Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Something from Nothing: Why is everyone dissing philosophy?

Why do public atheists like Sam Harris and Lawrence Krauss denigrate philosophy without apparently realizing how philosophically poor and unsophisticated their arguments are, and how much better they would fare by taking philosophy seriously?

There seems to be a lot of support for this combination of arrogance and ignorance in the atheist community.  Everybody thinks they know how to think about difficult philosophical concepts.  Everybody has an opinion on philosophy, but hardly anyone has the patience, charity or education to speak about it authoritatively. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop them from pretending.

I complained about the cult of personality back in 2010, when Harris was selling his book on morality, and again recently, after he arrogantly assumed an authoritative aptitude on the issue of free will.  Isn't it odd that Harris, who seems to think rigorous attention to philosophical argument and scholarship is beneath him, is so eager to publicly debate a well-respected philosopher like Daniel C. Dennett?  Or are we supposed to think that Dennett is one of the few exceptions to the rule, and that most other philosophers aren't worth the time?

Perhaps I'm being unfair.  Harris hasn't exactly rejected philosophers in general.  He has only criticized and extensively avoided engagement with their work.  Krauss, on the other hand, has spoken vituperously against philosophers in general.  I'm happy to see Krauss rolling his eyes at theology, but I see no justification for his ignorant and careless debasement of philosophy.

The Krauss kerfuffle has officially been termed a "brouhaha." (See Russell Blackford and Sean Carroll for authoritative use of the word "brouhaha.")  Massimo Pigliucci has capably explanained what is wrong with Krauss' behavior.  Justin Vacula has made some good observations, too.  There are some interesting comments here, as well.

Krauss has since apologized for his behavior, but rather minimally.  His apology does not fairly represent the criticism levelled against him.  It also fails to fully correct his ignorant and unfortunate view of philosophy.  In fact, Krauss still fails to see the important role philosophy plays in the very conversation he is having.

See, in his apology, Krauss offers a brief explanation for why there is something rather than nothing:  As William Carlos Williams famously put it, "That which is possible is inevitable."  There must be both something and nothing, Krauss claims, because quantum fields allow it.  Of course, the existence of quantum fields might be contingent, and therefore the "everything which is not forbidden will happen" line might also be contingent.  More importantly, it seems pretty easy to distinguish between quantum fields and nothing, but Krauss doesn't.  All Krauss has done is explain some contemporary ways of thinking about how quantum fields might generate space and possibly even time as we know it.  That's pretty cool, but it's also changing the subject, and rather deceptively, too, since the book claims to answer the theologically-tinged question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

So the theologian and, yes, the philosopher, will have to wonder:  is Krauss just confused or is he being annoying on purpose?

There's nothing wrong with changing the subject.  It's just that Krauss is getting so offended (and offensive) when it is pointed out that that is what he is doing.

In this case, changing the subject is certainly worthwhile, but you need a philosophical argument for why that is the case.  (I'll provide one in a moment.) It's not enough to say:  Here's where the physics is leading us; your other notions of "something" and "nothing" aren't found in contemporary physics, therefore they are useless.  We rather need an argument that explains why the age-old "why is there something rather than nothing?" question is a dead end, and why people should stop talking about it.  It might help, for example, to explain why it is, as Krauss suggests, that the old conceptions of "something" and "nothing" are bankrupt, though I'm not convinced that these ordinary terms are the problem.  In any case, you would need a rather philosophical argument to explain that, and Krauss doesn't seem interested in such things.

Ironically, it is philosophy that will ultimately be able to explain why the theologians are wrong and the scientists are right.  You need philosophy to understand why the "why is there something rather than nothing?" question is and has always been wrongheaded.

"Why" questions are inquiries into causation.  To ask why there is something rather than nothing is to ask about the cause of the lack of nothingness.  This presupposes that a lack of nothingness was caused.  And that's nonsense, because in order to have a cause, you must have a lack of nothingness.  So a lack of nothingness cannot itself be caused.  Thus, the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" presupposes a nonsensical situation.  It's not a logically coherent question.

A similarly incoherent question is, "What created the universe?" (I'm taking "universe" to mean "that which exists," and let's include quantum fields in that definition, okay?)  We cannot meaningfully speak of a creator of everything, because that would mean that we could refer to something which existed and yet which did not exist.  Because "everything" includes . . . well, everything.

So, yes, Krauss is right that the theological issue of "why is there something rather than nothing?" is bankrupt.  But he doesn't realize that this is a philosophical bankruptcy, and not a scientific one, and does not indicate a problem with the ordinary meaning of the words.

Krauss' behavior does not just betray a lack of intellectual integrity or moral character.  It evidences an ignorance and confusion about what philosophy is, what it is for, and how it should be judged.  Instead of trying to demolish theology with physics, Krauss would be better off leaving it to the philosophers.  That's apparently what Krauss wants to do:  leave philosophers and theologians to duke it out over issues which are of no direct relevance to science.  But at the same time, he wants to have something relevant to say about the philosophical debate.  Isn't that having your cake and eating it, too?