Does physics trump philosophy?

Richard Dawkins loves Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, claiming that it is the greatest thing since sliced bread, or at the very least since The Origin of Species.

What Dawkins loves is the book’s contention that not only did the universe emerge from nothing, but that it had to do so. So much for the teleology implicit in “Why is there something rather than nothing?” And nothing makes Dawkins happier than something that demolishes what he calls “the last trump card of the theologian.”

Or maybe not.

Now that I’ve read A Universe from Nothing (AUFN), I’ve been looking for related material. The most interesting things I’ve found are an article and interview with Krauss in the Atlantic and a negative review in the New York Times.

I found AUFN a pretty standard cosmology popularization, spiked with more than a soupçon of the typical New Atheist triumphalism. Nothing particularly special either way, it seemed to me.

But others, including the book’s author, have more animated opinions.

The Atlantic article is “Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete?” A short review of AUFN is followed by an interview with Krauss. As the title suggests, the thrust of the interview is that physics has marched into yet another area that was previously the turf of philosophy or theology. And, Krauss maintains, where physics once treads, others must retreat.

In the interview, Krauss crows that “people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.” So much for interdisciplinary civility. It’s not all one-sided, however. In “On the Origin of Everything,” published by the NYT on March 23rd, David Albert asks, “What on Earth … can Lawrence Krauss have been thinking?” But let’s give Krauss the first at bat and return to Albert later.

Commenting that philosophy does its best work when it considers the “real” knowledge gained in other areas, Krauss says that “the religious question ‘why is there something rather than nothing,’ has been around since people have been around, and now we’re actually reaching a point where science is beginning to address that question.”

And for Krauss, it’s only when the physical sciences can answer “How?” that we begin to understand “Why?” which, to everyone but philosophers and theologians, is the same question. Why are there mountains? Because this is how plate tectonics works. That kind of thing. In this view, when you know how, you no longer need the supernatural to explain why.

Be that as it may, Albert maintains that Krauss has not gotten the “how” right, at least not the ultimate how, the one that’s really “why.”

One criticism Albert levels is to turn the tables on the scientist, accusing Krauss of ignoring that all he has done is to push the notorious infinite regress back one level. Even if Krauss has demonstrated that our present universe is a necessary consequence of the laws of nature and the characteristics of “nothing,” what made these the laws of nature, and what made “nothing” the nothing that it was? In more slippery words, if nothing creates something, what created nothing?

Besides, Albert writes, even a full description of the basic laws of nature would give us only a description of how the elementary stuff of the universe is arranged, which would tell us nothing about where that elementary stuff came from.

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.

What’s more,

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! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t.

Krauss is having none of this kind of criticism. In the Atlantic interview, he calls Albert “a moronic philosopher” who doesn’t understand what he’s talking about. Krauss denies that he has an infinite regress problem, because he never intended to solve the problem in the first place:

I don’t ever claim to resolve that infinite regress of why-why-why-why-why; as far as I’m concerned it’s turtles all the way down. The multiverse could explain it by being eternal, in the same way that God explains it by being eternal, but there’s a huge difference: the multiverse is well motivated and God is just an invention of lazy minds.

That is, Krauss says, stripping away the ad hominem, his approach is superior because it deals with the physical, not the metaphysical.

To that extent, I have to agree with him. Even a partial and temporary explanation based on limited understanding of the mechanics of the physical world is superior to a universal and eternal assertion based on the inspired writings of faithful acolytes.

Unless, that is, the biocentrists from last time are right after all, and from moment to moment we create the universe in our heads — which by now should be aching.

4 thoughts on “Does physics trump philosophy?

  1. Ron,
    And one might ask, “Just how large is that pin head and just how many angels?” But seriously, this topic was dealt with, I feel, brilliantly by Michael Shermer today on “Tapestry”. The interview is still available on the CBC website. Worth a listen. P.

  2. In term of why we have “something”, Physic is key.

    You may find the book “The Origin of the Universe – Case Closed” to be interesting. It has math in the Appendix to back up the claims. It is hard to argue with the math!

  3. I think Albert is playing a word game here instead of doing serious philosophy. “What created nothing which in turn created everything?” is a nonsense question. You can’t have something and nothing at the same time. That’s what the word “nothing” implies. It’s similar to asking: “Prove that no triangles exist with four or more angles”.

    I think this is what AUFN means: It implies that “nothing” can transform into something and possibly vice-versa. It only claims the possibility of such a transformation between the only two states which are possible: nothing and something. The infinite regress stops here.

    Not all grammatically correct questions are sensible ones.

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