Much Ado About Nothing

I suppose I’m posting too much about this, but the ongoing fight over nothing between prominent physicists and philosophers strikes me as perhaps marking some kind of end-point in the multiverse-mania-driven decline of part of theoretical physics from a difficult, serious subject to a trivial and kind of ludicrous undertaking. How can you get any sillier than arguing over nothing? Will this be the end of it, or is there somewhere lower to go that I can’t yet imagine? There’s also a Three Stooges sort of entertainment value to following this fighting. It’s kind of like a segment of Dumb (a multiverse explains everything!) vs. Dumber (bringing religion into it, “pale, small, silly, nerdy”).

If you haven’t been following the story so far, to start see links here, here, and here. Lots of gems there, one I just noticed is the moderated discussion at the Templeton-funded “Philosophy of Cosmology” blog, where the proprietor writes that:

Krauss is a crybaby.

and then goes on to complain that Krauss hasn’t taken him up on his request that he explain himself at the Templeton blog.

In this morning’s developments, we have prominent skeptic Michael Shermer, in Much Ado About Nothing, making the case that the Multiverse finishes off that “God” business, using “multiverse hypotheses predicted from mathematics and physics”. His authority here is the Hawking/Mlodinow popular book, but he’s also convinced that WMAP and LIGO are somehow going to provide evidence for multiverses, something that even the most far-out theorists in this field aren’t claiming. In addition:

Maybe gravity is such a relatively weak force (compared with electromagnetism and the nuclear forces) because some of it “leaks” out to other universes.

Nobody seems to have told Shermer that this is not an idea taken seriously by a significant number of theorists, or that LHC data has shot down the hopes of the one or two such theorists.

Also this morning, with The Consolation of Philosophy, Krauss tries to extract himself from the trouble he got himself into with philosophers with his recent comments about them and their profession. He sticks to his criticism that it’s physicists who have interesting things to say about fundamental issues of physics, not philosophers, but admits that at least they’re not as bad as theologians:

To be fair, I regret sometimes lumping all philosophers in with theologians because theology, aside from those parts that involve true historical or linguistic scholarship, is not [a] credible field of modern scholarship.

Will now go get some popcorn to await further episodes of this comedy…

Update: Two more links. Sean Carroll has a long posting about this, with bottom line that he thinks Krauss is right, but shouldn’t have said mean things about philosophers. David Albert responds to being called “moronic” by accusing Krauss (whose name he has trouble spelling) of being incompetent:

…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.

Update: Brian Leiter, at the well-known philosophy blog Leiter Reports, joins the fight, of course on the philosopher’s side. In response to the Krauss attack on philosophers in general, he has this to say about physicists:

Of course, it was not always so with physicists, but the current generation (at least those who try to speak to the broader public) does seem remarkably inept in logical and rational thought, and unembarrassed to display that to the world. Which raises the question: why? My best guess is that the culture so celebrates physics, that physicists have come to believe the “PR” about them.

Update: The fist-fight between Krauss and the philosophers continues in various venues. Surprisingly, today Leiter’s blog has a philosopher (Justin Fisher) throwing punches on Krauss’s side:

…Albert is clearly just being snide for the sake of being snide.

So Albert published a review that was needlessly uncharitable and snide, berating a good work in popularizing science for not solving philosophical puzzles that it openly acknowledges it doesn’t solve. Albert was a jerk and then (as we all know) Krauss was a jerk back. It’s all very entertaining drama. But why have you picked sides?

My own view is that Albert’s review was an embarrassment to our profession, and a setback for all philosophers of science who want our work to be taken seriously by scientists. When a prominent philosopher publishes a careless snide review like this – and in the NYT, no less! – it should be no surprise that many scientists react as Krauss did, by suspecting that philosophers generally behave as Albert did in this review: shedding much noise and little light. And, you’re not helping when you, as a prominent philosophical opinion-shaper, uncritically take Albert’s side. So I urge you to consider at least staking a more moderate stance, if not actively admonishing Albert for publishing a pointlessly snide review that reflected poorly on all of us.

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60 Responses to Much Ado About Nothing

  1. Neto says:

    @paddy

    Actually, I could argue that physicists are much better to given the “meaningless” status to a question they can’t answer.

    Every question that is correctly formulated is meaningful, the question “why there’s something rather than nothing” is perfectly meaningful, and it can have a lot of possible answers, between then the simplest “just because”.

    In fact, all this aggression between Krauss and philosophers is very naive, silly. Even this kind of post. As I’m not a physicist myself and have no reputation to lose, I can give me the please of commenting.

    Of course philosophy is very important to our understanding and lead our thinking to new frontiers. Just because it sometimes can discuss topics that we cannot answer, or even give the wrong direction, it don’t make it less useful. Indeed, that poor philosofical basis that some physicists may have makes them not even understand philosophical assumptions and propositions that themself made, what is embarassing.

    I think the concept of nothing that sometimes philosophers are refering to is very conceivable and even is part of current models. As far as we know, this universe is expanding from a point the size of an atom to a finit size that it have now. What is inside this universe, despite being “something” (matter, stuff), is the Krauss’ nothing, that is, vacuum full of properties and interactions between photons and so on. What is outside the boundaries of this finit universe is – possibly – the philosophers’ nothing, the “meaningless no-existence”. So, the meaningless no-existence is perfectly conceivable with our current theories, there’s no reason to think the only no-existence that can exist is the Krauss’ one.

    Even this “existence of no-existence” talk is sometimes tricky and people want to use it to fuzzy the discution. But the questions still, and maybe, just maybe, sometime in the future we may have answers that will address them a lot better than now. But this questions should work as motivators, not as insult.

    People like Krauss should note that being doubtful and intellectually honest won’t make them looks any dumber, but the opposite. The most respectable and smart people that I know have no fear to say they don’t have a clue about anything they don’t know. It’s all about intellectual honesty.

  2. Anonyrat says:

    “Every question that is correctly formulated is meaningful…”

    The test of a question being correctly formulated is, is it meaningful?

  3. Aidyan says:

    “As much as I wish I could come out on Krauss’s side in this, I think philosphers are much better equipped to explore these kinds of empty questions than are scientists.”

    Empty questions because the simple attempt to grasp ‘nothingness’ amounts to objectification. But objectifying is a cognitive act that refers always more or less implicitly to ‘existence’, and the very notion of ‘existence’ is rooted in some form of experiential conscious state of ‘being’, and which is ‘something’, leading to contradiction. Therefore the whole argument becomes circular and undecidable, at least for human mind. Taking second quantization’s ground state levels or any definitions of quantum vacuum state (or ‘quantum fluctuations’ mixed up with or without ‘virtual particles’, an already doubtful fiction of our classical physics mind interpreting the math of QFT) as ‘nothingness’, can be a convenient physical mathematical working tool, but has no future as an ontological and universally accepted definition of nothingness, and even less can lead to any theological interpretations.

  4. Neto says:

    @Anonyrat

    English is not my first language, so I can sound confusing. What I’m trying to say is that any question that respects language constructions and coherent semantics have a meaning. The “Why there’s something rather than nothing” (WTISRTN) question have a perfectly clear and have meaning, but it may not have an perfectly clear answer, yet. Maybe someday we’ll get in the time where one answer will be just “it is because it is”, but that don’t make the question meaningless, and I really hope this is not the case for the WTISRTN question.

    Give the meaningless status to an reasonable question sounds a lot more like an Ostrich tactic than a real reflection about it.

    If we consider that science is not about the truth, but about the facts that can be reach trough the scientific method, the question WTISRTN may not be a scientific question right now, but it don’t make it meaningless. It may be someday.

  5. Peter Woit says:

    All,

    Enough discussion of nothing, please. Please restrain your philosophical impulses. This is neither interesting nor entertaining.

  6. jg says:

    I meant to post this comment here (accidentally posted it on the other thread)

    I’m not sure Einstein was so respectful of philosophical tradition as Lee Smolin (for example) suggests, in fact on page 2 of his 1922 ‘The Meaning of Relativity’ he writes:

    ……………………………………………………. I am convinced that the
    philosophers have had a harmful effect upon the progress of
    scientific thinking in removing certain fundamental concepts
    from the domain of empiricism, where they are under our control,
    to the intangible heights of the a priori. For even if it should
    appear that the universe of ideas cannot be deduced from
    experience by logical means, but is, in a sense, a creation of the
    human mind, without which no science is possible, nevertheless
    this universe of ideas is just as little independent of the nature of
    our experiences as clothes are of the form of the human body.

    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/36276/36276-pdf.pdf

  7. D R Lunsford says:

    Odd – Penrose had a “something from nothing” idea a while back that was actually interesting. As the universe empties out in the heat death of expansion, the world goes over into conformal invariance (nothing but free radiation) and the time scale becomes undefined. In this world without a clock, a vacuum fluctuation could be seen as a new Big Bang. The current discussion seems to have forgotten or ignored this relatively recent work.

    -drl

  8. Nige Cook says:

    You’ve modified Penrose’s “cycles of time” very slightly: he argued that the instant when blackholes have converted all matter into radiation which is redshifted so much it cannot cause any quantum event (wavefunction collapse), time ceases to exist and – with it – space (space can’t exist without time). So at the precise instant that photons cease to be able to do work, space disappears and universe becomes a singularity, a new big bang. The big bang arises not because of a quantum fluctuation, but because such any fluctuation is impossible. Very Zen.

  9. Allan Rosenberg says:

    “Enough discussion of nothing, please. Please restrain your philosophical impulses. This is neither interesting nor entertaining.”

    So I guess you don’t want to speculate on whether, had there been nothing rather than something, this blog would have been called Not Even There?

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