Thursday, May 3, 2012

Beating A Dead Nothing

I don't want to keep posting about this, but I have to comment on this video, from February this year, featuring a discussion between Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins.

A few minutes in, the notion of "something from nothing" is raised, and Dawkins discusses it in relation to evolutionary theory:  He says Darwin's Origin of Species showed the world how you can get the appearance of intelligent design from simple genetic material and the non-cognizant laws of physics, and while that isn't quite "something from nothing," it's pretty close.  (Of course, you need a suitable environment for the genetic material, too, but whatever.)

Krauss' response is bizarre.  He says Dawkins isn't giving Darwin enough credit--that Darwin did in fact show that you can get something form nothing.  Dawkins disagrees and clarifies that, no, it's not actually nothing.  You do need some conditions before natural selection can take off.  That's obvious, isn't it?

Not for Krauss, who insists that in that moment when chemistry turns to biology, when complexity emerges from simplicity, you really do, quite literally, get something from nothing.  Dawkins looks a bit confused by this (or maybe I'm reading my own confusion into his countenance).  While he doesn't concede, he doesn't quibble, either.  He lets it go, but a few minutes later he repeats that natural selection explains how you get complex life from "almost nothing."  That's civil disagreement, and I can respect it, but I would have liked to see Dawkins put a little pressure on Krauss.

Can anyone make sense of Krauss' thinking for me?  Just what was he trying to say?

Anyway, at about 46 minutes into the video, the issue of nothing comes up again, this time in relation to Krauss' new book.  Krauss emphasizes that one of the purposes of the book is to say something about theism, that the science he is discussing helps us understand how the universe is possible without a Creator.  And he says this is so because it is scientifically plausible that a universe can come from nothing.

Then he gets into the meaning of the word "nothing."  Here's my own (almost flawless) transcription.

". . . this remarkable fact that nothing is unstable, that empty space is unstable. The laws of quantum mechanics combined with gravity will tell you that if you have empty space there and you wait long enough particles will be created, and if you wait long enough, empty space will always produce a universe full of matter, just . . . And it's not a scam.  There's no violation of energy conservation.  It's from the fact that gravity can have negative energy as well as positive energy, and so--so nothing is unstable, and in fact, that's the first answer to why there's something rather than nothing is that nothing is unstable.  The big surprise would be if there were nothing, not that there's something.  Now the problem, of course, with saying that is that people will say, "That's not nothing."  And, you know, when . . . And it's an interesting problem.  When I've discussed this with theologians and philosophers, uh, some of them, and you ask, you know, what's nothing, and my argument is that these are scientific questions, not philosophical or theological ones, and . . . and I think the nothing that Aristotle would have had, or St. Thomas Aquinas, or any of the people who first asked why there is something rather than nothing, that nothing would have been an eternal empty void, namely empty space. But once I argue that empty space can create something, then immediately I'm told, "That's not nothing."  And then I throw that space itself can be created from nothing, and I'm told that's not nothing.  And then I say, well, because there's the laws of physics and then I argue the fact that the laws of physics for the reasons we've discussed--the anthropic principle--there may be many universes, and it's quite likely that even the laws of physics themselves arose by accident when the universe is created.  So even the laws aren't there.  And I'm told, "That's not nothing."  And the definition of theologians, I think, for "nothing" is "that from which only God can create something."  And I find that sort of content-free."

And then he makes a joke--actually, he says he makes the joke in the book, as well--that maybe he is "not fit to talk about nothing, because theologians and philosophers are experts at nothing."  Everybody laughs and there's uproarious applause.  Then Dawkins emphasizes that what is so remarkable to him is that space and the laws of nature came from "literally nothing."

How is that not intellectually dishonest?

I would reject the theological definition of "nothing," too.  But Krauss's argument about the meaning of "nothing" is quite poor.  He implies that people who say he's not talking about nothing are moving the goal posts.  They say nothing is one thing, and then they change their minds whenever he says that something can come from it.  At best, I'd say Krauss' interpretation of his critics is confused.  At worst, it's dishonest.

The reason people are saying "that's not nothing" is that he is talking about quantum fields, and not nothing.  The reason people often say empty space is nothing is because they think it's nothing.  If you tell them that, actually, empty space has mass and energy, then they'll say, "oh, I was wrong.  I thought it was nothing." That's not moving the goal posts.  That's just correcting a mistake.

I guess, if you tell people space itself and even the constants which define the laws of our universe can be produced from quantum fields,  then Krauss thinks the only legitimate response would be, "oh, I guess quantum fields are nothing!"

No, I doubt Krauss would say that.  But then, what is he saying?

Also of note:  Here's a discussion between Krauss and Rodney Holder (astrophysicist and priest).  Krauss is evasive, goes on about semantic disagreements about "nothing," and again insults philosophy:  He says he dismissed Albert's review of his book because Albert is a philosopher.  And Krauss says, quite clearly, that he thinks science shows that "why is there something rather than nothing?" is not an interesting question anymore.  So he's explicit:  He is not trying to answer the question.  He's trying to change the subject.  He says you can always ask, "but why that rather than nothing?"  And he says you can say the same about God.  And so the ontological argument comes up, and . . . well, maybe that's enough about this.