A Universe from Nothing – a review

November 07, 2015

Pictured: everything you have ever known.

I love physics. I love science. I’m one of those guys who gets flabbergasted and tongue tied at the thought of the incredible journey that our species, our planet, even our constituent elements took to get here. I understand well what Sam Harris is talking about when he discusses the idea of wonder as being a major motivator in human behavior (and gets brushed of as an atheist softie by people who think that the truest mark of thoughtfulness is in being a dick). I can’t resist the lure of new ideas or compelling stories. Like everyone else, I want to know how it all came about. And like everyone else, I’m usually disappointed by the difficulties that accompany these speculations.

Lawrence Kraus’ book A Universe From Nothing is an attempt to answer that question. But it’s more besides. Dr. Kraus has not simply attempted to pen a reasonable exploration of the origins of, well, everything, but has couched it in specifically anti-theistic terms. The self-confidence of a scientific worldview that can plausibly explain the whole universe up until a few milliseconds following the development of time has an easy time taking on any faith that puts too much emphasis on supernatural explanations for naturalistic or biological phenomena. However, when we start dealing with things that are, quite literally, beyond our comprehension, the argument can’t help but become uselessly muddled.

And here’s why: Recently, scientist unveiled their findings that a telescope, named BICEP2 had identified something called a B-Mode. Apparently, there are two types of B-Mode radiation, and both a predicted as side-effects of the expansion of the early universe, but only once it really got kicked off; about 10^-35 seconds after the beginning of the Big Bang. See, the scientific narrative is beautiful in both its simplicity and the scope and inclusiveness of its principles. But it’s nightmarish in its details. When you start pushing through these, you eventually understand that modern physics, operating on this scale, is dealing with concepts and theories that are seemingly impossible to verify. String theory, viciously debated by physicists, might be completely real, but because it deals with such impossible levels of reality, you can’t see anything it predicts. As a result, we may never know with any confidence if we’ve got it right.

Understanding the origins of spacetime carry a similar problem. The beginnings of time are literally unobservable and incomprehensible. It is even sensible to talk about “the beginning of time?” Was the early universe capable of producing “time” as we experience it? How many layers of infinity to you need to pick through before you can identify the beginning of it? Is a universe before time the same as one with an infinite expanse of it? Is there an answer that will ever make sense to anyone?

And this is where Kraus goes terribly wrong. The imperceptible nature of reality on these scales means that to attempt and persuade a traditionally religious reader to prefer science as a guide to the world rather than faith is useless. The origins of the universe and the subtleties of the cosmic firmament are questions that we will, in all likelihood, never settle completely. Our means for understanding the interactions of different metals or of different drugs can be constantly examined and improved on the basis of tangible results. In this, science can point us towards Truth, but it is ultimately limited by our human comprehension. In other words, we will never “know,” in the sense claimed by theologians, that the universe was created by the spontaneous coming into and out of existence of fundamental particles. We have an idea that this might explain some things, but it’s a long way in getting there, and most people don’t have the time or means to become the sort of specialists that real understanding would require.

In other words, I think that science is most useful when it points the way to wonder. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson once said, “Religion is the closing of a door.” Science is at it’s best when it opens them. In this way, Kraus’ book is a fascinating exploration of a set of groundbreaking ideas. But that’s what they are: ideas. Accepting them  requires at least a little faith, even if it’s of a different sort than that of the religious. I need this “faith” because the math is simply beyond me. I’ll probably never understand the hosts of observed effects and theoretical speculation that goes into explaining them, but that’s part of the fun for me. And until our greatest scientific speculators can learn to communicate that more honestly and with less presumption, books like this will simply preach their message of secularism and scientific preeminence to the choir, and his fans are unlikely to take Mr. Kraus to task over his assertions. We believe him already.

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