Once More with Feeling:

Philosophy is being made obsolete by science, claims a theorist cited by The Atlantic:
In January, Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and Director of the Origins Institute at Arizona State University, published A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, a book that, as its title suggests, purports to explain how something---and not just any something, but the entire universe---could have emerged from nothing, the kind of nothing implicated by quantum field theory.
Well, yes, "the kind of nothing."  This is just how we got started, though:  this "kind of nothing" isn't nothing at all.  It's the potential for something.

It turns out that the New York Times ran a piece that we somehow missed containing a rebuttal on just the same terms as we have been making.  The author was not me, though, but a better authority: a philosopher named David Albert, who also holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics.  I am gratified to learn that he raises substantially the same point.
"The particular, eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world, according to the standard presentations of relativistic quantum field theories, consists (unsurprisingly) of relativistic quantum fields... they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story."
The Atlantic decided to interview only Krauss, so you can read the rebuttal-to-the-rebuttal.  However, having done so, I can't say that I find it enlightening or even interesting.  He claims that philosophy doesn't advance while science does; the reviewer points out that the basis of computer science and artificial intelligence is based on recent work in philosophy of language.  'Well, I was just being provocative,' but the important areas of philosophy are being subsumed by other fields.  What about the ones that continue to produce insight?  'Those will be subsumed.'  Bertrand Russell?  'He was a mathematician.'  (Also a philosopher!  As Albert is both a philosopher and a physicist.)  It would be better to read St. Augustine on physics than the people reviewing his book, who are 'morons' (with, in Albert's case, a pair of advanced degrees in quite difficult subjects).

There is a point he's trying to make here, though, and if we are patient with him we can almost see it.  He clearly misses the philosopher's point, but that's because he wasn't listening.  Let's not make the same mistake.  Just what is he trying to say beneath all that sneering?


james said...

Maybe the usual? There exist efficient causes, therefore there are no final causes. (And if we wave our hands enough when talking about virtual particles, no material causes either.)

Joseph W. said...

You say, This is just how we got started, though: this "kind of nothing" isn't nothing at all. It's the potential for something.

And he says...

Given what we know about quantum gravity, or what we presume about quantum gravity, we know you can create space from where there was no space. And so you've got a situation where there were no particles in space, but also there was no space. That's a lot closer to "nothing."

But of course then people say that's not "nothing," because you can create something from it. They ask, justifiably, where the laws come from. And the last part of the book argues that we've been driven to this notion---a notion that I don't like---that the laws of physics themselves could be an environmental accident. On that theory, physics itself becomes an environmental science, and the laws of physics come into being when the universe comes into being. And to me that's the last nail in the coffin for "nothingness."

Which tells me that the answer to your question - "Just what is he trying to say beneath all that sneering?" - is something you could find out by reading his book; and his answer to what you say about "potential for something," or at least the way he covers that issue, that's also found in the same book. I doubt that we who haven't read it are going to be able to help you understand him any better. I think, if you really want to know, you'll have to set yourself that task.

(btw, he doesn't say Albert is one of the "morons," only that some philosophers who have reviewed his book are.)

Grim said...

He does say that one of the morons wrote a review in the NYT; so I'm guessing that's a pretty small set. :)

The problem is that, as he explains it here, we have only two options: 1) the laws are an accident that permits the creation (in accordance with the laws); or 2) the laws come about with the creation (accidentally -- meaning, we could have other laws).

To say (1) is to put us in the same place we were in before: we have a potential for the creation of a universe (including laws). To say (2) is to say something more interesting.

Actually, you and I had this conversation a bit ago: it's the difference between the Brouwer axiom and the T claim. Brouwer (and, separately, S5 logic) holds that the laws (i.e., the potential) are metaphysically prior: if P is the case, it is necessary that P is possible. Thus, the possibility was "always" there in the non-temporal sense we talked about.

Insofar as we take the multiverse seriously -- he seems to want to do so here -- we do end up with something like the Brouwer view, by the way. Necessity carries over to newly created universes from the conditions in nearby ones in multiple-worlds theories; thus, it really does make sense to talk about priority even though the new universe might not have time as such until it is created.

In the T theory (which corresponds with his second possibility), the possibility of the laws actually follows the creation of the laws. The claim, in other words, is that they weren't possible until they existed -- after which they were not only possible but necessary.

That is a remarkable claim, but it's actually Avicenna's and Aquinas' claim as well: that actuality proceeds potentiality. I find it interesting that he expects to put paid to theism by endorsing a view held by two of the greatest theists of all time.

Grim said...

By the way, this actually touches on my favorite proof from modal logic: the Barcan Formula and its converse. The philosopher/logician who invented it was Ruth Barcan Marcus.

"Free quantified modal logic" was invented largely to avoid admitting she was right. (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy refers to it as 'the equally implausible Barcan formula'; but really, it's perfectly plausible if an Avicenna-style model were correct.)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

It just pushes the question back one step - for the umpteenth time, with those who wish to have no creation always claiming triumph, and those who wish to have one pointing out there still an unanswered Something farther back.

No space, no particles - hah! we've got you now! It really is nothing! But a law or property is just as much a thing - perhaps even more of a thing.

I don't pretend having a God in there makes it suddenly all explainable. But it's just not any worse at the logical level, only at the feeling level of those who would prefer there not be one.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Note: Other commenters should be aware that james knows his particle physics here.

james said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence.

Maybe we can map the language a bit. Using Grim's alternatives, the "multiverse" is based on some fundamental laws(2) that parametrize the laws(1) of possible universes. (except for the "multiverse" that consists of all possible constructs and all possible outcomes, which sounds like an attempt to describe Omniscience)