Sunday, March 24, 2013

Questionable Metaphysics

Behavioral scientist and economist Herbert Gintis has an extensive list of Amazon reviews (he even links to it on his personal website), all of which are highly informative. While browsing through them, I came across his review of A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing by physicist Lawrence Krauss (a subject Krauss has lectured about for the past several years). 

The review is quite positive (4 of 5 stars), but the conclusion really caught my attention:

Here is Krauss's main point: "Including the effects of gravity in thinking about the universe allows objects to have... "negative" as well as "positive" energy....gravity can start out with an empty universe---and end up with a filled one." (p.99) This is because the conservation of energy allows for offsetting positive and negative energy. This seems like nothing new to me, and hardly a revelation. Electron-positron pairs are created from nothing and can go their own ways, so matter can be created from nothing.

This is where Krauss's theology/metaphysics comes in. Because the universe could have been created from nothing (quantum fluctuation, empty space), there is no need to posit a Creator. But, the theologian will ask, who created the rules according to which the Big Bang was regulated? Krauss has no answer, except to say (a) there might be lots of different rules for different universes, and (b) if you are going to posit an eternal preexisting Creator, you are no better off than simply positing the eternal and preexisting laws of physics. But Krauss is wrong. When one posits a Creator, one is admitting that one's knowledge has limits, and there are higher orders of knowledge that are inaccessible to mere human intellect. We do not know anything about the realms of being of the Creator or Creators, but we believe they must exist beyond the limits of our understanding. Our reason for believing this is that we experience possessing forms of knowledge inaccessible to other species (amoebae, mushrooms, field mice, Capuchin monkeys, German Shepards, chimpanzees, and such). It would be completely arbitrary to claim there is no realm of intellect beyond ours. Simply positing the eternality of the laws of physics is, in comparison, an unsatisfying alternative.

Here is Krauss's faith: "Without science, everything is a miracle. With science, there remains the possibility that nothing is." (p. 183) I maintain that this is very likely incorrect, and hardly the basis for a firm metaphysics.

"You're more advanced than a cockroach. Have you ever tried explaining yourself to one of them?"*

Philosophers like Edward Feser have addressed Krauss' (and others) misunderstanding of classical theism and the metaphysics of Aristotle and Aquinas,[1] yet tripe like "who created the Creator?" or "I believe in one less god" still persist. The problem is not that these skeptics disagree with classical theism (Mormons do in notable ways and the skeptics' arguments probably have more power against a physical God),[2] but that they do not even understand the classical theist arguments. Unfortunately, the religious and non-religious alike often do not. With the recent controversy over distinguished philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel's criticism of neo-Darwinist reductionism, the above is a refreshing insight from one who studies the evolution of human cognition and behavior.[3] Human limitation is a great reason for intellectual humility.


*From The Mothman Prophecies (Lakeshore Entertainment, 2002).

1. See Feser, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press, 2008).

2. See Blake Ostler's work for details on classical vs. Mormon theism.

3. See Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011).


  1. I didn't realize that there was controversy over Nagel, but I've been a huge Nagel fan since "The Last Word". I found your article fascinating (the one from the Weekly Standard), and I'm now hugely interested in reading "Mind and Cosmos".

    Excellent post!

    1. Thanks, Nathaniel. I actually bought Nagel's book on Kindle just the other day, but haven't had a chance to dive into it. I’ve only read his classic “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” and a few less scholarly articles (book reviews and such). I’m mainly familiar with his work via other philosophers. I follow Edward Feser’s blog pretty regularly, which is where you can find his responses to Nagel’s critics (mentioned in the Weekly Standard article):

      Feser reviewed Nagel’s book over at First Things:

      I’ve actually become quite fond of Thomist-Aristotelian metaphysics, though its view of God I think best fits with the Mormon view of “intelligence, or the light of truth” (D&C 93:29).