Recently, Canadian psychologist-turned-public-intellectual Jordan Peterson hosted popular physicist Lawrence Krauss on his podcast. Peterson, on the other side of a health crisis, has been engaging an eclectic array of intellectuals to keep himself sharp while he promotes his new book, Beyond Order. As a scientist who’s become known for politically incorrect opinions, Krauss was a natural conversation partner for the controversial professor, and the two got along well. Maybe too well, as Peterson allowed Krauss to repeat various talking points unchallenged.
The Universe from Nothing
“Take me back to the beginning,” Peterson asks, meaning 14 billion years back, to the beginning of time. Naturally, Krauss is only too happy to oblige by playing his greatest hit for the professor. He presents himself as the cautious, reasonable scientist who rewinds the tape only as far as he can extrapolate his own understanding of the laws of physics, unlike those excitable religious types who think they can tell you what happened at t = 0. But from t = 0.000000….1 onwards, the laws of physics can explain everything beautifully. This is “the difference between science and religion.”
Here Peterson asks a question: Those laws, did they come into being along with the universe?
Krauss hedges his bets in reply. “Maybe they pre-existed, maybe they don’t. Those are metaphysical questions.” Metaphysical questions are above his pay grade, he wishes to stress. Right before saying it’s not just possible but “quite likely” that our universe arose from nothing, “no space, no time, and maybe no laws.” At the least, we can say confidently that it has all the properties we would expect to observe in a 14-billion-year-old universe that came into being “spontaneously, without any supernatural shenanigans.” This isn’t a proof, but it at least makes Krauss’s claim sound more plausible.
Richard Dawkins has famously made similar comments, insisting that the world appears exactly as it would on the assumption that it was guided by “nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” Both Dawkins and Krauss are technically correct that if this were in fact true, it would lend support to the atheistic hypothesis, while not deductively proving it.
Of course, as Stephen Meyer and others have argued at length on multiple occasions, and as Meyer directly addresses with specific attention to cosmology in Return of the God Hypothesis, we aren’t obliged to concede any such thing. Indeed, the floor is open for us to make exactly the opposite claim, that in fact the probability of our evidence given the God hypothesis is greater than the probability of that same evidence given the atheistic hypothesis. In Bayesian probability terms, the ratio of the first quantity over the second is “top-heavy.”
Meyer opens his new book with a memorable anecdote about debating Krauss live while battling a fierce migraine. The forum topic was “What’s Behind It All? God, Science, and the Universe.” So far from approaching the topic with scientific humility, Krauss spent ten minutes on pure ad hominem for the entertainment of his fan club in the audience, making it clear that just because he appeared on stage with Meyer, this didn’t mean he thought the ideas or the person were “worth debating.” (The trick worked rhetorically to Krauss’s advantage, but Meyer credits that crucible for the inspiration that would lead him to write Return of the God Hypothesis.)
Naturally, the irony is rich here. In conversation with Peterson, Krauss repeatedly harps on the importance to the true scientist of admitting when a hypothesis or a theory is wrong, indeed the excitement of it. We could all stand to learn how to handle being wrong, he believes. Everyone would be better off, our mental health would improve, our kids would be tougher, and we would become less arrogant, more fair-minded and reasonable people. People who don’t speculate about things above our pay-grade. Just like Lawrence Krauss.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being a scientist who has opinions about “metaphysical questions.” People like Steve Meyer aren’t the ones saying that scientists should stay out of their lane and never think about philosophy or religion. The problem is not that Larry Krauss clearly has his opinions about things other than physics. The problem is that he insists Steve Meyer can’t have his — or, at the least, that they shouldn’t be taken seriously. Why? Because religious dogma stops people from asking questions, like good scientists should.
I agree that good scientists should not stop asking questions. So here’s a question for Lawrence Krauss: What happened at t = 0? Or are we not allowed to ask that question? That sounds a bit…well, dogmatic.
Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life!
Having dipped his toe in philosophy and religion, Krauss makes a foray into psychology later in the podcast when he discusses “some people’s” difficulty with finding meaning in a universe where science has proven the relative pointlessness of mankind. (He makes a typically cringey stab at history of ideas along the way, repeating the hackneyed line that “mankind used to think he was at the center of the universe.” In fact, the center of the universe was regarded as the position of least privilege in ancient thought, but somehow this chestnut still persists in the pop atheist world.) People write to Krauss all the time in some distress, saying that while they no longer believe in “fairy tales,” this has left them in an unhappy place, wondering what to do with their “sense of loss.”
Krauss, for himself, is quite happy, and he wishes he could help his correspondents be happy too. As the old bus advertisement said, he wants them to stop worrying and enjoy their lives. Yes, growing out of fairy tales is sad, but isn’t that a process we all go through, like the moment when we realized there really is no Santa Claus? It’s the same way here. To him, the “loss” people feel over losing their religion should be felt as a gain. Knowing your existence is an accident should make you feel lucky. Knowing your time is short should make you value it all the more.
Of course, this is a well-worn secular humanist line. On the surface, it sounds bracing, a blast of cold reality that stings and refreshes at the same time. But in the end, it’s an ill-fated attempt at positive scripting. Nothing can ultimately address the sinking feeling that comes with the “realization” that Macbeth was right: Life truly is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, ultimately signifying nothing. The best you can hope for is that you’ll psych yourself out successfully enough to not have to think about that too much.
Unfortunately, Dr. Peterson declined to take Krauss’s invitation for feedback on his pop psychologizing. However, Krauss plans to invite Peterson on his own podcast soon, where they can discuss this at more length. I’m very much looking forward to that. Meanwhile, my next post will explore where they disagreed in this podcast, as they discussed the question of whether science is nested in religion.