Monday, March 26, 2012

Can science explain how something came from nothing?

One of the dogmas of the New Atheism is that science is superior to philosophy and theology as a means to truth--in every way, on every question. The trouble is, every time its exponents make a pronouncement based on this assumption, they get schooled by some philosopher or theologian on whatever non-scientific issue they have waded into, thinking that the only thing they needed was their science.

Just check out the exchanges between New Atheist biologist Jerry Coyne and Catholic philosopher Ed Feser if you want a good example.

Now we have New Atheist physicist Lawrence Krauss, whose new book A Universe from Nothing purports to explain how something came from nothing (as he defines it). My review of the book will be up this week, but in the meantime, there is philosopher David Albert's takedown of Krauss' book in the New York Times, which he summarizes as "the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb."

Of course the issue of where scientific explanation begins and ends is not, as scientists like Krauss seem to believe, a question in the field of science, but, ironically, in the field of philosophy, philosophy of science in particular. Albert points out one of the central flaws of Krauss's entire position:
It happens that ever since the scientific revolution of the 17th century, what physics has given us in the way of candidates for the fundamental laws of nature have as a general rule simply taken it for granted that there is, at the bottom of everything, some basic, elementary, eternally persisting, concrete, physical stuff. Newton, for example, took that elementary stuff to consist of material particles. And physicists at the end of the 19th century took that elementary stuff to consist of both material particles and electro­magnetic fields. And so on. And what the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all there is for the fundamental laws of nature to be about, insofar as physics has ever been able to imagine, is how that elementary stuff is arranged. The fundamental laws of nature generally take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of that stuff are physically possible and which aren’t, or rules connecting the arrangements of that elementary stuff at later times to its arrangement at earlier times, or something like that. But the laws have no bearing whatsoever on questions of where the elementary stuff came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular elementary stuff it does, as opposed to something else, or to nothing at all.

...The fundamental physical laws that Krauss is talking about in “A Universe From Nothing” — the laws of relativistic quantum field theories — are no exception to this ...and they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.
But it's not like Krauss or any of the other New Atheists are actually going to pay any attention to the fact that their field of expertise has nothing to do with the questions they think they can use it to address. That would be an admission that the scientism they champion is completely bogus.

He also points out one of the central problems of the book, which is Krauss' definition of "nothing," which, it turns out, happens to be something, namely vacuum states:
But that’s just not right. Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-­theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields! ... And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.

The book is, indeed, a mess, which, of course, didn't stop fellow New Atheist Richard Dawkins from hailing the book. Read the rest here.

18 comments:

Singring said...

'...and they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.'

All of these questions seem utterly specious when one considers where Albert is coming from. Why *must* there be a reason or a cause for these fields 'existing'? Every theist out there asserts that God just exists, for no external reason or cause, yet when a physicist assumes (for the moment, based on teh evidence) the same for quantum fields - then that's just totally silly and not allowed. Period. Case closed. End of story.

Like all other theists I have ever come across, Albert tries to have his big cake and eat it too. If ever there needed to be a further illustration that 'religion is, I don’t know, dumb', then this must surely be it.

Also, you left out the most interesting part of that review:

'Krauss, mind you, has heard this kind of talk before, and it makes him crazy. A century ago, it seems to him, nobody would have made so much as a peep about referring to a stretch of space without any material particles in it as “nothing.” And now that he and his colleagues think they have a way of showing how everything there is could imaginably have emerged from a stretch of space like that, the nut cases are moving the goal posts. He complains that “some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine ‘nothing’ as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe,” and that “now, I am told by religious critics that I cannot refer to empty space as ‘nothing,’ but rather as a ‘quantum vacuum,’ to distinguish it from the philosopher’s or theologian’s idealized ‘nothing,’ ” and he does a good deal of railing about “the intellectual bankruptcy of much of theology and some of modern philosophy.” But all there is to say about this, as far as I can see, is that Krauss is dead wrong and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right. Who cares what we would or would not have made a peep about a hundred years ago? We were wrong a hundred years ago. We know more now.'

Where Albert first complains about Krauss accusing philosophers of moving the goalposts...and then moves the goalposts, by basically saying that no matter what philosophers ever claim 'nothing' represents, if physicists come up with an explanation with the universe arising from this 'nothing', then it wasn't nothing they were talking about in the first place. The classic philosophical shell-game, changing definitions of the premise to match your pre-conceived conclusions.

Thomas said...

Singring,

If you think that philosophers are moving the goalposts when they say that particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff does not count as "nothing", then I'm fairly certain you don't know where the goalposts were in the first place, nor what it would look like even if you tripped over one of them.

Singring said...

Thomas,

first of all, even Albert seems to disagree with you:

'We were wrong a hundred years ago. We know more now.'

He openly acknowledges that what philosophers thought of as 'nothing' a hundred yeasr ago is not what he considers to be nothing now, in the light of recent developments in physics. Odd that a discipline which claims at least in some areas to be able to derive truth apart from empirical observations (for example using that awesome tool of 'intuition') has to redefine basic terms to avoid being negated by the empirical evidence.

One Brow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
One Brow said...

This post began with an outright lie, and did not improve.

I suggest you try telling Daniel Fincke and Chris Hallquist over on the blog network started primarily on the power PZ Myers (whom I think we all agree would be a New Atheist) that they are not welcomed by PZ Myers. Sure, some scientists don't think much of philosophy, but I believe you will find that among scientists of all views regarding religions.

As for the idea of a univesre from nothing, the complete absence of any sort of rule or property, in addition to the the absence of matter, presents no problem for atheists. If no property or rule exists, then in particular no property or rule exists that says everything that occurs much have a cause. Richard Carrier makes this point in some detail.

One Brow said...

The link to Carrier's post.

Art said...

Shorter Albert (and Martin): "We don't know everything, therefore we know nothing, therefore God."

I cannot believe people take Albert's piece seriously. For example:

But the laws have no bearing whatsoever on questions of where the elementary stuff came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular elementary stuff it does, as opposed to something else, or to nothing at all.

So, "where did the laws come from?" is supposed to be a refutation of the Krauss? What's the difference between this inane logic and the similar "who created God?" retort that theists always avoid?

"And what the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all there is for the fundamental laws of nature to be about, insofar as physics has ever been able to imagine, is how that elementary stuff is arranged."

Um, no.

This is what happens when one listens to the voices in one's head, I suppose.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

You seemed to have completely missed Albert's point--not to mention once again demonstrating that you don't even understand what the cosmological argument is even saying.

Albert isn't arguing "Where did the laws themselves come from..."; he's saying that Krauss' argument that relativistic quantum laws, which Krauss uses to try to explain how the universe came about, don't do any more than any other law to explain how the universe came about.

I'm having trouble understanding why it would be irrelevant for Albert to point out how Krauss' argument doesn't do what it purports to do in a review of the book.

You also keep assuming that "First Cause" argument is some kind of temporal "Where did everything start?" argument, which has been addressed here and about a thousand other places.

Maybe I should just put the refutation for that in the posting rules so you see it every time you post to remind you that you're arguing against an argument no one is making.

Singring said...

Martin,

'Albert isn't arguing "Where did the laws themselves come from...";'

Where did I even mention 'laws' in my post? I was talking about the quantum fields that Albert seems to demand an explanation (i.e. a causal explanation) for.

Why does he demand an explanation when he is perfectly satisfied with accepting that there is none when it comes to his God (the 'unmoved mover')?

It's a very simple question and instead of addressing it, you change the subject again, in true form.

Why is perfectly permissible to be a theist who asserts God to be necessary and thereby uncaused, but it is totally craaaaazy to be a physicist who assumes that, for example, quantum fields or the quantum vacuum exist necessarily and do not require a causal explanation?

Why?

The title of your post begs this very question! Why on earth should we even suppose that something came out of nothing? Why can't there always have been something?

Oh yes - I know you will invoke 2,000 year old ideas about potentiality and actuality, about formal, final and efficient causes and so on. But the evidence we have on the very quantum scales we are talking about here give no support whatsoever that any of these concepts cooked up in someone's imagination before we even knew what made up an atom have any founding in reality. They fail miserably on the quantum scale where particles appear *without* cause. As OneBrow and others here have pointed out, they even fail to adequately describe what happens in the macroscopic, everyday world of experience.

'I'm having trouble understanding why it would be irrelevant for Albert to point out how Krauss' argument doesn't do what it purports to do in a review of the book.'

Again, not my criticism. My point is the above. Why is it OK for Albert to assert that God requires no prior causal explanation, while at the same time criticizing Krauss for assuming the same for quantum fields?

'You also keep assuming that "First Cause" argument is some kind of temporal "Where did everything start?" argument, which has been addressed here and about a thousand other places.'

Where did I give any indication that this was part of my point here?

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

Why is it OK for Albert to assert that God requires no prior causal explanation, while at the same time criticizing Krauss for assuming the same for quantum fields?

Where does Albert assert that God requires no prior causal explanation?

Singring said...

'Where does Albert assert that God requires no prior causal explanation?'

He implies it by presenting theology and philosophy as superior endeavors when it comes to explaining the universe. Since Albert sees the main failing of Krauss's book to be that it (in his mind) does not actually give a causal explanation for the quantum fields and their properties, we must assume that what he would prefer is a theological of philosophical explanation that requires no prior causal explanation - i.e. something akin to an unmoved mover.

Albert may not be a Theist or even a deist - but the same question applies: why is it OK for him to critique a physicists assumption of something necessarily existing only to favour explanations that make those same assertions?

But back to the question, Martin.

Why is it not permissible for a physicist to assume that X exists necessarily, but permissible for a theist to assert that Y to exist necessarily?

Balrog said...

@Singring

"He implies it by presenting theology and philosophy as superior endeavors when it comes to explaining the universe. Since Albert sees the main failing of Krauss's book to be that it (in his mind) does not actually give a causal explanation for the quantum fields and their properties, we must assume that what he would prefer is a theological of philosophical explanation that requires no prior causal explanation - i.e. something akin to an unmoved mover."

I find your commentary somewhat slippery as if it were intended for a political rather than a scientific or philosophical audience. For example when you use the phrase "in his mind" to refer to Albert's view, does that imply that you disagree? Bluntly, in *your* view, does Krauss' book, in fact,offer a causal explanation for quantum fields and their properties? If so, what is that explanation? If not, why do you add the qualifier "in his mind" when Albert points this out? In the latter case, one might conclude that this phrase is intended as a device to attempt to obscure or blunt the force of an observation with which you, in fact, concur, but which is politically inconvenient given your current debating stance?

Singring said...

Balrog,

'Bluntly, in *your* view, does Krauss' book, in fact,offer a causal explanation for quantum fields and their properties?'

I don't know if it does, because I have not read the book. I have, however, listened to two Krauss' presentation on the topic. Based on that, I don't believe the book offers any such causal explanation.

But that is not the issue with my objection to Albert's review.

*Even if* the book does not offer a causal explanation for the quantum fields - what is the problem with that?

Like any theist, I have no problem with accepting for the moment the notion that something just 'is' or that things just 'are', no additional explanation necessary.

So my point is this: When Albert writes a review like that and Martin chooses a post title like 'Can science explain how something came from nothing?', then that just immediately begs me to ask the questions: 'Why should we think that something came from nothing in the first place?'. In other words - why should we think that there ever was nothing?

Maybe you have some answers for that question.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring:

When Albert writes a review like that and Martin chooses a post title like 'Can science explain how something came from nothing?', then that just immediately begs me to ask the questions: 'Why should we think that something came from nothing in the first place?'. In other words - why should we think that there ever was nothing?

Maybe because the book that was the subject of my post claims that something did come from nothing and that science can tell us how it did.

I'm having trouble trying to figure out, given this, how my comments were not relevant.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

He implies it [that God requires no prior causal explanation] by presenting theology and philosophy as superior endeavors when it comes to explaining the universe.

Oh c'mon. That's a complete stretch. But I'll tip my hat to your fortitude in trying to maintain a completely insupportable point.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

Why is it not permissible for a physicist to assume that X exists necessarily, but permissible for a theist to assert that Y to exist necessarily?

For one thing, if we are looking for a reason to believe either position, an assertion or assumption would certainly be impermissible, since only and argument would do. So your questions seems to me rather badly stated.

If the question is whether it is permissible for either question to be argued for, then the answer is most certainly, "Yes."

The problem with with the argument in physics about something being necessary is that the argument would have to be conducted outside of physics, since necessity is a metaphysical concept. So if someone's going to try to do it within the realm of physics, it's not only going to be impermissible, it's not even going to be possible.

The argument over God's necessary existence, as long as it is done within the realm of philosophy, is both permissible and possible.

Singring said...

'I'm having trouble trying to figure out, given this, how my comments were not relevant.'

I'm not saying they weren't relevant. I'm saying they are begging the question.

'Oh c'mon. That's a complete stretch.'

Maybe it is. But Albert clearly does not like the idea of Krauss' or anyone assuming the necessary existence of quantum fields. Maybe he is a complete agnostic. Or he thinks there is an infinite regress of things cuasing things.
However, if he does believe in an unmoved mover, wouldn't you agree that that would make his criticism of Krauss highly hypocritical?

'...since only and argument would do.'

This again begs the question. What kind of argument are you talkinga bout? Arguments require premises and at some basic level, we have to assume certain premises - or do you believe that there is no 'first argument', but rather an infinite series of arguments based on premises derived from more basic arguments derived from premises of even more basic arguments etc. etc. etc.?

'The problem with with the argument in physics about something being necessary is that the argument would have to be conducted outside of physics, since necessity is a metaphysical concept. So if someone's going to try to do it within the realm of physics, it's not only going to be impermissible, it's not even going to be possible.'

All good and right, but this is an argument against using physics to argue for a metaphysical concept. It is not an argument to show why a physicist like Krauss or anyone else is prohibited from simply making the metaphysical claim that quantum fields exist necessarily, just as philosophers and theists claim that God necessarily exists.

'The argument over God's necessary existence, as long as it is done within the realm of philosophy, is both permissible and possible.'

Of course it is (how useful and productive it is is another question). But that still doesn't answer the question: why can't I or anyone else just say: 'Quantum fields exist necessarily.'?

Thomas said...

Singring,

He granted that a few centuries ago people (not just philosophers) thought of a stretch of empty space as nothing. But this is just bad philosophy: Aristotle rejected that view millenia ago, when he argued empty space was not nothing.

But even then, nothing changed. People a few centuries ago presumed that a stretch of space did not contain physical elements. If they do contain physical elements, then people were wrong--but they haven't changed their definition or moved any goalposts. This isn't rocket science.

I'll repeat: do you really think philosophers (or anyone else, really) ever thought that arrangements of physical elements count as "nothing"?