Albert V. Krauss; or, A Few Well-Known Scientists’ Ignorance of Science

Larry Krauss, author of A Universe From Nothing

Last year, Lawrence Krauss wrote A Universe from Nothing in which he explained how physicists’ current understanding of quantum mechanics suggests how quantum probability fields relate to one another to create matter and how, therefore, a state in which no matter existed could yield a state in which matter existed: in some arrangements, quantum fields yield no particles, but if their arrangements shift, matter would basically “appear”. So something (that is, matter) could appear from “nothing”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Krauss pressed this point to try and argue that theological and philosophical arguments about cosmogenesis were now obsolete–through the mechanism described above, physics showed how the universe came into being.

Except that…it doesn’t. What’s so surprising about Krauss’ claim is how jaw-droppingly misguided it is. He seems to think that a quantum state in which fields exist but do not generate matter is “nothing”. But of course such a state isn’t nothing–the fields still exist–and since these fields are the very basis of just about everything, at least as quantum mechanics tells it, this means that essentially the same something that is now present would be present in such a state–just in a different configuration. This is like arguing that while a diamond is something, a piece of coal is nothing, because the carbon atoms are arranged differently.

This is obviously ridiculous, but I don’t think Krauss is pulling a Joaquin Phoenix here–he seems to be dead serious. This reveals that he basically doesn’t understand what the word “nothing” means, which is pretty scandalous, because I’m pretty sure he’s a native English speaker. Now, Krauss’ book ended up eliciting a scathing review from one David Albert in the New York Times–to which Krauss responded with a bitter interview with Ross Anderson in the Atlantic. I would really recommend reading both as they provide the central material of the debate. Neither is horribly long, and they give some real insight into the two camps that have basically lined up in this debate.

As for those two camps, lots of people have been posting on blogs and elsewhere, flocking to this academic dust-up. Two articles I found particularly worthwhile were Adam Frank’s post in NPR’s 13.7 blog and Massimo Pigliucci’s post in Rationally Speaking. Both seek to understand why Krauss–and some other scientists–seem so hostile to philosophy in general. The fact that Krauss’ book was plastered with an enthusiastic blurb in which Richard Dawkins compared the work with Darwin’s The Origin of Species only underscores this theme: Dawkins is well known for his hatred of religion and his dismissive attitude towards theology, but he’s equally hostile to–and ignorant of–philosophy.

Both Krauss and Dawkins are, essentially, dogmatic scientists. Science, as a methodology, has finally been around long enough that people can practice it without understanding what it actually is and how it works. The philosophy of science attempts to continue analyzing science as a discipline, but this often leads to philosophers pointing out that scientists themselves overreach in their claims–which understandably frustrates those scientists. But instead of giving well-thought-out defenses of their positions, increasingly scientists just dismiss philosophy altogether.

This rhetorical tactic is as psychologically interesting as it is logically deficient. You can’t actually win a debate by simply saying that your opponent’s opinion is wrong a priori because they have one doctoral degree instead of another; but this is exactly what Krauss and Dawkins do. Albert’s central critique of Krauss’ book is the one outlined above: the English word nothing means just that–nothing. No thing, not structure, no space, no time, no matter–no nothing! Krauss explains how one state of existence, one structure of being–quantum fields aligned in a given way–can lead to a different state of existence–quantum fields aligned in such a way as to bring matter into existence. But he seems to think he’s actually explained how something came from nothing–when in reality he’s explained how one thing came from something else, or, really: how one set of relationships resulted in a different set of relationships.

This is really no different from claiming that when the first sufficiently heavy star exploded in a supernova and generated really heavy elements–like gold and uranium–for the first time, that this was creatio ex nihilo–the creation of something (i.e. gold and uranium) out of nothing (i.e. hydrogen, iron, oxygen, and incredible amounts of energy). Obviously hydrogen, iron, etc. are not nothing. Perhaps less obviously–but no less truly–quantum fields are not nothing. They are, as said above, actually everything–they and their relating account, as far as we currently know, for everything we see (although I gather that the laws simply assume space-time rather than account for it–but I’m not sure). They are, actually, the opposite of nothing.

It’s hard not to wonder if the materialist realism that underpins modern science hasn’t so uncritically ingrained itself on the minds of folks like Krauss that they can’t even understand the implications of their own work. I’m not saying this unequivocally, I’m really wondering. But he seems to think that the absence of matter-as-particles is equivalent to “nothing”, even as he spearheads research in a field that seeks to explain particles as composite realities determined by something other than particles. In other words, his field assumes that particles are generated by the reaction of something more fundamental than particles. And yet he still seems to think that the absence of particles signifies the absence of anything. Which draws the question: so, quantum physics is the study of…nothing?

In short, Krauss knows how to pursue empirical methodology–and he seems very good at, I’m not aiming here to criticize his actual theoretical and experimental work as a physicist–but doesn’t seem to actually understand it. He seems to essentially be “ontologizing” his epistemology. In its radically skeptical form, empiricism basically accords no reality to anything except sense perceptions. Hume certainly held to this view. But quantum mechanics, crucially, claims–and with lots of indirect empirical evidence–that the reality we see and experience is governed by forces that we cannot directly detect. In other words, empiricism has itself led to a denunciation of its most extremely skeptical variety.This is in no way a refutation of science, but actually science itself progressive, developing, and critiquing itself in a very healthy way. Note that while Hume hewed to a very skeptical empiricist view, Netwon and Bacon did not.

Interestingly, quantum physics seems to have almost as much–perhaps even more–in common with objective idealism as it does with materialist realism. Traditional materialism along Netwonian lines simply took particles, space, and time as givens–particles were completely simple, with no composites. Modern physics has dramatically overturned this view; now it is forces, laws, and probabilities that are most fundamentally real. This actually mimics, at least in broad outlines, the thought of people like Immanuel Kant and HGF Hegel–not to mention the likes of Spinoza and even Plato. The various forms of idealism that each developed tended to see logic, mathematics, and reason as fundamental to the reality of the universe (though each differed from each other in crucial ways, and obviously quantum mechanics is not idealism–nonetheless, the parallels are, I think, intriguing). It might be better, though, to say that quantum mechanics seems to be affirming some of the fundamental insights of both objective idealism and material realism.

This sort of discussion is precisely the sort of thing that philosophers of science do, and it’s important to the practice of science because science, like all epistemological methods, only works when it is properly understood and well-guided. Once scientists themselves lose sight of how their discipline works, they are unlikely to be able to advance their field as quickly and are also likely to make erroneous and wild conclusions–just as we have seen Krauss do. This isn’t to say that somehow philosophy should “rule over” science, but rather than its voice and its discipline are valuable. It’s also well worth pointing out that many, many scientists are interested and educated in philosophy and even theology–I am not here criticizing all scientists en mass, most of whom actually do take these questions seriously. There is, however, a troubling trend within popular science writing of dismissing philosophy for a pure sort of empiricist materialist realism that dis-serves the public and damages the credibility and progress of science itself.

2 thoughts on “Albert V. Krauss; or, A Few Well-Known Scientists’ Ignorance of Science

  1. It seems like materialism is the sacred cow of science (see for example the reactions to Thomas Nagel). Instead, science’s version of creatio ex nihilio goes unquestioned and as you say, a useful methodology is used and abused as a pseudo-philosophy.

  2. Philosopher: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

    Physicist: “What’s “nothing”?”

    Philosopher: “The absence of anything. No fields, space, laws, nothing.”

    Physicist: “So, something you just made up?”

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