25 de julho de 2012

a crítica de Coyne a Krauss

I have a confession.  I was not keen on Lawrence Krauss’s new book on the origin of the universe, A Universe from Nothing: Why there is Something Rather Than Nothing. I couldn’t share the chorus of approbation and acclaim for the book, and wondered if I, as opposed to everyone else, was blind to its merits. (Let me hasten to add that I am a big fan of Krauss’s public lectures, and also that I haven’t read any of his other books.)

I found A Universe from Nothing awkwardly written and poorly explained; indeed, in places I felt completely at sea, and had to reread bits of it several times to figure out what he was trying to say.  Even then some of it baffled me, and since I have a Ph.D. and have read a fair amount of popular physics literature, I figured this must have been a case of unclear writing rather than simple ignorance on my part.

Further, I felt to some degree cheated:  much of the book was not about the origin of the universe, but dealt with other matters, like dark energy and the like, that had already been covered in other popular works on physics. Indeed, much of Krauss’s book felt like a bait-and-switch.  It also seemed to me that Krauss came to grips with the real problem—how do you get matter from an initial condition of nothing?—only in the last 40 pages of the book. The whole argument could have been written more concisely, and clearly, in a smallish book the size of Sam Harris’s Free Will.

Further, Krauss defines “nothing” as a “quantum vacuum,” without giving us reasons why that would obviously have been the initial default state of the universe.  Is that a sensible definition of “nothing”? If not, whence the quantum vacuum?  And so on to more turtles. . .

The padding and poor writing made me peevish, but so too did Richard Dawkins’s afterword, which claimed that Krauss’s book would do for physics and cosmology what The Origin of Species did for biology: dispel the last evidence for God as seen in natural “design” or the idea of ex nihilo creation. I saw virtually nothing in the book that hadn’t already been said by Sean Carroll (see his post on the same question here) or, especially, Victor Stenger, and so couldn’t understand Richard’s over-the-top encomiums.  I didn’t feel, after having digested the book, that it was anywhere close to Darwin in the thoroughness of its treatment or in its final disposal of the design-from-materialism problem.

But I didn’t say anything about this.  Chalk it up to cowardice. Better, I thought, to say nothing, or even offer insincere praise, for a book by a fellow atheist and a friend-of-friends, than risk making enemies of someone with whom I’m allied in many ways.  But I was uncomfortable with this, for it’s intellectually dishonest to critique those books by religious people, or people whom I don’t know, and then give a pass to a book that I didn’t like just because it was penned by a fellow atheist.  So now I’ll speak out: I didn’t like A Universe from Nothing, and I think that there are other things to read that do the same job better.  It wasn’t a horrible book, just a mediocre one, and has all the earmarks of being written hastily and not edited properly.


What emboldens me,I suppose, is David Albert’s scathing review of the book in yesterday’s New York Times.  Albert,  a professor of philosophy at Columbia University with a Ph.D. in physics, seems pretty well qualified to review this book. (He’s written his own popular books on quantum mechanics and, like Krauss, is a terrific public speaker [see here, for instance].)

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