Sunday, January 27, 2019

Why The Universe? Critiquing Sean Carroll

When answering the question of why something exists one can certainly first appeal to the mechanism or cause for its existence. A painting exists because a brush applied paint to the canvas. By carefully observing how the paint is applied to the canvas we can learn quite a bit about technique and why the painting looks the way it does. Using radiation we can probe what lies underneath the paint to see rough sketches and changes to any underlying pigments. To some scientists, the mechanism of how the paint is applied to produce the finished product is the limit of what observations from science can tell us since science deals with laws and mechanism. But of course, there is much more to the story of a painting because there is an artist behind the brush strokes who created the painting with purpose, the real "reason."

When cosmologist Sean Carroll discusses "Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing" he claims, "The best we can ask is whether we can imagine laws of nature that fully account for how the universe behaves, even at the earliest moments."1 As pointed out in my previous post Carroll's search for the cause of the existence of our universe has certain constraints and presuppositions that will restrict any conclusions. These include (1) his answer will be limited to mechanisms and cannot include reasons, (2) he is incorrect in assuming that finding a mechanism eliminates the need for a creator (3) he makes the false assumption that laws and mechanisms have the causal ability to implement, (4) he constrains all answers to the natural realm thus eliminating any supernatural creator, a priori. Despite these problems, I find Carroll's writings to be thoughtful and insightful and worth reading and critiquing. I also find that his ultimate answer requires a transcendent creator despite his insistence that it does not.

Carroll lists five options that he says "might conceivably qualify as an answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” These are (1) Creation: something apart from physical reality, (2) Metaverse: a larger reality that explains ours, (3) Principle: a special underlying principle like simplicity of beauty, (4) Coherence: perhaps the concept of nothing existing is incoherent, and (5) Brute fact: reality itself simply exists.

Before giving succinct thoughts about each of these options, Carroll spends much of his paper discussing what is meant by "something" and "nothing" and presenting some of the scientific understandings of quantum mechanics which underlies our universe. Along the way, he debunks Lawrence Krauss's idea of A Universe From Nothing2 by pointing out what many other scientists and philosophers have stated: that Krauss's version of "nothing" is really some kind of quantum vacuum in a way analogous to our universe and is certainly not "nothing."

As Carroll develops various scientific and philosophical ideas there are many assumptions, assertions, and statements that can be challenged as either having logical problems, being biased against any external creator, or demonstrating naivety as to the proposed characteristics of the Christian God and creator. For instance, he argues that there can be no beginning of our universe since "if the universe doesn’t exist, there is no time, and hence there are no processes." This is the logical fallacy of begging the question by stating that before any temporal universe there were no causal processes so there is no process that could bring the universe into existence. It also doesn't take into account that a timeless, self-existent deity could begin time in a causal but non-temporal manner, or that a transcendent being could exist in different dimensions of time and then causally bring our time dimensions into existence. Carroll also states if the energy of the universe is non-zero then it must extend back infinitely in time since the "energy must go somewhere." But that assertion is only true using the laws of physics we know within this universe in which energy is conserved. A deity could certainly create a universe with non-zero energy. In all of these arguments, Carroll is making statements that are grounded in only a more extensive physical-type reality and he seems to have no understanding of what an actual transcendent creator could accomplish. His entire argument falls apart if there is such a being as the God described in the Bible.

In the last section of the article, Carroll finally makes some conclusions regarding the five proposed options for our universe. He shows that the Metaverse (2) and Principle (3) are not viable even using his criteria. Regarding the metaverse he states, "But as the metaverse itself has no reason to be a necessarily existent thing, and because dynamical processes within it cannot causally account for the creation of our universe (as the different elements of the metaverse are non-interacting by hypothesis), it does not directly provide an answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing," and regarding principle he writes, "Such an answer would again face the explanatory regression problem." As far as Coherence (4) he doesn't embrace it or reject it but simply states, "Perhaps our language and modes of thought are tricking us, and existence is something that is metaphysically unavoidable." That assertion is hardly an endorsement that coherence really answers any questions.

His preferred explanation for why there is a universe is Brute fact. He writes, "Every attempt to answer the question 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' ultimately grounds in a brute fact, a feature of reality that has no further explanation." So after thirteen pages of scientific and philosophical discussion his answer is not an answer. He asserts with no evidence or proof that the universe just is. He could have made that same statement at the beginning of the article with no commentary and it would have been just as convincing (or non-convincing) as it is at the end of the article. In the end, Carroll has not presented any thing new or convincing to answer the question of why there is something rather than nothing beyond an assertion which has no evidence to support it.

Finally, let's look at what Carroll has to say about Creation, his option (1). He agrees that this option "is perhaps the most intuitively appealing explanation" but then he repeats the oft-stated atheist argument that has been rebutted many times. He says, "While a creator could explain the existence of our universe, we are left to explain the existence of a creator.... The conclusion is that invoking a creator does not provide us any escape from the need to posit something that simply exists because it does, without further reasons to which we can appeal. And if that is the case, there is no reason not to include all of reality in that category, without additionally imagining a creator at all."

In making such a statement, Carroll commits the same logical error made by others who invoke this reasoning. The problem is that the naturalists insists that only natural mechanical explanations are acceptable. Within that worldview all events have mechanistic causes. No philosophical naturalist would accept an explanation for a physical event without a cause. (Though some try to point to various aspects of quantum mechanics as  producing events without a cause, that is not a valid argument since (1) we don't know that quantum mechanical events occur without cause and (2) quantum mechanics exists within the laws of physics which govern the behavior of the natural world and is predictive and mechanistic. They are not uncaused events but precise predictable events that always act within the bounds of natural law.)

Because the naturalists has confined all explanations to natural events, ultimately they must invoke an infinite regression of cause-effect events to explain our universe. There are no known uncaused events and within the naturalistic worldview such an event is not admissible. Contrary to what Carroll states, there is a reason to not include "all of reality" into the category of something that simply exists because it does. The reason is that a purely materialist scientific worldview requires cause-effect relationships and by definition, cannot include something that simply exists because it does. I would be laughed out of the physics department if I claimed that the classroom I teach in exists just because it does. Only outside of a materialistic worldview does it make logical sense to postulate an entirely different kind of entity or being that can exist simply because it does. Only if one includes entities that are outside of physical reality is it logically possible to accept something or someone who is self existent and exists because it does. By definition, such an entity does not exist within the realm of a scientifically comprehensible physical reality. For Carroll to claim that reality might exist simply because it does requires a rejection of science as an experimental and verifiable explanation of how the universe works. One has to reject a materialist worldview to adhere to a self-existent reality. In doing so, Carroll has unwittingly admitted that something or someone outside of physical reality must really exist. Although he wants to place a self-existent universe in the same category as a self-existent creator they are completely different since one is physical and constrained by the materialist to naturalistic cause-effect and one is not. Instead his appeal to something that is self-existent is ultimately an appeal to something outside of a pure materialistic reality. It is an appeal to God.

1Sean Carroll, "Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing, arXiv:1802.02231 [physics.hist-ph], 2018.
2Lawrence Krauss.  A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing (Free Press, New York) 2012.


  1. Hi there,
    Thank you very much for interacting with Dr. Carrol. I have a question though about the beginning of the universe and the argument for creation. The following paper ( ) presents an argument that when we deal with a quantum space-time there will not be any singularities. I know the BGV-theorem says there will be in classical space-time, but doesn't this paper undercut their result?

    1. There are a few points that need to be made to answer your question. (1) Since we don't have an actual theory of quantum space-time we cannot make any definitive statements about which predictions of any particular theory may or may not be valid. (2) You can have a beginning of our universe without an actual singularity. A singularity would imply a beginning but a beginning doesn't require a singularity. (3) The BGV theorem works for any universe expanding on average even for most theories of quantum gravity, (4) all the known theoretical and observational physics points to this universe having a beginning. Only speculative, non-verified, theories have any hope of avoiding a beginning. Such speculation is certainly not scientific at this point since science requires confirmation of theories.