we don’t even have modern physics because the universe is you know, the galaxies have all gotten so far far from each other. They can’t see that they came from a big bang anymore. And then all you have left is sort of a bit of a laugh at the absurdity of it in some ways. The takeaway is like the physics version of Waiting for Godot.
Well, maybe I did. I maybe although I think I think it’s less less absurdity. Well, I mean, there’s some absurdity in the universe and I think. But I think the message I try and give people and I hope is that you’re right, the future may be miserable and and maybe and there may be no ultimate point to the universe. In fact, there’s no evidence that there’s any off that point. The universe, no more than there’s evidence that there’s a point for life. But but what we should take from that is remarkable. We I mean, sneezer, what that does, it means that we give meaning to our own lives. We are fortunate enough to have developed a consciousness that allows us to appreciate our own existence and actually understand the universe back to the earliest moments. The Big Bang. And I appreciate that there are 400 billion galaxies. What a remarkable bit of good fortune. So instead of feeling depressed, we should feel excited and realize that the meaning in our life comes from what we give it. And we should make the most of our brief moment in the sun. And so I think that’s one of the bits that I try and convey, is that our mean that this should not depressed us. It should be the spiral. It is almost spiritual that we are here in this random spot in the middle of nowhere. But we are able to fortunately comprehend the universe and in fact control our own existence. And in fact, determine the future of our planet at some level in the near term, and that it’s up to us. There’s no one taking care of us that we need to take care of ourselves. That’s one lesson. And the other is the lesson that I that I iconically trying to copy, which is that the universe is the way it is, whether you like it or not. And it doesn’t care whether you like it. So get over it.
Would you say also, you know, there was this huge heyday, at least when I was, you know, sort of figured out what I thought about the world for this is when I was in college for all these fine tuning people, you know, all these arguments that, hey, hey, a broad religion.
And in some sense, although not everyone explicitly embraced God because of fine tuning. But they said, you know, it is miraculous that we’re here. In some sense, you’re saying that, too. And but they would say it’s so miraculous that we can infer things about it. I guess you kind of have put nails in that coffin to.
Yeah. Yeah. But I bet. But in the same sense, I guess that’s that’s all we did for light. You know, look at the diversity of life on Earth. It’s miraculous. And it’s amazing that the kind of forms of life and they and the way it’s found niches in and then and and evolve. It’s just amazing. And it truly is remarkable. The more you see, the more you learn about love and the more we learn about nature, likely by life exists in forms we never would have imagined was possible. The same thing is happening when we look at the universe.
We are seeing solar systems that we thought were never possible, planets that we thought whenever possible. And so we’re learning to expand our imagination. And it is absolutely true that we are finding that the circumstances that allowed us to exist are really potentially extremely rare. And but on the other hand, that the universe is big and all so rare events happen all the time. So this apparent fine tuning can be thought in a religious sense, but it can also be seen to be, in some sense, a form of natural selection that we that if there are many, many different kinds of conditions that exist. It’s not too surprising that we find out that the conditions we find ourselves, that domestic network, Rajastan, occur. And the fact that we’re here is not is not the sense. Not so surprising. Just like, look, if you wanted to absolute probability, the absolute probability that you and I are having this discussion is almost zero, essentially zero, because all you have to think of, all the conditional things that would happen.
You were born a certain time and I was in that, you know. And that we happened to so many different things had to happen for me to be talking to you today by the electronic communication we are, that you could multiply all those probabilities and get zero. But the point is, these things happen.
We’re not talking. I’m talking.
I guess that’s often the case.
But I think that, you know, it harkens back to the discussion we had earlier in the year about Fineman, who who pointed out that, you know, accidents happen. We have we attribute significance to things without realizing that that lots of different possibilities occur. And and when that happens, strange things can happen. And you and you should be very wary about attributing additional significance to things that happen to you when it may just be an accident. And and, you know, in the book I talk about the exploding stars once every hundred years per galaxy, which is, you know, it seems like we should never. Stephen, but the universe is so big that if we look out in a small village in the sky, we’ll see a few every day. It’s just it’s it really is an amazing universe. And the fact that it’s so diverse makes. And for me, it means that we’re probably even our assumptions about what life is probably quite my own myopic. The thought that we might be typical, that we need the conditions that we have in order for any some sort of some sort of life to exist is probably myopic. I think we’ll discover forms of life both here on Earth and potentially even in the solar system that thrive in conditions that we would have thought were impossible for life to thrive in.
Yeah, you talk about in the book and I circled the phrase are petty, myopic corners of space and time. And to me, in some ways, this is the devastating point for theology or in further kind of debate that you’re showing, makes no sense in your superceding. Why is there something rather than nothing? The answer is the reason we ask that question is that we had brains that evolved surrounded by what we think of as something, and then we end up having a conception of nothing that is suitable to those brains. But they all evolved in a context that’s nothing like most of the universe. So the questions that we’ve been posing throughout all of human history are questions that are not apt to capture reality. So essentially, evolution is what gave send us down the wrong road.
Yeah, well, yeah. I mean, evolution is giving. You know, we have this as you said it really well. We have this multi picture, which comes from as a result of of of who we are and where we are and when we are. And we shouldn’t assume that that’s characteristic. I mean, as I point out somewhere in the book, I think it’s a trivial answer to that question of why is there something about it? Nothing. The answer is, if there weren’t, you wouldn’t be asking the question. You just happen to be located where there’s something. But you shouldn’t assume that there’s something everywhere. And if I try to point out that most of the U.S. and most of the universe or maybe nothing. Moreover, in most of the multiverse, there may be nothing. And finally, in the far future, there probably will be nothing.
So this is.
So it’s a it’s an accident and it’s a local accident. And we are we are trained to think in part it’s part of, you know, we’re having a workshop at my at my institute later on the origins of xenophobia in March and where we’re trained to think that the that the way things are for us are the way things should be. So, you know, one of the great things about travel is to find go somewhere else and find out what you assume is natural, does not come naturally to other places. And I think that’s part of it. Opening your mind to to to reality. And I think science ultimately does that most effectively. It forces you to realize that the way you thought the universe should be is not necessarily the way it is. And of course, that’s been the history of physics for the last hundred years or more. We’ve discovered that that’s what makes common sense, is job is not necessarily commonsense to the universe.
Well, let me. Let me ask you a question. Actually came from the Web, a guy named Junior Henry. And maybe it’s not making common sense to him that you probably get this question all the time. But he he wants to know. Please ask Krauze. Please ask him into what is space expanding. The universe was concentrated in a small region, the beginning. So if it is growing in size, what was there outside? More space.
Well, it’s a very big question, a question I get asked a lot. The answer will satisfy you, William. But I’ll tell you the answer is it doesn’t have to be expanding me into anything. Space itself can be all there is and it can expand. And let me give you a few examples, which I know from experience will not necessarily satisfy.
That is what I can do. One is to take the surface of a balloon and blow it up, put dots on it and blow it up.
Now, what’s happening while you say it’s expanding into the room? Of course. But that’s just because you’ve embedded just two dimensional balloon and the three dimensional space. If you get rid of the space around the balloon so that the balloon is all there is. Then every point on that balloon is moving away from every other point. And it’s not moving into anything. It’s just expanding. And that’s what can happen in a three dimensional sense, much harder to picture. But space does map expand into anything. It can just expand. Now, maybe a simpler example or maybe a more of example that might be more palatable is to consider a rubber bedsheet, but one that’s infinitely big.
Now, stretch it.
OK. It’s expansive and obviously because it was initially big, it’s not expanding into anything. And so, in fact, you can write down the mathematics of a space, a curved. Three-Dimensional Space, which expands and all it does is get bigger. But it doesn’t have to creep into any other space because it just is all there is now. That’s it. You can even make it weirder than that because of general relativity. What you see is sort of a property of where you are in. For example, you can imagine spaces, regions of space, which from the outside look like they’re collapsing, but from the inside are expanding. And in fact, that can even something that from the outside can look like it can collapse into a black hole from the inside. It can be expand. It can look and ultimately will be expanding into an infinitely large space. So once you allow for the weird curvature of space, you can allow for any of that to happen. But anyway, the bottom line is coming in. It’s expanding, doesn’t have to expand into anything. And the only reason you think that is that is that, as they say, the things that you see expanding are two dimensional objects expanding in a three dimensional space. But but but get rid of the three dimensional space and you realize that they don’t have to expand into anything.
Right. And so, in a sense, the question that’s posed in the way that it’s posed is a question that itself reveals that we were used to these petty, myopic corners of space and time again.
And so you think about expanding in the sense that we’re used to. You don’t think about it in the grand scale physics universe, you know.
Exactly. You know, I wrote about this one today. Another book, I think it goes goes all the way back to Plato. I mean, what science does it demonstrate that what we see on the surface is just that it is just the tip of the cosmic iceberg of reality that can be much more exciting and stranger. And an example that I learned in high school and that I used is Plato’s Cave, where where people where he imagined reality that people experience has been the serpent, the the shadows that people see. And when they’re looking at a key, they’re confined to live in a cave. And we see the shadows of the outside world and the job of the natural Wazira, where he would have said the mathematician or natural philosopher is to look at those those shadows and trying to interpret the underlying reality, which can be quite different. And when we when when we do that, which is what time does for us, we’re amazed. And that’s what makes the whole thing so exciting and fun, is it is that we’re surprised and and we can be wrong. That’s the thing that I’m always amazed when people say scientists are dogmatic and they claim to know everything. The two greatest, most important states and any scientist can be. And if you’re especially good theoretical physicists, the most exciting states to be in are either wrong or confused because that means there’s something you have to learn.
Well, you know, that’s that is ultimately was wonderful about this. And also why a lot of people are going to have trouble with it is because just precisely that aspect of it, you know, the sense of exploration and excitement that you get and, hey, you know, you’re fine with the universe making sense it as being irrelevant by most people’s definitions. You think that’s called understand that is what is psychologically so threatening.
I mean, just that, you know, so. I don’t know how we’ll get around that.
Well, you know, I don’t know. Look, I like the only way to get around that, I think is talk about it and realize that and talk about it, to realize that it’s that you don’t have to feel that way to talk it through. It’s like it’s like talking through. Someone’s depressed and saying, look, you know, there’s hope and there’s and there’s there’s things to be thankful for. And and ultimately, it seems to me if we have to create if we have to create myths for ourselves, then we all do. Look, that’s the other thing. We’re not rational beings. We operate myths for ourselves to get through every single day. But if we have to create myths for ourselves as a society to to create this imaginary world in order to make it through the day. Well, also, that doesn’t really matter. You know, if it helps to get through the day, that’s fine. If it gives you solace. That’s fine. But ultimately, what we want to face the challenges of the 21st century. We have to face up to reality and realize that, you know, that the universe isn’t necessarily made for us. And if we weren’t and the earth isn’t, isn’t there for our dominion and it’s not going to be it’s not going to always adjust so that we’re happy. And those are the kind of hard realities that that might depress you. But instead, we look at it appropriately. They should energize us into action. And so it seems to me, well, maybe it’s a hard slap in the face. But ultimately, what I would like to see happen and of course, I don’t I’m not pretentious enough to assume that this book is going to make it happen or maybe that it’ll ever happen. The science does lead to a new kind of spirituality, a joy in nature, to accept it for what it is and not and not meet need to create, not not need to feel that the universe cares about us. In order for us to care about ourselves.
Well, I would love. I would love to see us get there. I mean, I just unfortunately it isn’t and is spirituality that requires an appreciation of nuance and complexity. And that that I think is what some some brain some people don’t want to hear. So. So it’s a you know, I think that pushing through with the enthusiasm discovery is partly the way to get to them. But you might I mean, some people might just might just shut down. I think what you also might have to have is some sort of simple, simple way of building the argument that this is so. But that’s very hard because you really need the physics.
Yeah, yeah. At some level you do. At some level you need to know something about the universe in order to be able to to to appreciate DJ Grothe. I mean, that’s the reason I write the books. And and, you know, I don’t know what else I can do. But I think it’s sort of sad if you say, well, I mean, I would even think ultimately those people who are serious theologians who might have an open mind, which is not a large that we would say, look, that.
We don’t want. It’s like a Taliban. I mean, if you do knowledge as a threat, then that’s really sad. At some level you should say, well, look, nuance and and complexity are part of what makes life worth living. And and we should encourage people to develop their faith in nature when whatever you want to call it, by by preaching anyone who wants in complexity. But you’re actually right. I happen to think that a large part of the anti science response in is it is it is a worry that this knowledge is going to be a threat, good faith and and a threat to simple answers that many people find solace in. And therefore, the response is, let’s rather not learn it or not accept it or not teach it.
But that’s dangerous, because if we revert to that, you know, we are ultimately the Taliban.
Well, so at the end of this book, I just got to ask, you know, writing the book or are giving the lecture, do you stopped yourself ever? And you say, well, I’ve explained nothing and I feel very satisfied.
Yeah, well, you know, sometimes I’d say that I often feel like I explain nothing, actually. But I try not to be very satisfied that that’s one thing.
I try never to be, frankly. I try to. One of the one of the things that I can keep me going is never being satisfied. So hopefully I’ll never get in that state.
Well, and you’ve by not being satisfied, you’ve given us two great books in the last year. And we’ve had your own point of inquiry for both of them. And it’s been a pleasure both times. So, Lawrence Krauss, thanks for being here again.
It’s a pleasure. And I view myself as fortunate to be able have done this with you. Thank you very much.
I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved in a discussion about Lawrence Krauss, his new book or this interview, please visit our online forums by going to center for inquiry, dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on this show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org.
One of inquiry is produced by atomizing and amrs New York, and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael. This show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Chris Mooney.