Thursday, March 8, 2012

More Ado About Nothing

Christian philosophers are all worked up about nothing these days. Literally nothing. I mean, "nothing" is what they are all worked up about.

Let's try that again. Apparently Lawrence Krauss's new book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing,  has struck some kind of a nerve.  A blog post by Mark Brumley and an article by William Carroll strike back. They accuse Krauss, Hawking, and other scientists of fallacies and philosophical naivete. (A Feser post from last year makes similar points about a video from New Scientist.) It seems to me, though, that they're more worried about scientists stepping on their toes than about actual philosophical errors.

Now, I haven't read Krauss's latest, nor Hawking and Mlodinow. I'm just going on what the objectors themselves write, and on what I know from my own attempts at science writing. But consider these three points:

Point 1: These books are popular science

They were written in an attempt to make difficult scientific topics accessible, and interesting, to non-scientists. They're not philosophical treatises. Anyone who expects a book like this (or, worse, a video from New Scientist, of all places) to show a sophisticated understanding of Aristotelian-Thomian metaphysics ought to have his head examined. 

On the other hand, an article, or even a blog post, by a philosopher, who takes issue with fallacies and philosophical naivete in another's work, ought to be held to a higher standard, don't you think? Which brings me to 

Point 2: It's not equivocation if you explain the difference.

All three writers accuse the scientists of the equivocation fallacy: using one word in two different senses, in a way that confuses the meanings. 

Carroll: "But since these various “nothings” are really something, the ancient principle of the natural sciences remains true, despite clever ploys to equivocate about what one means by nothing."

Brumley: "So they equivocate. They talk about "nothing" as if they mean nothing but they really mean something."

Feser: "They aren’t serious physics, they aren’t serious philosophy, they aren’t serious anything except seriously bad arguments, textbook instances of the fallacy of equivocation. "

Is this what Krauss is doing? Here's what Carroll writes about Krauss's book:

Offering a striking landscape of ever deeper senses of “nothing,” he [Krauss] concludes: “We have discovered that all signs suggest a universe that could and plausibly did arise from a deeper nothing—involving the absence of space itself...."

And here's a quote from Krauss that Carroll cites

Some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine ‘nothing’ as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe. 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.’ It then behooves us to understand precisely the physical nature of both these quantities. And without science, any definition is just words. 

Hmm. Sounds to me that, far from trying to create confusion by confounding the different senses of "nothing," Krauss is being careful to specify that the "nothing" he is talking about is different from other kinds of nothing. So the complaint isn't really about equivocation, it's really just a whine: "But the 'nothing' you're talking about isn't our 'nothing'!"

That, it seems to me, is exactly Krauss's point. Various scientific concepts of "nothing" have empirical content, and so are more useful than abstract philosophical definitions, which don't. Carroll, in contrast, seems to be proud of the fact his philosophical "nothing" has no connection with the real world:

It also remains the case that the fundamental question of why there is something rather than nothing is a metaphysical and theological question—and with respect to such a question the natural sciences necessarily have nothing to say. [emphasis added]

Got that? The natural sciences necessarily have nothing to say about these issues. Metaphysics and theology must never have any observable consequences, for if they did, the natural sciences would have something to say about it. The real message here is "Get out of our bailiwick, you meddling scientists!"

Point 3: Philosophical Naivete?

I suspect that these authors are right when they say most scientists are philosophically naive. Most working scientists are too busy with their own research, teaching, grant writing, etc., to spend a lot of time perusing the philosophical literature. Maybe Krauss really botches things when he gets philosophical - I don't know. Certainly I have my own philosophical reservations about pre-big bang scenarios. (E.g. multiverse models: how would we ever test if there are other universes out there?) But the objections of these sophisticated philosophers seem rather ... silly. Naive, even.

We already saw how they all declare "equivocation!" even though no equivocation is in sight. The scientist's other great sin, it seems, is... doing philosophy.

Brumley: "He [Krauss] rejects the idea that it is the responsibility of philosophy rather than science to tell us what nothing is. How he scientifically arrives at this conclusion is impossible to say because it is not a scientific conclusion but a philosophical one--only he seemingly doesn't know it. How embarrassing."

Carroll: "As we saw, for Krauss: “without science, any definition is just words.” One wonders what scientific evidence supports such a claim!"

 You can almost see them rubbing their hands together and saying, "Gotcha!" Here's Krauss saying how useless philosophy is, and here he is philosophizing! What a hypocrite!

The problem is, he doesn't (as far as I can see) say any such thing. He's not complaining about philosophy in general, he's complaining about philosophical definitions of "nothing" that are untestable. And he's contrasting them to scientific conceptions, where actual experiments in the real world have forced us to re-think what we mean by "nothing."

From such a group of distinguished philosophers, I would have hoped for a little more philosophical sophistication.


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