Theoretical physics, as practiced in the mainstream media, seems to be moving from a mania about multiverses to a religious battle over nothingness. On one side we have physicist Lawrence Krauss, with his best-selling new entry into the atheism book sweepstakes: A Universe from Nothing. Krauss is backed by Richard Dawkins, who compares the book’s devastating effect on religion to that of Darwin’s.
On the other side we have philosopher David Albert, backed by a million dollars from the Templeton Foundation (see more here), who has a review out this morning in the New York Times characterizing Krauss as “pale, small, silly, nerdy” (his ideas, not him, I think).
The big debate here is over what one means by “nothingness”, which seems to me characterizable as nothing of interest. I guess though that there is a lot of money to be made in the nothingness business. The next opportunity for a big payday from nothingness will be on Thursday, 11 AM GMT, when Templeton will announce who gets this year’s $1.7 million dollar prize. I’ve no idea who will get it, just that it won’t be Krauss.
I have never risen above the technical level of the “Not even wrong” book but I seem to remember that “nothing” does not really exist in modern physics. Isn’t vacuum a seething mass of appearing and annihilating particles? And isn’t empty space not some kind of weird background-generating quantum foam? So is “nothing” a viable concept? If some expert could clarify this for me in simple language 🙂
Contrary to what some people might think little progress has been made in the area. Krauss to answer the question uses Hatrle’s Hawking good old ‘No boundary proposal’ and Vilenkin’s tunneling wave function which by the way don’t agree with each other. These proposals however are 30 years old and not much have been found since. In fact spontaneous creation of a Universe from nothing (no space-time) is poorly understood and these proposals are semiclassical approximations.
Of course we have learned some things, for example that eternal inflation can’t be past eternal and thus a beginning is needed even in a eternally inflating Universe. LQC guys have found that their models predict a bounce instead of a singularity for FRW metrics at least but they don’t have a clue on what triggered the Universe at the very beginning. String theory on the other hand has little to say about cosmological singularities.
Lacking a theory of Quantum Gravity physicists can’t brag that they have answers (or even hints) for these profound questions.
Giotis: “LQC guys have found that their models predict a bounce instead of a singularity for FRW metrics at least but they don’t have a clue on what triggered the Universe at the very beginning.”
What do you mean by “at the very beginning”? We have no reason to imagine a “very beginning”, certainly not on the basis of a conjecture like “eternal inflation”.
What the LQC guys aim to do in this respect is simply to resolve the cosmological singularity in a testable way–that predicts features of the cosmic background radiation that can be looked for–and provide for adequate one-time inflation. So the goal is not to explain “why existence exists” :-D.
I think it’s naive and premature to ask “why existence exists” at this point. A more reasonable goal is simply to model what nature was doing shortly before and after the start of expansion, in a way that makes predictions. It’s important to be able to judge when a question is ready to be asked.
I meant the simple fact that a bounce presupposes a collapsing Universe but what gave birth to this Universe? They don’t have a clue but since their ‘difference equation’ approximates the Wheeler de Wit equation and the Harltle-Hawking wave function is a solution of the Wheeler de Wit equation I guess they have to to resort to the usual method to answer the question regarding the birth of the Universe. I know though that they are on trying to answer such questions.
That last sentence of the review that includes the “nerdy, pale, small, …” should have been left out. It undermines the review, which I thought made some good points, and makes the author sound like he is insecure. In any case, I’m kind of partial to Steven Weinberg’s comment on the unreasonable ineffectiveness of philosophy in physics (to be contrasted with the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the physical sciences of Wigner). If you are going to blur the line between science and scientific speculation and then philosophy or even religion, you’ll have to argue with philosophers without solid experimental evidence to back you up. Good luck…
It seems like we should exorcise the mysticism in physics before hammering out issues with the religious philosophers – when we are battling things like F-theory (because the mathematics is “beautiful”) and multiverse mania where experimental evidence is seen as a 19th century thing, we don’t stand much chance proposing the use of logical reasoning.
I saw this review on Friday already, and left this post on my FB page:
“This is possibly the WORST review EVER in the NYT — He completely trashes the book simply because he disagrees with the premise; and the last sentence is virtually incomprehensible (from a Columbia Philosophy Professor !!!). NYT, you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel with this one.”
The Templeton connection at least now explains the idiotic review. What remains unexplained, is why the NYT would publish such claptrap, much less pay someone good money for it, especially since the politico-religious leanings of the NYT is surely far more toward the viewpoints of the author, rather than this inane critic.
“Richard Dawkins, who compares the book’s devastating effect on religion to that of Darwin’s.”
That is an awfully silly comparison to make an Dawkins should know better. Darwin had a solid theory backed-up with overwhelming amount of scientific evidence while what Krauss is discussing, while could be interesting in a philosophical level, it seems to make no harm at all to religion as any arguments he might have, are not backed-up by any evidence (as far as I know, someone can correct me here, but I find it hard..). I believe this is the part that actually matters about Darwin, i.e., a scientific theory that actually does tell something about who we are with evidence to corroborate it. What Krauss is doing refers to very old philosophical debate, which will make no smart religious person lose the appetite.
The language “pale, small, etc.” did not refer to Krauss. Nor did it refer to his ideas, exactly.
It referred to an attack on religion because, as the reviewer paraphrased, it can be dumb. Rather than, say, cruel, oppressive, destructive, or any of the various big things that anticlericals used to cite.
The reviewer attacks Krauss’s notion that the absence of material particles is a reasonable definition of “nothing.” I found the attack convincing. Am I missing something?
The exact quote is
“all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation…”
which does explicitly refer to Krauss’s ideas, not his physique. However, it is a fact that Krauss is physically rather short, rather pale, and, like lots of us, rather nerdy. In addition, Albert makes it pretty clear that “silly” is what he thinks of Krauss in general. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the four terms he uses could be applied to Krauss as a physical person. In particular, the term “nerdy” actually makes little sense except as a personal comment. Who has ever heard an academic criticize a scholarly argument because it is “nerdy”? All scholarly arguments are “nerdy”, by the definition of “nerdy” common among people I know.
As for the argument about whether it’s accurate to refer to a physical state with “nothing” in it as “nothing”, that seems to me about as intellectually empty as the vacuum is physically empty.
I think “former mathematician” has read Albert’s review entirely correctly — in particular, the significance of the “pale, small, etc.” comment — while some of the other misreadings on display here are somewhat startling. Albert simply thought Krauss’s argument was a bad one, which is worlds apart from defending the religious viewpoint that Krauss is attacking.
Peter’s describing the review as part of a “religious battle over nothingness” and mentioning Albert’s Templeton funding strikes me as extremely disingenuous. Albert himself is an atheist, and has spoken in the past at conferences such as Beyond Belief. Again, Albert simply thought that Krauss’s argument was a bad one, and that many “new-atheist” criticisms of religion seem to be misdirected, ignoring the most pernicious aspects of religion by focusing on the fact that it can be dumb. Short of willful misreading, I’m not really sure how one could understand the review to be saying much more than that.
This blog used to be critical of polemical, imprecise attacks on people, ideas, etc. When it comes to your recent discussions addressing religion, however, it seems that you don’t hold yourself to this same high standard. Quoting fragments out of context? Come on. Please. Here’s the full, final paragraph of the article, so that people can read the full context of the reviewer’s words.
“And I guess it ought to be mentioned, quite apart from the question of whether anything Krauss says turns out to be true or false, that the whole business of approaching the struggle with religion as if it were a card game, or a horse race, or some kind of battle of wits, just feels all wrong — or it does, at any rate, to me. When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for everything essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.”
I think the idea was that Darwin gave us an alternative explanation of how the astounding complexity of life could have come into existence without an intelligent creator crafting biological machines, and a universe from nothing likewise is supposed to provide an alternative route to the creation of energy and matter in the first place.
The difference is Darwinism is accessible to controlled experiment and observational confirmation and has proven to be a central organizing principle of all biology. It provides a framework of understanding that advances biological science.
It is hard to imagine any tome on how the universe came to be having a similar impact, I believe it is in essence an untestable assertion, and there is no price to pay for the religionists simply continuing to claim that God initiated the whole shebang.
I should perhaps make clear, if it isn’t already, that I have equally little sympathy for or interest in either side of this argument, and plead guilty to making fun here of both of them because of this. As far as I’m concerned, theoretical and experimental cosmology is an interesting science, but trying to drag arguments about religion into it just leads to wasting your time on meaningless nonsense. This is true whether you are trying to sell books with your arguments about God, or review said books by going on about whether their theological arguments are sufficiently colorful, large, serious and manly.
Couldn’t we agree that the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” is outside the purview of science? Physicists who start trying to answer it are only going to end up making fools of themselves and giving the creationists and other religious extremists more ammunition.
I’d like to read the Krauss book and see if it says anything im interested in. But i look on amazon and the kindle version is more expensive than hardcover. I just cant buy it! Guess ill be rethinking my kindle addiction.
Your moniker reveals your own faith, which is just as strained as any other belief to prove something in the absence of evidence. Your belief depends from something you can not confirm, so it is strange you hold such disdain for others who share your justifications. As to what Charles Darwin said, or tried to demonstrate, please try reading what the man wrote before making such statements. Darwin never said his theory explained the orgin of life or sought to say it could, it attempted to explain how EXISTING life might change through natural selection, not how it came to be in the first place. To this day Evolutionists really do not know how life started, and have speculated life might not have originated on this planet but traveled here on meteroites or ???… this only keeps kicking the question down the hall of course and is of course based entirely on speculation.
I think you should think about what you have written in your own book before you make light of what is in other peoples books. Considering some of the amazing things people who call themselves Physicists are saying these days, and using the most tortured of logics to support their theories, or claiming they no longer have to even provide testible evidence, or claiming computer mathematical modeling predictions are equal to or more valid than physical experimentation, I have to wonder, do even you know now where the line is between mathematical abstraction and testible reality?? Since quantum mechanics and maybe even before, physics has tried it’s best to jettison all mechanical underpinnings to the massless point where not much is based on anything anymore, except perhaps the ‘interpretation’ of a few men in a very small shibboleth who told their devout followers to ‘pay no attentioon to the man behind the curtain!’ and later to “shut up and calculate” . You should not say one word about religion being meaningless nonsense Peter, or looking down your nose at those like Albert Eisnstein who even humbly admitted “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” You may know your math, but you seem to not know a great deal of your mathematical history or philosophy concerning those who came before you and what they believed. You presently stand on the shoulders of many far greater than you who you would sneer at.
If you really want to help physics Peter, try cleaning up the hubris that seems to have infected it. The smug and arrogant are not ever likely to catch their own mistakes or be capable of making corrections. People such as yourself depend on the good graces of funding, from many many people… Most of them who believe in something you have shown disdain for. I don’t think I need a large hadron collider or a quantum computer fiasco to see a large part of the physics community has become detatched from the people who would fund it through their taxes. Money for research into how many superstrings can dance on the head of esoteric singularities in the nth dimension is going to be in short supply very soon, so I suspect some financial re-evaluating will soon take place that will bring the HEP fabulists back to earth in their own unique version of “The Hunger Games”. It would be nice if when this ‘big crunch’ occurs, someone like youself has some suggestions on where to start over and try again from.
I love the title of the article.
Your moniker reveals your own faith, which is just as strained as any other belief to prove something in the absence of evidence.
There is no strain. As a scientist, in the absence of evidence I do not believe anything; including claims of the existence of something for which I believe there is no evidence whatsoever, like a creator. I am comfortable with the stance that we do not know how the universe began.
Your belief depends from something you can not confirm,
You have this backwards. Atheism is a lack of belief in magical beings. I refuse to believe in something that cannot be confirmed. it is religionists that believe in something they cannot confirm, the essence of religion is “faith,” which is a belief immune to evidence, even contradicting evidence or logic.
As to what Charles Darwin said, or tried to demonstrate, please try reading what the man wrote before making such statements.
I have read “On the Origin of Species” cover-to-cover twice.
Darwin never said his theory explained the origin of life or sought to say it could,
Neither did I. I said he gave us an explanation for how the complexity of life could have come into being, which I think refuted the vast majority of arguments for God that depended on what is now called “intelligent design.” IMO very few scientists of any stripe remain that think “functional complexity” demands any intelligence to design at all, not even something as functionally complex as intelligence itself: The human mind.
As it happens, however, as with many scientific discoveries, Darwin’s principles would indeed provide a route to the origin of life, because all we really need is the random assembly of a barely functional and laughably inefficient Rube Goldberg self-replicator, somewhere in the vastness of the universe, to get natural selection started. IMO, that in turn reduced the majesty of the “creation of life” considerably. Because of Darwin, one can imagine life started as a simple microscopic entity as small as a virus. That puts the “creation of life” firmly into the realm of a chance chemical reaction.
To this day Evolutionists really do not know how life started, and have speculated life might not have originated on this planet but traveled here on meteroites or ???…
By analogy, to this day, physicists have not quite figured out quantum gravity either. That does not mean these problems are insoluble for all time, or that God gave us gravity and we should not question it. Science advances by testable speculation, and testable speculations evolve from less testable speculations.
It is not based entirely on speculation, it is informed speculation based on observation. Various chemical compounds necessary to the amino acid bases of RNA and DNA are found (by spectral analysis) in distant interstellar clouds. Some are unexpectedly complex. So life may have had more than just a few billion years on Earth to evolve; the ingredients of life, the chemical basis of RNA replicators, may well have been cooking for billions of years before that. That is speculation based on evidence, and informs the debate by doubling or tripling the time line within which complexity could have evolved and matured.
Atheists and Believers alike,
There are a thousand other web-sites devoted to endless debates about religion/evolution etc, please take these to one of them, and stick to the topic here.
@Peter: I apologize; I was originally responding to the hyperbolic praise of Krauss’ book by Dawkins, which was in your post.
Pingback: Smackdown! « Log24
if you want to know what “nothing” means in physics, you should read this paper
Thanks, that made my day! I thought the paper was a joke when I read the following line in the abstract:
“bubble solutions that are close to this limit, bubbles of next-to-
nothing, give us a controlled setting in which to understand nothing”
But then I skimmed the manuscript and realized the authors were serious. Wow, has theoretical physics really come to this? You guys really need new data, bad!
Read the book recently, enjoyed it very much. Simple ideas, simply explained. I don’t agree with all of it but it is beautifully written.
Just read the review. Poorly written, full of sciency jargon and not very clear. I’ve never heard of this philosopher but I don’t think he has a good understanding of the area, nor does he express himself very well. Are you sure he’s not a novelist?
Why can’t we just accept the present evidence of a universe that is expanding
at an accelarating rate and move on from there? Of what use is it to the study of
Physics to ask whether it all came from nothing ?
The questions which seem to be troubling experienced, serious physicists
were asked more than 2500 years ago. The unequivocal answer was that ( without
the use of our complex maths ) such questions were profitless.
I don’t think Karuss’ efforts should be belittled. I would even say that they’re admirable.
There are, as far I can see, two reasons why some would describe this discussion as pointless:
1- Thinking that the specific question is silly.
Well, I agree. And to be fair I think so does Krauss (one can certainly criticize his book if this much wasn’t stated clearly). When one cannot speak meaningfully about something, then one should not speak at all. But one still ought to explain why certain things are meaningless and propose more meaningfull questions. The way I see what Krauss is saying is this: “Look, it’s completely meaningless to speak about ‘something coming form nothing (as in physical non-existence)’, we don’t know whether such a thing as ‘nothingness’ exists
and it’s not clear whether it’s even a possible abstraction. However, I can tell you how something which is pretty darn close to nothing can possibly give rise to an entire universe”.
This is no different than Darwin saying that he can’t explain to you how non-life becomes life, but that he can illuminate how something pretty darn close to being inanimate can evolve into millions and millions of species. Sure, Darwin had a testable, predictive theory, and Krauss doesn’t. But theories start as speculation, and all that Krauss is doing is explaining that all of this is possible (I’ll leave it to a physicist to comment on the validity of the science); initiating a more meaningful discourse in the public about a view that should not be discounted.
2- Thinking that the whole subject matter (religon vs skepticism) is pointless
As silly as both parts of the debate can be, it’s not pointless. We might think it’s an issue which has been settled a long time ago, but obviously some don’t agree. And they will use everything in their arsenal, including butchering science, to attempt to justify their claims. These claims have a real impact in the world, from public policy to people brainwashing children. Certainly scientists, at least those interested in educating people, ought to say “Here’s what science has to say about that bit” every once in a while. Dismayed as they may be for putting impircal science behind them for a bit to venture into lands of philosophical speculation, it is ultimately something that will educate people on how the cutting-edge science of their time informs other areas. I see no harm arising from this, only good when scientists are clear about what is based on evidence and what is speculative.
That seemed more like a spell-checked Youtube posting than a NYT book review. In the third paragraph, David Albert seems oblivious to Bell’s work; in the fourth and fifth, he seems to reject the meaningfulness or even usefulness of canonical formalism (Hilbert space, states, operators, etc); and throughout, he’s got an axe to grind — consider the first sentence of each paragraph.
Positivist atheist scientists have been picking a lot of fights lately, between the battle over intelligent design in the USA, the “new atheism”, these sorts of cosmological statements, the abundance of underemployed math/physics guys trying to apply their techniques to the humanities and financial marks, and the closer ties to philosophy departments. Unfortunately, theologians and philosophers are quite well-trained in rhetoric, and “pale, small, silly, nerdy” scientists don’t exactly have the public on their side. If we’re doing research that doesn’t have direct applications, we’d better not be seen as ridiculous and expendable, either in the classroom, in academia, or in the public sphere.
off-topic: I just read this review on “Echoes of The Big Bang”, looks quite interesting. The best is that the guy seems unsympathetic to the multiverse thing, so potentially a serious book…
The vacuum and the laws of physics undelying it are sort of like a bank account with no money in it(or perhaps in the quantum case one which has tiny daily deposits and withdrawals that average out to zero), which of course still has a bank and all the underlying banking rules supporting it. Trying to posit the vacuum as “nothing” and positing the ultimate existence of everything out of it it really about as silly as trying to “explain” the existence of the bank as arising from the empty bank account.
I don’t think that the big debate is over the meaning of “nothingness.” The big debate is over using scientific credentials to lend authenticity to absurd claims.
I read Krauss’ book and in parts it was a workable overview of some of the current thinking in cosmological theory. On the other hand Albert is completely correct in questioning the futility of trying to chase the indefinite regress of how it comes to be that there are laws or that there are unstable vacuum states or whatever. Krauss doesn’t offer an answer to this and I agree with Woit that there is little point in trying to argue one side or the other of such origins.
On the whole I thought Albert’s review was reasonable. There’s really no benefit to most of us in this battle of pseudo answers to ineffective questions.
Pakri said: “Why can’t we just accept the present evidence of a universe that is expanding at an accelarating rate and move on from there? Of what use is it to the study of Physics to ask whether it all came from nothing ?”
There is utility in speculation – it can point us in directions we might not think to go. But I kind of agree with Anonymous Atheist when he says “it is religionists that believe in something they cannot confirm, the essence of religion is “faith,” which is a belief immune to evidence, even contradicting evidence or logic.”
The question I have is when does speculation cross the line to religion? One thing I disagree with AA is in his definition of faith. It doesn’t have to be immune to evidence or contradictions. It can be belief with an absence of evidence, and I think we need to be careful about defining things based on how people misuse it. After all, people put their faith in many earthly things now and are not disappointed.
To get this back in topic, my concern is when the rate of adopting a speculative idea is inverse to the likelihood that there can be evidence to support/refute that idea. When does the adopting become faith? At what point can we say the multiverse stands in for god in this new religion?
Pingback: Bad Reviews | richard bowker
Are you saying that in your view, the vacuum (“a physical state with nothing in it”) should be regarded as self-evidently identical to “nothing”? You seem to imply that arguing against that assertion is “intellectually empty”.
It seems to me that Albert is quite correct in pointing out that the vacuum state of a relativistic quantum field is manifestly not nothing, but a particular state of a well-defined physical entity, which obeys some non-trivial mathematical rules (the origin of which we are completely ignorant of). The quantum field is also embedded in and evolving with a background spacetime with its own dynamics, and since we don’t have a compelling theory of quantum gravity/spacetime, we don’t really understand in detail how the interaction between spacetime and quantum fields works (except in semi-classical approximation). It seems likely that spacetime and the quantum fields therein both arise from some deeper theory which we don’t currently have access to (but it isn’t string theory, I’m sure you would agree).
So to argue that since the vacuum is unstable in relativistic QFT implies that we fully understand how the universe might arise from literally nothing (which is how Albert characterizes Krauss’ core argument) is indeed pretty silly isn’t it?
Anyway, in my view, Albert’s critique is an interesting and important one, not remotely “intellectually empty”.
Krauss is using the word “nothing” in one perfectly legitimate way according to the dictionary (“nothing”= no thing there = perfectly good way to define the vacuum), Albert is using it in another. There doesn’t seem to me to be even a slightly interesting question at stake in this argument over this word. If others think this is an interesting and non-trivial argument, that’s fine. I just don’t.
I think you’re doing your *own* point of view a disservice by conflating Krauss’ and Albert’s discussions of ‘nothing’ and rendering a symmetrically negative judgment on both their houses. So far as I can see, you and Albert are on the same line of the same page. He’s doing what any good analytic philosopher does: attempt to eliminate spurious philosophical (or, as in this case, putatively scientific) problems by locating the source of these non-problems in the category errors people make in the way they talk about the issues in question. What Albert sees as Krauss’ bogus solution arises from conflating (i) the vacuum state of a universe loaded with fields, fluctuations, curved spacetime etc. on the one hand with (ii) the absence of any entities whatever. The result of this error is that Krauss appears to be making the question itself one which has scientific content; Albert’s point—which is exactly yours, no?—is that the question has no scientific content whatever, and that this is apparent once one sees that Krauss has confused the physicist’s vacuum state with the complete absence of anything, anything at all, which is what the theologians and metaphysicians are talking about when *they* pose the question. So, like Jamie, I’m surprised that you regard both Krauss (who propagates the error) and Albert (who tries to show the source of the error, and that the question, once Krauss’ confusion is eliminated, has no scientific denotation) as equally irrelevant from your own perspective….
I just don’t think there’s an “error” here. Krauss is talking about one thing, Albert about another. Neither of them is interesting.
you are of course fully entitled to find this issue uninteresting, just as others find it uninteresting whether there is a multiverse or not, or whether string theory is good science or not. But what is at issue here is that Kraus is claiming to give scientific proof for things that are not scientifically provable: indeed he is claiming to solve philosophical problems that are thousands of years old by scientific methodology. This category error falls smack in to the “Not even wrong” category, claiming to give scientific proof when in fact he is offering philosophical speculation. Albert’s book review nails this pretension beautifully.
I just can’t get interested in the philosophical/theological problem Krauss is claiming to solve, so don’t really care about the argument between him and Albert over whether Krauss has anything worthwhile to say about it.
I do care about whether the anthropic multiverse models Krauss is promoting as a solution to a scientific problem actually work (I think they don’t). If Albert and other “philosophers of cosmology” would address the question of whether these models are science or pseudo-science, that would be much more worthwhile.