That something out of nothing problem…

It seems that quite a number of categorical remarks got thrown around by Lawrence Krauss – about philosophers, theologians and physicists – in the discussions surrounding his recent book A Universe From Nothing.

But, as is often the case, these kinds of categorical judgments, that question the value of very different kinds of work, do more to obscure things rather than clarify them.  One of the intentions of Krauss’ most recent book (and a goal shared by many popular books about physics) is to bring something particularly surprising, and perhaps conceptually difficult, to the attention of a popular audience – something that will capture their imagination and make them interested.  In an interview for the Atlantic,  (which may have been motivated by some of the anger surrounding the book) Krauss describes one of the surprises that physics provides:

What’s amazing to me is that we’re now at a point where we can plausibly argue that a universe full of stuff came from a very simple beginning, the simplest of all beginnings: nothing. That’s been driven by profound revolutions in our understanding of the universe, and that seemed to me to be something worth celebrating, and so what I wanted to do was use this question to get people to face this remarkable universe that we live in.

That it’s possible to create particles from no particles is remarkable—that you can do that with impunity, without violating the conservation of energy and all that, is a remarkable thing. The fact that “nothing,” namely empty space, is unstable is amazing. But I’ll be the first to say that empty space as I’m describing it isn’t necessarily nothing, although I will add that it was plenty good enough for Augustine and the people who wrote the Bible. For them an eternal empty void was the definition of nothing, and certainly I show that that kind of nothing ain’t nothing anymore.

The book’s afterward by David Dawkins contributes to some of the anger surrounding its reception.  Dawkins writes “Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages.”  A recent review by Columbia professor of philosophy David Albert, appeared in the New York Times, and fueled a controversy.  While Krauss responds to these criticisms in the Atlantic interview, he also fans the fire with comments like this one:

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.

Science writer John Horgan has his own take on what he calls “Krauss’ derivative book” and expresses it at the Scientific American blog site.

Whaaaa…??!! Dawkins is comparing the most enduringly profound scientific treatise in history to a pop-science book that recycles a bunch of stale ideas from physics and cosmology. This absurd hyperbole says less about the merits of Krauss’s derivative book than it does about the judgment-impairing intensity of Dawkins’s hatred of religion.

But even-handed physicist Sean Carrol does a really nice job of discussing the relevant science on the Discover Magazine website and adds this useful admonition near the end:

Like most scientists, Lawrence doesn’t get a lot out of the philosophy of science. That’s okay; the point of philosophy is not to be “useful” to science, any more than the point of mycology is to be “useful” to fungi. Philosophers of science aren’t trying to do science, they are trying to understand how science works, and how it should work, and to tease out the logic and standards underlying scientific argumentation, and to situate scientific knowledge within a broader epistemological context, and a bunch of other things that can be perfectly interesting without pretending to be science itself.

For the physicist, the often bewildering nature of our reality is built with experimental data.  This ‘nothing’ that is being debated is not a conceptual nothing. But the universe that this data may be revealing, is only possible with the conceptual structures of mathematics.  That modern physics, relying so heavily on the purely conceptual science of mathematics, produces these counter-intuitive pictures of the universe, has long inspired me to carefully reflect on the nature of knowing itself.  Related to this is exploring what mathematics may be able to show us about cognition (what I try to do with this blog). I’m interested in coming to terms with the reality described by modern physics, especially when cognition is viewed, as biologists Maturana and Varela suggest – not as a representation of the world “out there,” but rather as an ongoing bringing forth of a world through the process of living itself.

I hope that the antagonism between philosophy and science, or the combative tone of the debate between science and religion, will one day quiet down.  It seems clear that the ancient source of religious and mystical views lies in the intuition that what we see is not really what’s there.  And this is more a hunch about us. The corruption of this honest intuition, by some of the harmful dogma that has grown out of it, is a secondary issue that cannot be corrected by appealing only to science.  But science can contribute to the original hunch.  It also seems very likely to me that the seeds of new paradigms, yet to develop, may lay dormant in the historical work of people like Schopenhauer.

There is hope for mending some of the schisms, exemplified by the work of the scientists that created The Foundational Questions Institute.  Along with some other questions, they put these forward in a statement about their scope and impetus:

  • What distinguishes the future from the past, if the universe is governed by physical laws that make no such distinction? How does duration, which we experience, relate to the time described by physics and mathematics?
  • What is the relationship between physics, mathematics and information? What determines what exists? How “real” is the world of mathematics—and how “real” is the world of matter?
  • Why does the universe seem so complex, given its simple initial conditions, and the elegant mathematics that describes it? Is life ubiquitous in the universe (or beyond)? How does matter give rise to consciousness—or does it?

And they rightly conclude:

Questions like these lie at the frontier of science and at the foundation of our understanding of the universe, and intimately connect with and inform not just scientific fields, but also philosophy, theology and religious belief systems. Answers to these questions will have profound intellectual, practical, and spiritual implications for anyone with deep curiosity about the world’s true nature.

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