Lawrence Krauss: Accidental Origins

March 06, 2017

Fate. Purpose. Design. These are words that hang over many of our heads as we navigate the everyday chaos of life. Religion is often given exclusive purview over the discourse surrounding these concepts, but what if science was able to answer some of these same deep existential questions? We may not always like the answers that science has to give us.

Laurence Krauss is a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, professor, author, and science communicator, and an honorary member of the Center for Inquiry Board of Directors. His newest book is The Greatest Story Ever Told… So Far, a look at the standard model of particle physics and its implications for our existence. It’s a follow up to his critically acclaimed book A Universe From Nothing, in which Krauss not only delves into how we’ve reached our current understanding of the universe, but also celebrates the wonders and beauty of the natural world and our accidental existence. The universe, says Krauss, is not fine-tuned for life, but rather life is fine tuned for the universe.

Welcome to Point of inquiry on Josh Zepps, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. The nonprofit that spreads secularism and reason and science. And today’s guest, Lawrence Krauss, has spent a lifetime well, not a lifetime yet. He’s not dead, but his lifetime thus far doing exactly that. 

He’s a theoretical physicist. His bio reads like a who’s who or what’s water away is where of the most prestigious institutions. He got his Ph.D. in physics from M.I.T., then joined the Harvard Society of Fellows, then the faculty of the Departments of Physics and Astronomy at Yale. Now, for almost a decade, he’s been in charge of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. That’s an interesting project. He will talk to us about it today. So I won’t give it away by by going into too much detail. And he has a new book. His latest book is The Greatest Story Ever Told. So far, it’s in some ways a follow up to his last book, A Universe from Nothing. Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing. We get into the new book, but I also wanted to touch as many subjects as I possibly could in the brief 30 minutes that I had with Lawrence, because it’s not often that you get to talk to a mind like that. 

We’ll hear from a mind like that unless you are the host or fan of point of inquiry. So let’s just get straight into it. Lawrence, thanks for being on point of inquiry. It’s a pleasure. The subtitle of The Greatest Story Ever Told so far is Why are we here? Why are we here? 

Well, the answer is there’s probably no reason. And that’s one of the things the book is about, the fact that there’s this amazing access series of accidents that result in our existence and even the laws of physics in our universe are not fine tuned for our existence. 

And it turns out it if you look at the fundamental laws of physics, actually in principle, they wouldn’t even allow our existence. But an accident of nature in which a field froze as the universe evolved, allows for the forces to be used to take on a very different form and allowed for matter and stars and planets and people to to come into existence. So this remarkable story is it is a story about, first of all, about how the universe that we see is really not the universe as it really is and how humans have managed to to go from here to there. That is what the story is. And in and in a sense, what I hope will do will take people there as well. Many people see the frontiers of science as being so esoteric and removed from their own existence as to be impenetrable. Well, and the point of the book is just show how we got there. 

And but the existential question of why are we part of that? 

Because I mean, in the last book I asked, I addressed why is there something nothing? And now that there’s something, the question is why is this something the way it doesn’t allow us to sin? And the answer is there doesn’t appear to be a reason. It’s an accident. But that should not be clear. 

And that should not be depressing. That should make it sentence our existence more special rather than a less rational. 

So just just picking up there, you just mentioned that the laws of physics wouldn’t allow for our existence. 

Fundamentally, they’re have not they’re not fine tuned to our existence. Obviously, they ultimately allow for our existence, but not at a fundamental level. 

It was just a it’s because this one field, the Higgs field, froze in the early history of the universe in a certain way that allowed for the forces to be the way they are and are allowed, in fact, for matter to be the way it is at a fundamental level matter doesn’t look the way it looks for us. In fact, matter doesn’t even exist is in that for as matter. And so this beautiful universe that we see is this edifice that on which our lives are built and our consciousness arose is an accident. 

So the fine tuning argument, whether or not it’s used in defense of God or whether or not it’s just used in defensive to instill awe at the majesty of a universe that is that is perfectly tailored to us, is not only wrong, but wrongheaded. 

Yeah, it’s wrong in many ways and it’s wrong headed. First of all, the argument even at a basic sense and end it, you know, I was involved early on in some sense, but pointing out this energy of empty space, how unusual that is 15 or 20 years ago. 

And so and then people picked up on that. But even that’s wrong headed. The universe is not fine for us in the sense that even it’s true that this weird energy of empty space, if it were much bigger, we couldn’t exist, which may be one of the reasons why it is what way it is. If there are many universes in those in which it’s much bigger, we don’t you know, life doesn’t exist maybe, although we don’t know what other kinds of life could exist. But if the energy of empty space was zero, the university be better tuned for life. So. And moreover, most of the universe is miserable for life. 

Our planet, our universe is trying to kill us all the time. And it’s amazing that we’ve been here for four and a half billion years because we happen to live in this remote outpost of the Milky Way galaxy that most of the universe is really quite inhospitable. And and moreover, even having said that, it’s ridiculous to say it’s fine tuned for life. Life is fine tuned for the universe, just as bees are fine tuned to be able to see the colors of flowers. It’s not that they were designed to do so. But if they couldn’t, they wouldn’t have gotten the nectar to be able to survive. And life arose in a universe in which it could arise. So it’s not too surprising that it appears to be that the universe appears to be fine tuned for it. But as far as Darwin showed us, in the case of life, biological life here on Earth, it’s quite the opposite. Life, rather, is fine tuned to exist in the environment in which it arises. And that’s true not just for biological life, but in general in the in the sense of of of the physical possibility of life. And so our life is fine tuned to exist in the universe in which it can exist. And that universe happens to be one in which is remarkable. 

These remarkable things have come to pass that I discussed in the book. 

Yeah. And if the universe were a universe where life was impossible to exist, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation about that. 

That would be amazing to find ourselves in a universe in which we couldn’t exist. That would be quite a bit like no one around to read it. But I want to point it out. It’s even beyond that when we talk about life or type of life like we we have. If the universe had quite different properties, we have no idea of the locus of possible lifeforms. So if the universe had quite different capabilities and and different aspects, we we don’t know what other kinds of life could have formed. 

How, how why do you think the range of possible lives, possible species and ways of being alive in this universe is like in terms of extraterrestrial life? 

I don’t have the slightest idea. That’s what makes it so neat. I know I know of lifeforms like us. But but I mean, I’ve thought of in the car. I’ve written I’ve written about this in a scientific context and especially in a debate I had with Freeman Dyson over many years about the long term future of life. What kind of lifeforms could exist could if after matter goes and you have just particles and antiparticles, could you have life forms made of diffuse gases of particles and antiparticles? Maybe all that’s possible. So who knows? We have we don’t even understand intelligence as it exists and are in the form of our biological beings. We have no idea of of of the possibilities are out there, which is makes it so exciting. So it’s really a kind of cosmic conceit to argue that the universe is fine tuned for life when we’re just one form of life. And if the laws of physics were different and the forces were different, we certainly couldn’t exist. But that doesn’t say that life couldn’t exist. 

You’re the director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. What’s the Origins project? 

Well, the Origins Project is is is a number of things that brought together basically to look at foundational questions at the forefront of every field. And if you think about it, those foundational questions have to do with origins. We’ve looked at the origins of the universe, the origins of life, the origins of pattern processing in the human brain, the origins of early modern humans. We just had a meeting this weekend on artificial intelligence, which is up since the origins of the future, and we bring together the best people from a wide variety of disciplines. That’s a characteristic of the university that I joined here as you, and that’s what brought me here to do origins rather than take nineteenth century disciplines. And if you want to look at problems of the 21st century, you need to expand disciplines. And that’s that’s what we do. And and we explore these outstanding forefront questions to see what progress we might make. And then beyond just sort of trying to generate knowledge with a group of well-known scientists, we we then have public events and we have events in on each of associate with scientific workshops to bring in up to three thousand members of the public who pay for this regularly. And it’s amazing. I think it’s the most successful public science program or public program of anywhere in the country. It’s not the world people fly in for events from the last few events. People are flown in from China, Argentina. Mexico, Canada. It’s amazing. Amazing people are. People are fascinated by science. They just don’t know what science are fascinated by. And if you make it exciting and interesting and accessible, people will look Wilkommen. I’m very pleased because these questions are not just academic ones. They’re ones that are vital interest to people, because again, those existential questions, why are we here? Are we alone in the universe? Those kind of things everyone is fascinated by. 

But more important than that, in these miserable times where alternative facts are prevalent and false news and and nonsense permeates the Internet. 

It’s really important to be able to if we’re gonna have a proper working democracy. You want to you want to have a public that that’s informed and that and that doesn’t mean just facts, but learning how to separate nonsense from sense, which is really the process of science. And so the topics we talk about from. We’ve had climate change and we’re going to have an event on the coming water wars. These are crucial for the public to make informed decisions and then eventually politicians maybe. And so if we’re gonna have a proper functioning democracy, science and empirical reasoning should be the basis of public policy. And that’s why we dissemination for us is as important as generation. 

You mentioned artificial intelligence and climate and water and whether we’re alone and city and so on. I want to just touch briefly on each of those. Do you think they’re really interesting? Let’s start with artificial intelligence. Are you a you of the camp that we need to get ahead of this of this curve or risk destroying ourselves by unleashing artificial intelligence in a runaway way? Or are you sanguine about about that danger? 

Well, look, the key thing is fortune favors the prepared mind and in good ways and bad ways. OK. And I’m not a doom and gloom person, although I Lezama, as a friend of mine, Cormac McCarthy, once said to me, I said, I’m a pessimist, but that’s no reason to be gloomy. There are a lot. 

One should go into the future with one’s eyes wide open. 

And if we’re gonna if we’re gonna address a potential negative aspects of technology and then we need to note they might be. And, you know, but I’m optimistic about lots of facets of artificial intelligence that may change the world in ways that make people think it’s cataclysmic. That may be fascinating. We know the future is going to be different and an end to end to close, to put your head in the sand and say, I don’t want to know about it is just the worst thing you can do. I think there are challenges and there are real challenges. And then we. And that was the purpose of our meeting, was to look into that, but also to look into ways that we can address them. So I’m I have to be concerned with these things because one of my hats is I’m chairman of the board of sponsor of the bulletin, the Atomic Scientists, that sets the Doomsday Clock. And every year I in labs I get to Washington in January, I announce the Doomsday Clock. And this was the first time, as we look at emerging technologies, we focused original nuclear war. But this was the first time when I spoke about A.I. In a sense, I talked about cyber attacks and the generation of false news and undermining of democracy as potential existential threats for the first time. And so those are issues I’m certainly aware of and and concern about. But do I think A.I. is the greatest threat to humanity? Well, I mean, it poses huge potential risks, although I think many of them are way and people say. But it also poses incredible benefits. And how we. And which future we enter into will depend upon how we manage it. And that’s the whole point. 

Just just to pin you down on those risks. So if consciousness is nothing more than information processing and if it’s therefore the case that computers are able to become self-aware or incrementally and regard their own interests as valuable and valid and perhaps more valid than our interests. 

Well, now that that’s about it with you every point up to that. OK. Because, you know, the computers are designed by people, so it’s not clear. It’s it’s not clear. 

When you say their interests, it won’t be clear to me that they’re not a couple just in some way. And it’s important that we at least look at that. Anyway, you continue with your line of reasoning. 

Well, I mean, I’ve sort of reached that dead end that I wish that I always get to when I think about this this subject, which is simply a fact of if we if we do create another, I guess, species of consciousness that is artificial, then it will have interests that will sometimes diverge from our own. 

And may be more sophisticated as our own. Yes. OK. So that’s it then. 

Then it strikes me that we make something of an impasse. 

Well, you know, some people view that as as as doomsday. I mean, I’m fascinated. And it could be that we can that it could surpass us, but it could also teach us and. 

And yes, some things are going to change dramatically. I think that’s inevitable. But if those things come to pass. Then the many facets that could go better. We may not be the most intelligent life on the planet at that point. 

And biology may have to merge with it with artificial technology. It progressed or not. But, yeah, I don’t see the obstacle to ultimately computers becoming self-aware and more intelligent. I think it’s in their future. By the way, Ben. But I think in the long term, it is it is probably the future. But I don’t see it as the end necessarily the end of humanity or a future that’s miserable. I don’t always see it as as. As the Terminator. Humanity could benefit tremendously from great advances in artificial Teligent if we put the same. I mean, artificial intelligence is going to is going to change the nature of jobs. Right. It’s going to many things humans do can be done eventually. Part of his intelligence, one of the things we talked about in our workshop, but that doesn’t mean that people are out of work. 

We could I mean, even as Keynes many years ago argued, if we were smart enough and this is the question, if we prepared enough, we could we could make a future in which, OK, so humans could then be much more free time if the wealth and security generated by artificial intelligence was indeed spread. We could have more time reading and creating and having and getting rid of the mundane jobs that many people do and still spread the knowledge and wealth. Now, is there any evidence that that’s going to happen? I would say no at this point. 

Yeah, I never seem to do that, do we? 

We never say no, we have, but we haven’t. But we may be we may have to face that. We may have to face that aspect in the near future, because A.I. is certainly going to change the world. I mean, just simple things like driverless trucks are going to dramatically change affect a significant fraction of the population, this country, its job prospects. 

And I think we’re make we may be taken they’re dragged their kicking and screaming because I think even the ridiculously myopic, self aggrandizing politicians that we have in our gutting our country now may eventually be forced to actually address these real issues. 

Well, eventually, as the Caywood there, isn’t it? Because, as you say, artificial intelligence, the emergence of actual consciousness and self-awareness in machines might be quite some time away. But as you note, something like driverless cars is just around the corner. 

And we have to think that there are other things that are just around the corner that are going to dramatically affect society. And we have a choice of responding to crisis or anticipating things and trying to and trying to help them. As I say, I have no hope that the current administration or Congress, which shows no interest in anything except power and self aggrandizing, as I said, is in self promotion, is likely to do anything. But, you know, eventually that the public and that’s one of the reasons why we run these things. The public at some point is going to start demanding something and maybe, maybe, just maybe we might the governments might respond. 

Yeah, I mean, I think eventually they’ll have to. My worry is what happens to politics and culture in the in the interim, because this administration is a is in part a backlash to forces of globalization that have have not been kind to to manufacturing in the United States and to to the Rust Belt. I mean, if it wasn’t for those Wisconsin and Wisconsin voters, then we would have a different administration. 

So what happens if people don’t seem to realize it is like 30000 voters? Yeah, there is just just a ridiculous and an unfortunate accident. That’s right. So am I. Right. But nevertheless, we we we you’re actually right that we that there’s potential turmoil in a lot of things. It’s not just there. And then when we talk about climate change and how we respond to the loss of habitat for many, many people, too. Lot, lot loss of fresh water, we need to start. 

As I said, science should be the basis of public policy in the sense that empirical evidence and reasoning together should be the basis of public policy. 

And we need to work very hard to try and make that happen. And that’s one of the reasons the Origins project is involved, not just in the science, but in it in the public understanding, not just through our public events where we save hundreds of thousands of people watch online afterwards, but we’re also creating an educational portal to have to have resources that we correlate in an archive and produce. So the public and teachers confidential use it. We need to we need to work really hard to try and ensure that reality plays a role in in public policy. 

Let’s talk about climate. That is that is an aspect of reality that is going to slap us in the face pretty soon. And arguably already is if the economic dislocation of suddenly having millions of people who currently drive for a living no longer having jobs. If that if that’s going to be disruptive and that’s going to take place at the same time as a globe that is experiencing stronger storms and harsher droughts and so on. And I as a member of the media, I’m constantly frustrated. By my profession’s inability to articulate this subject in a compelling way, let’s just start with your sort of big picture. Thirty thousand foot take on climate change and how bad it doesn’t have that it’ll get. And then let’s talk about how we should should be communicating this. 

Well, climate change is happening and it’s and we could stop producing all carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now, but it wouldn’t make a difference to carbon dioxide. We produced up to now will remain in the atmosphere for six hundred, 1000 years. So we have to realize that these things can’t be headed off and there’s no. And what we could try and do is, is moderate the problem by addressing it realistically and cutting our dependance on fossil fuels. That doesn’t appear to be the case certainly in our country. And therefore, we are going to face great problems not just in climate and storms and refugees. But as I say, in fresh water. But we need but we can look at ways to try to address that. And one of the things we’ve done in origins is look at that and predict one area of research, which is have very little money devoted to it is by now we spend 50 or 60 billion dollars on fossil fuel research a year maybe. But thinking about extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on globe on a global scale, which is something that is worth thinking about, as is that very little. Few resources attached to it. And we ask why we ran a meeting on that very subject. I think we just have to recognize that that we we need to respond and anticipate the problems that are happening. And first of all, we have to accept the reality, which is the zero order, and then realize that that in order to respond to that, we have to again. Fortune favors the prepared mind. We have to think about what the possible consequences of it are and how to address them in a way that impacts positively on the future as possible. 

And again, I want to come back to the book again, not just because the book’s coming out, but it’s that idea that that you can take empirical evidence and reasoning. And if you’re brave enough to cut through the crap to to go to grit, to do amazing things, that the book is about humanity at its greatest dead end. And it’s really important at a time when we’re looking around and politics and seeing humanity as its worst, to see that science can lift us not just in spiritually. If you want to use that word, lift us intellectually, technologically to do great things. And we end. We end. 

So we should be heartened by the possibilities. If we’re only but only if we’re willing to accept reality for what it is and for force our beliefs to conform to the evidence of reality rather than the other way around. 

I mean, the danger is that you’re preaching to the converted, right? That there is a that the types of people who believe in fake news or who throw around fake news as a as a punchline and accuse everything of being fake news and who invent their own truths in a kind of Putin esque way are not going to are not amenable to to the message. And they’re not going to read your book and then listen to this podcast. 

I don’t know how we would not listen this podcast, but I reach out to lots of different things. I just get Fox News the other day in a different context. I try and reach out broadly and and we have cultural events that do it. And to try and, you know, people are attracted by many different things. And my hope is in some sense, look, this book addresses a a an existential question. Why are we here? The last one, as I say, did was something rather nothing. These are religious questions. And there was controversy around the last book because of the fact that this and that generated a lot of interest. 

And and if people come to this book to see why they they might be wrong or why the science might be bad and maybe some of them may come out of it saying, you know, this is fascinating. That may work. And you know what’s happened with the last book and the unbelievers? I’ve had people come and say, you know, this opened my mind. And so it’s not always preaching to the converted. I think, you know, there are a thousand points of light and I try a lot of different ways. And and and in my books, I try to address questions that people are interested in who may not be interested in science, and they may be seduced by those questions into thinking about the world as it really is. Did that with the physics of Star Trek. A lot of people are you know, they’re fascinated by Star Trek but don’t know their age and science. And Star Trek gave me a a vehicle to get people to start thinking about the real world. 

Since you spend so much of your time thinking about about origins, do you have a pet theory of why we why so far the search for extraterrestrial intelligence has not yielded anything? 

It’s hard. I mean, it’s a big universe. And, you know, I’ve written about this in it, even if, let’s say you were on a on a star. 

That was enough. That was 10 billion years old. Our planet around a star. It was 10 billion years old instead of four and a half billion years old, like our earth. 

You could have watched our earth in some form over the last five billion years, four and a half billion years. But only if you’re in the local region of our galaxy and only by fluke would you mean it. Even then, you would be unlikely to know that we existed. You know, I could tell you, look at that star and then look at the 3rd Rock for that sun. But but even then, only last eight years or so, we sent out signals of our existence. And moreover, how do you know? 

Well, as I often say in my eye, there are 200 channels on my cable TV, and that means I usually don’t find what I’m looking for till the show is over. 

And in the real universe, an infinite number of frequencies, an infinite number of type of signals. And and so it’s a it’s a hard business. It’s not too surprising that we haven’t heard. And I think it’s going to be it’s a long shot that we will. I do think there’s other intelligence out there. But the galaxy is a darn big place. 

The religiosity, the kind of clash of civilizations is a note that I want to end on, because if you’d asked me 10 years ago when I was just starting out my career, whether or not in 10 years time the world would be more divided by religious madness or less, I would have said less. I just felt like I was. It was a trend, an arc towards reason, and that we were all going to end up being like Denmark. And twenty sixteen was the sort of nail in the coffin of that idea. Do you. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the decline of religiosity around the world? 

Well, it depends on the day. And once again, I tell you, I’m a pessimist, but that’s no reason to be gloomy. 

No, it depends on the day I think it is in the first world, at a basic level, religiosity is still decreasing. But but the noise that’s being made and the power that’s being grabbed is by people who have who who cling to two ancient religions. 

And I try when it’s true. When I was growing up with Eminem, I’m a lot older than you are in the 60s. I just thought there’d be no religion by now. It just doesn’t seem like it was had any future. 

But, you know, there it is a great concern. And religion is one of the biggest in many ways, organized religion is one of the biggest obstacles to progress. And because people hold on to myths and beliefs that don’t conform to the reality and they and religions also give in groups and out groups allow you to hate others and others. But I still I guess I’m optimistic that that ultimately education and access to information. If you look at what’s happening in the first world, that’s what’s causing people to lose their religiosity. And I’m hoping that after these sort of birth pains and after Islam overcomes its it’s the same stage that Christianity was involved in the Crusades. If we if we all get past there, that that access to the economic benefits and the and then knowledge benefits that ultimately technology and science bring could. Well, it is it is our hope. And, you know, I think I do think and I know that all people are gonna call me whatever the new word is, regressively or whatever that. Yeah. There’s a lot more than religion here. There’s there’s the fact that these countries have been stifled and have no growth and there’s huge unemployment and huge and lack of access to resources is as much a spawn’s as much of the discontent that leads to terrorism as as the ridiculous religious beliefs that that also do. 

Yeah, I mean, the concern is we have 21st century weapons of mass destruction and we also have climate change, which is going to put additional stresses on on water scarce places which are which a lot of these countries are. And so I don’t know whether we whether we come out the other side of that, having dodged both of those bullets. 

Well, we’ll see. The boldy atomic scientists. We’re not at midnight yet. 

So, yeah, we’re still two and a half minutes of a night stand. We’ve lived with nuclear weapons for 70 years and. And and so, you know, I wouldn’t give up hope if I gave up hope, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. We’ve got a lot of challenges. We’ve got a lot of strong challenges. But but that doesn’t mean that the future is is that there is no future. 

What’s the most exciting field of science at the moment for you? 

Who it depends on the day. 

Well, rather late. Let me find it this way. What do you think is going to yield the greatest revolution in the 21st century? 

Which pundits? You know, I give you the same answer I gave everyone when they asked me, what’s the next big thing I would say if I knew I’d be doing it. That’s why. That’s why discoveries are discoveries. But we know there are areas where we’re where we have huge questions and fundamental physics that why. Why are the forces the way they are? Why does the Higgs field exist? Why does in an empty space have energy? You know, how can we get a quantum theory of gravity? But there are other areas of quantum computing and apply applications of physics to biology that are fascinating and quantum engineering as we develop new materials. There are lots of areas where I think they’ll be where they’re likely be major breakthroughs. And as I like to say, every damn surprise surprised if I’m not surprised because the imagination nature is far greater than our own. 

Well, let’s cross. Thanks so much for being a point of inquiry. It’s been great. Thanks. 

A lot of inquiries and production at the Center for Inquiry. Become a member and support the advancement of science and reason by going to center for inquiry dot org slash membership. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.