More about Nothing

It seems that last year’s philosopher-physicist fight over nothingness (if you missed this, you can read about it starting here) is flaring up again. Recall that it all started with a David Albert New York Times review of Lawrence Krauss’s latest book as “pale, small, silly, nerdy”, moved on from there to Krauss characterizing Albert as “moronic”, after which many others joined in. The New York Times today is reporting that Albert has been disinvited from participating in a debate over nothingness at the American Museum of Natural History here in New York, possibly because of Krauss’s attitude that “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t choose to spend time on stage with him”.

The event in question is this year’s Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, on the topic of The Existence of Nothing. Tickets to the main theater and simulcasts in other rooms are sold out, but you can watch the debate online live here. It will feature Krauss, J. Richard Gott, Eva Silverstein and Charles Seife, with Jim Holt replacing David Albert.

Earlier this week the Simons Center at Stony Brook hosted another big public event promoting the latest deep-thinking from theoretical physicists. On Monday Andrei Linde gave a talk on “Universe or Multiverse?”. Besides the usual pseudo-science, there were some things I hadn’t seen before. Linde argues that one should replace the “pessimist’s”:

If each part of the multiverse is so large, we will never see its other parts, so it is impossible to prove that we live in the multiverse.

with the “optimist’s”:

If each part of the multiverse is so large, we will never see its other parts, so it is impossible to disprove that we live in the multiverse.

and goes on to argue that multiverse theory is more basic than universe theory because it is more general. At a more technical talk the next day he showed an implementation of this new way to do science, arguing for a new class of supergravity inflation models where “we can have any desirable values of ns and r”. Somehow also, the ability to get any r you want is great since “A discovery or non-discovery of tensor modes would be a crucial test for string theory and SUSY phenomenology”. I’m not sure how you reconcile measuring r as a “crucial test”, and having a theory that gives any value of r you want, but maybe I’m missing something.

Linde ends with another innovation. You see, the multiverse doesn’t just explain why physics is the way it is, it also explains why mathematics is the way it is:

Physicists can live only in those parts of the multiverse where mathematics is efficient and the universe is comprehensible.

I guess I should just be thankful that I don’t live in one of those parts of the universe where mathematics is inefficient.

Update: More about the Albert disinvite story here.

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25 Responses to More about Nothing

  1. ZZZ says:

    I can’t believe people are being paid for such frivolous pursuits when we still have not settled how many angles can dance on a pin.

  2. Avattoir says:

    ‘The New York Times today is reporting that Albert has been disinvited from participating in a debate over nothingness at the American Museum of Natural History here in New York, possibly because of Krauss’s attitude that “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t choose to spend time on stage with him”.’

    Is it? The way I read the NYT piece was Albert was disinvited (uninvited) because the organizer, Neil de Grasse Tyson, became concerned that the nature of the dispute between Albert and Krausse reasonably threatened to eat up the ‘science’ orientation he, Tyson, wants for the talks.

    The NYT piece does voice the first concern, but as voiced by Albert, not the reporter.

    Off this, I’m sympathetic with Tyson:

    Where Albert’s contribution would have been better placed than Krauss’ (to say nothing of Richard Dawkins):

  3. Peter Woit says:


    I have no inside information about what really happened here. I’ll comment though that if you’re the organizer of a thing like this, it’s extremely unusual to disinvite one of your panelists because you’ve decided that maybe they weren’t such a great idea. One of very few things that can cause organizers to have to take this kind of step is when they have one participant in essence saying “it’s him or me”.

    Note that this event is a debate, every year they try and get a panel with some conflict (in the past the string wars have been a topic). This one was planned after the Krauss/Albert thing happened, seemingly specifically to exploit this philosopher/physicist conflict.

  4. Avattoir says:

    I respect that you’re familiar with and closer to whatever’s going on, but it’s still not what the NYT is reporting.

    Accepting that historically this event has been debate-oriented, IF IT WERE ME in Tyson’s position, having watched that discussion between Albert and Carroll (and the other; there’s two on bloggingheadstv), and having read Krauss’ book, I’d be concerned, first, that Krauss seems way out of his weight class, and second, with the reception such a ‘debate’ would get from the sort of audience likely to attend.

    Mine is more of an Ocham’s Razor take: that Tyson determined he’s more interested in discussion around any controversies in Krauss’ construct on the science than he is with producing something like the, um, far more nuanced consensus reached in the Naturalism conference.

  5. Peter Woit says:


    The NYT is reporting that Albert believes he was disinvited because of Krauss’s insistence, and is quoting Krauss to the effect that he does not want to get on stage with Albert. I don’t think Albert is being paranoid…

  6. Christian Takacs says:

    “Physicists can live only in those parts of the multiverse where mathematics is efficient and the universe is comprehensible.”

    I wasn’t aware that logic, causation, and arithmatic were strictly localized phenomena. Silly me. Occams razor trumps the simplistic truisms of SAP or WAP any day of the week, or “If things were different, they would be different” valid statement, but completely useless. It is far more likely that Professor Linde’s argument is incomprehensible, rather than the rest of the cosmos.

  7. friend says:

    Logic, proof, and argumentation can only be applied to propositions. If there exists nothing to describe with a proposition, then you cannot apply logic and reason to it. You can’t prove there once was nothing that gave rise to something.

  8. Chris Oakley says:

    Wait – so people are paying for tickets to see a debate about nothing? Why not just subscribe to the BBC Parliament sattelite channel?

  9. Mr MonoPole says:

    “Physicists can live only in those parts of the multiverse where mathematics is efficient and the universe is comprehensible.”

    It likely means, that there are (likely) some Universes where 2+2=5

    We do not live in such a Universe, so our Mathematics is efficient and comprehensible.

  10. former mathematician says:

    re localized mathematics.

    Recall Greg Egan’s short story “Dark Integers.” It hypothesizes the radically anti-Platonic view that arithmetic theorems are untrue until and if they are exhibited by configurations of particles.

  11. Guillaume says:

    “Physicists can live only in those parts of the multiverse where mathematics is efficient and the universe is comprehensible.” (Andrei Linde, 2013)

    I prefer the original:

    “I’m what you would call a teleological, existential atheist. I believe that there’s an intelligence to the universe, with the exception of certain parts of New Jersey.” (Woody Allen, in Sleeper [1973])

  12. Gary says:

    Responding to ZZZ: I’d like to announce that the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin has been answered. It’s: 3.1415926535 8979323846 2643383279 5028841971 6939937510 5820974944 5923078164 0628620899 8628034825 3421170679 8214808651 3282306647 0938446095 5058223172 5359408128 4811174502 8410270193 8521105559 6446229489 5493038196 4428810975 6659334461 2847564823 3786783165 2712019091 4564856692 3460348610 4543266482 1339360726 0249141273 7245870066 0631558817 4881520920 9628292540 9171536436 7892590360 0113305305 4882046652 1384146951 9415116094 3305727036 5759591953 0921861173 8193261179 3105118548 0744623799 6274956735 1885752724 8912279381 8301194912 9833673362 4406566430 8602139494 6395224737 1907021798 6094370277 0539217176 2931767523 8467481846 7669405132 0005681271 4526356082 7785771342 7577896091 7363717872 1468440901 2249534301 4654958537 1050792279 6892589235 4201995611 2129021960 8640344181 5981362977 4771309960 5187072113 4999999837 2978049951 0597317328 1609631859 5024459455 3469083026 4252230825 3344685035 2619311881 7101000313 7838752886 5875332083 8142061717 7669147303 5982534904 2875546873 1159562863 8823537875 9375195778 1857780532 1712268066 1300192787 6611195909 2164201989 3809525720 1065485863 2788659361 5338182796 8230301952 0353018529 6899577362 2599413891 2497217752 8347913151 5574857242 4541506959 5082953311 6861727855 8890750983 8175463746 4939319255 0604009277 0167113900 9848824012 8583616035 6370766010 4710181942 9555961989 4676783744 9448255379 7747268471 0404753464 6208046684 2590694912 9331367702 8989152104 7521620569 6602405803 8150193511 2533824300 3558764024 7496473263 9141992726 0426992279 6782354781 6360093417 2164121992 4586315030 2861829745 5570674983 8505494588 5869269956 9092721079 7509302955 3211653449 8720275596 0236480665 4991198818 3479775356 6369807426 5425278625 5181841757 4672890977 7727938000 8164706001 6145249192 1732172147 7235014144 1973568548 1613611573 5255213347 5741849468 4385233239 0739414333 4547762416 8625189835 6948556209 9219222184 2725502542 5688767179 0494601653 4668049886 2723279178 6085784383 8279679766 8145410095 3883786360 9506800642 2512520511 7392984896 0841284886 2694560424 1965285022 2106611863 0674427862 2039194945 0471237137 8696095636 4371917287 4677646575 7396241389 0865832645 9958133904 7802759009 9465764078 9512694683 9835259570 9825822620 5224894077 2671947826 8482601476 9909026401 3639443745 5305068203 4962524517 4939965143 1429809190 6592509372 2169646151 5709858387 4105978859 5977297549 8930161753 9284681382 6868386894 2774155991 8559252459 5395943104 9972524680 8459872736 4469584865 3836736222 6260991246 0805124388 4390451244 1365497627 8079771569 1435997700 1296160894 4169486855 5848406353 4220722258 2848864815 8456028506 0168427394 5226746767 8895252138 5225499546 6672782398 6456596116 3548862305 7745649803 5593634568 1743241125 1507606947 9451096596 0940252288 7971089314 5669136867 2287489405 6010150330 8617928680 9208747609 1782493858 9009714909 6759852613 6554978189 3129784821 6829989487 2265880485 7564014270 4775551323 7964145152 3746234364 5428584447 9526586782 1051141354 7357395231 1342716610 2135969536 2314429524 8493718711 0145765403 5902799344 0374200731 0578539062 1983874478 0847848968 3321445713 8687519435 0643021845 3191048481 0053706146 8067491927 8191197939 9520614196 6342875444 0643745123 7181921799 9839101591 9561814675 1426912397 4894090718 6494231961
    5679452080 9514655022 5231603881 …. (Happy PI day to all 8)

  13. Tom says:

    Regarding the physics-philosophy kerfuffle:

    I think the biggest cultural difference between the two sides is the philosopher’s insistence in rigor in argument. To be sure, not all philosophers hold themselves to this standard (nor, perhaps, even most within certain subfields, like Continental Philosophy), but it remains the methodological touchstone of our profession.

    That is simply not the case in physics. A lot of very shoddy thinking goes on with you guys. Your unfounded devotion to string theory is an excellent example.

    I was not a big fan of the tone of Dr. Albert’s initial review, but I think the content was right on. The fact that physicists take it almost as a matter of faith that there is no god really irritates us. Now, I’m an atheist, and so are most of my colleagues. Maybe 20% of philosophers believe in a god. But practically none of us think that the existence of god is a TRIVIAL issue or one that can be solved simply by obtaining more facts or (even worse) that we recently obtained enough facts to settle the issue.

  14. Peter Woit says:


    “unfounded devotion to string theory” is very much a minority position among working physicists, probably much more of a minority than your estimate of the 20% of philosophers believing in God. In particular, Krauss is a well-known critic of string theory.

    On the “nothingness” debate, I’d guess most physicists find it an embarrassment and if the question of what to do about the AMNH debate were up to them would disinvite both Albert and Krauss and cancel the whole thing. I’d hope that most philosophers feel the same way, not that “their side” in this idiocy is the right one.

  15. nasren says:

    Second Tom’s view. Albert’s criticism of Krauss was right on the money — even if the tone left a sour taste in the mouth. Krauss’s response was unbelievably childish, and this disinviting nonsense smacks of the same kind of behaviour.

  16. tt says:

    you’ld be closer to Pi on 3/14/15

  17. jim says:

    Yes. Krauss was the one making weak philosophical arguments and selling them to the media as science. Albert only pointed that out. Then Krauss commits the ad hominem fallacy. What an embarrassment.

  18. Gabriel says:

    Physicists can live only in those parts of the multiverse where mathematics is efficient and the universe is comprehensible.

    To read him more charitably, I think this means not that abstract mathematics varies from universe to universe with regards to some sort of intrinsic efficiency, but that physics varies from universe to universe in such a way that the efficiency with which it can be expressed mathematically also varies.

    But I’m not going to watch the lecture to find out if that first impression is the correct interpretation in context.

  19. Kavanna says:

    Multiverse lunacy 🙂

    The debate over nothing is a disgrace. Physicists should be keeping as far as possible from such misuse of philosophy and pseudo-theological mumbo-jumbo.

  20. DrDave says:

    From King Lear: “Nothing will come of nothing”

  21. tt says:

    “Nothing from nothing leaves nothing” — Billy Preston

  22. Anon says:

    Is mathematics efficient and is the universe comprehensible? Linde is begging the question.

  23. Pingback: The Existence of Nothing | Not Even Wrong

  24. nabil says:

    I don’t like the idea of the existence of huge number of universes which people use to explain anything they don’t understand . It’s very easy to say that the physical constants are the way they are because we are in a part of spacetime that happens to have these values .I think this is not the way nature is designed .

  25. veskebjorn says:

    @tt: You’d be much closer to pi on 3/14/16–at least in our peculiar version of Euclidean geometry. Elsewhere in the infinite variety and delights of the multiverse, pi might be a different number, a circle might be impossible, or numbers might be useless in trying to describe local reality. But then, the idea that physics requires “efficient” mathematics and a “comprehensible” universe is itself absurd. Humans have been making physical sense of and accurate predictions about our universe for millennia without the aid of mathematical notation, whilst being certain that variously irrational, more-or-less potent, divine entities existed and were subject to no laws. Math seems to have come a long way, but some of the wilder-eyed physicists who promote unfalsifiable fantasies don’t seem to have progressed much beyond Genesis.

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