In Lawrence Krauss' book A Universe From Nothing he portrays "nothing" as a physical state. He says that nothing is found by removing all of what we know to be things (particles, electrons etc). I've found that in watching his debates a common question that is asked is if this is really nothing. Many philosophers appear to think of nothing as almost more of an supernatural construct as opposed to a physical one.

I am new to this site and apologize if I've done any formatting things wrong, I will try and figure it out soon!

  • Consider for example, electron has the probability to be in place of nucleus (from my acquaintance). Then, what does it mean to be something and nothing in relation with mass? I don't understand anything here, this is where I stop when thinking about these things.
    – Sensebe
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 16:37
  • I remember on of this sites own physics super users getting pretty animated at Krauss's definition of nothingness.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented May 5, 2015 at 18:09
  • if "nothing" or "nothingness" comes in degrees then there must be "something" in "nothing" to measure, but how can you measure nothing since there is nothing to measure? Commented Aug 27, 2016 at 12:55

5 Answers 5



gives a short overview of the topic. What is apparent is that there is no simple agreed definition of the concept of nothingness. And this is not surprising, since neither is there agreement on how to metaphysically describe the world itself. (Some claim that the world is a collection of facts, others that it's a collection of particulars, for some naturalists the question is ultimately left to science and not metaphysics, etc. You already find some of the metaphysical positions in ancient Greek philosophy.)

Unlike nir claimed in his/her answer, I don't think that Krauss is obviously wrong on philosophical grounds, or that Albert's criticism is even relevant, since one can argue that the concept of nothingness was never given a sense by the metaphysicians.

Philosophy should teach you to doubt your intuitive reactions to a word. You can't simply assume that a word you competently use in ordinary speech (e.g. "nothing") can easily be generalized and given a metaphysical use. Such careless tendency to over-generalize is what a Wittgenstein described as our tendency to sublime the logic of language.

  • while I believe Krauss is wrong, it is not my claim, but Albert's and he is not alone; here is what physicist George Ellis had to say about it - "Horgan: Krauss, Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson have been bashing philosophy as a waste of time. Do you agree? Ellis: If they really believe this they should stop indulging in low-grade philosophy in their own writings."; do you know of a distinguished philosopher of science who agrees with Krauss?
    – nir
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 21:14
  • @nir I would claim from a Kuhnian perspective, what they are doing is preparatory 'revolutionary science', not philosophy. Their potential modification of underlying assumptions would have different consequences which may be compared as to how simply they allow future results to be expressed. So it is something more than low-grade philosophy. In order to be as potentially testable as possible, it is, of course, less deep than real philosophy. They are audacious scientist, not poor philosophers.
    – user9166
    Commented May 1, 2015 at 16:17
  • For me this issue is separate from Krauss' bashing of philosophy. There is a long tradition inside philosophy of bashing metaphysics. I don't think that this issue is really discussed in philosophy of science. It's probably better understood historically as metaphysical question, and even there it's not a hotly debated issue. I searched and mostly got hits relating to existentialism, eastern philosophy, and philosophy of religion. The last one is not surprising, since the question, why is there something rather than nothing, can be used to challenge naturalism (a mistake in my view).
    – Johannes
    Commented May 1, 2015 at 22:14
  • @jobermark Would Krauss see himself as a revolutionary? Or is it better to see Krauss as attempting to explicate the notion of nothingness. In explication you try to salvage much of the intuitive pre-theoretical concept. Examples of this are common in science, e.g. think of what Cantor did with the notion of an infinite set. Obviously the set theoretical concept resembles the intuitive idea of a set, but not all of the pre-theoretical intuitions can be salvaged (they might not even be wholly consistent), also what Cantor ends up with is party highly unintuitive, but we accepted it nevertheless
    – Johannes
    Commented May 1, 2015 at 23:08
  • @Johannes These two motivations need not conflict, but they invite different standards of judgement. Digging down below the fundamental concepts of one's own discipline is a common thing for scientists to do. If they are thinking of it as expanding their own science downward, then to me, it is not really philosophy, it is poking at their paradigmatic system, reinforcing it against possible revolutionary pressures. As I see it, Cantor was not really thinking of the nature of philosophical infinity with infinite sets, he was expanding math in a domain where it seemed structurally weak.
    – user9166
    Commented May 2, 2015 at 0:45

Krauss' definition of nothing is the result of the allergy contemporary physicists get from philosophy; the philosopher David Albert posted a crushing criticism of the book in response and started a terrible fight:

Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from?

Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff

to be fair to physicists, a lot of lovers of philosophy, including on this site, get a terrible allergy from physics.

In response to the comment by @jobermark, here is an opinion, this time by the cosmologist George Ellis, about Krauss' book:

what he is presenting is not tested science. It’s a philosophical speculation, which he apparently believes is so compelling he does not have to give any specification of evidence that would confirm it is true. Well, you can’t get any evidence about what existed before space and time came into being. Above all he believes that these mathematically based speculations solve thousand year old philosophical conundrums, without seriously engaging those philosophical issues. The belief that all of reality can be fully comprehended in terms of physics and the equations of physics is a fantasy. As pointed out so well by Eddington in his Gifford lectures, they are partial and incomplete representations of physical, biological, psychological, and social reality.

  • Link does not work for me.
    – Dave
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 11:59
  • Fixed the link.
    – nir
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 12:21
  • 1
    I approve of the notion, but the quoted statement hits me as wrong-headed. Giraffes and refrigerators have positive energy, so you can insist they involve elementary physical stuff. Virtual particles in a zero-energy state are much more dubious. Strict dualists notwithstanding, rules are not stuff under any reasonable application of Occam's razor. A vacuum either cannot possibly exist, or it is free of energy. Absolute 'horror vaccui' is a stronger allergy than the one you are diagnosing.
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 15:02
  • @jobermark, since contrary to Albert, I am not a philosopher, I can only try to shoot from the hip of intuition and defend Albert's comment on the laws of QM, by saying that if Krauss is describing a phenomena that happens all the time in vacuum, then it does not address how something came to be in the first place; QM describes a phenomena in nature in the context of an existing reality; Does Krauss scientifically explain the creation of the first (or only) particles, together with space and time? I added the opinion of a cosmologist, to the post.
    – nir
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 22:27
  • @jobermark I seem to recall that Albert's point was that there are no rules without "something" for those rules to govern. Even if the only "something" is potential something. The definition of nothingness presupposes that only nothing can come of nothing. Hence the problem, as we clearly all seem to be something, and something cannot come of nothing.
    – Ryder
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 22:28

I think what he means by Nothing is the quantum fluctuations that were enough to cause the big bang... He just avoids the need of a creator by introduction of quantum fluctuations... Though it is a pretty heavy subject to digest, you can have a look at this lecture of his https://youtu.be/7ImvlS8PLIo ... Hope I helped you.

  • Haha, I appreciate the answer! I agree that Lawrence Krauss has an "agenda" if you will that god is not necessary, but he actually backs up his claims (it appears to me). I have not heard an adequate aregument against it, rather it seems that those who disagree with his terminology tend to mean that nothing cannot be physical, or natural. This is more the question I am asking about. Is "nothing" physical or "transcendent"/ supernatural. Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 7:22

This kind of approach is, in the tradition of Wolfgang Pauli, "Not even wrong." Like the dog with Buddha-nature.

'Nothing' is not 'vacuum'. If I came up to you and brought nothing with me, few drastic results are likely. If I came up to you and brought vacuum with me, you would likely die, as all your cells decompressed. In that sense, emptiness is a physical force, and empty space is a real thing, not a 'nothing'.

At the same time the Parmenidean 'Nothing' as a supernatural construct also just seems to be a misunderstanding waiting to happen. One version of the Bogomil heresy goes "Deposed, Satan had nothing. He therefore rules the world. For nothing is more powerful than God." This may be deeply motivating to Satanists in a religious sense -- but it is not logic.

Negation is a verbal convention, not a Category, as Kant would have it be, or some other deep force of nature. To me, the fact that it has intrinsic problems like Russell's Paradox indicates that it is not a reality, just a human convention.

LeDoux's "The Emotional Brain" points out that we have one entire layer of memory processing that we share with lower animals which is, in a very basic sense, incapable of processing negation. It is a common theory that the gap in speed between this layer and our fully engaged frontal lobe leads to things like phobias, PTSD, and Tourette's syndrome. If negation were so basic a part of actual reality, we would not have evolved it so late that the system that implements it lags behind our more basic processing.

-- Sorry to add so much later. I always get to that point where I think I made the answer obvious only to later find I have not stated it --

As the last thing we property evolved mentally, I think negation is not quite right, not complete. Trying to push evolution, humans have a bit of an obsession with 'nothing' as a concept. But urgency is not importance, and our occasionally-urgent feeling that these 'deep' questions about 'nothing' matter is misguided.

If we look at this less obsessively, Krauss is free to work from a model that the world originates in vacuum, and it is obvious what he means by nothing is not what someone more careful means by nothing. But even that is silly. The oversimplification just makes him bound to an incomplete paradigm, one without a more basic notion of nothing, and not wrong.

(Ellis can judge this paradigm non-falsifiable, and thus not science. From a Kuhnian perspective, that only makes it non-normal science, not inadmissible as science, because 1) paradigms are not falsifiable by nature, only contrastable with comparable alternatives; and 2) I do think there are clear alternatives, and that it is productive to consider those scientifically as well as philosophically.

There are competing models, and I think those do have potential test cases. For instance, some predict very specific ways to send information backward in time (e.g. this crazy man http://phys.org/news63371210.html), which would break down the notion that extrapolating time backward linearly to some beginning has value, and make Krauss irrelevant -- but still not "even" wrong.)


"Nothing," is a word that stands for a "concept," which in turn has different meanings depending on the "degree of nothingness." The degree of nothingness depends on the context under which the word is being used. In the context of a "universe from nothing," it means the absence of anything capable of being observed (directly or indirectly) by human beings. A "lower degree" would be "vacuum," which is the absence of matter/particles. A "higher degree" would be "absolute nothing," which would be the absence of everything - matter, particles, energy, fluctuations, thoughts, supreme beings, a Creator, gods, etc., even and including God!

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .