Krauss-Craig “conversation” disappoints

Life, the Universe and Nothing

It was billed as a “three-part conversation” between two well-known, respected and accomplished speakers, across three Australian cities, on the theme Life, the Universe and Nothing. I attended the second “conversation” in Sydney last night, but found it disappointing.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

The speakers were Lawrence Krauss and William Lane Craig.

Lawrence Krauss is a “renowned cosmologist and science popularizer”, and a professor at Arizona State University. He is an atheist whose recent book A Universe from Nothing has generated a lot of interest and discussion. You can find many of his presentations on YouTube, and he is a witty speaker.

William Lane Craig is a christian philosopher, a professor at Talbot School of Theology in California. He has specialised in recent years in public debates with atheists, many of which can be found on YouTube, in which he has shown himself to be a well-prepared, thorough and formidable debater.

Both speakers are well acquainted with the topic, Why is there something rather than nothing? Krauss has written on the science of the beginnings of the universe while Craig is a recognised expert on the Cosmological philosophical argument for the existence of God based on the origin of the universe. Unfortunately, to quote TS Eliot, “Between the idea, and the reality …. falls the shadow.”.

How it went

After the introductions, each speaker had 15 minutes to state their case. This was the best part of the night, as each performed much as you’d expect. Krauss was free-wheeling with the occasional quip, but a little undisciplined, so he presented more science than he needed to make his points, and therefore had to hurry those points at the end. His main argument was that we now know we live in a “flat” zero-energy universe, and can explain via quantum physics how matter, space and time can arise where there was none before. He also threw in a number of other peripheral anti-theistic comments.

Craig was methodical and earnest. He first argued that Krauss’s use of the word “nothing” was inaccurate and misleading, then presented Leibniz’s version of the Cosmological argument with 3 premises and 2 conclusions, and justified with rational argument the three premises.

The conversation loses its way

The remainder of the night was not formalised, but consisted of some questions from the moderator, then questions from the audience sent in by SMS or Twitter. Unfortunately, the moderator seemed to be in a completely different head space from the speakers, perhaps best described as being “spiritual” and vague, but definitely not scientific or philosophical. So her questions didn’t probe the topic or the issues raised by each speaker, were poorly expressed and were sometimes incomprehensible to the speakers.

The questions from the audience were similarly vague and unsatisfying, whether due to poor selection by the moderator, or lack of thoughtful questions to start with. So the discussion was often meandering and irrelevant, and the speakers had to try to make it work despite the moderator. Craig tried to keep focus and discipline, but this seemed to be the last thing Krauss wanted, as he tended to raise all manner of anti-theistic and anti-christian topics briefly which Craig had no opportunity to respond to, and several times had to be chided by the moderator for not allowing Craig to complete his point.

A few good points saw the light of day

Nevertheless, I gleaned the following points for the night:

  1. Craig’s presentation of Leibniz’s cosmological argument was clear and tight. It is not an easy argument to answer. He had a clear answer to the question – there is something rather than nothing because God made things that way.
  2. Krauss didn’t really answer the question clearly – the closest he got was to argue that quantum physics makes it possible for something to come out of nothing, but he didn’t explain why it had actually occurred. He was equivocal about whether the universe is eternal and whether there might be some cause for the universe. His style (and I presume aim) was to throw a lot of ideas out there without arguing logically for each one.
  3. In response to Craig’s Cosmological argument (if the universe has a cause, that cause must be non-physical, non-temporal, and only God meets these requirements), Krauss made the interesting point that perhaps there are other types of causes we don’t know about yet. (In much of his presentation he was similarly open to the possibility that the universe is way more complicated and unusual than we might expect from current science, and we should be open to all possibilities.) But interesting as this was, it seemed to be a rather desperate and speculative alternative to God, a conclusion which he regarded as speculative and unjustifiable.
  4. Krauss also argued that the Cosmological argument, even if successful, didn’t establish that the christian God existed. Craig made short work of that objection, agreeing in part – the argument eliminates many “smaller gods”, pointing to the Gods of the major monotheistic religions – and it requires other arguments, from the history of Jesus for example, to narrow down to the christian God.

So in conclusion …..

Before the night, Aussie astrophysicist Luke Barnes wrote of the philosophical and scientific deficiencies in Krauss’s arguments. Luke was attending the “conversation” and I can only think he must have been very disappointed, because very little was revealed. (Later note: Luke appears to have been less critical that I was.)

Krauss never allowed himself to be pinned down to defending in detail his many statements, and Craig’s earnest debating style was less suitable for this sort of exchange. I suggest you read Luke Barnes’ article and if you check the video of this conversation, just watch the two talks.

You can read my summary of the Cosmological argument which is partly based on Craig’s book, and a brief summary of the issues in How did the universe start?

Graphic: Life, the Universe and Nothing.

8 Comments

  1. The venue was Sydney Town Hall, which holds maybe 1500 people downstairs and maybe another 700 upstairs. I was upstairs in the gallery at the far end of the hall from the stage, and right next to the video camera. So I got a good view, but was maybe 70m and a storey away from the two speakers. So no, I missed the autographs.

    But it also means they were unable to ask for mine! 🙂

  2. Your 2nd summary point is unfair to Krauss and is question begging.

    Once he shows that the universe can arise from nothing is possible, his job is done. It’s up to you to prove causation and hence a ‘why’.

    He’s also ‘equivocal’ about whether the universe is eternal, etc. Yes, this is intellectual honesty. He doesn’t know, doesn’t claim to know, and is pretty confident that no-one knows. At the moment.

    He (and I) is fairly confident that the knowledge required to answer these questions will be scientific.

  3. Hi Stuart, thanks for your interest and your comment. But I don’t think my #2 was either unfair or question-begging. For I don’t think he “showed” that the universe can arise from nothing at all. Leaving aside the fact that his “nothing” isn’t really nothing, but a quantum field, he only argued that it could happen, and certainly didn’t demonstrate it. (To be fair, that would have been a lot to demonstrate in a few minutes.)

    My statement about his being equivocal was not intended to be a criticism as you may be inferring, simply an observation.

    Thanks again for commenting.

  4. A test for whether “nothing” is nothing: Is it the equivalent of an empty set? Does it have no properties, whether potential or actualised? Is it the non-existence of everything?

    If so, then it is nothing. If not, it is something.

  5. What do you think about atheists claiming that WLC uses rhetoric and snake oil salesmen things?

  6. I think if a person values evidence and rational thinking, they will answer the arguments, not make personal accusations which probably cannot be either proved or disproved.

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