Monday 14 May 2012

In our universe, nothing beyond physics

This is from last month, the final episode in the current series of BBC Radio 4's Beyond Belief, with host Ernie Rea and three studio guests: John Lennox, Usama Hasan and Mark Vernon. The subject they're discussing is the origin of the universe, apparently triggered (the discussion, not the universe) by the success of Lawrence Krauss's new book, A Universe from Nothing. It's a shame they didn't get Krauss himself on the show, as he might have pointed out the elementary error Lennox commits in his very first comments. Here's the blurb from the BBC website:
When asked to defend their belief in a Creator God, people of faith often turn to the argument that there must be a First Cause - you can't create something out of nothing they say, therefore right at the beginning, someone must have been responsible for the first element from which sprang life.

A new book, "A Universe from Nothing", by the American theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, turns this argument on its head. Not only can something arise out of nothing, but something will always arise out of nothing because physics tells us that nothingness is inherently unstable.

The book has made an enormous impact in the States, making the New York Times' best sellers list, and it prompted Richards Dawkins to observe that it was "Potentially the most important scientific book with implications for atheism since Darwin".

So does it knock the argument for God on the head? Are physics and God irreconcilable?

Joining Ernie to discuss whether modern physics leaves any room for God are Dr John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, Dr Usama Hasan, Senior Lecturer at Middlesex University and a part time Imam, and Dr Mark Vernon, Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, London who has degrees in physics, theology and philosophy.
And Lennox's error?
"Having looked at Lawrence Krauss's book, I think the title from the start is very misleading, because the nothing he claims that is a nothing, is not actually a nothing."
Other theists have jumped on this bandwagon, despite Krauss being very clear precisely what kind of nothing he's discussing. The problem with Lennox's objection is that the nothing he thinks Krauss should be addressing — the total absence of anything whatever — is merely a philosophical construct with no possibility of being real in any sense that makes any sense. Lennox presumably believes that God exists, and is not nothing, and is eternal. If God — or indeed anything at all — is eternal, then Lennox's "nothing" is clearly an impossibility. Such being the case, it's disingenuous of him to complain that Krauss is studying some other kind of nothing.

Streaming audio of this episode of Beyond Belief is available here:

Not for the first time Lennox comes across as a barely disguised old-earth creationist, while Mark Vernon's mild atheism is reasonable but diffident (maybe he's being careful to avoid being labelled as "gnu"). Usama Hasan claims atheists cannot say where the laws of physics come from, as if they ought be inscribed on stone tablets somewhere up a mountain. In the middle of the episode Ernie Rae plays an interview with Graham Swinerd, an agnostic astronautics engineer who found Christ as a result of the fine-tuning argument — though as he also credits attending an Alpha Course one might perhaps consider him as already on the brink.

As is usual at the end of an episode Rae asks all three of his guests one question; this time it's whether the universe has a purpose. Hasan claims it's to declare the glory of God and to produce conscious beings able to choose between good and evil. Vernon doubts that the universe has an overall purpose, except as a container for people who have their own purposes. Lennox, however, goes into eccentric preacher-mode:
"The Universe is a temporary home for human beings created in the image of God. He's conveyed on us that immense dignity, and ultimately, for me, the whole purpose of life in the universe is to enjoy the fellowship of the creator that invented the atom."