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Much Ado About Nothing
April 27, 2012 1:33 PM   Subscribe

Physicist Lawrence Krauss wrote a book titled A Universe from Nothing. Philosopher David Albert wrote a rather scathing review. In a later interview with The Atlantic, Krauss suggested that philosophers feel threatened by science "because science progresses and philosophy doesn't." Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci weighed in on Krauss' comments, and Krauss non-apologized to philosophers who may have been offended. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne reflects on the controversy.
posted by Jonathan Livengood (84 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
Obligatory SMBC.
posted by leotrotsky at 1:50 PM on April 27, 2012 [20 favorites]


"...if you can show how a set of physical mechanisms can bring about our universe, that itself is an amazing thing and it's worth celebrating. 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. "

What I like about this is that he has a good sense of humor. The article is nothing less than fascinating.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 1:51 PM on April 27, 2012


I am not a philosopher, nor do I claim to be an expert on philosophy. Because of a lifetime of activity in the field of theoretical physics, ranging from particle physics to general relativity to astrophysics, I do claim however to have some expertise in the impact of philosophy on my own field.
If philosophy does not progress, but science does, and philosophy has an "impact" on science, how does science still progress? I guess it really is turtles all the way down...
posted by anewnadir at 1:52 PM on April 27, 2012


Krauss: "There are areas of philosophy that are important, but I think of them as being subsumed by other fields. In the case of descriptive philosophy you have literature or logic, which in my view is really mathematics. Formal logic is mathematics, and there are philosophers like Wittgenstein that are very mathematical, but what they're really doing is mathematics---it's not talking about things that have affected computer science, it's mathematical logic."

I'm a mathematician and it's pretty clear to me that what Wittgenstein is doing is not mathematics. I've thought a reasonable amount about formal epistemology, and I can see how at first glance it might look like it's "really mathematics" -- that's what I thought, too, at first -- but in fact it's something that you need math to do but which isn't itself math.

That said, it certainly does happen that domains thought to be the sole property of philosophy or theology (the infinite, or the action of chance) get gathered up, formalized, and made part of mathematics. So it's certainly not unreasonable to imagine that physics might someday have something decisive to say about questions, like "why is there stuff?" that right now seem like philosophy. But there is still such a thing as philosophy of probability; it doesn't go away or become unimportant just because you find a suitable formalism that accomplishes some scientific goal.
posted by escabeche at 1:54 PM on April 27, 2012 [11 favorites]


Wow. Krauss comes across as being terribly ignorant about the history of his own field and indeed the history of philosophy.

Well, you name me the philosophers that did key work for computer science; I think of John Von Neumann and other mathematicians, and---

Or Turing? Turing...the philosopher?

But Bertrand Russell was a mathematician. I mean, he was a philosopher too and he was interested in the philosophical foundations of mathematics, but by the way, when he wrote about the philosophical foundations of mathematics, what did he do? He got it wrong.

No; Russell was as much a philosopher as he was a mathematician. And what is the point of trying to tear the two disciplines apart, other than make some baiting comments about how your academic discipline is more important than another. Wittgenstein was not doing math - he was very much doing philosophy, and he would be very saddened to hear Krauss's opinion that he was doing otherwise.

As for his comments about not being well read in the philosophy of science - that there is the problem. There are deep questions about the limits of science that are addressed in philosophy that Krauss seems to want to ignore.

And philosophy hasn't progressed in 2,000 years? Um...wow.

It's worth noting that David Albert is a physicist turned philosopher. But Krauss himself admits that he's read very little philosophy. And in fact his whole argument about saying this really isn't philosophy anymore is itself a philosophical question.

Now, the whole crux of the issue - the nothingness thing. I totally agree with Albert on this one. And how we come to a definition of what nothingness is is a philosophical question - one that may be influenced indeed by physics, and should be - but a still a question that bears thinking about philosophically. Because science without philosophy doesn't mean anything, we can't take away anything from it, if we are not clear on our definitions, our methods, on what meaning is or what science is.

Also the subtitle of Krauss's book references what Quine posited as the greatest philosophical question that there is. It took a lot of hutzpah to title your book that, and you should have known the kind of eyebrow raises you were going to get from philosophers and that those eyebrow raises would probably get you interviewed by the Atlantic and reviewed in the Times, which you knew would be great for your sales.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:59 PM on April 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


I haven't read Krauss's book, but I have read David Albert's "Quantum Mechanics and Experience," and it's awesome and super-illuminating, and I strongly recommend it to those with some fortitude (there's math), and I love his conversational style and run-on sentences and weird emphases and long parentheticals (which remind me a bit of DFW), though some find his style infuriating, so if the way that NYT book review was written annoys you, avoid.
posted by eugenen at 2:01 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, good for Krauss for apologizing; that original interview was rude gibberish. (e.g.: ""I don't really give a damn about what "nothing" means to philosophers; I care about the "nothing" of reality. And if the "nothing" of reality is full of stuff, then I'll go with that.") The interviewer was great. I liked how whenever he mentioned a philosopher doing good (like Russell), Krauss just snapped back, "That's not philosophy! Philosophers are not true Scotsmen!" There's also the imputation of religion to Albert, who is an atheist, and is certainly not a "moron philosopher." (I've heard that there has been a lot of namecalling behind the scenes, and I guess that Krauss didn't expect his direct insults in an offhand interview to get this much publicity.)

Krauss calls out Albert for making some sort of mistake about the physics; I'd be curious to know whether he's right. I'm not willing to take the physicist at his word on this, because he's clearly motivated and frustrated, and Albert is no slouch. It does seem like Krauss and Albert pretty much agree on the main physical issues, though. Both agree we can get matter out of non-matter; they disagree on whether Krauss should have said that this settles the "why is there something rather than nothing?" question.
posted by painquale at 2:02 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


And I should add that it's totally OK for probabilists not to care about the philosophy of probability! Likewise, if physicists can work out something that deserves the name of a theory of cosmology, they are welcome not to care about the philosophical questions around it, just like today's physicists and chemists are welcome not to care about the interpretation of quantum mechanics, and just like I, a working mathematician, don't really care about the foundations of mathematics.

But you have to take great care to distinguish between "I don't care about X and not caring about X doesn't impede my scientific work" and "X is not important and possibly hooey." This requires some vigilance, but it's worth it.
posted by escabeche at 2:03 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


How seriously we protect our own little turf.
posted by francesca too at 2:15 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


You know what bothers me? This bickering, usually between a specific kind of scientist and specific kind of philosopher, happens every year. My impression that the top thinkers and theorists in scientific fields are actually quite sensitized towards philosophy. Ed Witten and other theoretical physicists have explicitly said that the very notion of space and time may need serious reworking. Clearly the physicists themselves do not seem to be very in touch with one another's ideas, and yet presume to blame external perspectives such as philosophy and religion for promulgating bad ways of thinking.
posted by polymodus at 2:23 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


...and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.

Love this line!
posted by Premeditated Symmetry Breaking at 2:26 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I came to this thread for the philosophy, and stayed for the turtles all the way down.

But seriously. It has always seemed to me that religion and philosophy were ways of understanding the world that did their best when they were, well, the best ways we had of understanding the world. People have an unexplainable, at least to me, affinity toward religion, but it clearly exists, even among numerous smart people. Philosophy seems to me a bit more logical, but suffers tragically from a lack of testing against the real world.

Is it okay to eat an animal without a backbone, or without parents, but wrong to eat them otherwise? To me it seems one could never intuit, to a point that would represent some final truth, the mystical rules that would govern such a moral decision. We exist. We do things for our own animal reasons. Jesus was probably a cool guy, and he was clearly influential, but he's dead, and few people are embodying his real message, from what we understand of it, anyway. We need to make our way on practical terms.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 2:30 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Philosophers laid the groundwork of all the sciences so that scientists could advance without caring about philosophy.
posted by empath at 2:30 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Philosophers laid the groundwork of all the sciences so that scientists could advance without caring about philosophy.

As a former scientist: Hear, hear!
posted by Turtles all the way down at 2:33 PM on April 27, 2012


right...and alchemists did the groundwork for chemistry and so.....
all you need is The Bible...ignore philosophy and science.
posted by Postroad at 2:34 PM on April 27, 2012


Way back when, science and philosophy and religion were all the same. Sort of like the universe being all of a piece after the Big Bang until it started cooling down enough so that particles began condensing out of the hot plasma. (And no, I don't understand vacuum fields or gauge fields or whatever they are called.) Some of it was matter and some of it was anti-matter, and they don't get along.

Which seems to me, in my unscientific way, to be sort of like what is happening here, with this argument.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 2:38 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm neither a philosophy student nor scientist, and it's definitely not this clear-cut, but I always thought philosophy "gave" the sciences their subjects, and then new advances in those sciences create new philosophical questions; repeat.
posted by Pope Xanax IV at 2:42 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sort of a symbiotic relationship.
posted by Pope Xanax IV at 2:43 PM on April 27, 2012


Albert's review of his book was unnecessarily shitty, and was terrible as a review, but the point he makes is valid about the fields not being nothing. That said, wondering where the fields come from is a very different question that what has been traditionally asked about the origin of the universe, and a great deal, I would say most, people still don't realize how far we've come in explaining where all this 'stuff' comes from.
posted by empath at 2:44 PM on April 27, 2012


Hey Kraus, I know philosophy is frustrating and all, I know... we keep pedantically insisting on clear concepts, and questioning assumptions and such... It's frustrating for us as well! It's just we feel that if we don't properly get that stuff straight we'll never really understand anything.
posted by leibniz at 2:47 PM on April 27, 2012


It's impressive how badly Krauss comes off here.

1. Albert (philosopher+physicist) criticizes Krauss (physicist) for being sloppy in what he claims to have shown.

2. Krauss agrees on the substance of what he has shown and not shown, agrees that he was deliberately exaggerating what he showed in order to attract readers, but then...

3. goes on at length grinding a weird anti-intellectual axe against philosophy, accusing the philosopher of being a "moron" and an apologist for theism, criticizing philosophy for not contributing to scientific progress in physics, suggesting that philosophers like to appeal to authority (?), and weirdly fumbling all questions about the history of philosophy. And adds (in the Atlantic and Sci Am pieces) some confused grappling with philosophical terms he's not quite straight on.

So, is the guy in general a blowhard anti-intellectual? Or was he just personally taken aback by Albert's review? Albert's review seems totally fair to me - that is, I haven't read the book, but the point about "you haven't shown x, you've shown y, and y is a perfectly interesting thing for a pop science book to show" seems totally fair and innocuous. I find it weird that Krauss would be so upset by that review when he seems to agree entirely that he's only shown y and never meant to show x.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:59 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Albert's review seems totally fair to me

Honestly it reads like he read the back jacket and that was it.
posted by empath at 3:00 PM on April 27, 2012


And big props to the Atlantic interviewer.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:00 PM on April 27, 2012


Well Krauss is really upset because of what will happen with the book sales. Everything he spewed then was an example of cognitive dissonance. And finally in an attempt to preserve reputation (credibility) he offers an apology. I didn't read the apology but it is possible he has since learned something from his errors.
posted by polymodus at 3:05 PM on April 27, 2012


empath, have you read Krauss' book and there are important issues in there that Albert didn't touch?

I mean, it sounds like Krauss wrote a book saying "Science can explain how/why something comes from nothing" and Albert's critique is "Not quite, although science can explain something pretty interesting", with some elaboration, which seems... fair enough. Not a cheap shot, not a misunderstanding of the physics, not something that relies on obscure knowledge in philosophy... just, like, clearing things up for the record. Guy says he can explain why there's something rather than nothing, but he isn't actually doing that. Instead he's explaining why, given some starting ingredients that aren't material particles, we get material particles. That should be plenty interesting without the misleading title. I would think Albert's review would make people interested to read the book.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:16 PM on April 27, 2012


Ok, reading the introduction to Krauss's book on Google Books, he begins with a long and somewhat confused grappling with objections (raised by "philosophers and theologians" that he's presented to prior to publishing the book) about his misleading definition of 'nothing.' Then he says, forget those guys, I'm going to keep using the term in this misleading way rather than simply using a slightly modified term, or acknolwedging that I'm not talking about nothingness, period, I'm talking about absence of material particles.

Maybe he was harangued by a religious crank and then decided that all versions of this critique should be lumped together into crankery? Or he had a philosophy class as an undergrad and did poorly and has been writing off clarifications from philosophers since? From this introduction, it sounds like he is not a particularly careful thinker or listener on this issue, it sounds like. There is a very straightforward thing he's failing to see, and in all his responses (in the Intro and the responses to Albert) he blusters around it calling it nonsensical or motivated by theism. Albert's review lays it out clearly and non-theistically.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:42 PM on April 27, 2012


Albert is part of a Cosmology group (previously on Metafilter) dedicated to the "why is there anything?" question. They have a blog, where there is a very good discussion thread on the Albert-Krauss dustup. (You can see invective starting to be slung.)

Krauss is making much about the fact that this research group is being funded by the Templeton Institute, which is right-wing and religiously oriented. He is attacking Albert as a "Templeton-funded philosopher" although Albert is an atheist, as are most of the other people involved in the group, and the research group does not have a religious mandate. However, although it's an ad hominem charge, I don't know whether it's an entirely irrelevant point: sources of income change behavior in subtle and subliminal ways. (Non-religious philosophers often debate whether they should accept Templeton money: interesting discussion here.) I wonder if Krauss would have been less irritated if Albert hadn't included that final paragraph about religion in his review.
posted by painquale at 3:51 PM on April 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


Maybe he was harangued by a religious crank and then decided that all versions of this critique should be lumped together into crankery? Or he had a philosophy class as an undergrad and did poorly and has been writing off clarifications from philosophers since?

I think he's just listening to other physicists. There's a long tradition of acclaimed scientists who bash philosophy for being useless. Hawking and Feynman are two notables.
posted by painquale at 3:54 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Albert's review lays it out clearly and non-theistically.

So you're also going to review his book without actually reading it?

I actually have read it, and it great. And he dismisses all the philosophical questions in the introduction so he can talk about his own perfectly reasonable and defensible definition of 'nothing' in the rest of the book.
posted by empath at 3:57 PM on April 27, 2012


Albert: "the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb."

Prove me wrong.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:58 PM on April 27, 2012


So you're also going to review his book without actually reading it?

"Also"? Wait, are you genuinely charging Albert with not having read Krauss's book? Reviewing a book in the Times without having read it would be an unrealistically bold thing to do, but just in case you're not convinced, Albert does say, in the thread I linked to above, "I did, for the record, read all of Professor Krauss’ book."
posted by painquale at 4:04 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oo, didn't realize Albert was taking Templeton money. The plot thickens.

So you're also going to review his book without actually reading it?
Well, no. I'm just saying that the criticism Albert makes in the review seems pretty straightforward, non-theistic, and I don't see why Krauss got so bent out of shape about it, since it sounds like he himself (when pressed) admits that he is not addressing the question of why there are quantum fields rather than nothing.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:06 PM on April 27, 2012


I read and enjoyed Krauss' book*. Krauss offers a compelling if not entirely satisfying theory for how the universe may have arisen from "nothing".

Here's the problem: a good faith effort to describe how a universe might arise from nothing requires a definition of what "nothing" is. But once you define "nothing", you open yourself up to criticism that your definition of "nothing" isn't nothing-enough.

Krauss acknowledges this dilemma in his book, but goes on to define "nothing" as being more or less as empty space (accompanied by the laws of physics), and explains why he chose this definition. His explanation of the Big Bang seems reasonable given this definition. Unless one is judging Krauss' book by the title (and frankly, that's how Albert's review comes across to me), I don't really see what the problem is.

Yes, David Albert and theologians can imagine "nothing" as having no properties whatsoever. I freely admit as does Krauss that this is entirely possible, but where's the evidence to support the speculation that there was ever such a state?

And yes, it's all well and fine to ask "where (quantum) fields came from" or why does the universe consist of the kinds of fields we've found, or why should fields exist at all, etc. And yes, questions such as these can even be instructive to physicists: they can help spot areas for investigation and they can help keep scientific explanations honest. And I'm more or less with Albert up to this point (then again, so is Krauss).

But for my taste, Albert hurts the case for philosophers and theologians not only by asserting without evidence that Krauss is wrong but also by (seemingly) throwing his lot in with religion. He concedes that religion may be a cruel lie and mechanism of enslavement, but at least it "had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world". And he ends by taking offense at his own straw man that religion is being insulted and called dumb.

W

T

F

is THAT?

Right or wrong, Krauss is offering an explanation that is based on our best understanding of the universe and physics at this point in time.

Making much more of it than this strikes me as disingenuous. Instead, it comes across as someone trying to justify their own relevance by trying to prevent the closure of one of the few remaining 'God of the Gaps' niches that they rely on. I don't blame Krauss for being annoyed.

* It's a good overview of the history of cosmology, general relativity, string theory, dark matter/dark energy, and particle physics/quantum mechanics, etc. The treatment of each of these subjects is focused primarily on how they relate to the Big Bang and what might have caused it.
posted by Davenhill at 4:12 PM on April 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


Albert does say, in the thread I linked to above, "I did, for the record, read all of Professor Krauss’ book."

If he did, there is zero evidence of it in the review.
posted by empath at 4:16 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Let's say Albert's review was, indeed, total crap. It takes a particular kind of arrogant ignorance on Krauss's part to tar a huge area of study, with which he is admittedly not familiar, on the basis of a bad review.

Also, science is philosophy. Anyone who claims otherwise is way too glib in their own understanding of how much we know. Empiricism isn't magic - nature doesn't just TELL us about itself when we look at it. How we know what we know, on the basis of what we observe (and indeed whether we know it), IS a philosophical question.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 4:39 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


David Albert and theologians can imagine "nothing" as having no properties whatsoever. I freely admit as does Krauss that this is entirely possible, but where's the evidence to support the speculation that there was ever such a state?

Albert describes in his review that the proper understanding of the question is, whatever you think the fundamental physical stuff is, why is there that rather than a lack of that? So, as applied to a system in which quantum fields are the basic physical stuff, the question is, why are there quantum fields rather than no quantum fields? Or, how did the first quantum fields come to be?

Now, one might think these questions are not useful ones to answer. Fair enough. But they're perfectly clear questions. So why does Krauss faff about as if they are hard-to-understand or hard-to-define questions?

Having read just the Intro of his book, there is a bunch of misunderstanding and hostility about philosophers or others who ask these questions, and then he just decides he's going to continue using the idea of "something from precisely nothing" without further adieu. Why not just say "those are fine questions, I'm going to addressing a slightly different one because I think there's a lot more interesting stuff to say about it". I'm pleased to hear that he makes clear that he's using "nothing" to mean empty space with quantum fields in it. That's a good straightforward clarification to make.

About the hat tip to religion at the end of Albert's article, who knows, but I can read it as complaining that Krauss's dismissal of philosophy and religion is so glib that it makes even atheists embarrassed. You can certainly think (as I do) that theism is false without thinking that all religious scholars or writers are stupid and worthy of ridicule.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:41 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Right, what lobstermitten said is correct. The crux of the issue isn't "why is there *A*? as if A is so special. It is better understood as *why* is there A? In the latter, A could be swapped out for B or C or...
posted by 221bbs at 4:48 PM on April 27, 2012


where's the evidence to support the speculation that there was ever such a state?

Sorry, meant to address this before.

People who ask these questions do not assume that there must have been, at some time, a state of nothingness. But, supposing that something exists now, either:
a. something (in this case, we're positing it's the first quantum fields) came from nothing (ie from an absence of quantum fields) or
b. something (those quantum fields maybe) always existed.

Then the discussion can go from there. I don't know the status of this debate among knowledgable cosmologists or whatever, but those are the basic options. Either one raises its own explanatory questions.

I think it's perfectly fair for Krauss to decide he wants to bracket these questions and just focus on how material particles etc came from a state with no material particles. I just think he should say that's what he's doing and not use misleading terms or get bent out of shape over Albert's completely fair clarification.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:52 PM on April 27, 2012


He concedes that religion may be a cruel lie and mechanism of enslavement, but at least it "had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world".

I think this is a mis-reading of that last paragraph of Albert's review. When Albert writes:
When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for every­thing essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world ...
The "it" in the clause after the em-dash in the last sentence refers back to the criticism of religion, not to religion itself. The way I read it, Albert is saying, "We used to pick on religion for being evil, but now it seems that the best we critics can do is to call it dumb." Now, maybe for some of you "dumb" is worse than "evil." I'll say that the observable effects of dumb and evil are often indistinguishable. But somehow, dumb seems more excusable.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 5:01 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, in the Sci Am article and in the intro, he characterizes what he thinks of as good science as having operational definitions, relying on observational evidence, and working to disprove its hypotheses. (probably others, I'm going by memory here) All these are direct from various movements in philosophy of science. So, he slags philosophy of science specifically as not having anything to offer, but it has offered him the conceptual vocabulary in which he couches his critique of "philosophers and theologians".
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:06 PM on April 27, 2012


Davenhill: Yes, David Albert and theologians can imagine "nothing" as having no properties whatsoever. I freely admit as does Krauss that this is entirely possible, but where's the evidence to support the speculation that there was ever such a state?

This confuses temporal notions and modal notions. The question isn't whether there was a state in which nothing existed. Even if quantum fields always have existed and always will exist, things could have been otherwise (and apparently you and Krauss admit this as a possibility). So, why aren't they otherwise?

Lobstermitten: So, as applied to a system in which quantum fields are the basic physical stuff, the question is, why are there quantum fields rather than no quantum fields? Or, how did the first quantum fields come to be?

Similarly, I think those are two different questions, because the former question might be a modal question that does not invoke any temporal or causal notions, but the latter one is temporal and causal. The latter question is a lot easier to answer---you just need to accept uncaused causes or infinite chains of causes or temporal loops or be an eliminativist about causation or etc., and I'm perfectly willing to bite whichever of these bullets that Krauss and other physicists tell me to bite. The modal question is much harder and it's not obvious what bullets are even on the menu.
posted by painquale at 5:07 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]




“I don’t really give a damn about what ‘nothing’ means to philosophers; I care about the ‘nothing’ of reality. And if the ‘nothing’ of reality is full of stuff [a nothing full of stuff? Fascinating], then I’ll go with that.”


It's surprising to me that Krauss veered this far off the reservation. I thought the party line was to simply deride the interviewer as an idiot for questioning the meaning of nothing, or for having some magical meaning of nothing.

Perhaps this debate is useful in clarifying the scientific question versus philosophical, ontological?, question of origin. And to see where there may be limits to scientific understanding. Then everyone could lighten up a bit.

From the Philosophy of Science wikipedia article. Richard Feynman goes, “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” In response, some philosophers (e.g. Jonathan Schaffer[1]) have pointed out that it is likely that ornithological knowledge would be of great benefit to birds, were it possible for them to possess it.
posted by Golden Eternity at 5:09 PM on April 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think those are two different questions
Agree.

I am amused by the thought of sending Krauss a copy of Language Truth and Logic, letting him get all excited about the hot new views of this new and exciting iconoclast Ayer.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:15 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


some philosophers (e.g. Jonathan Schaffer[1]) have pointed out that it is likely that ornithological knowledge would be of great benefit to birds, were it possible for them to possess it.

Or a quippier version I heard in an interview with Alex Rosenberg (not sure who he was citing): scientists know as much about philosophy of science as birds know about ornithology.
posted by painquale at 5:20 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Let me begin by making clear that I have not read any of the linked articles beyond Coyne's commentary. I do, however, as a working scientists, have some sense of the context that all these academics are grappling within, and I haven't seen much discussion of that context, which is important to understanding why current philosophers and current scientists so often come to blows.

First, it is important to recognize the enormous damage that empirical science has done to "traditional" philosophy in the 300 years since "natural philosophy" gradually morphed into modern science. It is true that, up to various dates depending on the discipline, science and philosophy used to enjoy such complete crosstalk as to essentially be the same enterprise. In the interval, however, a number of empirical results have upended not only the conclusions of philosophy, but the assumptions of philosophy:

(1) The theory of evolution, and (as Dan Dennett has eloquently argued) the resulting broad understanding of algorithms, has dramatically decoupled the notion of "complexity" from the notions of "meaning" and "purpose."

(2) The unraveling of the the atomic and general-relativistic levels of reality have revealed phenomena so deeply weird (and yet powerfully predictive) that the Philosophy has been rendered largely moot as a discipline for making inferences about the natural world.

(3) In general, the weight of science has fallen heavily on the side of statistical inference over logical rigor. The ways in which our world has been completely transformed by a probabilistic and statistical approach cannot be understated, and they dramatically alter the standards of evidence. Not that statistics aren't routinely abused and misunderstood; they just encourage different kinds of abuses than rhetoric.

(4) Speaking of logic, the implications of the Incompleteness Theorems to philosophy's most rigorous and quantitative subfields also cannot be understated. Even in the sterile reaches of basic arithmetic, the dream of a systematic, clockwork universe has died.

(5) Scientific examination of the human mind has revealed how completely untrustworthy intuition is as a metric of measurable truth, even among "trained" experts. This means that the "one argument at a time" approach to familiar in philosophical discourse is deeply suspect.

Note that many of these developments have been ongoing, and often only fully appreciated within a couple of generations of academics (i.e. since 1950). This leads to the common challenge made by scientists skeptical of philosophy's contributions to understanding the natural world: Name a philosopher who has made a substantial contribution to science since 1975. We can split hairs over what "substantial" constitutes, but the general consensus among scientists is that the philosophical tradition employing methods similar to Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, and Hume is no longer competitive in expanding our sphere of understanding (with logic rapidly being devoured by computer science and applied mathematics).

Now, let me be clear: I do think there are a few philosophers who have engaged in a healthy and productive dialog with their scientific counterparts. I also think that scientists can learn a lot from the meticulous and rigorous toolset for fully examining ideas that philosophy has to offer. I don't dismiss philosophy categorically. And I readily admit that, when writing books for popular audiences, scientists frequently end up behaving like shoddy philosophers.

But at the same time, I think philosophers and scientists have largely defined themselves as belonging to distinct disciplines that have little more to say to one another. I don't necessarily mean that they focus exclusively on distinct topics, but rather that each has rejected the methods and culture of the other discipline as being naive and incomplete. The relationship is, at best, chilly. This attitude frequently leads to each side acting in ways that, when viewed at a distance, seem remarkably ignorant and petty.

I just thought I should spell all this out, so I don't have to read too many comments talking about the state of science and philosophy 60 years ago.
posted by belarius at 5:57 PM on April 27, 2012 [14 favorites]


Well, I'm not going to engage with every piece of what you've said there, but some of what you say is peculiar to me. I'll mention two.

Philosophers today generally don't believe in a model of the natural world driven by meaning or purpose; they don't believe that we should learn about the natural world by deduction or armchair induction; they do recognize the import of the Incompleteness Theorem; and they are very actively grappling with new results about reliability of intuition.

Academia is so specialized now that "people in field x haven't made a significant contribution in field y since the '70s" is true of many fields. That's sort of a weird criterion.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:57 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


In quantum physics, it seems to me there are more tangible questions that straddle philosophy and science than "why the universe can and will create itself from nothing"--Hawkings. How do we interpret probabilities in Quantum physics? "Do probabilities describe real properties of Nature; or only human information about Nature?" What is the 'observer' or 'knowledge' in quantum mechanics--such as in the delayed choice experiment? Is the existence of an observer or know-er necessary to explain these measurements, or is there just another way of looking at it? What is consciousness, and what more can we learn bout it from neuroscience? I suspect the next couple hundred years could be very exciting in these areas.
posted by Golden Eternity at 7:21 PM on April 27, 2012


There are more things in heaven and earth, Dudes,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy
posted by nowhere man at 7:59 PM on April 27, 2012


Name a philosopher who has made a substantial contribution to science since 1975

David Albert.
posted by painquale at 8:26 PM on April 27, 2012


I think discussing issues like this in terms of entire disciplines, e.g. Physics vs Philosophy, or Romance Languages vs. Exercise and Sport Science (a toss-up, I'd say) invites muddy, worthless debate.

More productive I think is to contrast lines of research, which can easily cut across disciplines. There are plenty of dumb, dead-end, pointless lines of research in all disciplines -- the sciences are no exception. As a heuristic for weighing the scientific merit of a line of research I ask, "Could it make a material difference if these hypotheses are wrong?" For instance, if general relativity is wrong, GPS doesn't work. If evolution isn't broadly true, there are no new viruses. Active lines of research in philosophy fail this test -- the only people who would care whether causation really is the expression of counterfactual statements are other philosophers. The lines of research most philosophers pursue don't make well-posed, testable predictions. Good lines of research in science do. (Not all lines of research in science are good)

And if, say, current developments in philosophy of science really would give good scientists an advantage in their work, why haven't they noticed it? Good science is fiercely competitive i.e. subject to constant, intense, selection. I'm skeptical that phil science could be useful yet unused under such conditions.

Take all this with a grain of salt, as I say it as someone who seriously considered a career in academic philosophy before getting happily into neuroscience, so the grass on the other side of the field looks super withered.
posted by serif at 9:07 PM on April 27, 2012


I started writing a rant about philosophy and it's offshoot disciplines, and how it's important, but this guy says it better.
posted by Garm at 9:42 PM on April 27, 2012


if... philosophy of science... would give... scientists an advantage...why haven't they noticed it?

I don't have any examples in mind where current phil of science would give scientists a research advantage. But I also think that most scientists are busy as hell, they don't read philosophy of science, and philosophers of science mostly aren't writing for them anyway (they're writing for other people who are engaged with the issues in their own subfields). So, there's an easy explanation of how they could fail to notice developments in philosophy. Philosophy is hard (as we can see from Krauss repeatedly flubbing this pretty simple philosophical distinction), and it has its own jargon and debates that you need to be up on in order to really understand the papers in the journals, and it tackles different research questions than the sciences.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:57 PM on April 27, 2012


Name a philosopher who has made a substantial contribution to science since 1975.

Giving an answer here depends non-trivially on what you mean by "substantial" and what you mean by "science," but I'll bite. Three living philosophers have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences: Brian Skyrms, Allan Gibbard, and Patrick Suppes. Presumably, they were elected for making some substantial contribution(s) to science. Judging from their publication records, I'm guessing they did most of that work after 1975.

Clark Glymour has made substantial contributions to several different sciences since 1975. And Teddy Seidenfeld has made numerous contributions to statistics.

I could list a lot of philosophers who have made smaller contributions of one kind or another. I'm intentionally setting the bar for "substantial" pretty high here. If you lower the bar a bit, lots more philosophers are going to qualify.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 10:13 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Active lines of research in philosophy fail this test -- the only people who would care whether causation really is the expression of counterfactual statements are other philosophers.

So ... (a) this is false, and (b) some of the philosophical work most widely used in the sciences is work on causation.

With respect to (a), some causation research matters to statisticians because whether causation is counterfactual dependence or something else matters for the kinds of statistical inferences that are warranted. See, for example, this paper (pdf) by A.P. Dawid and the subsequent discussion.

With respect to (b), see Spirtes, Glymour, and Scheines (2000) Causation, Prediction, and Search or Glymour (2001) The Mind's Arrows.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 10:25 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Academia is so specialized now that "people in field x haven't made a significant contribution in field y since the '70s" is true of many fields. That's sort of a weird criterion.

You're absolutely right, and as I mentioned, it shouldn't be hard to name a few concrete examples. In case I wasn't sufficiently clear: This isn't a fair question. It does, however reflect a powerful bias in academic science to disregard everything other than the very recent, and to also disregard arguments made by other disciplines that use unfamiliar jargon.

More generally, I don't ask the question because I don't think there are good answers. I ask the question as an example of the widespread prejudice, on the part of scientists, that philosophy is (variously) obsolete, a humanities discipline, or both.
posted by belarius at 11:21 PM on April 27, 2012


I'm not sure why you think it isn't a fair question. It looks like a fair question that has a reasonable answer. Moreover, it seems like exactly the kind of question that philosophers (at least) ought to be ready to answer when speaking with scientists who are skeptical that philosophers have anything to contribute to science. My question is why some scientists continue to think that philosophy is something like medieval theology when there are lots of examples of contemporary philosophers doing useful, interesting work?

I also wonder how much of the apparent tension depends on the specific scientific discipline. Philosophers seem to get along well with psychologists and statisticians ... at least, that has been my experience.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 11:37 PM on April 27, 2012


Yeah, there is certainly no lack of dialogue between philosophy and psychology. It is extremely easy to name psychologists who coauthor papers with philosophers.

Semanticists in linguistics departments also get along well with philosophers, I find.
posted by painquale at 12:51 AM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Livengood, I'm mean to suggest that perspectives on causation are a banned topic, or that philosophers have a monopoly on the subject, only that when these subjects are best addressed with empirical or pragmatic intentions, and when statisticians (or philosophers) do that... that's called Statistics. My original point was that lines of research can cross disciplines, and it sounds like working out useful, predictive statistical frameworks is a good line of research. It doesn't matter who does it. But figuring out which angle on causation is true, or which is the one angle ordinary people use when they're speaking clearly isn't a good research line, whether philosophers or anyone do it. Philosophers have a lot more of these stale lines of inquiry than people who work on testable projects.
posted by serif at 1:06 AM on April 28, 2012


I studied with Richard Rorty.

It's telling that America's greatest modern philosopher basically gave it up because he realized how full of shit it was, discursively speaking.
posted by bardic at 1:37 AM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or Turing? Turing...the philosopher?
Wikipedia calls him
Alan Mathison Turing, OBE, FRS (play /ˈtjʊərɪŋ/ TEWR-ing; 23 June 1912 – 7 June 1954), was an English mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist.
For a long time he was thought of as someone who only did theoretical work on computers. But that's because all his practical work was classified.

I don't know if Turing considered himself a philosopher, but Bertrand Russel obviously did - but he was also instrumental in creating the mathematical groundwork that Turing worked off of.

What guys like Russel, Godel, Turing, Wittgenstein, and others worked on laid the basis for computer science as computers went from being theoretical to practical real world devices. There were deep philosophical questions underlying mathematics, which is what they were trying to solve. Computer science kind of fell out of that because they were looking at what kinds of things you could 'know' based on doing 'computations'. Godel, Escher, Bach was a popular book about that kind of thing.

Godel's incompleteness theorem and the halting problem seem to be saying the same basic thing.
"Also"? Wait, are you genuinely charging Albert with not having read Krauss's book? Reviewing a book in the Times without having read it would be an unrealistically bold thing to do, but just in case you're not convinced, Albert does say, in the thread I linked to above, "I did, for the record, read all of Professor Krauss’ book."
Empath's reasoning seems to be "I read the book, and I liked it. David Albert says the book isn't good, therefore, he could not have read it." And accuses him of having only read the dust jacket.

There was a thread a while back where someone was saying the existence M-theory, regardless of whether or not it was actually true proves that the universe could have come 'from nothing' (i.e. without a cause).

The basic problem is that you have no definition of "nothing". Instead it seems to be that a universe could have come out of empty space. But the problem is empty space isn't empty at all - it's full of virtual particles or quantum foam and dark energy or whatever you want to call it.

There is "Stuff" there it's just not normal baryonic matter or electromagnetic energy. If the argument is that the universe could have been crated out of empty space that is an interesting argument. But it doesn't explain how the empty space got there in the first place.

If you are going to say that the universe came out of nothing then you have to define what nothing is. That, of course, is obviously a philosophical question. It could very well be that the philosophical thoughts on nothingness might lead to some interesting science, just like how Russel, Wittgenstein and others trying to understand the nature of mathematics and provability lead to the creation of computer science.
posted by delmoi at 7:07 AM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


No, my point about him not reading the book is that his review doesn't engage with the substance of the book at all, and merely picks at what could have been gleaned from the dust jacket or he introduction.
posted by empath at 7:46 AM on April 28, 2012


I actually have read it, and it great. And he dismisses all the philosophical questions in the introduction so he can talk about his own perfectly reasonable and defensible definition of 'nothing' in the rest of the book.
And what is his definition of nothing, exactly?
Albert does say, in the thread I linked to above, "I did, for the record, read all of Professor Krauss’ book."
If he did, there is zero evidence of it in the review.
The idea that he didn't read the book is completely preposterous. You could argue he didn't understand it properly, but to claim he didn't read it is so absurd -- it isn't like it would have been difficult to do it, the guy probably reads tons of books, he probably got paid for the review... why wouldn't he have read it and why would he lie about doing so? The "evidence" of him having read it is his direct statement that he read it.
No, my point about him not reading the book is that his review doesn't engage with the substance of the book at all, and merely picks at what could have been gleaned from the dust jacket or he introduction.
Well "He hasn't read the book" is a different statement then "The review isn't comprehensive enough".

In any event, what exactly does Krauss define "nothing" as?
Richard Feynman goes, “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” In response, some philosophers (e.g. Jonathan Schaffer[1]) have pointed out that it is likely that ornithological knowledge would be of great benefit to birds, were it possible for them to possess it.
Or to put it another way "Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as medical science would be to humans"
posted by delmoi at 8:08 AM on April 28, 2012


I'm mean to suggest that perspectives on causation are a banned topic, or that philosophers have a monopoly on the subject, only that when these subjects are best addressed with empirical or pragmatic intentions, and when statisticians (or philosophers) do that... that's called Statistics. My original point was that lines of research can cross disciplines, and it sounds like working out useful, predictive statistical frameworks is a good line of research. It doesn't matter who does it. But figuring out which angle on causation is true, or which is the one angle ordinary people use when they're speaking clearly isn't a good research line, whether philosophers or anyone do it.

I completely agree with you that we should care more about interesting projects and less about disciplinary boundaries. What worries me about your remark about Statistics and Krauss' various excuses for not counting the contributions of philosophers is that philosophical contributions get no-true-Scotsman-ed away to nothing. Leibniz contributed to physics, you say? Well, that's because he was a physicist. Peirce and Frege invented first-order logic, you say? Well, that's because they were mathematicians. Ramsey had something useful to say about economics? I guess he was an economist. Lewis provided an axiomatic logic that captures a statistical practice we like? Statistician. Gibbard proved something about voting? Political scientist. Glymour came up with useful algorithms for causal search? Computer scientist. Proceeding this way, we can guarantee that philosophy never contributes anything to science -- or to anything else, for that matter. But why proceed that way? Specifically, why think that the philosophical training, philosophical conversations, philosophical speculations, and so on were irrelevant to the contributions that various philosophers have made? Or better, turn it around. Krauss wrote a book about a philosophical problem. I guess he's a philosopher. And by that measure, so is basically every scientist ever.

I understand why many scientists want to contrast their work with religion and theology. I understand why they want to cast science and theology as competitors. But I can't for the life of me figure out how or why that attitude got extended to philosophy. Philosophy is not a competitor with science.

With respect to causation, I want to point out that it was and is precisely a concern for getting a true or true-enough account of the nature of causation -- in enough detail that it can be described axiomatically and discovery procedures implemented algorithmically -- that has produced interesting results. Without all of the seemingly idle, philosophical speculation about explanation and causation over the last 150 years, we probably wouldn't have the valuable line of research that we have today.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 8:15 AM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Man, if only a reviewer had done his job, you wouldn't have to ask that kind of thing. Or you could get it out of the library or torrent it and find out. It's a fairly short book.

And it's not that it isn't comprehensive enough. He doesn't review the book, flat out. He reviews the introduction, decides the topic isn't for him, then dismisses the whole enterprise.

It reads like someone with an agenda who just wants people not to read it.
posted by empath at 8:17 AM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


And it's not that it isn't comprehensive enough. He doesn't review the book, flat out. He reviews the introduction, decides the topic isn't for him, then dismisses the whole enterprise.
Okay, so he writes:
What on earth, then, can Krauss have been thinking? Well, there is, as it happens, an interesting difference between relativistic quantum field theories and every previous serious candidate for a fundamental physical theory of the world. Every previous such theory counted material particles among the concrete, fundamental, eternally persisting elementary physical stuff of the world — and relativistic quantum field theories, interestingly and emphatically and unprecedentedly, do not. According to relativistic quantum field theories, particles are to be understood, rather, as specific arrangements of the fields. Certain ­arrangements of the fields, for instance, correspond to there being 14 particles in the universe, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being 276 particles, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being an infinite number of particles, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being no particles at all. And those last arrangements are referred to, in the jargon of quantum field theories, for obvious reasons, as “vacuum” states. Krauss seems to be thinking that these vacuum states amount to the relativistic-­quantum-field-theoretical version of there not being any physical stuff at all. And he has an argument — or thinks he does — that the laws of relativistic quantum field theories entail that vacuum states are unstable. And that, in a nutshell, is the account he proposes of why there should be something rather than nothing.
Is that accurate? I assume there's more to the book then that, but if that's not the central thesis of the book, then what is? And if it is the central thesis, why shouldn't the reviewer talk about it?

It's more like an academic response then a "review" - Albert doesn't talk about the quality of the writing or whether or not the book has a lively pace or whatever. But if Krauss is trying to answer "philosophical" questions without bothering to engage in what kind of philosophical work has been done previously, that's kind of a problem.
posted by delmoi at 8:23 AM on April 28, 2012


But for my taste, Albert hurts the case for philosophers and theologians not only by asserting without evidence that Krauss is wrong but also by (seemingly) throwing his lot in with religion. He concedes that religion may be a cruel lie and mechanism of enslavement, but at least it "had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world". And he ends by taking offense at his own straw man that religion is being insulted and called dumb.
He's not "throwing his lot in with Religion" but rather saying "back in my day people had the balls to claim religion was bad" - It sounds like he'd prefer Hitchens style attacks on religion, rather then Krauss's "its' incorrect" or whatever.

Kruass seems to be saying that the concept of 'nothing' is itself religious - and that the empty space between the stars ought to qualify.

But the problem is that in the history of science there was only a short period of time when it was truly thought to be empty. Before that, people thought it was full of Luminiferous Aether, which carried electromagnetic waves. It also hasn't been that long that people have known about the big bang.

So the question of "Why is there something, rather then nothing" would really have been a question about why everything existed - not "what caused the big bang, which created a bunch of baryonic matter that spread out through a vacuum"
posted by delmoi at 9:00 AM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


MONORAIL... MONO-D'oh!

I look forward to Albert's damning review of Darwin's On the Origin of Species: 1) it doesn't live up to the title's promise of explaining the ultimate "origin" of life; 2) Darwin pussy-footed around the religious implications instead or really laying into God (or daring to mention religion at all? Either way, atheism be damned!); and 3) Darwin failed to answer "why" there is life at all.
LobsterMitten: Albert describes in his review that the proper understanding of the question is, whatever you think the fundamental physical stuff is, why is there that rather than a lack of that? So, as applied to a system in which quantum fields are the basic physical stuff, the question is, why are there quantum fields rather than no quantum fields? Or, how did the first quantum fields come to be?

painquale: The question isn't whether there was a state in which nothing existed. Even if quantum fields always have existed and always will exist, things could have been otherwise (and apparently you and Krauss admit this as a possibility). So, why aren't they otherwise?
All interesting questions that Albert would perhaps have been better off addressing in a book of his own rather than knocking Krauss for not writing that book for him.

Albert's working title could be "Deep thoughts on the many what ifs and whys of various definitions of nothing", subtitle "magically avoiding any disagreement with any religious or philosophical beliefs whatsoever". 10,000 pages that cover everything while offending no one, in a choose your own adventure format that includes a rose tinted mirror on page 777.

I prefer Krauss' approach of sticking primarily to what we know about the origins of the universe and the laws of physics, rather than wandering farther afield into such theoretical abstractions (which would likely have gotten him into even more trouble with philosophers and religionists anyway).
delmoi : He's not "throwing his lot in with Religion" but rather saying "back in my day people had the balls to claim religion was bad" - It sounds like he'd prefer Hitchens style attacks on religion, rather then Krauss's "its' incorrect" or whatever.
Entirely possible. But if true, how and why would that even be a meaningful or relevant criticism of a book that was never trying to be about religion? Krauss spends perhaps 2-3 pages on religion throughout the book, and does so only in the most cursory way to anticipate the unavoidable, common preconceptions readers might have on the origins of the universe in order to redirect them towards his thesis. Apparently even that is enough to mark someone as a heretic who must be buried alive in a wordy avalanche of irrelevant outrage.

I still can't reconcile how Albert can acknowledge that religion 'may be a cruel lie and mechanism for enslavement' but then go all Otto from A Fish Called Wanda and scream 'BUT DON'T CALL IT DUMB!'

Yes, we really should have more respect for the institution that has burned libraries, waged religious wars, conducted genocides, vilified science and critical thinking, and plunged Europe and the Middle East into a 1,000 years of ignorance and subservient misery. Big Bang, talking snakes - how can we ever be sure?
posted by Davenhill at 2:27 PM on April 28, 2012


Albert's damning review of Darwin's On the Origin of Species: 1) it doesn't live up to the title's promise of explaining the ultimate "origin" of life

But the title of Darwin's book isn't "On the Origin of Life", and doesn't propose to address that question at all.

Whereas the title of Krauss's book is A Universe From Nothing, and -- even though it would be simpler to say he does not address the traditional question but instead addresses a sort of updated version of it, he doesn't do that, instead repeatedly saying his book will get rid of that old philosophical/theological question, but he mischaracterizes the old question. So Albert sets the record straight about the old question and what it would take to address it.

... questions that Albert would perhaps have been better off addressing in a book of his own...

I am puzzled by your response here. People who think seriously about this philosophical question are not stupid and their thoughts are not muddled. Krauss (and you?) just don't think it's worth trying to understand the philosophical issue. That's fine, Krauss doesn't have to write a philosophy book and indeed he seems very poorly equipped to do so. So - he should not pretend that he's going to answer or dismiss this very old question (when he intends not to, and in his brief discussion of the old question he seems to simply misunderstand it). He should just say he's answering a different (and still very interesting and worth-answering) question.

Krauss deliberately exaggerates what he's doing in order to "seduce" readers (he says this in the Atlantic interview). When Albert points this out, Krauss calls him a moron over and over again, even though Krauss himself agrees that he's not addressing the traditional question.

I still can't reconcile how Albert can acknowledge that religion 'may be a cruel lie...'... and scream 'BUT DON'T CALL IT DUMB!'

I'm pretty sure Albert is saying Krauss's dismissal of religion is glib , which makes it an unsatisfying critique, whereas a more substantial critique would take on the serious harms religion has done. I don't think he's saying "never criticize religion for saying false things".

I guess I'm pretty sympathetic to him there because Krauss's engagement with the philosophers and theologians who apparently heard his talks before he wrote the book (as Krauss describes it in the intro) is so glib and his engagement with the philosophical ideas that he tries to engage with is similarly superficial. His voice in the Intro, the Atlantic interview and the Sci Am piece pretty strongly conveys that he thinks philosophy and theology are just silly and not worth thinking about carefully. (Or he thinks because he is a heavyweight scholar of one discipline, that it should be easy for him to punch the same weight in another discipline.) He's glib and thinks this very old question is easy to dismiss. So I read Albert's response as: you're really wrong that this question is easy to dismiss. Think harder or GTFO.

There's a common occurrence in undergrad philosophy papers, which is when students think "I have thought about this problem in Plato [or whatever classic work] for several hours and I have come up with a damning objection! Plato was sure a dope not to anticipate this damning objection, and now I have defeated him!"

I did this when I was an undergrad too, it's just part of the progression. But what happens when you study more is that you begin to develop humility - these guys who are famous philosophers, they were pretty smart. They have generally anticipated the obvious objections. It is unlikely that a few hours' thought will turn out to yield a conclusive refutation. I have advised students: ok, what if Plato were in fact really pretty smart? What would he say in response to the objection you raise? And the student will come up with an answer, and then lo and behold when they read the rest of the dialogue, that answer is often in there already. Amazing. Plato, actually pretty smart.

So that's some background for the frustration I feel when reading the three Krauss bits I've read, and I imagine it might be Albert's frustration too - Krauss doesn't seem to have that very basic intellectual humility of "hey, great philosophers through time have spent a lot of time working on this question, maybe they had something in mind, and maybe rather than saying LA LA LA AUGUSTINE IS DUM, I should either make a genuine effort to understand it or else I should explicitly step back and say, I am not touching that question."
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:14 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


And to be clear, let me reiterate:
It sounds like the science that Krauss is explaining is very interesting and worth reading about. It's great that he's written an accessible explanation of all this! I am all for it.

All I'm addressing is his weird axe-grinding against philosophers or Albert in particular, when as I said above he seems to fully agree with the substance of the critique.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:20 PM on April 28, 2012


No, my point about him not reading the book is that his review doesn't engage with the substance of the book at all, and merely picks at what could have been gleaned from the dust jacket or he introduction.

Well what counts as substance? Krauss does say in the preface that his purpose in writing the book was to show that science could answer the old "why something rather than nothing?" question. It's the self-avowed thesis of his book, even if the bulk of the book is not directly about it, and it's the only new contribution Krauss offers that Albert wouldn't already be familiar with. There's no way Albert could avoid mentioning Krauss's thesis, and mentioning it will involve mocking it (you at least agree with that, right?). The question now is whether he should have spent at least a few paragraphs praising the eight-or-so middle chapters that described the history of and current findings in QM. Perhaps they are brilliant presentations of some tough material. I assume that you got a lot out of these chapters, which is why you like the book and thought it merited a positive review.

I guess the problem here has to do with differing opinions about the purpose of popular book reviews. Where do a book reviewer's obligations lie? Albert might have treated it more like an academic book review than the kind of ad copy that NYTimes reviews typically become: he argued against the point of the book instead of talking about how fluid the prose was or how funny the puns were. That may have been counter to the conventions of newspaper book reviews. Maybe Albert should have gauged how much lay readers of the NYTimes would benefit from the book and enjoy it on the whole, rather than treating it as an extended argument. On the other hand, if you think the whole book is wrapped in a glib and foolish wrapper that is liable to mislead, and you've only got 500 words or so, and you think there are better books about cosmology out there, maybe the right thing to do is just bash the thing. (I admit I really don't understand the point of popular media book reviews. They seem to want to do too many different things to have a determinate function.)
posted by painquale at 3:29 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sean Carroll weighs in. It's a good piece, as is this other one he links to.

Also, there's currently an FPP up featuring another article by the interviewer who got Krauss to embarrass himself.
posted by painquale at 9:13 PM on April 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


Thank you for the Sean Carroll link. Here is his executive summary as an enticement to follow your link:
Executive summary

This is going to be kind of long, so here’s the upshot. Very roughly, there are two different kinds of questions lurking around the issue of “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

One question is, within some framework of physical laws that is flexible enough to allow for the possible existence of either “stuff” or “no stuff” (where “stuff” might include space and time itself), why does the actual manifestation of reality seem to feature all this stuff?

The other is, why do we have this particular framework of physical law, or even something called “physical law” at all?

Lawrence (again, roughly) addresses the first question, and David cares about the second, and both sides expend a lot of energy insisting that their question is the “right” one rather than just admitting they are different questions.

Nothing about modern physics explains why we have these laws rather than some totally different laws, although physicists sometimes talk that way — a mistake they might be able to avoid if they took philosophers more seriously.

Then the discussion quickly degrades into name-calling and point-missing, which is unfortunate because these are smart people who agree about 95% of the interesting issues, and the chance for productive engagement diminishes considerably with each installment.
posted by Davenhill at 11:03 AM on April 29, 2012


On the other hand, if you think the whole book is wrapped in a glib and foolish wrapper that is liable to mislead, and you've only got 500 words or so, and you think there are better books about cosmology out there, maybe the right thing to do is just bash the thing.

I think if you just think it's a dumb idea for a book, you should probably let someone who gives a shit review it.
posted by empath at 12:49 PM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thank you for posting this! I really agree with Carrol's viewpoint; he even commented on misuse of the 'anthropic principle'. Maybe he should have written the NY Times review.

What, then, do we have to complain about? Well, a bit of contemplation should reveal that this kind of reasoning might, if we grant you a certain definition of “nothing,” explain how the universe could arise from nothing. But it doesn’t, and doesn’t even really try to, explain why there is something rather than nothing — why this particular evolution of the wave function, or why even the apparatus of “wave functions” and “Hamiltonians” is the right way to think about the universe at all. And maybe you don’t care about those questions, and nobody would question your right not to care; but if the subtitle of your book is “Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing,” you pretty much forfeit the right to claim you don’t care.

Do advances in modern physics and cosmology help us address these underlying questions, of why there is something called the universe at all, and why there are things called “the laws of physics,” and why those laws seem to take the form of quantum mechanics, and why some particular wave function and Hamiltonian? In a word: no. I don’t see how they could.


“Why” questions don’t exist in a vacuum; they only make sense within some explanatory context.

It seems to me a big problem with the word "why" that doesn't get mentioned is how it is often used in an 'ethical' sort of way, i.e. 'Why did we go to war? Why do you love him/her?' In this sense the word implies the existence of a moral agency or moral reason why a 'choice' was made. Any answer to why the world exists or why something exists rather than nothing in this context presupposes the existence of a moral 'agency'. Even if the answer was 'for no reason', this implies a moral depravity of a choice-maker, .i.e. 'we went to war for no reason.'
posted by Golden Eternity at 1:02 PM on April 29, 2012


What, then, do we have to complain about? Well, a bit of contemplation should reveal that this kind of reasoning might, if we grant you a certain definition of “nothing,” explain how the universe could arise from nothing.

It's the definition of 'nothing' that philosophers have been concerned about since the time of the greeks.

The question that bothered people (and that still I think most people don't know the answer to) is where 'stuff' -- the atoms and particles that make up everything we see-- comes from.

We can answer that now.

Now, there's a new question, about where the laws of physics come from, but that's a different question, and yes, it is 'moving the goalposts' to redefine nothing to mean something other than 'the absence of matter'.
posted by empath at 2:54 PM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't really see how you are getting a semantic claim about the meaning of 'nothing' from a link to the Wikipedia page on atomism. You could link to a page on the Eleatics to make the opposite claim. In fact, the one relevant mention of 'nothing' on your page is a quote of Parmenides (an Eleatic) and it challenges your contention that the Greeks did not care about the "philosophers' sense" of the word 'nothing'. Parmenides argued that stuff cannot come from nothing just because that which is nothing cannot have properties... obviously this is the "philosopher's sense" of 'nothing' that Krauss so abhors. Questions about whether one could say things like "the non-being is" were live questions among the ancients. This shows that the philosopher's sense is no recent invention and involves no shifting of the goalposts.
posted by painquale at 4:15 PM on April 29, 2012


Does this idea that M-theory shows "the universe can and will create itself from nothing" prove materialism/physicalism wrong? If one admits that M-theory shows the entirety of material/physical existence can and does cease to exist, yet the laws of nature and M-theory itself and the "'nothing' of reality (which admittedly) is full of stuff" still remain, does this prove the existence of a non-material reality?
posted by Golden Eternity at 4:25 PM on April 29, 2012


Parmenides argued that stuff cannot come from nothing just because that which is nothing cannot have properties

He wasn't an atomist. And again, that's philosophical hand waving that most people aren't concerned with. Most people just want to know where all this stuff came from. We know the answer now.

If you want to ask where the physical laws come from that govern the creation of things from 'no thing', that's an interesting question, but it's not something adressed by his book, nor did it need to be.
posted by empath at 5:03 PM on April 29, 2012


Does this idea that M-theory shows "the universe can and will create itself from nothing" prove materialism/physicalism wrong? If one admits that M-theory shows the entirety of material/physical existence can and does cease to exist, yet the laws of nature and M-theory itself and the "'nothing' of reality (which admittedly) is full of stuff" still remain, does this prove the existence of a non-material reality?

"Materialists" often call themselves 'physicalists' now (given that so many of the items posited in physics are not units of matter). There are various non-equivalent ways of characterizing physicalism: everything can be described in the language of physics, all properties are properties described by physics, all truths can reduce to truths of physics, all truths supervene on physical truths, etc. You'd need to pick one of these before being able to settle the question.

Whether "the laws of nature and M-theory itself" challenge some conceptions of physicalism is an interesting question. Laws and theories are interesting ontological items. Some might think they are abstract entities that do challenge physicalism; some might think that laws and theories are propositions, and propositions are physical things or are not physical things; some might think that laws and theories are physical sentences (on paper, waveforms in air, etc.). While these issues are interesting, they don't really arise from M-theory or anything new: they arise just by considering the nature of laws and theories in general.

The "nothing of reality (which admittedly) is full of stuff" doesn't challenge any conception of physicalism I can think of. I think Krauss encourages this kind of misunderstanding. The "nothings of reality" are relativistic quantum fields in vacuum states. These are posited by physics, so any conception of physicalism will count them as physical items. They're not like souls or qualia: they are no more a challenge for physicalists than magnetic fields or gravitational fields used to be. Krauss's claim that quantum fields in vacuum states don't count as physical items at all kind of encourages this kind of misapprehension.
posted by painquale at 5:20 PM on April 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


The notion that "nothing" just means "no stuff"... I am dissapoint. "Thing" and "nothing" are coordinate terms, each implying--indeed requiring--the other. The itch I want scratched is to know why it shouldn't the case that there is not anything, and also not nothing.

(After we settle that one lemme tell ya about monistic dualism.)
posted by jfuller at 6:13 PM on April 29, 2012


"Thing" and "nothing" are coordinate terms, each implying--indeed requiring--the other. The itch I want scratched is to know why it shouldn't the case that there is not anything, and also not nothing.

I think you're just going to have to come to terms with that itch, because it's not ever getting scratched.
posted by empath at 6:28 PM on April 29, 2012


There's a discussion thread up on Leiter about the topic now.
posted by painquale at 2:43 PM on May 3, 2012


While on the subject of negative reviews of cross-disciplinary popular books, this might be a good place to share this incredibly scathing and hilarious review of a pop philosophy book. "Is Colin McGinn a sexist, penis-gazing blowhard? Just asking!"
posted by painquale at 3:01 PM on May 3, 2012


Before continuing, I think it necessary to give a capsule
summary of the most widely accepted theory of
disgust today. It is necessary, in part, because, in his
200-odd page book, McGinn never mentions it. Disgust
is an emotion whose principal function is to help
us avoid contaminants and disease—a kind of behavioral
extension of the immune system (Rozin & Fallon,
1987; Oaten, Stevenson, & Case, 2009; Curtis, De Barra,
& Aunger, 2011; Schaller & Park, 2011).


I am no scientist, psychologist, nor philosopher, but this does not seem like a "theory of disgust," if a theory is intended to explain the nature of something. Anymore than 'color is a sensation who's principle function is to differentiate different frequencies of reflected light to help us move around better' explains the nature of the sensation or experience of color, which would seem to first require explaining the nature of experience/consciousness. It is more like a conjectured evolutionary history of the neurological development of disgust or something.

McGinn calls disgust a philosophical emotion, since
it reflects, at base, our existential terror and ambivalence
about being souls tied to mortal bodies. One may
well ask what the function of such an emotion could
be, whose essential feature is allowing us to be riveted
by the specter of our own deaths.


Not that I want to defend McGinn, this sounds like nonsense.
posted by Golden Eternity at 5:06 PM on May 3, 2012


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