The Greatest Story Ever Told – So Far:
Why Are We Here?
Lawrence M. Krauss, 2017
Atria Books (An imprint of Simon and Schuster, NY NY)
ISBN 978 1 4767 7761 0
322 pages, hardback
review by Joe Szimhart, April 2017
Experts in art, religion, and science sometimes complement one another, ofttimes misrepresent one another, and now and then flat out war with one another. For reading on a recent trip to the Middle East, I purchased The Greatest Story Ever Told –So Far: Why Are We Here?, a new book by Lawrence M. Krauss. According to jacket notes, this book follows up the author’s best-selling book A Universe from Nothing, which I have not read. I highly recommend Krauss’s Greatest Story as both enlightening and challenging reading for anyone interested in actual physics and irritated by unsound spiritual spins on quantum fields by the likes of Deepak Chopra, Fritjof Capra, J.Z. Knight, or Gary Zukav. Krauss mentions Chopra as his “Twitter combatant” on page 86: “(Chopra) in his various ramblings, somehow seems to think the universe wouldn’t exist if our consciousness weren’t here to measure and frame its properties.”
Chopra, a physician with Western training, is also a product of a Hindu pseudo-tradition since his early devotion to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who founded the Transcendental Meditation business. Yes, ancient sacred mantras were for sale in the 1960s through TM and still are. TM along with Scientology was one of the primary models for the burgeoning self-help spiritual enlightenment movements that employ a hefty pay scale for graduated courses masked as spirituality. At least the wealthy can get to heaven this way. Chopra’s spiritual services are not cheap, but you can always read his books to get a dose of his quantum consciousness preparations.
Happily, Krauss did not dwell on Chopra’s inane tweets [see footnote 1] beyond the brief mention above, but I did find it curious that Krauss repurposed religious ideas to frame the story of physics and its great scientists. Complementing the obvious book title reference to Jesus from “The Greatest Story Ever Told” by Fulton Oursler (1949), Krauss introduced nearly every chapter with a quote from the Bible. For example, Chapter 15: “Living Inside a Superconductor” is introduced with Everyone lies to their neighbor: they flatter with their lips but harbor deception in their hearts. –Psalms 12:2. With scripture, Krauss cleverly indicates how quantum behavior can be deceptive and contrary like people but with properties we do not fully comprehend. “…the apparent differences [in gauge theory] are illusions that do not reflect the underlying physics that determines the measured values of all physically observable quantities.” (p. 205) To grasp what that means, you will have to read the book. I am not sure that the general reader will—it helps to have a solid familiarity with physics to properly appreciate this book, although much of the narrative is about the scientists and their lives, not just their ideas.
On my flight home from Dubai, I took advantage of the movie selection and watched Finding Altamira, a 2016 film about amateur archeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola who in 1879 was led by his eight-year-old daughter Maria to discover the now famous cave’s Paleolithic renderings of bison, hand silhouettes, and various creatures. Lauded as the Sistine Chapel of the cave man era, Altamira has fascinated artists, scientists, and religious scholars for more than a century. Picasso, who is quoted at the end of the film, stated:
“After Altamira, all is decadence. We have discovered nothing.”
I am not certain what Picasso meant by that beyond being his provocative self, but the artist may have a point. The Altamira paintings have a high level of sophistication for art created 35,000 years ago with primitive materials and on uneven surfaces. In other words, these are not extraordinary monkey scrawls—far from it—the average artist today would have difficulty matching that skill.
The significance of the cave art is yet unclear. Were they merely a form of graffiti executed by a bored Neanderthal virtuoso during a long winter? Did they have magical, ceremonial, or religious functions? Was this a way of honoring or living with the souls of the animals killed and eaten? Or were they illustrations to teach anatomy to youngsters? We can analyze the aesthetics, comparing Altamira to other cave paintings of that era to get a clearer idea of early human capacity for perception. It appears that the art at Altamira was not a one-off act of genius but a shared talent by many people in that culture at several locations. If that is the case, then there must have been a kind of school or training, but where are the practice images? We do not know. As an artist, I can see the cave art as scientific studies of how animals behave as well as renderings that serve as shrines to their very being that sacrificed its life to sustain human life. Pondering that exchange is at the core of many primitive religious movements or cults and not making a god in our image.
This brings me to the point of my commentary on Krauss’s book. Why is religion tied to physics in the book? Krauss throws a bone to religious people by cherry picking scriptures relevant to his narrative though taken out of context. In other words, it appears to me that he made little effort to respect the religious tradition. When he quotes Genesis 3:19 before his Epilogue, “Cosmic Humility,” (For dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou return), Krauss merely echoes the secular side of the Old Testament. Many practicing Jews were secularists. Consider the Sadducees who believed that this life is all there is with no hope of resurrection in a heaven. In that view, God, like the universe, interacts with His creation in enigmatic and often indefatigable ways. All I am pointing out here is that belief in the religions of the Bible is not of one kind, and it does not necessarily exclude a scientific perspective. But does aesthetics provide a key to resolve the dichotomy between science and religion?
The day after I wrote those questions, I was reading Robert Frost and came upon this quote from his talk “On Extravagance” from an address he gave at Dartmouth College in 1962:
“And my extravagance would go on from there to say that people think that life is a result of certain atoms coming together, see, instead of being the cause that brings the atoms together.”
Frost, who was baptized a Swedenborgian but remained anxious about belief in God, harkens back to Aristotle’s idea of a final cause. For example, the idea of building a boat brings a series of events together starting from a tree growing in the forest to an illustration on a sheet of paper and a way to mill logs from the tree to match the illustration. The finished boat fulfills the final cause that attracted it into being. Aristotle did not call this final cause God, but St. Thomas Aquinas did.
Boats are human creations, but what about nature? Do natural phenomena emerge as if attracted to a final cause? Krauss tends to endorse the Darwinian model of chance events leading to zebras which have remained quite the same species for millennia. In other words, the Earthy muck that led to life and the emergence of species relied fundamentally on the inscrutable activities of subatomic particles and the forces that they are and that surround them. The rich flora and fauna on our precious planet are the result of this cosmic playground in the quantum world since the Big Bang. Intelligent Design and Creationist folks point to the apparently fixed and reliable aspects of complexities in nature as proof that something intelligent must be holding all this together—a lawgiver or a maker that controls order and chaos. The chances that two zebras mating will produce another zebra for the next thousand years or so is predictable, we think, whether we are careful scientists or Southern Baptists. One says that the probability is high; the other, that God wills it that way.
The notion of a final cause is also a religious belief that an uber being we call God has all of creation through eternity somewhere in His head, then goes about designing the universe to fit His plan. Krauss mentions that Einstein said, God does not play dice with the universe, but he shows that Einstein’s theories contradicted this: “It is ironic that Einstein, who started the quantum revolution but never joined it, was also perhaps the first to use probabilistic arguments to describe the nature of matter—a strategy that the subsequent physicists who turned quantum mechanics into a full theory would place front and center. As a result, Einstein was one of the first physicists to demonstrate that God does play dice with the universe” (p. 81). No argument from me there.
From my perspective, philosophers of science, scientists, and many theologians surmise that the cosmos operates under a complex interaction of probabilities. We have not been able to reduce reality to something tangible and testable, thus Krauss’s earlier book, A Universe from Nothing. Fundamentalism in science (reductionism) as in religion ( relies more on a pipe dream than on reality. However, the need to some certainty in science as in religion is necessary. Science has to trust that nature and natural forces are consistent enough to plan return trips to the moon. Religion has to trust revelation and moral codes enough to sustain social cohesion.
Krauss’s title fascinates me in a way that he probably did not intend. The Christian religion, with some similarities to other major faith groups, relies on a core belief that the source (Father) of all that is sacrifices Himself to sustain all that is. In other words, God has to become nothing through eternity for anything material to exist and for life to go on. This is a principle among many mystics including Jakob Boehme who called it that nothing the Ungrund:
For out of nature is God a Mysterium, i.e. the Nothing; for from out of nature is the Nothing, which is an eye of eternity, a groundless eye, which stands nowhere nor sees, for it is the Ungrund and the selfsame eye is a will, i.e. a longing for manifestation, to discern the Nothing.
This mystery appears to be consistent with the thesis of The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far: Why Are We Here? But the “nothing” that Krauss relies on is not a personal nothing. You might find the language I am using contradictory, but physicists have resorted to that same language when describing where quarks come from. Neutrons are particles that make up “most of the mass of our bodies” but they are “unstable, with a mean lifetime of about ten minutes” (p. 113). Krauss wrote, “This may surprise you too,” but he goes on to show the beauty of the resolution of this paradox by persistent physicists working toward a Grand Unified Theory and a Standard Model. The latter, Krauss tells us,
“…results in the remarkable good fortune of an expanding universe with stars and planets and life that can evolve a consciousness, is also a simple accident made possible because the Higgs field condensed in just the way it did as the universe evolved early on.”
So, the why we are here answer in this book is not to honor and serve a deity. We are here because we are, as if by accident, no more significant than a world evolved in an ice crystal on a window pane (a metaphor offered by Krauss), a world that might easily disappear as a “Sun” (sic) rises. The contract of an atheist or purely scientific man with existence is to flourish as best he can because in the end he perishes: “If our future is similarly fleeting, we can at least enjoy the wild ride we have taken and relish every aspect of the greatest story ever told…so far.” (Krauss, p. 300)
Krauss did a good job describing the God problem for scientists and he did a noble job to avoid the God-of-the-gaps that too many naïve believers use to claim there must be a God because science cannot explain something. An example occurs on page 296:
“…the fact that current fundamental theory does not make a first-principles prediction that explains something as fundamental as the energy of empty space implies nothing mystical. As I have said, lack of understanding is not evidence for God. It is merely evidence of lack of understanding.”
This brings me back to Altamira and the Paleolithic cave paintings of bison. Are they about art, science, or religion? Could they be about all three? Did primitive man grasp reality better than we do, as Picasso suggested? Was the cave artist contemplating his existence by illustrating his food and clothing sources that kept him alive and warm?
Krauss wrote, “Faced with the mystery of our existence, we have two choices.
1. “We can assume that we have special significance and that the universe was made for us. For many, this is the most comfortable choice made by early human tribes, who anthropomorphized nature because it provided them some hope of understanding what otherwise seemed to be a hostile world often centered on suffering and death. It is the choice made by almost all the world’s religions…”
2. “The second choice when addressing these transcendental mysteries is to make no assumption in advance about the answer…In this story we evolve in a universe whose laws exist independently of our own being. In this story we check the details to see if they might be wrong. In this story we are going to be surprised at every turn.” (pp. 302-303)
Okay, we could overlook the false dichotomy of two choices, but should not. These are false because these are poorly framed choices and because there are more than two. I want to know what Krauss meant by “almost all the world’s religions.” I could give a reasonable argument that non-fundamentalist Christianity does not anthropomorphize God any more than science does. The finer interpretations of a deity in Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism avoid humanizing God to maintain the mystery of the infinite, the ineffable, and the unknowable—the “nothing” mentioned above entertained by Boehme’s mysticism and the No-Self of Zen Buddhism. Jews typically and reverently will not speak the name YHWH respecting that we not only have no words but we cannot properly grasp intellectually what we mean by that concept. Hindu tradition has taken to calling the deity Tat Tvam Asi or thou art that. At the most refined understanding, the gods or God as personality disappears in Advaita, one of the largest and most enduring Hindu traditions. I hope you get the idea. Choice one is way too simple.
As to the second choice, I want to know how science avoids anthropomorphizing nature. I mean, we do not experience and test nature from the skill set of a bee or a virus. I am not merely being cute here or relativistic. Bees construct amazing homes using specific engineering skills and have the science to support those skills. Bees analyze in bee ways how the universe works and apply their skills to survive. Bees have a culture in which they communicate through dance-like movements to indicate where the blooms are for nectar. Bees do this whether we observe them or not. Viruses seem to have a bizarre life of their own. They can kill and they might initiate newer, more complex life forms. We may be in a universe that evolves independently of Deepak Chopra and Lawrence Krauss, a universe that could care less than a wit about either of them, but that has no bearing on complex creatures like Deepak and Lawrence caring in their own ways about the universe. How they care may be wrong-headed or spot on, but the question Krauss does not answer is why do we care at all?
The obvious fact is that the universe has created creatures that care—a fact of reality, just as real as electrons with negative spin or the lately confirmed Higgs Boson. The greatest story ever told as Jesus teaches us to care because something he called “the Father” cared about him and us enough to empty Himself totally to sustain life as we know it. Jesus interpreted this insight as a mandate if he was to be the Christ anointed by God to be the sacrificial lamb.
After reading Krauss’s version of the greatest story, I do not see the suggested dichotomy or two choices. Krauss inadvertently reinforced in spades exactly what I see in the New Testament, albeit heretically. For some reason, neutrons care to decay and arise every ten minutes to keep us alive for a life time. If neutrons did not “care” or carry on the way they do, we would not be here. His book reminded me that we humans are cultivated at least metaphorically if not in fact by the subatomic worlds.
Krauss insists that we grew out of (were cultivated by) subatomic particles and their interactions. Cult means to care for. Human beings might be one of the many cults attended to by the subatomic worlds. Why? Well, because they care to, or so it seems to me. Creating conscious life while caring for it at the expense of self-annihilation is a beautiful thing, even for a neutron. We all cry when the hero appears to sacrifice his life to save the heroine. We all cheer when the hero miraculously comes back to life.