I’ve been reading/watching all interviews I can find on the topic, but I’ve come up short answering my question. I fear I HAVE understood Laurence Krauss and that it IS as I fear. I really need to know what he means when he says “something can come from nothing”.

When pushed on the “nothing” he goes into elaborate explanations of how our idea of the properties of space void of matter has evolved.

Is he really doing anything other than conveniently borrowing the ambiguity of colloquial language for only half of the sentence? Switching context mid sentence is a great way to make puns, but not to inform the public! A lot of people are walking around thinking the something from nothing issue is truly solved! The real mystery is how something came from everything. How that infinite mass, space, time somehow produced finite quantities and restrictions in the form of physical laws. How did the finite ever emerge from the infinite? How can limitations ever derive from the limitless? In this interview with Sam Harris (whom I greatly respect), Sam pushes him on that and he seems to steer away. Can this really be true? Can a secular physicist, one of the supposed last proponents of honesty and truth really be wilfully misleading the public with intellectually dishonest word play??

He claims the definition of nothing changed. I cannot accept this on any philosophical grounds. The fact he has to say this adds to my fear that he truly is misleading the public. The scientific definition of nothing NEVER changed, we just didn’t REALZE there was something there! Leaving the colloquial possibilities aside, “nothing” can never refer to anything, so the second “something” is found, you don’t announce that “nothing was something” (except for a catchy news article title), you say “we found something”! When modern detectives re-investigate cold cases from before the DNA era and find DNA evidence, they don’t say “we found evidence from nothing”, they say “we found DNA evidence!”. When we find something we didn't know was there we never try to say that the definition of nothing changed! Shouldn’t Laurence Krauss be saying “we found that previously unknown supersymmetric quantum fields cause matter to actualise”? I suppose that wouldn’t be catchy would it. Is his desperation to free people from the various trappings of religion driving him to get people to believe a lie?

My life obsession is to find the truth of the matter! When I see supposed truth advocates mislead the public I really can’t see how that is any better than telling kids there is santa or telling people that a god wants you to do x or y. I really hope he isn’t doing what I suspect because it makes me combined sad/mad! The truth is always the best! I see the best position for science (and life) is to excitedly share what is learnt and to acknowledge what we don’t know with the wonder that accompanies a mystery. That wonder excites us to learn more and to reduce the scope of the mystery. We all know that an infinitely applicable explanation (like god did it) is not really an explanation, but lying to steer people away from this is just wrong! Please tell me I’m wrong and have misunderstood him!

Am I right to feel lied to or is this all a bunch of rabble about “nothing” ;)?

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    Theres a long history in philosophy on philosophising about the Void, starting with Parmenides in the West, and Nagurjuna in the East; but to place in context with Krauss it would be useful to have some extracts to work with - I find your summary a little confusing Jun 5, 2014 at 3:00
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    From what little I understand of this subject, Krauss says that "nothing" = quantum foam. But he leaves open the question of where the quantum foam and the laws of physics came from in the first place. So he hasn't solved the problem by redefining nothing as something. Where did the laws of physics come from?
    – user4894
    Jun 5, 2014 at 3:34
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    He redefines what nothing means to suit his own arguments. It's simply not even remotely true that energy is created from nothing. Fluctuations of quantum fields and states are anything but nothing. You're making the same philosophical error as Krauss which is to label something as nothing. – Alfred Centauri"
    – Neil Meyer
    Jun 5, 2014 at 7:20
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    @Meyer: Looking at the interview that Mike linked to shows that Harris is quite careful in distinguishing three levels of 'nothing'; Krauss does suggest our observable universe, and I mean by this just not everything that we can see but everythig that is causally connected in the usual sense can come from 'nothing'; but what he means by this is that it could be a new 'bubble' in a larger multiverse; this is an argument of Lee Smolins; It wouldn't suprise me though if it had older provenance - these things usually do; I think you're misconstruing Mikes argument - he's also incredulous about Jun 5, 2014 at 22:15
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    about the claim. If Krauss was more careful about his terms, and displayed a little more philosophical judgement and understanding of philosophical/theological/intellectual history what he says would sound a lot less contentious. Jun 5, 2014 at 22:17

2 Answers 2


In the interview that you linked to Harris asks Krauss:

I’d like to linger on the concept of “nothing” for a moment, because I find it interesting. You have described three gradations of nothing—empty space, the absence of space, and the absence of physical laws. It seems to me that this last condition—the absence of any laws that might have caused or constrained the emergence of matter and space-time—really is a case of “nothing” in the strictest sense.

Krauss answers:

Do we have any reason to suppose the laws themselves came into existence along with our universe? Yes… current ideas coming from particle physics allow a number of possibilities for multiple universes, in each of which some of the laws of physics, at least, would be unique to that universe. Now, do we have any models where all the laws (including even, say, quantum mechanics?) came into being along with the universe? No. But we know so little about the possibilities that this certainly remains one of them.

In this cosmology Krauss is theorising a multiverse of which our own universe came into being. Thus our universe was once nothing and this is his definition of what he means by it. Harris's point still stand as there isn't strictly nothing - there is a pre-existing universe.

Essentially, this cosmology is returning to the eternal model of the universe whilst remaining consistent with the big-bang theory which started time in our universe - which means that there can only be a finite amount of time in our past.

One understand from this that 'something coming from nothing' is in part a rhetorical strategy, and his solution to this fundamental problem in metaphysics is that the universe (meaning here all universes) is eternal.

Typically, Krauss takes an anti-theist line:

The question this raises in the context of the Abrahamic religons - Judaism, Christianity & Islam is what does this mean for their theology in terms of their cosmological doctrine - a creator God that created the universe.

One way to tackle this problem is to look at it from the view of Geometry: Suppose you see a rod in front of you. One can ask where did that come from; now supposing that bar is infinitely long does not remove the neccessity of that question. This thought-picture is what we might want to to think of seeing the Universe from the point of a God who stands wholly outside of the universe - that is, after Spinoza, sub-specie aeternis (under the aspect of eternity).

Properly speaking of course, in theological terms, the universe cannot have emerged from 'nothing' as God was there 'beforehand'.

If one objects to this because this is a mere analogy; then this deeply misunderstands the nature of theoretical insight in physics and mathematics where analogy has always played a profound role.

Its also rather irritating that Krauss rather repeats the nonsense that:

Indeed, religion and philosophy have added nothing to our understanding of these [physical] ideas in millennia.

Considering that the scientific enterprise entered the modern European sphere from Islamic and Greek Philosophy this rather underlines Krauss's lack of historical insight.

Its also worth noting that an Eternal universe has been theorised for millenia in Indian/Buddhist metaphysics; and that opening of the Koran, Al-Fatiha has this as its opening line:

Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds. The Beneficent, the Merciful. Owner of the Day of Judgment.

The emphasis here is on the plural - Worlds and not World.

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    Very interesting about that Koran verse. I'm a religion sympathiser. There are obviously different methods to find truth. Nothing is completely true, everything is partially true in some context. To dismiss entirely philosophy and religion (I'm only grouping them because he did), on the basis that there were/are some wrong bits in it, or that some people misrepresent it is just intellectual laziness. I want to hear from an atheist (if that is even a rational position in the first place), just to see if we've missed something.
    – Mike S
    Jun 6, 2014 at 1:04
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    Sure - that principle is of antique origin - in Jain Philosophy is called anekantevada; Philosophy & theology, I'd suggest are intimately related but still have their distinct ethos - in the same way that maths & physics are also intimately related but also have separate realms of inquiry. Jun 6, 2014 at 2:25
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    Those are very good questions, you might want to ask them on the site - they deserve going into much more than I can do in a comment. Jun 6, 2014 at 2:26
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    @Cruncher: Vagueness, which is ambiguity is much-under rated. If you look carefully you'll notice that Krauss is doing exactly the same thing with the word 'nothing', and Harris chooses three significantly different meanings; Considering that modern science 'grew' out of ancient doctrines of cosmology and theology you have your history backwards; there is a very good reason why language and the words of language are imprecise - its because it facilitates speculation, imagination and communication; Jun 6, 2014 at 22:03
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    Finally, it isn't precison nor ambiguity each independently considered that produces thought, but the dialectic of the two. Jun 7, 2014 at 0:05

In terms of the meanings that Krauss (and many other physicists) would use, his description of "something from nothing" is correct and precise. However, in his popularization, the groundwork for defining these terms is often glossed over (or missed) and thus "something from nothing" comes across as more of a rhetorical flourish.

Krauss is a physicist so defines stuff as the quantum-mechanical fields associated with the fundamental particles that permeate space. You can see this at this point in one of Krauss's lectures on A Universe from Nothing. He defines "everything" as all tied up in the $T_{\mu \nu}$ (which corresponds to my, less formal, QM fields) in the Einstein euqation, and thus the cosmological term is the "energy of nothing" (his term).

So then, what is nothing: the absence of the QM fields and the associated space-time. I'd claim that this definition of nothing is consistent with dictionary (colloquial) definitions of nothing: the absence of all of the "stuff" that makes up our world.

In multiverse theories universes containing ensembles of QM fields and space time must emerge in the multiverse structure which lacks these features, i.e. something from nothing.

In one sense he's stretching the meanings of words (like nothing) for dramatic effect, however, in another sense when he says "nothing" he is referring to a specific limiting case of physical models and thus is being quite precise.

I think that an argument can be made that this physicist's version of nothing, although precisely defined in and of itself, is not a philosopher's (metaphysical) nothing -- The exchange quoted in Mozibur's answer illustrates this in that Harris asked about something closer to metaphysical nothing and Krauss repiled, in effect "I don't know".

Thus, I'd say with careful reading Krauss's claim of "something from nothing" is precise and accurate, although if you push hard enough on the concept of "nothing" it can seem misleading.

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    It IS misleading because it made me think, and indeed Richard Dawkins who wrote the forward, that physicists truly HAVE solved the riddle of how everything came to be. It made all of us think that since that is precisely what he wanted us to think (for some reason). Note whenever Krauss is pushed on the definition of nothing, he doesn't say "oh but we've solved the question of how everything came to be", he just resorts to the colloquial definition word play. If he truly believed that the something-from-nothing problem had been solved, he would LOVE to clarify this - but he doesn't. @Dave
    – Mike S
    Jun 13, 2014 at 4:35
  • Philosophically, I do not think that we understand this. The fundamental question is "why is there something, and not nothing". Quantum foam seems to be something and nothing.
    – Meanach
    Oct 28, 2023 at 19:17

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