Monday, September 10, 2012

Lawrence Krauss Don't Know Nothing: A review of "A Universe from Nothing"

The philosopher Martin Heidegger has been often (and not entirely unjustly) ridiculed for having once said, "The Nothing nothings." Science, we have been told, is scrupulous in its avoidance of this kind of meaningless gibberish. Science is clear and precise. So it is ironic that Case Western Reserve cosmologist Krauss now comes to us with the equally inscrutible "The Nothing somethings."

Krauss' A Universe from Nothing is yet another in a series of New Athiest tracts that have come out in recent years, all attempting to make the case for the scientistic pretense that science has superseded philosophy and theology, and that the latter discipline is no longer necessary. And, like most other New Atheist books, it only ends up proving just how necessary these disciplines are--and how naive is the view that science is some sort of universal intellectual elixir that can carry the weight of both scientific and philosophical inquiry.

The book takes the reader on a tour of the universe, or rather, a tour of the contemporary cosmological view of the universe (scientist like Krauss have been known to confuse the two). It is, of course, an imaginary place, existing only in the minds of contemporary cosmologists, although, claims Krauss, we have every reason to believe it exists in reality--if only, by believing it, he doesn't have to believe all that business about God.

The ancient philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides disagreed over the nature of the universe, Heraclitus saying there was only change, and Parmenides that there was only permanence. The history of science has always had a noticeable likeness to a Heraclitean stream: you can never step into the same one twice. But while cosmology, like the state of what it purports to describe, is always in a state of flux, Krauss, like most other scientists before him, is convinced that his view is the permanent one.

Science is Heraclitean; scientists are Parmedian. Undoubtedly, the scientist who comes along next and overturns Krauss' view will be equally confident in the permanence of his position.

The cosmological tour Krauss gives us, which is sandwiched in between the preface and the latter part of the book which seem to contain the central argument of the book, is not only not particularly lucid in its own right, but seems to have little to do with his argument.

And what is the central argument?

Well, if one were to read the cover of the book, he would come away with the distinct impression that the book has something to do with answering the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" That impression is hard to shake when there, staring at you on the front cover is the subtitle, "Why there is something rather than nothing."

And this impression is given some weight when Krauss says, in the preface:
The purpose of this book is simple. I want to show how modern science, in various guises, can address and is addressing the question of why there is something rather than nothing: The answers that have been obtained ... all suggest that getting something from nothing is not a problem. Indeed, something from nothing may have been required for the universe to come into being. Moreover, all signs suggest that this is how our universe could have arisen.
It is rather curious for someone who claims to be manning the barricades of Reason in defiance of the irrational religious hordes to infer from the fact that his theory requires the universe come from nothing, that the universe therefore must do so (Would that simply having a theory about the universe ipso facto confered necessity on a theory's own assumptions about it).

In the somewhat embarrassing recent interview by Ross Anderson in The Atlantic, Krauss begins dissembling about this in the face of Anderson's questions about what, exactly, he's arguing in the book. When Anderson presses him on whether the book is actually trying to answer the question of whether something can come from nothing, Krauss backpedals, saying "Well, if that hook gets you into the book that's great. But in all seriousness, I never make that claim. In fact, in the preface I tried to be really clear that you can keep asking 'Why?' forever. At some level there might be ultimate questions that we can't answer, but if we can answer the 'How?' questions, we should, because those are the questions that matter."

"Never make that claim"? He not only makes the claim, he makes it in the very subtitle of the book.

In fact, the physics in the book is not half as head-spinning as the rhetorical contortions Krauss engages in about what exactly the book is for. I don't mind reading about quantum leaps, I just wish the author wouldn't engage in them in the course of his actual arguments.

Krauss' Redefinition of 'nothing'
First, Krauss simply takes the concept "nothing" and gives it a definition that conveniently avoids all the difficulties Krauss claims to be resolving in the book. Nothing, it turns out, is, for Krauss, not nothing. He blasts philosophers and theologians, who have the temerity to define "nothing" as, well, nothing.
[N]othing upsets philosophers and theologians who disagree with me more than the notion that I, as a scientist, do not truly understand "nothing" ... 
"Nothing," they insist, is not any of the things I discuss. Nothing is "nonbeing," in some vague and ill-defined sense ... 
But therein, in my opinion, lies the intellectual bankruptcy of much of theology and some of modern philosophy. For surely "nothing" is every bit as physical as "something," especially if it is to be defined as the "absence of something."
He really can't understand where anyone would get the crazy idea that "nothing" means "no thing." What were they thinking?
By nothing, I do not mean nothing, but rather nothing, in this case, the nothingness we normally call empty space.
Apparently there is something about italics that allows you to engage in equivocation with impunity. In fact, in Krauss' rhetorical shell game, the definition of "nothing" bears a striking resemblance to "something." And his discussion of the traditional philosophical and theological positions on nothingness is simply incoherent. He clearly has no familiarity with the philosophical or theological views on the subject, characterizing them in one way in one paragraph, and a different way in the next. It's kind of hard to dispute your opponent if you don't know what your opponents position actually is from one paragraph to another.

After criticizing philosophers and theologians for thinking that "nothing" means the lack of anything, he then digs himself in deeper by misportraying them too as having asserted that nothing is, in fact, something, namely, empty space:
A century ago, had one described "nothing" as referring to purely empty space, possessing no real material entity, this might have received little argument. But the results of the past century have taught us that empty space is in fact far from the inviolate nothingness that we presupposed before we learned more about how nature works.
Huh? Who is he talking about here? What philosopher describes nothing as simply "empty space"? And even if they exist (or existed), do they constitute the whole of the philosophical tradition?

In fact, Krauss is completely ignorant of any of the necessary philosophical distinctions philosophers and theologians have employed to make sense of a concept like "nothing." Although it's hard to make out exactly what he's criticizing (largely because he clearly does not know himself), every once in a while you can vaguely recognize the stray hints of what he at least thinks he's referring to. In one place he refers to what is apparently the Aristotelian view that anything that has any potentiality cannot be nothing! Would that he actually understood Aristotle or St. Thomas whose view he attempts to criticize (the distinction between potentiality and actuality). As it is he fails because he has absolutely no clue what he's talking about.

What he does instead is to mischaracterize all such views as invoking God when, in fact, they don't do that at all--that, and arguing that philosophers have "changed the playing field" on the issue of "the nature of nothingness." Science per se has never addressed the nature of nothingness for the simple reason that it is not a scientific question. But Krauss has it in his head that by simply being a scientist and redefining "nothing" as "something" (the one thing that it absolutely, positively can't be), he has magically brought the question into the realm of science. In the process he acts as if he represents some kind of scientific tradition that has come to terms with the issue, when in fact, there is no such thing. In fact, his whole account of nothingness, as philosopher of physics David Albert pointed out in the devastating New York Times review of the book, makes not sense at all.

Veni, vidi, halicinatus est: "He came, he saw, he rambled incoherently."

In short, Krauss is philosophically and theologically illiterate, a condition that ill-equips him to criticize philosophers and theologians, a problem compounded by the fact that he doesn't realize it and wouldn't think it mattered if he did. It is also one which causes him, in addition, to mischaracterize the limits of the science he does know something about because the question of what science is or isn't is not a scientific question, but a philosophical one.

Changing the Question
Second, he reformulates the very idea of explanation in a way that relieves him of the trouble of answering the very question he claims to be answering. After just repeating, in chapter 9, his statement that he is going to answer the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" He then rewrites the question in a way that changes its essence:
At the same time, in science we have to particularly cautious about "why" questions. When we ask, "Why?" we usually mean "How?" If we can answer the latter, that generally suffices for our purposes ... Why implicitly suggests purpose, and when we try to understand the solar system in scientific terms, we do not generally ascribe purpose to it.
So I am going to assume that what this question really means to ask is, "How is there something rather than nothing?" "How" questions are really the only ones we can provide definitive answer to by studying nature, but because this sentence sounds much stranger to the ear, I hope you will forgive me if I something fall into the trap of appearing to discuss the more standard formulation when I am really trying to respond to the more specific "how" questions.
Appearing to discuss the more standard formulation? Not only does he "appear" to discuss it, he says in plain English that that is exactly what he is doing. In fact the paragraph just before this reads: "I want to return to the question I described at the beginning of this book: Why is there something rather than nothing?"

When once the reader is told in unambiguous terms that Krauss is going to address this question, he discovers that Krauss doesn't actually do this. It's not just that Krauss says he's going to do it and then doesn't; it's that he says he's going to do it, and then says, just as firmly (in the same book), that he's not going to do it.

If Krauss doesn't want anyone to mistake him for asking a "why" question, then a useful expedient would be to avoid telling people in the first place that that's exactly what he's going to do.

What are we to say about a book that keeps repeating what it is about, only to find out on p. 143 that the author is not doing that at all? At that point in the book it is so clear he is making a mess of his whole stated project that he throws up his hands and basically says, "And now for something completely different."

It works for Monty Python, but it's kind of hard to justify it in a science book.

On p. 134, Krauss quotes Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek, who has likened the science of string theory to throwing a dart against a blank wall and then, only afterward, drawing a target around it.

What Krauss doesn't seem to realize is that his own argument that science explains how something can come from nothing is of the same nature. His argument, though designed to prove that science can explain even the most intractable philosophical mysteries, only serves as a testimony of the prejudicial nature of his case, a case which he states in a way that, at one and the sane time, serves to guarantee that he can accomplish his purpose and yet prevents him from actually doing so.
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