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An Explanation from Nothing?

April 7, 2012

Here is David Albert’s review of Laurence Krauss’  A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something rather than Nothing  Krauss claims that the laws of quantum mechanics can provide an answer to the old philosophical question of why there is something rather than nothing.  Albert finds his answer, to put it mildly, wanting. There is no philosophical consensus about answers to this question or whether the question has an answer (or must have an answer) or whether it is even meaningful. There are two questions. Why is there Anything? Why does the universe have the particular feature it has (e.g. very low entropy condition 14 billion years ago)? The latter question was the subject of Eric’s recently posted paper and the ensuing discussion.  An older philosophical discussion is Derek Parfit’s classic “Why Anything; Why This?” With some trepidation we would like to open a discussion of these issues again. Not only about Krauss and David’s review but also more generally about whether there could be a scientific or philosophcial answer to Why there is Anything?  As usual the comments will be moderated for relevance. In thinking about these issues it might be helpful to listen to this.

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59 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2012 9:30 pm

    David Albert’s review of the Krauss book is charitably reserved, considering the broad reach of the claims that appear to be made in the book. The critique makes it evident that a universe with fields but no particles may be very different from ours, but still is clearly not “nothing”. Furthermore, since in Krauss’s thesis, the particles in our universe arise as an “unavoidable” fluctuation from a “vacuum” state of a relativistic quantum field, his version of creation has features in common with other proposals in which our universe arises as a random quantum mechanical fluctuation from a vacuum state, or as in the Sean Carroll Multiverse model, where it spontaneously buds off from an equilibrium mother universe. All such models are subject to the criticism that they make our universe seem infinitely less likely to occur than far simpler fluctuations that produce PBBs, as discussed so well last month by Eric Winsberg.

    Parfit presents a beautifully calm and reasoned approach to the subjects at hand, for one thing making it clear that understanding why anything exists, and why our universe in particular pertains, need not determine one’s view of God’s existence. At the same time he introduces much useful structure for the discussion of these truly difficult questions. It is worth adding a comment about one of the historical issues he discusses, specifically whether the universe is in a steady state, which was taken by some to support an atheistic stance, or if it had a beginning, which could be seen as the act of a Creator. Parfit does not seem to consider the possibility of a hybrid amalgam of the two, where there is an underlying, perhaps largely chaotic reality that may be timeless, or unchanging, but which can give rise to any number of universes that each evolve in time, as they do in the big bang cosmologies. In his terminology, this would support an “All Worlds” context in which our particular universe could naturally arise through operation of particular “Selectors”, including those required for the support of life as we find it to exist.

    “Toy” universes that have such hybrid properties can readily be defined, adding to the possibility that more work on the laws of physics and cosmology will find that the real universe has such an explanation. Penrose’s twistor theory approach, in which the underlying reality does not include spatial and temporal relations between events, but where such relations arise naturally from the entanglement carried by the twistors has such a flavor. The success of such a hybrid cosmology still wouldn’t decide the question of God’s existence, as Parfit makes clear, but would certainly add to our understanding of the nature of creation, whether natural or divine.

  2. April 11, 2012 2:17 pm

    David criticizes Krauss for failing to explain the existence of the physical laws, or for not even trying to explain why we have the specific QM laws that we do; but I think that Parfit gets it right in arguing that, if we explain the physical world by appealing to some law, we are in a better position than if we just regard the physical world’s existence as an unexplainable fact. We’ve explained almost all of everything in terms of one small part of everything, and, excitingly, it’s the same thing we use to explain boring quotidian events. It’s a tidy view which explains all physical events (which seem to be the sorts of things that need explanation) in virtue of explanatory laws (which, at least on some views, don’t). Even if the laws turn out to be brute facts, this wouldn’t mean that anything else did; quite the contrary. I’m thoroughly convinced, though, that Krauss hasn’t explained existence from the laws in this way: he’s explained the existence of some fields from the existence of other fields.

    • April 15, 2012 8:59 pm

      I think this is 98% right. The investigations and theoretical developments of the last 4 centuries have brought us from having only the vaguest ideas about the structure of our immediate perceptions and neighborhood to understanding the cosmos over a range of 10^40 magnitudes of time and space, and a detailed account of origins back to infinitesimally early times. All of this from a very small mathematically phrased explanatory structure. Krauss and Caroll, following a direction first developed by Alan Guth, push the explanation further in accounting for a material universe in terms of small, random fluctuations from a larger cosmos. To say that this doesn’t compel us to stop asking “why” like a 6 year old is a trivial complaint. Every new rod and linkage in the scaffolding of scientific explanation pushes our supported understanding further.

      Albert seems to be complaining that the account has not become tautological, closed on itself and leaving nothing unexplained. That’s true, but uninteresting. Perhaps Krauss has used hyperbolic language, probably in service of selling more books. But his use of “something” and “nothing” follow their ordinary use in our shared language: “something” is the stuff all around us, matter, light, energy. “Nothing” is the lack of these. As recently as 40 years ago, no one could give a coherent account of how the cosmos and its contents first formed. Now we have a variety of related possible accounts – we don’t know which one, if any, is right, but at least we have a plausible framework. That’s scientific progress, even if it doesn’t satisfy a 6 year old or a professional philosopher. (Notably, one who lent his academic credibility to the pseudoscientific claptrap movie “What the **** do we know”.)

  3. Damian permalink
    April 12, 2012 3:31 pm

    I don’t know if you’re aware but Lawrence Krauss has recently provided several public ripostes to David Albert’s criticisms. In case you happen to have missed them, what he basically says in response is that Albert specifically, and philosophers and theologians in general, are just too dumb to understand that the meaning of the term “nothing” has changed; that is, whereas the word “nothing” once meant something like “not anything”, it is now synonymous with “a boiling, bubbling brew of virtual particles popping in and out of existence at times so short you can’t see them”. According to Krauss, the fact that the likes of David Albert refuse to come to terms with this scientific change in the word’s meaning makes them “moronic”.

    At the American Atheists’ 2012 convention, for example, Krauss had this to say:

    “What’s truly amazing is that science has progressed to the point where the question ‘Why something rather than nothing’, which many people have thought of as a religious or philosophical question, has become a scientific one, in spite of some moronic philosopher who has just written for the New York Times [audience laughter] … ‘Out of nothing comes nothing’ is what philosophers said thousands of years ago and have maintained ever since. Of course philosophy is the field that hasn’t progressed in two thousand years whereas science has [audience applause and laughter] … [N]othing is not what we used to think it was. I’ve tried to explain that in small words to philosophers, but as I say, some of them, they don’t understand [audience laughter] … Science has demonstrated that a universe from nothing is not only plausible, but likely. More importantly, what we mean by something and nothing has completely changed since the time the classical philosophers and theologians first raised this issue. This is an idea I can’t seem to explain to philosophers and theologians. It’s changed. Those questions you asked aren’t relevant now.”

    Similarly, in an interview broadcast by the Center of Inquiry, Krauss says: “What they [viz., my critics] say is that this is not the philosopher’s ‘nothing’ [laughter] and I feel like saying, well what is the philosopher’s ‘nothing’? [laughter] I mean you can say ‘non-being’ but those are just a bunch of words. What does that mean? If you want to put meaning to that operationally, nothing is a physical quantity at some level”.

    And finally, appearing Dr Kiki’s Science hour — again referring to David Albert as “this cockamany philosopher” and “this moronic philosopher” who “obviously only read the introduction and conclusion and not all the stuff in between because it actually involved physics” — Krauss says that the question of why there is something rather than nothing “is not a philosophical question because something and nothing are by definition physical quantities … and physics has changed completely the definition and the sense of what we mean by something and nothing … Nothing and something are almost indistinguishable. Actually I spend more than one chapter on nothing because I try and talk sequentially about the different kinds of nothing, which is again something this moron philosopher didn’t realise … The simplest kind of nothing is just empty space … and that kind of nothing is definitely not nothing … It’s full of elementary particles popping in and out of existence … and once you add gravity into the mix, that kind of nothing is inevitably unstable … Empty space will always create particles if you wait long enough and you’ll eventually be able to fill up a universe with stuff … But then you could say, as I try and point out, that that’s not nothing, and in fact that’s true because you’ve got space there. Where did the space come from? And I spend time showing that in fact if you apply quantum mechanics to gravity then in fact even space can pop in and out of existence. You can create universes where there were none before, spontaneously. And in fact, certain universes will survive long enough for life to exist, and in fact if you look at the characteristics of our universe it has precisely the characteristics you would expect of a universe that was created from nothing. … But what about the laws themselves? … Maybe even the laws themselves arose spontaneously with our universe, and if that’s the case then it seems to me that’s the last coffin [sic.] on the notion that you can’t create something from nothing. And in fact, as I point out, ultimately the question of something from nothing is not an interesting question. Why you can create something from nothing is no more interesting than the question ‘why are there … eight … nine planets’? It sounds like a profound philosophical question but what you are really asking is how are there nine planets. And it’s not an interesting question any more. The question of why there is something rather than nothing is not the interesting question any more. The interesting question is: how did our universe evolve and how can we find out. And those are the interesting questions that are productive. And getting hung up on these ancient philosophical questions that really don’t have the same meaning now that they did before is not very productive.”

    Any thoughts?

    • April 14, 2012 2:48 pm

      The fact that is most clear from Krauss’ reported diatribes, both from their content and venues is that his mission is much more about the politics of atheism than anything to do with physics, cosmology, or philosophy. But even here, he seems misguided. To the extent that he is able to prove that the universe indeed arises from nothing, he would seem to be supporting a religious, not an atheistic argument. A more effective support of an atheistic viewpoint would be the proof that our universe arises in a natural or even inevitable way from something that was always there, and therefore did not require creation. (But then, how did that something get there?) He seems to try to beat around this bush, but unless he can make such an argument a lot more lucid, he is wasting everyone’s time. His reported statement that “if you look at the characteristics of our universe it has precisely the characteristics you would expect of a universe that was created from nothing” shows a possible lack of understanding of probabilities and expectations. What is the statistical ensemble on which these probabilities are defined? Why would such a relatively complex universe such as ours be an “expected” one to arise?

  4. April 16, 2012 1:41 am

    Krauss is a crybaby. David hurt his feelings by pointing out the ineptness of his arguments so he replies with name calling. Undignified but not surprising. Both he and a certain kind of theist (the theist who thinks God fills gaps in explanation left by science) are supposing that the fact that anything at all exists is explainable. Their dispute is a kind of “my explanation is better (bigger?) than yours so my view is righter than yours argument. Both “explanations” as explanations of why there is anything at all are piss-poor. First, both start with something (not nothing) – God or QFT- so neither really explains why there is anything at all. As David points out QFT starts with more (specific claims about the quantum fields and specific laws). So Krauss is not really answering the original question posed by Augustine and discussed in the philosophical tradition. Krauss now announcing that he never intended to answer that question since physicists have changed the meaning of “nothing” (is Krauss also a lexicographer?) is not only dishonest but makes his supporter Dawkins look as though he never read Krauss’ book. If all Krauss is doing is reporting that QFT shows how what we used to take to be material particles can arise from what we used to take to be empty space but now understand as occupied with fields then- yawn- he has repeated old news and simply hasn’t engaged the theist. The theist’s “explanation” is also bad but for different reasons. Presumably a scientifically sophisticated theist will agree with physicists (though perhaps not Krauss’ specific version) about the physics- the fields and the laws. The theist goes one step further and claims to explain these as being created by God. She may think her account is better than Krauss’ since while the fields and laws are contingent she claims that God’s existence is “metaphysically necessary” and so is not in need of explanation. But even those who believe that a metaphysically necessary being exists and don’t require explanation have no account of how their necessary being creates the fields and laws. They have produced an assertion not an explanation. The whole issue of how a necessary fact can explain a contingent fact is, to say the least, very puzzling.
    The question of why anything at all exists has been around for a long time and seems to strike a chord even many of us regardless of religious belief. Changing the meaning of “nothing” is not a way of engaging the question. A more subtle approach would involve thinking hard about explanation, necessity, time, laws, chance, and the universe as a whole and so on. Krauss and the imagined theist have no time for these subtleties as they battle over whether God exists. But Derek Parfit’s article does discuss some of these matters and along the way raises a number of interesting issues about what needs explaining. I hope to see some comments about it.

    Barry

    • alison2142 permalink
      April 16, 2012 10:40 am

      Just a few comments on Parfit’s paper:

      I agree with Parfit that even though a causal explanation cannot be given for why a Universe, or why this Universe, exists, we can and should still explore other types explanation. You need to make substantial assumptions about the nature of explanation to rule these out off the bat. But I’m less convinced that the type of metaphysical explanations Parfit explores get us very far. (It would be nice to see a more general treatment of the nature of non-causal explanation, that could then be applied to this case. For myself I’m partial to some kind of unificationist account of explanation, but that’s another story.)

      I’m also concerned about the various intuitions that Parfit appeals to about what requires explanation (for example, as used in fine-tuning arguments), and his talk of what is ‘intrinsically more likely’. Firstly, whether an event occurred with high or low probability isn’t enough to say whether an explanation of that event is required. I’m reminded here of Railton’s work in probabilistic explanation: a correct and complete explanation of a chance event need not imply that an event occurred with high probability.

      But more importantly, I’d like to see a justification for why variations in initial conditions provide a basis for statistical judgment. Even if small variations in initial conditions do lead to radically different universes, work needs to be done to show that we can and should put an equal probability distribution over whatever state-space we construct.

      Barry: What do you find interesting about Parfit’s article?

    • May 1, 2012 11:12 am

      Something interesting that Barry’s comment made me think of: I wonder if an explanation like Krauss’s would be more successful if one assumed the Shoemaker-style view that the laws are metaphysically necessary? Then the Krauss-type explanation would share all the purported virtues of the theistic explanation, in addition (perhaps) to answering Barry’s question of “how” the metaphysically necessary facts explain the existence of all the contingent objects. Not saying I love the Shoemaker view of laws, but it seems more plausible to me than the hypothesis that there’s a metaphysically necessary all-powerful person!

      • May 2, 2012 1:52 pm

        Hi Dave,

        Interesting point. But although laws are metaphysically necessary on Shoemaker’s account which properties are instantiated is contingent. e.g. is it a property that satisfies necessarily an inverse square law or is it a property that satisfies necessarily an inverse cube law? So one can still ask ..why these properties…not those…or why any properties (that is any Shoemakerian properies) are instantiated at all. I don’t think there is a theological account that answers these questions (and that I understand) and as many commentators here and elsewhere have suggested there may be something wrong with the question (Krauss I guess thinks that too). What I would like to see is a good philosophical account of this (and Krauss has not provided that).

  5. April 17, 2012 3:44 pm

    Michael Turner (U. Chicago) gave a talk titled “Before the Big Bang” to an audience of 500 last night in Santa Cruz, CA at the Rio. It was necessarily a popular talk, though I expected some mention of, e.g. the prospects for a finite versus infinite history of the universe, or maybe even a Parfit Selector. I was disappointed.

    He said current theories point to a multiverse, with an infinite number of universes being created at their own big bangs, all the time. (Though time between/among universes is not well understood.)

    He showed the cover of Krauss’ book, but only said he and Krauss were friends.

    It was disappointing to yet again see an otherwise smart person thinking entirely within a well-defined box that’s called their “field of study”. Sure an astrophysicist doesn’t have to be expert in Hindu cosmology, or the philosophy of origins, or string theory. But if you’re going to give a talk titled Before the Big Bang, then, well, you should have something to say about times *before the big bang*.

    I imagine Krauss fell into a similar box.

  6. Vishnya Maudlin permalink
    April 17, 2012 8:47 pm

    Some more from Krauss (asking for good reviews):
    the nasty review in the Times by the templeton funded philosopher is bringing more people out of the woodwork who haven’t really read my book but feel free to comment in Amazon on what they think it is about (much as apparently the NYT reviewer seems to have done).. anyway, anyone who liked it and wants to write a positive review in Amazon, would be appreciated….
    many thanks for all of your comments… I am always hesitant to respond to attacks, as that simply raises their profile.. I may write a piece about my general thoughts about some of these issues, which may reflect his extreme confusion.. but this review doesn’t really warrant a response since it is not about my book..

    Particularly nice ad hominem on one hand and on the other hand begging for good reviews on Amazon. How intellectually dishonest one could be?

    • April 18, 2012 11:46 am

      I have purchased and read Krauss’ book and thought it was disappointing. It seemed to go over much of the ground already covered in a much better way in other books, for example, The Mind of God by Paul Davies. There is very little original in the book despite its rather grandiose title.

      What irritated me about the book and what may have irritated the reviewer was its claim to somehow have removed the need for God. One could argue (and I would) that the idea of God provides no additional information that helps us understand the laws of the universe or its history, but claiming that something (the quantum vacuum) is the new nothing to justify the title and make the argument that God is unnecessary doesn’t work for me.

  7. April 18, 2012 11:44 am

    Hi Vishnya,

    I invited Krauss to comment here and reply to David’s review. As you say he seems willing to attack David when addressing his face-book followers and at conferences of atheists but not willing to answer David’s specific criticisms in a public forum.

    He makes me think that if God were to have existed she would have sent Lawrence Krauss to earth to give atheism a bad name.

  8. April 18, 2012 11:59 am

    Hi Alison,

    We see things pretty much the same way. I too would “… like to see a justification for why variations in initial conditions provide a basis for statistical judgment” even when they lead to very different universes. Parfit’s (and others as well) have a priori ideas about what does and what doesn’t “need” explanation. It would be good to have a better understanding of this.
    As to you question about what I find interesting…well Parfit is really a good writer and thinks deeply…and it is enjoyable to read… But I his conception of selection law and hierarchy of laws bizarre. The whole question of whether the universe as a whole can have any kind of explanation is interesting. I have a view- too inchoate to really say much about here- that modal, nomological, explanatory notions only have application within the universe and I am doubtful that we can really make sense of explaining the whole universe- why there is anything- though of course that is a different matter from explaining particular features of our universe e.g. the PH.

    Barry

  9. Heather Demarest permalink
    April 18, 2012 12:50 pm

    I did read the entirety of Krauss’ book (contra Krauss’ comments), and I thought many parts of it were really interesting. I thought it was fascinating that all the matter we see could have come from empty space, via the laws of quantum mechanics and expansion. Krauss thinks this explains how something comes from nothing, in that it explains how matter comes from non-matter (via the nature of space or a different/previous universe plus QM/GR laws). Philosophers think that to explain how something comes from nothing, one must explain how anything (matter, space, laws, etc.) comes from not-anything. These are just two different questions. As far as I can tell, Krauss and Albert do not have a substantive disagreement here, but merely a terminological one. It’s puzzling that it should have become so acrimonious.

    Bracketing the issues about what REALLY counts as nothing, there are interesting ways in which Krauss’ book relates to Barry and David’s project. For instance, is this expansion the same kind of expansion that creates the ‘bubble universes’ Sean Carroll appeals to? If so, does it give us a better handle on how often they form or what kinds of universes are likely to evolve from them? If we think QM probabilities are the ones that explain how a tiny region of empty space turns into a large universe filled with matter much like ours, does this help in providing the initial probabilities of the statistical postulate?

  10. Damian permalink
    April 19, 2012 10:31 am

    Victor Stenger discusses Krauss’s book, and Albert’s review, concluding:

    “The issues Albert raises are legitimate, but they can be addressed within existing physics and philosophical knowledge.”

    Here: http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=4754

  11. Damian permalink
    April 19, 2012 10:42 am

    When Krauss speaks of “the nasty review in the Times by the templeton funded philosopher … bringing more people out of the woodwork” he may be alluding (inter alia) to Jerry Coyne:

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/04/02/david-albert-pans-lawrence-krausss-new-book/

    Krauss responds to Coyne as follows:

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/04/02/david-albert-pans-lawrence-krausss-new-book/#comment-202126 [Full quote removed by the moderator]

    While this response is unlikely to satisfy those who, like David Albert, hold without further ado that “Krauss is dead wrong and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right”, I do think that there are a number of things that could be said in Krauss’s favour here. I’ll try to find time to post about it soon.

    • Barry permalink
      April 24, 2012 10:08 am

      Damian,
      Thanks for posting Krauss’ reply to Jerry Coyne although it would have been nice for Krauss to have accepted our invitation to comment on David’s review himself. A problem with this entire discussion is that in the reply to Coyne that you excerpted and in other venues you mentioned in your prior post Krauss resorts to insults and ad hominems. It is simply not cool to respond to a negative book review by insulting the reviewer. One remark, that you repeat, that is especially inappropriate is Krauss snidely referring to David as “Templeton funded” as though this somehow undermines the review.
      Since this blog may be read by some people who don’t know us or Templeton it may be worth saying a few words about our relationship to Templeton. Our Templeton grant is to a group of philosophers and physicists for a project in philosophy cosmology. There was absolutely no religious test or request to support any theological view required by Templeton. We were very explicit about this in our discussions with them. The grant mainly supports conferences, a summer school, research, and various other activities. While the issue of how cosmology and philosophy of cosmology bear on theology will come up (as they do in Krauss’ book) that is not at all the focus of David or my work. Templeton has funded many projects which have nothing to do with religion. If anyone wants to look at the Templeton mission statement it is here http://www.templeton.org/who-we-are/about-the-foundation/mission. They say that they “… encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights.” That sounds OK to me.
      As for the specific discussion at hand, as a number of the commentators here have pointed out evaluation of Krauss’ claims depends on what is meant by “Something” and “Nothing”. As Heather suggests there are meanings of these terms for which current physics may provide an account of how Something can come from Nothing. These answers presuppose that there are, among other things, laws and certain specific laws. Of course if “Nothing” means “Nothing not even laws” and one thinks that the existence of laws requires explanation then physics (including Kruass’ account) hasn’t answered that question. But this is how advocates of theological arguments – or at east some of them- understand “Nothing”. For example, John Foster http://www.amazon.com/The-Divine-Lawmaker-Induction-Existence/dp/0199250596. Krauss may think that the question of explaining the fundamental laws is confused or that the theological “explanation” is really bad but I doubt he thinks that physics has a good explanation of why there are laws. If so then his discussion is not relevant to the question and the accompanying argument for God. I don’t say this because I think Foster’s (and related) arguments for the existence of God are good. I don’t. But showing that they are bad argument is philosophy not physics.

      • April 24, 2012 11:08 am

        Barry,

        What you say makes sense to me, but among those other things included in Krauss’s “nothing”, in addition to laws, there is definitely some “stuff” to which those laws apply (as explained in David Albert’s review). So even if there is no need to explain the laws, that wouldn’t let Krauss off the hook, because the existence of the “stuff” would still need explaining.

        I’d be interested to know whether this idea of laws “existing” is applied in philosophy to the laws of logic, true statements, tautologies, etc. Do they “exist” in some sense? Are they “something” rather than “nothing”?

        • April 24, 2012 2:28 pm

          Anthony,

          You are perfectly right. The reason I didn’t mention the “stuff” to which the laws apply is that exactly what the stuff is is depends on the ontology of quantum theory and that is very controversial. The “laws of logic” are not like the laws of physics since the former are necessary truths while the latter (though this also controversial) are not. Propositions, numbers, and so on are abstract while the stuff of the universe isn’t (although I did once hear a physicist deny this). I don’t know what Krauss thinks, if anything, about the ontology of mathematics and don’t know whether he thinks that numbers etc. are something.

      • Damian permalink
        April 25, 2012 5:01 pm

        >>>Thanks for posting Krauss’s reply to Jerry Coyne although it would have been nice for Krauss to have accepted our invitation to comment on David’s review himself.

        Yes, but since it didn’t seem at all likely that he would, I thought his reply to Coyne would have to do instead. Since he has by now responded in various venues saying the same thing each time (albeit adding an extra bit of gratuitous idiocy about philosophy in his latest interview), I guess we can take it that this is all he has to say on the matter.

        >>>A problem with this entire discussion is that in the reply to Coyne that you excerpted and in other venues you mentioned in your prior post Krauss resorts to insults and ad hominems.

        I entirely agree that Krauss ought not to have responded in that way, and it’s one of the reasons I bothered to transcribe what he said and post it here. I doubt if it makes this entire discussion problematic, however.

        >>>One remark, that you repeat, that is especially inappropriate is Krauss snidely referring to David as “Templeton funded” as though this somehow undermines the review.

        I didn’t repeat it actually; I merely quoted it (after it had been quoted by Vishnya, in a post to which you replied above) for the purpose of linking to Coyne’s post and Krauss’s response. I certainly didn’t quote it in order to underline the fact that Albert is a recipient of Templeton funding. However, since you bring the whole thing up, in a comment addressed to me, I’ll post a further comment in response in a moment.

      • Damian permalink
        April 25, 2012 5:09 pm

        While I of course agree that the fact that Albert is a recipient of Templeton funding does not itself undermine the arguments presented in his review, I also think Krauss can be forgiven for suspecting that the motivation behind Albert’s criticisms may not be entirely unrelated to this Templeton connection. After all, in its own words, “the mission of the John Templeton Foundation is to pursue new insights at the boundary between theology and science”, and one of Krauss’s key contentions is that there simply is no such boundary and thus that there are no such insights. While I suspect even a professional sophist such a William Lane Craig would have trouble disputing Krauss’s claim that “[w]hen it comes to understanding how our universe evolves[my emphasis], religion and theology have been at best irrelevant”, many theologians evidently do still cling to the hope that, when it comes to the origin of the universe, the door might still be open to some kind of theistic explanation; and it is this particular door, of course, that Krauss argues physics and cosmology are in the process of nailing permanently shut. When one also considers the fact that it is typically theologians who are most adamant that the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” cannot even in principle be given a purely physical explanation, and thus falls outside the remit of natural science altogether (and in Krauss’s debate with Craig, this is essentially what the latter kept insisting upon, while arguing in much the same way as Albert regarding the putative “proper meaning” of the word “nothing”), again, it’s hardly surprising if Krauss’s suspicions were aroused regarding the Templeton connection.

        >>>If anyone wants to look at the Templeton mission statement …They say that they “… encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights.” That sounds OK to me.

        Well, bar the preposterous suggestion that theologians (qua theologians) have expertise in the field of cosmology, it sounds okay to me too. However, I also think it would be disingenuous to pretend that scientists and philosophers such as Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, Leonard Susskind, Daniel Dennett, Anthony Grayling and others do not have good reasons to adamantly refuse to have anything to do with the JTF. This is, after all, an organisation that awards gargantuan cash prizes to people they deem to have made (again, in their own words) “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension”, an annual prize that “celebrates … the quest for progress in humanity’s efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine.”

      • Damian permalink
        April 25, 2012 5:34 pm

        >>>As for the specific discussion at hand, as a number of the commentators here have pointed out evaluation of Krauss’s claims depends on what is meant by “Something” and “Nothing”. As Heather suggests there are meanings of these terms for which current physics may provide an account of how Something can come from Nothing.

        Yes there are, and I believe Krauss makes it very explicit that it is the latter question that he sets out to address in the book. In an age of aggressive marketing of mystery-mongering bullshit of all kinds, I can’t say that I agree with Albert’s comment that Krauss’s book is a “scandal” on account of the fact that it doesn’t provide a fully satisfying answer to the question addressed by its title – not least given the fact that Albert himself seems to concede in the review that, when taken in the only way that he deems legitimate (i.e. the strong metaphysical, dubiously intelligible sense), the question itself is intrinsically insoluble. (I can substantiate this if need be, but the very fact that when the question is taken in this strict sense the most advanced scientific accounts fare no better than medieval theological ones – Barry calls them both “piss-poor” above – really ought to alert us to the fact that this indicates not any failing of science but rather the intrinsic insolubility of the question.)

        If using a mystery-mongering question of theological provenance in the title of a popular science book is the only way to get large numbers of people to find out something about the truly astonishing accomplishments of physics and cosmology over the century in explaining the origins and evolution of our universe, I really don’t have any objection to that. However, since Albert and others here clearly do very strongly object to it, I wonder what they have to say about a book by their colleague on the Philosophy of Cosmology project entitled The View from the Centre of the Universe, the take-home message of which appears to be the following (this is from the book’s Conclusion):

        We are central to the universe. This belief has been the foundation of all centering cosmologies of the past, but today it is no longer merely an assumption. Now we have evidence. […] When with our minds and hearts we grasp that we are central to the expanding universe (as the Sovereign Eye), we will have connected. Then we too, like our ancient ancestors the world over, can say once again with confidence and commitment that we uphold the universe.”

        Furthermore, what about the hundreds of books either published or sponsored by the Templeton Foundation with titles such as Evidence of Purpose: Scientists Discover the Creator, Is God the Only Reality? Science Points to a Deeper Meaning of the Universe and The God Who Would Be Known: Revelations of the Divine in Contemporary Science? (And please note, these last three titles are just a few of those not only published by Templeton Press but actually written by John Templeton himself.)

        So what is the real “scandal” here? Is it taking an age-old metaphysical pseudo-problem seriously enough to see how it might be reformulated as a scientifically tractable problem and (to quote Krauss) “as a hook to get people to actually learn how the real universe behaves”? Or is it publishing scores of books intended to (mis-)lead the general public into believing that science has now found evidence for a Divine Creator and Ultimate Purpose of the Universe?

      • Damian permalink
        April 25, 2012 5:37 pm

        Finally, coming back to die Sache selbst, as it were; that is, the question mentioned at the beginning of this post of “whether there could be a scientific or philosophical answer to [the question]Why there is Anything?, I’m disappointed there’s been so little said in favour of it so far. Can a case be made that it is not intrinsically insoluble? If so, I’d be very happy to hear it. (But no, I don’t think that Parfit’s speculative suggestions are very helpful; for a critique of both Parfit and Swinburne on the question, I strongly recommend Adolf Grunbaum’s paper ‘The Poverty of Theistic Cosmology’ which makes the case at length that the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is an implicitly theologically-loaded Scheinproblem: http://bjps.oxfordjournals.org/content/55/4/561.abstract.)

  12. Yair permalink
    April 22, 2012 4:08 pm

    I would like to suggest that because of the nature of “explanation” it is impossible to answer such questions.

    Something can only be “explained” by virtue of accepting other principles. All mathematical explanations, for example, end in the axioms and rules of inference (arguably, logic). Explanations about what exists must rest on axioms about existence, and there are only two ways to obtain them: through experience or through contemplation. Those established by experience, such as Krauss’ invocation of the laws of physics, are always seen as “contingent” and an explanation based on them is seen as unsatisfactory as it does not explain why they themselves hold. Those established by pure reason(ing) are always seen as “empty metaphysics” that vainly attempts to impose our preconceptions onto the universe itself. Any skeptical, scientifically-motivated, understanding of our own reasoning or of reason in general indeed leads one to the conclusion that there is no reason to expect reasoners to have the “keys” to the universe in this manner, so to speak; there is no reason we would have metaphysical intuitions that actually correspond to the real structure of reality at large.

    A key type of explanation is the casual explanation, and it incorporates axioms about reality such as “Whenever A, than B”. Causation, thus understood, is thus always a relation between two existing things, a relation that may or may not hold in existence. If we are not to assert its validity dogmatically, we can only conclude again that it is impossible to provide ultimate answers to the two main questions (“Why anything?” “Why this thing?”). Existence as a whole cannot be caused from outside itself, as there is Nothing (as in “not-anything”, not “not-matter”) to hang the causal relation on. Existence as a whole also cannot be explained from within existence, as such explanations will always only explain things through the causal structures that exist within reality and thus won’t explain why these causal structures exist “in the first place”.

    Ultimately, I think existence precedes causation and, hence, explanation. Things exist the way they are. Only some of this existence can be described in causal terms; e.g. many events are random, many parts of existence causally disconnected, and so on. While we can guess what the overall or underlying structures of reality are, based on evidence and reasoning (i.e. science), this does not amount to explaining them. Explaining why there is anything is attempting to apply the causal structure to existence as a whole, but this is a category error – causation is a structure within reality, that does not even always hold, and thus the concept does not apply to reality as a whole. Attempting to apply it is precisely the empty metaphysics that I spoke of earlier.

    All of this, however, does not mean that any structure is as plausible as the other. We judge what is more plausible given the data we have – from our very existence and thinking, to the latest scientific discoveries of cosmology. But in so doing we will not, ever, explain “why” reality has the basic structures thus discovered. We can only describe them, never explain them casually. And no other explanation – teleological, material, or so on – is satisfactory without a casual element to it.

    At least so I think. I’d love to hear where I went terribly, horribly, wrong.

    Yair

    • April 23, 2012 10:19 am

      Yair,

      I believe that you are correct. It is perhaps true that at some level there is a reality that is just there, and cannot be explained causally, except perhaps to invoke a religious explanation (if that is considered to be an explanation at all). But there is no special reason to believe that this is the level at which our universe exists. Another option is that our universe is constructed from the elements of some more basic level through a number of mechanisms, which are currently poorly understood, but may involve a combination of causation, randomness, and selection (e.g., in something like an anthropic sense) from among numerous possible alternatives. Explanations such as those of Krauss and Carroll can be viewed as such attempts to understand the process. It seems that there are a number of internal contradictions, missing elements, and relatively arbitrary assumptions in the current “standard” models of cosmology. Although we may never explain why there is “anything”, our struggles in studies such as this are worthwhile if we are forced to face our gaps in understanding of what there is, and try to address these challenging questions about our universe in particular and reality in general.

  13. Vishnya Maudlin permalink
    April 23, 2012 7:41 pm

    A new interview with Krauss in the Atlantic (against the philosophy of physics):

    http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/04/has-physics-made-philosophy-and-religion-obsolete/256203/

    • April 24, 2012 10:32 am

      Krauss consistently seems to be confusing any attack on his view with a certain line of argument from medieval philosophers and theologians. Here he is from that Atlantic interview: ” …And part of that is a reaction to these really pompous theologians who say, “out of nothing, nothing comes.”” But of course, this isn’t the critique at all, and it’s not coming from theologians, it’s coming from atheistic philosophers.

      This is especially frustrating because Krauss sees philosophers as making centuries-old claims, and dismisses philosophy for being stagnant for thousands of years, without making any attempt to educate himself on the current state of the discipline. Here’s Krauss in the article: “people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.”

      So, when philosophers bring reasonable attacks against him, he equates them with these very outdated ideas that no modern philosopher holds. He responds to a straw man, and justifies this response by appealing to philosophy’s lack of progression. When specific cases of philosophical progression are brought up, Krauss responds: “[t]here are areas of philosophy that are important, but I think of them as being subsumed by other fields.” Why does he think of them that way? I would imagine it’s because otherwise he’d have to read some philosophy before he called philosophers ‘morons.’ Krauss isn’t talking about philosophy when he uses ‘philosophy’ and he isn’t talking about nothing when he uses ‘nothing’.

    • Damian permalink
      April 25, 2012 11:05 am

      Krauss really needs to stop running off at the mouth like this, since he is clearly absolutely clueless about the philosophy of science, the history of philosophy, and the history of science. Massimo Pigliucci has posted a nice takedown of some of Krauss’s most idiotic comments from the Atlantic interview on his blog today:

      http://www.rationallyspeaking.org/

      I have written to Dan Dennett (a friend of Krauss, I believe) to ask him if he might care to try to gently dissuade Krauss from making any further public comments such as the following:

      “Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, ‘those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.’ And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.”

      As Pigliucci notes, it’s somewhat ironic that, in the same interview, Krauss also states that when addressing the public “the one thing you can’t do is overstate your claim, because people are going to believe you. … And so I try to be very careful and responsible” (!).

  14. April 23, 2012 8:27 pm

    I did, for the record, read all of Professor Krauss’ book. And I would have very much liked to say more about the specifically scientific issues he discusses in my review. But the space allotted me by the Times was very limited – and I figured (given the title and sub-title of the book) that the issue that was first and foremost in Professor Kraus’ mind was the question of creation from nothing – and so I thought it best to use what space I had to write as clearly and simply and directly as I could about that.

    But maybe it’s worth saying, now that the question has been raised, that the discussions of quantum mechanics in A Universe From Nothing are – from a purely scientific point of view – very badly confused. Let me mention just one example. Professor Kraus’ argument for the ‘reality’ of virtual particles, and for the instability of the quantum-mechanical vacuum, and for the larger and more imposing proposition that ‘nothing is something’, hinges on the claim that “the uncertainty in the measured energy of a system is inversely proportional to the length of time over which you observe it”. And it happens that we have known, for more than half a century now, from a beautiful and seminal and widely cited and justly famous paper by Yakir Aharonov and David Bohm, that this claim is false.

    Of course, the physical literature is full of sloppy and misleading talk about the ‘energy-time uncertainty relation’, and about the effects of ‘virtual particles’, and so on – and none of that does much harm in the context of calculations of scattering cross-sections or atomic energy levels or radioactive decay rates. But the business of pontificating about why there is something rather than nothing without bothering to get crucial pieces of the physics right, or to think about them carefully, or to present them honestly, strikes me as something of a scandal.

    David Z. Albert

  15. Damian permalink
    April 25, 2012 5:45 pm

    David,

    Since you have blasted Krauss for dealing with the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” so ineptly (i.e. by taking it to be a question of science and cosmology rather than one of a priori metaphysics), I’m curious to know: what do you think can be said about it, understood in its “proper” metaphysical sense, that might lead to productive lines of inquiry?

  16. Damian permalink
    April 27, 2012 11:35 am

    Dan Dennett (to whom I wrote about Krauss’s interview in The Atlantic) has very kindly just sent me this link:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-consolation-of-philos&print=true

    • April 27, 2012 1:16 pm

      It’s nice to see Krauss taking back at least some of his broad assault on Philosophy; however, it does look like he hasn’t really gotten David’s criticism. He addresses it on the bottom of the second page–this time refreshingly without any major accusations of stupidity.

      Krauss seems to think that David is claiming that we can’t explain “which particles and fields exist,” which is true in a certain sense: David doubts that we can explain why we have relativistic quantum fields, rather than some set of radically different fields, or no fields at all.

      But Krauss takes David to be claiming that we can’t explain how, given that we have relativistic quantum fields, those fields have certain features. This is not David’s critique at all.

    • April 27, 2012 1:57 pm

      Mike, well said.
      Damien, Krauss is astonishingly disingenuous. He knows perfectly well (or it would be even more astonishing if he doesn’t know) that David is also a physicist who has co-authored many important papers with Yakir Aharonov, one of the physicists who Krauss positively mentions in the Scientific American article who has made useful progress on the measurement problem. As Albert points in a previous post here a paper written by Aharonov and Bohm sets right one of the errors Krauss makes in his book.
      Krauss says he hasn’t learned anything from philosophers of physics. He needn’t have said it.

      • Damian permalink
        April 27, 2012 6:37 pm

        I’m not sure I agree that Krauss is being “astonishingly disingenuous”. In this new article he admits that there have been philosophers who are also physicists who have “contributed usefully” to the quantum measurement problem, but contends that inasmuch as that is the case they have done so qua physicists rather than qua philosophers (as evidenced by the fact that these contributions have been published in physics rather than philosophy journals). So while it’s true that Krauss does not specifically mention Albert’s work with Aharonov as being an important contribution to physics, it seems to me that even if he were to concede that it counts as such he would not thereby be under any rational obligation to also concede that this counts as an example of an important contribution to physics being made by a philosopher. Rather, he would surely quite reasonably point out that this work was carried out by two physicists, in a physics department, and published in physics journals, and the fact that Albert later came to work as a professional philosopher is irrelevant. On the other hand, when it comes to Albert’s criticisms of Krauss’s book and the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (which, after all, is what this thread is supposed to be about) it is hardly deniable that Albert is mounting his criticism from the point of view of philosophy and metaphysics rather than physics, and so the fact that Albert is a also qualified physicist is likewise irrelevant. Krauss’s point is that he regards the question of why there is something rather than nothing in its classical metaphysical sense as sterile, useless, uninteresting, and quite possibly intrinsically unanswerable. While he admits to using the classical formulation of the question in the title of his book “as a hook to get people to actually learn how the real universe behaves” (and I’ve made various comments about the defensibility of this above) he also contends that he was very clear and forthright in the book itself that he was tackling the problem from the point of view of physics and cosmology rather than that of metaphysics or theology. Since the latter two disciplines have been asking the question for centuries without any signs of progress, his point is ask if science can do any better. And, of course, his answer is that physics and cosmology have done absolute wonders in terms of providing plausible, empirically motivated answers to the question of how it is that (to quote Krauss) “a universe full of galaxies and stars, planets and people” might have “arise[n] naturally from an initial condition in which none of these objects – no particles, no space, and perhaps no time […] existed”.

        So in short it seems to me that Krauss’s position is quite defensible and that the ball is now in the court of David Albert and others who continue to insist that there is a deeper, metaphysical sense of the question that still deserves to be asked.

        • April 27, 2012 7:21 pm

          I don’t agree with you, Damian; reading the book, while he is certainly clear that he’s providing a physical, and cosmological, account he makes frequent asides about the irrationality of religion and the bizarreness of religious belief. It’s very clear that he thinks that science answers questions that religion ‘used to’ answer.

          And with regard to David’s credentials, part of Krauss’s ad hominem response involves accusing David of not understanding the physics, calling him a philosopher, and mocking philosophy as a discipline. If Krauss really is ignorant of David’s credentials, he should have at least checked them before calling David a ‘moronic philosopher’.

        • April 28, 2012 4:38 am

          Damien,

          Perhaps the following will make you a bit more sure that Krauss is being disingenuous or incredibly self-absorbed. Krauss and Albert have been at conferences together (one which was about Aharonov), Albert’s work on the foundations of quantum mechanics and philosophy of statistical mechanics has been published in physics journals (where there are more than 20 papers co-authored with Aharonov ) and in philosophy journals and in two books. A paper they wrote on making sense of measurement in relativistic QM has been cited hundreds of times. Of course a lot of his work is controversial (that is the nature of the subject) but it is very widely known in the foundations community (which consists of both physicists and philosophers). It is hard to believe that Krauss didn’t know who the author of the review is. After the review in the Times Krauss has been all over the internet, in magazines, at gatherings like the atheist club of America (or whatever) on the one hand saying that the review doesn’t deserve a response but then personally attacking David, throwing around words like “moronic” , “stupid” and insinuating (bizarrely given the actual review) that David has a religious agenda. Krauss escalated into attacking all of philosophy of science generally (he has now taken this back a little) saying that he has learned nothing from philosophy of physics. But it is clear from his remarks that he is unfamiliar with the field. Do you really think he has read Maudlin on non locality, Sklar on statistical mechanics, Earman on the hole argument, David Wallace on Everett, Greaves, Malament., Deutch (is he a physicist of philosopher in your view)……….? Philosophy and physics can contribute to each others projects and some issues require both (e.g. direction of time, the questions about whether anything exists, the ontology of QM). If you would like to see a very different reaction of physicists to philosophers (and the other way around as well) look at recent books by Brian Greene and Sean Carroll.

  17. cormac permalink
    April 27, 2012 3:35 pm

    I find this discussion rather unbalanced.’Krauss is a crybaby’ is not the thoughtful comment I expected to find in a blog on the philosophy of cosmology. There is no doubt that physicists and philosophers have differing worldviews, and can be quite dismissive of each others methods – this discussion seems to me to add little to the debate.

    Re Krauss’s book, I found it a clear and entertaining read, introducing the public to an idea that has been known to physicists for many years; namely that we suspect that a universe may not necessarily need a first cause, in the usual sense of the word.
    He does not say this is what happened, he simply explains at the popular level why we think it is a possibility. Certainly, I was surprised by the Dawkins afterword and thought it brought the book into territory best avoided. However, I found the Albert review very disappointing; it seemed to me it failed to engage with the arguments from physics in a nuts-and-bolts way, or to take account of the fact that Krauss’s arguments are simplified for a popular audience.As a reviewer myself, I understand the problem of brevity in a review but that last sentence was poorly chosen…

    • April 27, 2012 7:14 pm

      I think Barry was responding to Krauss’s direct, and very condescending, remarks about David Albert and philosophy in general. After getting a bad review, he behaved somewhat immaturely, lashing out at both his reviewer and anyone connected to him.

      I don’t know what you mean by ‘philosophers and physicists have different worldviews.’ We’re both looking at the same world; some questions about it are best explained by physics, and some are best explained by philosophy. Krauss’s book does a wonderful job of explicating recent work in physics, but leaves some questions unanswered. I’m not sure whether David thinks that those questions are amenable to philosophical investigation, or if he thinks they’re unanswerable. But he argues that Krauss hasn’t answered them, fairly effectively I think.

      • Damian permalink
        April 29, 2012 10:26 am

        >>>I don’t agree with you, Damian; reading the book, while he certainly clear that he’s providing a physical, and cosmological, account he makes frequent asides about the irrationality of religion and the bizarreness of religious belief.

        I don’t see how this contradicts anything I have said, but I do think you exaggerate the extent to which Krauss’s book takes swipes at religion. Though Albert somehow completely fails to mention it in his NYT “review”, the bulk of Krauss’s book comprises an admirably clear and accessible account of many of the most breathtaking and fascinating advances in scientific cosmology in recent decades. Given that the vast majority of people even in the most economically advanced countries of the world know virtually nothing about such things, surely those of us who believe that it is better that people base their beliefs upon scientific findings rather than ancient superstitions should be welcoming rather than pouring scorn upon such a book?

        Admittedly Krauss suggests that religion and theology have contributed nothing to our knowledge of the universe for several centuries (at least), but is this really controversial? If not, what on earth is wrong with saying so, especially given the fact that religious organisations around the world — many of them backed by serious amounts of money (whether in the United States, Saudi Arabia or elsewhere) — are meanwhile aggressively marketing their divisive ideologies as if they were well-established knowledge, and enjoying great success in convincing millions of people that they are right?

        It’s very clear that he thinks that science answers questions that religion ‘used to’ answer.

        Well yes, he thinks that science provides plausible, empirically well-motivated (albeit fallible) answers to questions regarding the nature of the universe to which the world’s religions have provided demonstrably false answers. I entirely agree with him about this, and would be very surprised if you don’t, but again fail to see how this contradicts anything I have said above.

        >>>And with regard to David’s credentials, part of Krauss’s ad hominem response involves accusing David of not understanding the physics, calling him a philosopher, and mocking philosophy as a discipline. If Krauss really is ignorant of David’s credentials, he should have at least checked them before calling David a ‘moronic philosopher’.

        Again, I don’t think this contradicts what I have said. I completely agree that Krauss’s ad hominem attacks upon Albert and disparaging remarks about philosophy in general were completely out of order, and have said so both here and elsewhere. My contentions were rather as follows: (1) that Krauss’s claim that he is unaware of any philosophers qua philosophers having made any significant contributions to physics is not necessarily disingenuous; (2) that Albert’s criticisms of Krauss’s book depended far more upon contestable a priori metaphysical and semantic intuitions and arguments than they did upon his (unquestionably very considerable) expertise in physics; and (3) that insofar as Albert himself has not offered any reasons to believe that the strong metaphysical (and arguably crypto-theological) sense of the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is a meaningful or tractable one, his basic line of criticism of Krauss’s book not only rings hollow but also inevitably gives rise to the suspicion that the motivation behind his extremely uncharitable review of the book may well not be unrelated to the ideological agenda of the organisation that funds the Philosophy of Cosmology project.

        • Lyanna permalink
          April 30, 2012 10:34 pm

          There’s nothing all that “uncharitable” about the review. Krauss himself purports to answer the “strong metaphysical” version of the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” He makes no distinction between that “strong metaphysical” version than any other version, so it makes sense for Albert (or any other reviewer) to simply evaluate Krauss’s stab at it. Rather than going off on a tangent about whether, in Albert’s own opinion, there can be an answer. Krauss clearly thinks there can be an answer for anyone who isn’t clinging to a religious viewpoint.

  18. Sean Carroll permalink
    April 28, 2012 5:02 pm

    For what it’s worth, I’ve written a post about this on Cosmic Variance:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2012/04/28/a-universe-from-nothing/

  19. Lee Smolin permalink
    April 29, 2012 7:15 pm

    Lawrence Krauss has shown himself in the past to be a gifted polemicist who has done good service in the defense of science, for example as regards natural selection. I haven’t read his last book but if it claims roughly what the title and the reviews and commentaries attribute to it: that recent developments in physics can explain why the universe exists and how and why it emerged from non-existence, I have to agree it is badly wrong. Worse, to claim that science has something to say now about the questions of why something rather than nothing exists is to err badly and give a big opening to defenders of religion.

    The reason to prefer science to religion as a source of truth about the world cannot be that science offers the better story to explain enigmas like why the world exists or consciousness. To the contrary,  science offers nothing to compete with the certainties of religious dogmas on such questions. The reason is that science has a far  higher standard for belief and this standard results in knowledge that is limited in scope and always provisional. But it is the best knowledge we can have, if by knowledge we mean provisional understanding that can be established and defended by rational argument from public evidence. Science may someday yield an understanding of how and why the universe came to exist, but the fact is it does not presently. The speculation some scientists indulge in on these topics does not amount to verified knowledge. Therefor it is a mistake to compete with religion on explaining how or why the universe began because it is a fight we can only contest by giving up the methodologies and standards to which we owe our entire success.

    The point is that the origin of the universe is not like the origin of species, if by the universe we mean truly all that exists, and not just an era in a grander story, extending before the big bang. One reason is that all the established theories including quantum field theory, general relativity and their hybrid within which inflation and the early universe are described, share a common structure, in which the input includes a specification of three things: a space of states, a dynamical law that acts on those states, and a set of initial conditions. Even theories like general relativity and inflationary cosmology that claim to describe an origin of the universe require a specification of initial conditions at that origin. Since the choice of laws and initial conditions are inputs to the method, they cannot be outputs-hence no story about how they universe began couched in the framework of one of these theories establishes sufficient reason for that beginning. There remains always the question of why these laws, why these initial conditions and why something rather than nothing.

    Indeed it is worse than this, because the freedom to specify the initial conditions recognizes that in the usual applications of these theories there is a role for an external experimenter to either prepare the system initially or, in cases like astronomy, to choose which system is to be described out of vast ensembles of similar systems (such as stars and galaxies. This is why such theories only make sense when applied to small subsystems of the universe. If one uncritically applies these theories to the universe as a whole-thus committing a fallacy-one leaves open the space for some “experimenter” external to the universe to “choose” the laws and initial conditions. Of course, smart theologians know this and do not fail to point this out whenever a scientist makes the naive argument Krauss appears to have made that current speculative physical theories of physics “explain” the reasons why the universe was created.

    So we scientists ought just to admit that our present theories do not suffice to explain why the universe exists or how choices were made at its creation. Our challenge is to invent theories of a different type that can apply to the universe as a whole and so do not allow the space for free specification of laws and initial conditions. This will still be very unlikely to address queries like why something rather than nothing exists, but at least it will weaken the theologians claim a god is necessary to explain choices made at the origin of the universe, in the same way that natural selection does so for the origin of the species. But any one who claims this is already done in our current theories has not yet begun to comprehend the challenges that face theoretical cosmology.

  20. April 29, 2012 9:12 pm

    Martin Heidegger anticipated and warned us against this sort of science vs. philosophy squabbling.

    Heidegger’s formulation of the holistic question, the topic at hand, is: Why are there beings at all, and why not rather nothing?

    Heidegger’s defined the nothing as: the complete negation of the totality of beings.

    From What is Metaphysics:

    “Science would like to dismiss the nothing with a lordly wave of the hand. […] The presumed soberness of mind and superiority of science become laughable when it does not take the nothing seriously. Only because the nothing is manifest can science make beings themselves objects of investigation” (111).

    We see this lordly attitude assert itself when Krauss writes of the question, “why … there is space at all, and how both stuff and space and even the forces we measure could arrive from no stuff and no space—is, in my opinion, impotent and useless.”

    What Krauss has (purposefully?) overlooked, and Heidegger so gracefully pointed out, is that science presupposes the nothing. It is a contradiction for science—and scientists like Krauss—to invoke the concept of the nothing in order to reject it. This is not just poor science but also poor logic.

    The question of the nothing is not an age-old metaphysical pseudo-problem. It is a real problem—the problem, perhaps—for science and philosophy to approach humbly and in good faith.

    • Damian permalink
      April 30, 2012 4:28 pm

      Martin Heidegger anticipated and warned us against this sort of science vs. philosophy squabbling.

      Actually Heidegger held both science and logic in contempt, pronouncing that “science does not and cannot think”; that science is guilty of the “misinterpretation and emasculation of the spirit”; that scientists are “the most miserable slaves of modern times”; and poured scorn on all attempts to build bridges between science and “thinking” (i.e. the kind of obsfuscatory poetising in which he indulged): “there is nothing but mischief in all the makeshift ties and asses’ bridges by which men would set up a comfortable commerce between thinking and the sciences.”

      “Heidegger’s formulation of the holistic question, the topic at hand, is: Why are there beings at all, and why not rather nothing?” … “the nothing is manifest”

      Yes indeed, Heidegger is explicitly talking about a “nothing” that can become “manifest” in human experience and “is originally disclosed only in anxiety”. Apart from the very questionable intelligibility of his talk of a “nothing” that “nihilates incessantly”, and so on, it’s a little hard to see how a “nothing” that can only manifest itself to human beings in a state of existential anxiety might help to solve the problem of how a universe arose from nothing 13.72 billion years before there were any human beings, don’t you think?

      Apart from this, just in order to nip this one in the bud I think it’s worth mentioning that Heidegger used the question “Why are there beings rather than nothing?” as the starting point for mystery-mongering propagandising on behalf of Nazism. Thus, in the same year that he wrote the piece from which you quote (1929), he gave lectures along very similar lines calling for a leader “capable of instilling terror into our being again” and when Hitler came to power in 1933 used his position as Rector of Freiburg University to persuade students that “The Führer alone is the present and future German reality and its law”. The same year he wrote to the Bavarian Ministry of Education to argue that a prominent Jewish philosopher of science was guilty of having “deceived many young people and led them astray” with “dangerous sophistication” by propagating “a philosophy that […] turns away from man in his historical rootedness and his national [volkhaft] belonging to his origin in earth and blood [Boden und Blut, concluding: “That still today this man continues to be employed at the University of Munich I am compelled to call a scandal.” In the most extensive lectures he devoted to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” in 1935 Heidegger depicts Nazi Germany as the West’s last great hope for salvation, speaking of “the inner truth and greatness of the National Socialist Movement” and again impresses upon his students the importance of German rootedness in blood and soil, and so on.

      So, in spite of Scott’s praise for Heidegger’s putative “grace” and “humility”, I suggest we leave Heidegger’s pontifications out of this, shall we?

      (P.S. If Scott is interested in reading about the political context and subtext of Heidegger’s posing of the question “Why are there beings rather than nothing?”, he might want to read about it here, for example: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ECJmNflY21IC&pg=PA1&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=3#v=onepage&q=%22Why%20are%20there%20beings%20rather%20than%20nothing%3F%22&f=false).

      • Eusebius permalink
        May 2, 2012 11:57 am

        I don’t disagree with anything that has been said but I do have a comment I’d like to leave. I don’t think Heidegger should be pulled into the original discussion. For one thing, Heidegger says different things about science at different times. Early on he seeks a truly “philosophical logic” and speaks as if he himself is a ‘researcher’ in the ‘science’ of phenomenology. For my own contentious opinion I think it better to either dismiss him wholesale or go along with him all the way than try to ‘pin down’ his opinion and lift it into various contemporary topics. Make no mistake, he does want to enter into dialogue with everything essential but this dialogue will take place on Heidegger’s terms.

      • May 3, 2012 4:39 pm

        “Actually Heidegger held both science and logic in contempt”

        Yes. Heidegger recognized the presuppositional structure of inquiry, which gave rise to the so-called “hermeneutical circle.” The natural sciences, mathematics, and the analytic philosophical traditions aim to eliminate all presuppositions. Heidegger views this impulse as a “subspecies of the understanding” and an “embarrassment.” Here is the key quote from Being and Time: “But if we see this circle as a vicious one and look for ways of avoiding it, even if we just ‘sense’ it as an inevitable imperfection, than the act of understanding has been misunderstood from the ground up” (194).

        “[…] it’s a little difficult to see how a “nothing” that can only manifest itself to human beings in a state of existential anxiety might help to solve the problem of how a universe arose from nothing 13.72 billion years before there were any human beings, don’t you think?”

        No, because we’re talking about the same nothing. Ned Beach explains, “The most difficult thing to grasp in Heidegger’s treatment of this topic is why the understanding, which we usually think of as a purely conceptual faculty of the intellect, should be characterized in a way that embraces feelings [such as anxiety], intuitions, and other non-cognitive functions as well. The answer is that for Heidegger feelings and intuitions, no les than intellectual grasping, is grounded in a more primordial way of experiencing Being-in-the-world, a way that opens Dasein’s potentialities for existing toward the future.”

        I think the main point for this discussion, though—which was absent from Damian’s reply—is Heidegger’s claim that science presupposes the nothing in order to reject it. This move, made by Krauss and other scientists, is simply untenable. Here is the key quote from What is Metaphysics: “The presumed soberness of mind and superiority of science become laughable when it does not take the nothing seriously” (111).

        “Heidegger used the question “Why are there beings rather than nothing?” as the starting point for mystery-mongering propagandising on behalf of Nazism.”

        Wrong again. Heidegger’s philosophy had nothing to do with politics. His thought was concerned specifically with the question: What does it mean to be? While Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism is an unfortunate truth this attack is ad hominem.

        “I suggest we leave Heidegger’s pontifications out of this, shall we?”

        I don’t think so.

  21. April 30, 2012 5:26 am

    Perhaps I might say a word in defence of Krauss. Dawkins, in his afterword, describes the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” as the theologian’s “trump card”. Now, if there are theologians who actually play that card, and (presumably) think that “God” is a suitable answer (and I’d like to know some names of such theologians), then their “nothing” is clearly not “nothing” in the philosopher’s sense of the word, as God, necessary or not, if he “is”, is clearly “something” rather than “nothing”.

    Perhaps we could say that, fairly trivially, there is no answer to the question of “Why is there something rather than nothing”, if we think that the question is one of causation, and if we think that non-existent entities (whatever they may be) cannot cause other entities to exist.

    But then there are other questions that could usefully be asked: “Why is there this particular something rather than not this particular something?”, or, “Why is there something with X kind of property, rather than nothing with X kind of property?” (e.g., physical properties), or even, “Why are there contingent beings rather than only necessary beings?” (although I’m not entirely comfortable with the concept of a “necessary being”).

    Derek Parfit’s paper is very helpful, by the way.

  22. cormac permalink
    April 30, 2012 6:03 am

    Mikehicks: Re ” I don’t know what you mean by ‘philosophers and physicists have different worldviews.’ We’re both looking at the same world; some questions about it are best explained by physics, and some are best explained by philosophy”
    Different worldviews implies looking at the same world in different ways, exactly as I stated. The explanations may be different as you say in the second sentence. In fact, cosmology is one of the few areas where physicists and philosophers are grappling with similar questions, but we tend to address them from different viewpoints, thus talking past each other.

    For example, Prof Albert may be justified in his point that Krauss concentrates on an explanation within the laws of physics, without really addressing the problem of where those laws come from; this is fairly typical of physicists, and is probably a limitation of our worldview. Krauss responds by asking what problem in physics has ever been elucidated by philosophy, which is a slo an interesting criticism

  23. Heather Demarest permalink
    April 30, 2012 9:06 am

    One of the things that bothers me about this debate is that Krauss and many others seem to group philosophy with religion, then frame the dispute as one of science vs. religion. As Barry and others have pointed out, philosophy of physics is continuous with physics, and those who work in the field publish papers in both physics journals, as well as philosophy journals. While I’m sure some philosophers of physics are religious, just as some physicists are religious, it would be a huge mistake to think that any philosopher working on origin questions is motivated by religious considerations.

  24. Damian permalink
    April 30, 2012 4:32 pm

    Barry,

    I have already said that I regard Krauss’s personal attacks on David Albert as completely out of order and his comments about philosophy of science idiotic. While it’s understandable that he’d be pissed off with Albert for writing such an uncharitable, scathing and wholly negative review (surely the book is at least quite good as an introduction to contemporary cosmology for the layperson?), what he really ought to have done is sat down and written a careful and detailed rebuttal.

    I also agree with you that Krauss was quite probably being disingenuous inasmuch as he seemed to feign ignorance regarding Albert’s credentials in physics and his influential papers in quantum mechanics. As you point out, this work (as well as his co-authored work with yourself) is hardly obscure, at least among those who have any interest in the various interpretations of quantum mechanics.

    The other possibility, of course, is that he really is “incredibly self-absorbed”. As you say, it’s very clear from his remarks about the philosophy of science that he knows nothing about it, and I agree that he can’t have read the works of the likes of Maudlin, Sklar, Redhead, Earman, Mermin, Norton, Wallace and others we could mention (i.e. since otherwise there’s no way he could have made the stupefyingly asinine remark that philosophy is worthless and that “the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science”!). But if that’s so, mightn’t it likewise be possible that he is also unacquainted with Albert’s work?

    But more importantly, the point I’ve been trying to make is that Albert’s criticisms of the book were really not motivated by physics at all, but rather by a priori metaphysical intuitions and semantic arguments. (Indeed, as I mention somewhere above, the argument that Albert uses to discredit Krauss’s book is essentially the same as that used by the professional theologian/debater/sophist William Lane Craig in his debate with Krauss.) Given this fact, was it unreasonable for Krauss to address Albert as a philosopher rather than as a physicist? I don’t think so.

    But surely that’s enough about this. What I think would be really good is if we could return to the question that this thread was supposed to address, i.e. whether or not we have any reason to believe that there could be a scientific or philosophical answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Both Sean Carroll and Lee Smolin (and speaking of philosophy-friendly physicists we could scarcely do better than these two!) have posted some very interesting reflections on the matter that I’m itching to respond to. However, since I realise I’m running the risk of posting far too many comments at this point, I’ll try to hold my horses until others have had their say.

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