How is there something rather than nothing?
Updated: May 15
“I want to show how modern science, in various guises, can address and is addressing the question of why there is something rather than nothing…”[i]
- Lawrence Krauss
Why does anything exist? This is one of the great philosophical questions. Among those who have pondered it is Gottfried Leibniz in the 17th and 18th centuries. He was a scientist, mathematician and philosopher. While not inventing differential calculus and binary numbering systems, founding geology as a science, and expounding on law and ethics, he pondered this question – “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
Lawrence Krauss, an accomplished Arizona State University physicist, has recently sought to provide an answer. His book A Universe from Nothing is his attempt to climb this philosophical mountain. He sought to climb it with the tools and knowledge of science. However, Krauss did something very unexpected on the journey. Just as he began his intellectual ascent, he switched mountains.
Krauss changed the question of “why” the universe exists to “how” it exits. He then took an admittedly “flippant attitude” toward the question of something coming from “absolute nothingness.”[ii] This was his reasoning:
“…in science we have to be particularly cautious about "why" questions. When we ask, "Why?" we usually mean "How?" If we can answer the latter, that generally suffices for our purposes.”[iii]
“So I am going to assume what this question really means to ask is, ‘How is there something rather than nothing?’”[iv]
Krauss seems to regard an answer to “how” as equivalent to “why.” Instead of climbing his intended mountain, he changed course as though a different mountain would suffice.
Could Krauss have climbed the 1st mountain?
Perhaps Lawrence Krauss switched mountains because he realized the first one couldn’t be climbed – at least not with the tools of science. And, his follow-up book, The Greatest Story Ever Told – So Far, also failed to answer why the universe exists.[v]
If Krauss either couldn’t or simply chose to not climb the first mountain of “why” things exist, was he at least successful in climbing the mountain of “how?” Let’s take a look.
How did “nothing” become everything?
Krauss states that the universe had a beginning. It occurred at a finite measurable time in the past and has been expanding ever since. And, his view is that everything came from nothing.[vi]
This is how he thinks it may have happened.
1. About 13.7 billion years ago, a microscopically small area of space appeared. It was endowed with the capacity to store energy and with laws that governed it.[vii] He calls this area “empty space” and equates it to “nothing.”[viii]
2. Within a fraction of a second, this space then inflated by a factor of about 10²⁸ – much faster than the speed of light – to become our present universe. This was the initial phase of the Big Bang.[ix]
3. During this fraction of a second inflation period, a quantum fluctuation might have occurred. It may have caused a very slight difference in the amount of matter and anti-matter in space with a billion parts of anti-matter for every billion and one parts of matter.[x]
4. Because of this tiny imbalance, as matter and anti-matter instantaneously obliterated each other, there was just enough matter left over for stars and planets to later form and for us to form too.
5. Space continued to expand, now slower than the speed of light. As it did, dark energy expanded uniformly throughout the universe.[xi]
6. Gravity then coalesced matter into stars and planets.[xii]
You’re probably now thinking, “Wait a minute, where did the tiny area of space, energy and laws come from? They aren’t nothing.” (Good catch.)
Though he repeatedly calls it “nothing,” Krauss acknowledges that empty space isn’t actually empty and it isn’t actually “nothing.”[xiii] However, he suggests it could have come from a different “nothing.” This is where Krauss uses an abundance of terms like: imagine, guess, suppose, might be, and may be. He creatively pulls an array of ideas from the physics journals as he speculates about a possible quantum theory of gravity and how it might be close to a plausible explanation for how space was “forced into existence.”[xiv]
Krauss speculates about the possibility that space came from “virtual spaces” or “virtual universes” that pop into and out of existence from “nothing.” Perhaps, under the right conditions, they don’t immediately disappear. Their ultimate source might be quantum gravity and result in an inflating universe from nothing.[xv] Some sort of quantum process would be required to get the whole thing going.
For us non-physics majors, it’s worth noting that a theory of quantum gravity – how gravity works on things smaller than atoms – hasn’t actually been established.[xvi] Gravity is measurable around big things like planets but whether it affects things at a quantum level isn’t certain. So far, it’s been impossible to test. However, even if Krauss is correct, his starting point is still not “nothing.”
Challenges with Krauss’ explanation of “how”
Krauss’ speculations, while demonstrating his broad knowledge of physics, have several challenges – many of which he acknowledges.[xvii]
What is “nothing?” – Krauss states that everything came from nothing. However, to him, “nothing” is physical:
…surely "nothing" is every bit as physical as "something," especially if it is to be defined as the "absence of something."
To Krauss, “nothing” is imbued with processes, can make things happen and “is unstable.”[xviii] This hardly seems to be “nothing.”
Inevitability – Krauss also speculates that “nothing” may have been inevitably required to force space (with energy, time and laws) into existence.[xix] However, he doesn’t address what fixed the rules that required nothing to “naturally” do so.[xx] He speculates that there might be random underlying laws, but that doesn’t explain their source or what fixed them.[xxi]
Assumptions – Krauss is forthright in saying he can’t prove how the universe came from nothing.[xxii] He is clear about his assumptions and speculations and acknowledges that theories of quantum mechanics and general relativity (gravity) aren’t yet consistent with each other and trying to merge them, as he does, is “tricky.”[xxiii] Many of the ideas he draws from are untested and may be untestable.
Anything not forbidden must happen – One of Krauss’s biggest speculations is the idea that “anything that is not proscribed by the laws of physics must actually happen.”[xxiv] This is essentially another way of saying “because the universe exists, it had to exist.” Yet, we don’t know this to be true.[xxv]
The need for a First Cause remains – Even in theories of quantum gravity, where the assumed starting point is no matter, no space, no time, and no net energy, a quantum process is required.[xxvi] Yet how can a process exist when nothing else does? Krauss states that the universe is not eternal – it had a beginning. Yet he seems open to the idea that laws (or a process) preexisted the universe.[xxvii] If this is the case, they must be eternal.
It’s also interesting that, though Krauss is an atheist, he admits that God cannot be ruled out as the possible first cause.
“The apparent logical necessity of First Cause is a real issue for any universe that has a beginning. Therefore, on the basis of logic alone one cannot rule out such a deistic view of nature.”[xxviii]
Krauss’ valiant effort to summit his substitute mountain only resulted in ideas on a possible route to the top. He doesn’t actually provide an answer from science.
Krauss’ ultimate conclusion is to not even think about why the universe exists and, instead, to keep exploring how it exists.
“…what is really useful is not pondering this question, but rather participating in the exciting voyage of discovery that may reveal specifically how the universe in which we live evolved and is evolving and the processes that ultimately operationally govern our existence.”[xxix]
This hardly seems to be a satisfying conclusion to those who are interested in ultimate reasons.
Back to Gottfried Leibniz
Gottfried Leibniz would not have agreed with Lawrence Krauss. He reached a different conclusion. He concluded there is an ultimate reason for why anything exists. After considering the matter – scientifically, mathematically, and philosophically – he concluded the reason was that God wants them to exist.
Leibniz used several lines of reasoning. Among them was the Principle of Sufficient Reason. He concluded that the reason for a series of contingent truths must be located outside of the series. In the case of the universe (the physical), the ultimate reason must be outside the physical and could be called God. He further reasoned what God must be like. He concluded that God must possess infinite understanding, will and power and that God is unique and benevolent. [xxx]
To conclude, as Krauss does, that the attributes of the universe are the reason for its own existence may be the limit of where scientific theories can take us. However, Leibniz’s conclusion seems more reasonable. It seems illogical to conclude that a universe, with a beginning, could be the cause of itself.
Does “how” really equate to “why?”
Lawrence Krauss may be correct in some of his assumptions and speculations. However, “how” the universe exists doesn’t equate to “why.”
If the universe had a beginning at a finite point in time, as most physicists now believe, why the universe exists is a question of profound importance. Why the universe exists has a bearing on our own purpose, meaning and value. These are not inconsequential topics. Though science may be incapable of providing an answer, it doesn’t mean there is none.
About Lawrence Krauss:
Lawrence Krauss earned a PhD in physics at MIT. He taught at Yale and Case Western University and was the director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University until 2019. Krauss has been a recurring speaker at rallies promoting atheism. He also describes Christopher Hitchens’ assault on religion titled God is not Great as a “masterpiece.”
[i] Lawrence Krauss, A Universe From Nothing (New York, NY: Atria, 2012), xxiii. [ii] Lawrence Krauss, A Universe From Nothing, xvi-xvii [iii] IBID, 143. [iv] IBID, 144. [v] In The Greatest Story Ever Told – So Far, Krauss concludes the universe is the way it is because of “an accident in the history of the universe in which a field froze in empty space in a certain way.” (Page 304) However, he didn’t answer why the universe exists. [vi] IBID, 23, 142-143. [vii] IBID, 3, 151-152. [viii] IBID, 58. [ix] IBID, 92, 97. [x] IBID, 156-157. [xi] IBID, 151-152. [xii] IBID, 105. [xiii] IBID, 152. Dark energy, a low-level energy field, appears to be a property of space. Experiments also suggest the possible existence of dark matter to account for gravitational effects that make sense if more matter exists than can be observed. NASA estimates that the universe consists of 68% dark energy, 27% dark matter and 5% observable matter. https://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/focus-areas/what-is-dark-energy [xiv] IBID, 161. [xv] IBID, 169. Krauss states that the universe is flat. However, he speculates that if it started as a closed universe with net energy of zero and “the configuration of fields within it produces a period of inflation” it might appear spontaneously (like virtual particles – electron and positron - in a vacuum that appear and immediately annihilate each other) and not disappear. He cites a paper authored by Alex Vilenkin. See pages 166-169. [xvi] There are four fundamental forces in physics: electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force and gravity. Quantum field theory (how electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force work) hasn’t been reconciled with Relativity (how gravity works). They don’t yet fit together. [xvii]Lawrence Krauss, A Universe From Nothing, 161-163 [xviii] IBID, 170. [xix] IBID, 142-143, 161. [xx] IBID, 142-143, 175. [xxi] IBID, 176. [xxii] IBID, 170. [xxiii] IBID, 161. [xxiv] IBID, 163. [xxv] Krauss suggests that this would provide support for the idea of the multiverse – an almost infinite numbers of universes each with their own laws and attributes. However, the improbability of our universe is not evidence for the probability of many unobservable universes. [xxvi] IBID, 157, 179. [xxvii] IBID, 2-3, 23, 175-176. [xxviii] IBID, 173. [xxix] IBID, 178. [xxx] Look, Brandon C., "Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2020/entries/leibniz/> Leibniz based his conclusion on both ontological and cosmological arguments. The one described here is his cosmological argument.