I finished Lawrence Krauss’s “A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing” and I have to say, for the most part I liked it. It got a bit technical, even for someone like me who likes reading popular physics books, but if you are interested in the science behind the universe, its a good read.
I do, however, agree with the criticism, when it comes to the title. Krauss pulls a bit of a bait and switch, by using philosophical language in the title, but not really doing justice to that side of things in the book. Essentially he presents a concept of ‘nothing’ that takes into account modern physics, and makes a very compelling argument that based on this understanding of nothing, a first cause is not really necessary. The idea of something coming from nothing is very unintuitive, but so too is something like quantum mechanics.
Krauss does acknowledge later in the book that… he is essentially not answering all the ‘why’ questions, but that he thinks the ‘why’ questions, that science doesn’t answer, and maybe can’t address sufficiently, aren’t really important after all. (That made me chuckle, almost as much as I did when I read Stephen Hawking claim philosophy is dead).
I can understand why a man who has devoted his life to science might not consider the more philosophical questions important, his interest is science after all, but the way he dismisses the philosophical ‘why’ questions is very telling, and it is this attitude that probably led him to make the dismissive remarks about philosophy that got him in trouble with some of his friends.
That said, smarter people than I have already criticized him for this, so I’m not going to rehash that. Instead, I’ve decided to talk about the other discipline, that Krauss is even more dismissive about, Theology.
When it comes to understanding how our universe evolves, religion and theology have been at best irrelevant. They often muddy the waters, for example, by focusing on questions of nothingness without providing any definition of the term based on empirical evidence.
This is where Krauss starts with Theology, early in the book, and although I am an atheist, and I put no more value in gods and goddesses than I do any other literary fiction, I had to laugh, because, even with this damning comment about Theology, Krauss has no problem referencing the theological, when it suits him…
I have always been attracted to the myth of Sisyphus and have likened the scientific effort at times to his eternal task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to have it fall back each time before he reaches the top.
Muddy enough for you? Not only does Krauss make this reference to Greek mythology as a way of describing science (the boulder thing was a punishment for offending the gods) but he references this by way of Camus, an existential philosopher, who recasts Sisyphus as a noble, if absurd, character. Existentialism of course, is the philosophical precursor of postmodernism.(Sorry, couldn’t resist that one). He further says:
Indeed, I have challenged several theologians to provide evidence contradicting the premise that theology has made no contribution to knowledge in the past five hundred years at least, since the dawn of science.
Now, on the one hand this doesn’t surprise me, but I still find it very problematic. I can only assume his narrow view of Theology is based on an imperfect understanding of it. In my experience, atheists and even theists, tend to assume that Theology is equivalent to Christian apologetic. Thing is, it is not.
What you really have is the very broad field of Theology, the sub-field of Christian Theology, and then within Christian Theology is the sub-field of Apologetics.
Theology (from the Greek meaning “God” and “study of”) is the systematic and rational study of religion and its influences and of the nature of religious truths, or the learned profession acquired by completing specialized training in religious studies, usually at a university or school of divinity or seminary.
Of course, not everyone agrees, and there is nothing wrong with being critical of theology. We should be.
In his two part work The Age of Reason, the American revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote, “The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion. Not anything can be studied as a science, without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing.
I think Krauss and many other atheists would agree(and probably miss the unintended irony in that last sentence). But Theology is based on something. It is based on an argument from authority, the bible and church doctrine, and logical analysis of that authority. I don’t have to believe any of it to analyze it rationally. Now a lot of atheists are probably going to say it’s a waste of time, but if even Krauss can get some little bit of wisdom from a greek myth, at the very least, theology can provide us with a thorough set of mistakes made, from which to learn. And mistakes are how we learn.
In answer to Krauss’s challenge, I submit this modest example:
The book was discovered again after Einstein’s General theory of Relativity, which introduced the concept of a fourth dimension. Flatland was mentioned in a letter entitled “Euclid, Newton and Einstein” published in Nature on February 12, 1920. In this letter Abbott is depicted, in a sense, as a prophet due to his intuition of the importance of time to explain certain phenomena:
Some thirty or more years ago a little jeu d’esprit was written by Dr. Edwin Abbott entitled Flatland. At the time of its publication it did not attract as much attention as it deserved… If there is motion of our three-dimensional space relative to the fourth dimension, all the changes we experience and assign to the flow of time will be due simply to this movement, the whole of the future as well as the past always existing in the fourth dimension. —from a “Letter to the Editor” by William Garnett. in Nature on February 12, 1920.
Now some would call Flatland, science fiction, or social commentary, but the fact is, it is an analysis in story form, a fable, written by a theologian, about a character called ‘square’ who, via an act of semi-divine revelation, is given the knowledge of the heresy of 3 dimensions, the truth of which is hidden from the two dimensional public.
Theology can be looked at narrowly, but also more broadly.
Theology might be undertaken to help the theologian:
understand more truly his or her own religious tradition,
understand more truly another religious tradition,
make comparisons among religious traditions,
defend or justify a religious tradition,
facilitate reform of a particular tradition,
assist in the propagation of a religious tradition, or
draw on the resources of a tradition to address some present situation or need,
draw on the resources of a tradition to explore possible ways of interpreting the world
explore the nature of divinity without reference to any specific tradition.
challenge (ex. biblical criticism) or oppose (ex. irreligion) a religious tradition or the religious world-view.
That being said, I admit my example is small (but also not hard to find). It is unlikely it will impress many atheists, but there is an even a more important use of theology, it is critical thinking for religious people. Critical thinking may not make everyone an atheist, but it can indeed make people better atheists and theists, alike.
Also, I found this little gem:
In the 1920s and 1930s almost every major cosmologist preferred an eternal steady state Universe, and several complained that the beginning of time implied by the Big Bang imported religious concepts into physics; this objection was later repeated by supporters of the steady state theory. This perception was enhanced by the fact that the originator of the Big Bang theory, Monsignor Georges Lemaître, was a Roman Catholic priest. Arthur Eddington agreed with Aristotle that the universe did not have a beginning in time, viz., that matter is eternal. A beginning in time was “repugnant” to him. Lemaître, however, thought that
If the world has begun with a single quantum, the notions of space and time would altogether fail to have any meaning at the beginning; they would only begin to have a sensible meaning when the original quantum had been divided into a sufficient number of quanta. If this suggestion is correct, the beginning of the world happened a little before the beginning of space and time.
Just to be clear, the question is not, does god exist, or does the bible get the details right? The question is has theology contributed anything? And so, even in a modern context, we can say that theology has contributed the ‘universe had a beginning’ hypothesis. And it was confirmed true by modern physics. Theology has also contributed the hypothesis that the world rides on the back of a giant turtle. So, I’m not trying to overstate things here. But the point is that while the bible on its own is pretty random, a logical and empirical analysis of it, is not totally useless.
I should note, I didn’t really become an atheist, because of science. I had an early fascination with science, philosophy and religion. What really made me an atheist though, was studying and thinking critically about religion. Theology is not our enemy, it is something we need to encourage and understand.