Physicist Lawrence Krauss has a new book, A Universe from Nothing. I happen to like Krauss and have seen some of his lectures. He is brilliant, entertaining, and good at distilling cosmology for non-specialists (and the emerging picture of the cosmos is incredibly mind-bending). In his role as a science educator, I've also seen him as smarter on religion than the better known neo-atheists like Dawkins and Harris (which admittedly is not saying much, and Krauss seems to have gotten worse).
It was the book's subtitle, however, that really caught my attention: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing. This is what Krauss has set out to explain—surely one of the greatest mysteries of all time, and perhaps the ultimate question in metaphysics. Can Krauss be serious, I thought? Then I read David Albert's excellent review and I'm persuaded that we are no closer to answering that question than we were before this book, and I am really stunned that Krauss thinks he is answering it. Another reviewer has supplied what may be a more accurate subtitle: "How It Is That There Happens to Be This Something rather than Some Other Something." Sure, this is not sexy but at least it's not false marketing. Here is Albert's review:
Lawrence M. Krauss, a well-known cosmologist and prolific popular-science writer, apparently means to announce to the world, in this new book, that the laws of quantum mechanics have in them the makings of a thoroughly scientific and adamantly secular explanation of why there is something rather than nothing. Period. Case closed. End of story. I kid you not. Look at the subtitle. Look at how Richard Dawkins sums it up in his afterword: “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. 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. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is devastating.”
Well, let’s see. ... Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from? Krauss is more or less upfront, as it turns out, about not having a clue about that. He acknowledges (albeit in a parenthesis, and just a few pages before the end of the book) that everything he has been talking about simply takes the basic principles of quantum mechanics for granted. “I have no idea if this notion can be usefully dispensed with,” he writes, “or at least I don’t know of any productive work in this regard.” And what if he did know of some productive work in that regard? What if he were in a position to announce, for instance, that the truth of the quantum-mechanical laws can be traced back to the fact that the world has some other, deeper property X? Wouldn’t we still be in a position to ask why X rather than Y? And is there a last such question? Is there some point at which the possibility of asking any further such questions somehow definitively comes to an end? How would that work? What would that be like?