Sean Carroll on “a universe from nothing”

Physics has gotten so arcane that I must struggle to make sense of even popular expositions of its advances, and my understanding always breaks down when someone claims that the notion of time doesn’t mean what I think it does, or could even be illusory. In modern physics, trying to understand things using common-sense notions just doesn’t work. I’m not comfortable in such a realm, which is why I’m happy to have people like Sean Carroll try to explain it to the rest of us.

The latest brouhaha in popular physics is, of course, the question of why there is something rather than nothing—a question that has pushed to the fore with Larry Krauss’s new book, A Universe from Nothing. If you haven’t been in Ulan Bator, you’ll know that that book was handled roughly by David Albert in his New York Times review. Since then, the principals have been sniping at each other, leaving folks like me a bit confused.

Enter physicist Sean Carroll, who gamely tries (and, I think, succeeds) in unravelling the controversy in a post at his website Cosmic Variance: “A universe from nothing?” He thinks that Albert and Krauss are talking at cross purposes: that there are really two sets of questions that are fundamentally different, and each physicist faults the other for not considering his pet question. I’ll post a few excerpts from Sean’s piece, which is not easy reading but will well repay your attention. These are not substitutes for reading his whole post, but will at least outline the debate, and why it’s gone nowhere:

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. . . .

Carroll then explains the two ways Krauss considers how one gets something from nothing: one way sees time as a fundamental property of the universe, the other as an emergent property—indeed, even an illusory one. (Don’t ask an aging biologist to explain how time can be illusory; that’s above my pay grade.)

So modern physics has given us these two ideas, both of which are interesting, and both of which resonate with our informal notion of “coming into existence out of nothing” — one of which is time evolution from empty space (or not-even-space) into a universe bursting with stuff, and the other of which posits time as an approximate notion that comes to an end at some boundary in an abstract space of possibilities.

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.

And that’s apparently Albert’s criticism: Krauss doesn’t explain why we have laws of physics that permit the creation of something from nothing.  According to Sean, we have no idea why the laws of physics are what they are instead of something else.

And sometimes, on the other hand, modern cosmologists talk about different laws of physics in the context of a multiverse, and suggest that we see one set of laws rather than some other set for fundamentally anthropic reasons. But again, that’s just being sloppy.. . . We are still left with the question of there are those deep-down laws that create a multiverse in the first place.

Now having read Carroll over the past few years, I think he’s previously answered that question with the simple end-of-regress statement, “That’s just the way it is.”  I may be wrong, but he now seems to consider that we can potentially investigate the question:

We should be good empiricists and be open to the possibility that what we think of as the universe really does exist within some larger context. But then we could presumably re-define that as the universe, and be stuck with the same questions. As long as you admit that there is more than one conceivable way for the universe to be (and I don’t see how one could not), there will always be some end of the line for explanations. I could be wrong about that, but an insistence that “the universe must explain itself” or some such thing seems like a completely unsupportable a priori assumption. (Not that anyone in this particular brouhaha seems to be taking such a stance.)

Sean’s conclusions are two:

1.  Krauss’s book is useful at dispelling the theological notion that God is required to create something from nothing:

Lawrence’s book makes a lot more sense when viewed as part of the ongoing atheism vs. theism popular debate, rather than as a careful philosophical investigation into a longstanding problem.

2.  Carroll sees Krauss as having screwed up badly when he dismissed philosophy in his post-book statements and interviews. I, too, find all the philosophy-bashing on my site and on Pharyngula (P.Z. also posted about Krauss’s philo-bashing and subsequent not-apology) regrettable and indefensible. Yes, I see some forms of philosophy as unproductive exercises in mental masturbation, but a good dollop of it is interesting and, yes, useful to scientists.  Here’s how Sean concludes his piece; I’ve put in bold the part I like, because, of course, I agree with it:

Second, after David’s review came out, Lawrence took the regrettable tack of lashing out at “moronic philosophers” and the discipline as a whole, rather than taking the high road and sticking to a substantive discussion of the issues. In the Atlantic interview especially, he takes numerous potshots that are just kind of silly. Like most scientists, Lawrence doesn’t get a lot out of the philosophy of science. That’s okay; the point of philosophy is not to be “useful” to science, any more than the point of mycology is to be “useful” to fungi. Philosophers of science aren’t trying to do science, they are trying to understand how science works, and how it should work, and to tease out the logic and standards underlying scientific argumentation, and to situate scientific knowledge within a broader epistemological context, and a bunch of other things that can be perfectly interesting without pretending to be science itself. And if you’re not interested, that’s fine. But trying to undermine the legitimacy of the field through a series of wisecracks is kind of lame, and ultimately anti-intellectual — it represents exactly the kind of unwillingness to engage respectfully with careful scholarship in another discipline that we so rightly deplore when people feel that way about science. It’s a shame when smart people who agree about most important things can’t disagree about some other things without throwing around insults. We should strive to be better than that.

At the end of all this, I regret that Carroll didn’t write that book instead of Krauss. Caroll’s own exposition in the piece I’ve highlighted above is, by his own admission, dense and a bit of a brain-stretcher.  But I have the feeling that, given the space of a book, Carroll could have explained the issue a lot more clearly than Krauss. Go read Carroll’s piece, and also his earlier essay, “Turtles much of the way down,” where he consider the question, “Why are the laws of physics like they are?”

Modern physics is an Alice-in-Wonderland world to many of us, and I worry that it will reach the point that, like modern mathematics, it’s become impenetrable to the layperson, for it invokes notions that run completely counter to our own experience.

The quote “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics” is always attributed to Richard Feynman. It turns out that he probably didn’t say that, and it may be a paraphrase of a quote attributed to Niels Bohr: “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” For me, the frustrating part is my inability to be shocked because of my inability to understand. (The two-slit experiment and experiments on Bell’s inequality, do, however, discombobulate me.)


  1. MadScientist
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 4:01 am | Permalink

    One of my favorite physics quotes is from Murray Gell-Mann: “Anyone who wants to know what the parton model predicts needs to consult Feynman’s entrails.”

    I’ve done my good deed for the day – I patted a philosopher on the head, nodded sagely and chanted in a patronizing manner: “Philosophy has its uses.”

    • Roz
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      Less is more when it comes to philosophy. Too much of it and a person loses their ball bearings.

  2. Posted April 29, 2012 at 4:01 am | Permalink

    I think most areas of science are like that now. I do numerical weather and climate models. Lots of people use the results, even tinker with the code, but I bet the number who actually understand the details of how they work are in the low thousands at best. This has huge implications for science and public policy, especially with a public that is being taught by their religious and political leaders to not trust scientists.

  3. Posted April 29, 2012 at 4:17 am | Permalink

    Since I was in on the thread about whether philosophy is science, and you linked to it as an example of bashing philosophy, I thought I’d respond here. Notably, Sean wrote “Philosophers of science aren’t trying to do science[.]”

    It often seems that philosophers (even some philosophers of science) aren’t aware of this line in the sand. And it’s not entirely clear to me that other philosophers take up the task of policing their borders. Nothing I’ve written should be taken to say that philosophy is entirely useless, or not worthwhile, or whatever in a general sense. But that doesn’t change the fact that quite a lot of philosophy has been fairly useless, and that I’m hard-pressed to point to things in science that indicate philosophers have a contribution that is contingent on their participation.

    But I am quite often told by philosophers that I (a mathematician) and scientists could benefit from having a trained philosopher’s input. What is never made clear to me when I ask is in what way it would be a benefit in the same sense that the advice is given. As I’ve said (as recently as yesterday), talking about doing science is not the same as doing science. Provided that someone isn’t confusing one for the other, there’s very little conflict on that front.

    But then there are the metaphysics concerns that I’m routinely told are useful and important. Sorry, but I fail to spot any sense in which the ontological status of numbers, say, bears on arithmetic. Whether they’re really real, or merely convenient abstractions for which there is no actual referent, arithmetic carries on just the same. 2+2=4 is true (and by true in mathematics we mean true given some axioms) all the same. This is not an insult to philosophers or philosophy; the question just doesn’t need a resolution to use mathematics tomorrow the same as we did yesterday.

    • Myron
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:24 am | Permalink

      The statement “‘2 + 2 = 4’ is true” isn’t true independently of any philosophy of mathematics. For example, the mathematical fictionalists think that “2 + 2 = 4” is false:

      And if you define “is (mathematically) true” as “follows from the axioms” (e.g. of arithmetic), then this does have philosophical implications.

      • MadScientist
        Posted April 29, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

        Oh please, that’s merely philosophy trying to take credit for mathematics. Mathematics has a rigorous method for testing abstract ideas and it works – in fact it works so well that it can be used to make verifiable predictions in the real world. Although the axomatic method attributed to Euclid was developed after Plato (but not necessarily even influenced by him or his followers), the demonstrative methods used by Pythagoras and other early mathematicians worked well and predate philosophy by hundreds of years. Mathematics is nothing like philosophy which has its own methods which lead nowhere. Science ditched philosophy 400 years ago because philosophy didn’t work – almost 2000 years had gone by since Plato and nothing of significance had been accomplished (at least not using the methods of Plato and Aristotle). In fact, at least in the ‘west’, since the methods and absurd ideas of Plato and Aristotle were the ones being promulgated as ‘natural philosophy’, this very well may have hindered progress.

        • couchlogic
          Posted May 1, 2012 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

          And yet:

          “Charles Darwin’s famous 1882 letter….remarks that his ‘two gods,’ Linnaeus and Cuvier, were ‘mere school-boys to old Aristotle.'”

          MadScientist continues to rewrite history in his own image….while actual historians of science know different.

          • John Scanlon, FCD
            Posted May 5, 2012 at 2:15 am | Permalink

            I’m pretty sure Darwin was thinking there of Aristotle as the founder of comparative anatomy (the names Linnaeus and Cuvier are a clue).

            Anyone who hasn’t read ‘On the Parts of Animals’ should STFU about Aristotle’s ‘absurd ideas’.

  4. Rob
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 4:55 am | Permalink

    Richard Carrier did an interesting blog post (which covers Krauss’ book and much more) on the question of “which type of nothing” are we talking about where he makes a similar distinction between the type of nothing Krauss addresses and a deeper kind of nothing:

    One interesting point Carrier raises: if there are no “laws” does that mean that nothing is possible, or that everything is possible? ie do “laws” prohibit or permit…

    • ivo
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:22 am | Permalink

      Interesting. But shouldn’t physical laws simply describe whatever regularities we find? So perhaps the question should really be: “is anything goes a possibility too?” (I guess I should go and read Carrier’s blog now.)

    • smartbean
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink

      I was about to post the same comment. I’m somewhat surprised that Carrier’s post hasn’t received more attention. I found it a convincing approach to the whole “why is there something rather than nothing” question.

    • MadScientist
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      This “interesting point” is absolute nonsense. The Laws of Nature as they were once called are not arbitrarily created and arbitrarily enforced such as human laws – these are merely descriptions of observed natural phenomena or apparent limitations. The question of whether “nothing is possible or everything is possible” is a false dichotomy. Naughty Carrier.

      • AL
        Posted April 30, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

        The question of whether “nothing is possible or everything is possible” is a false dichotomy. Naughty Carrier.

        It’s not a false dichotomy. Carrier is talking specifically about what a state of “nothingness” would imply for possibilities. In his own words:

        If there was absolutely nothing, then (apart from logical necessity) nothing existed to prevent anything from happening or to make any one thing happening more likely than any other thing.

        IOW, if there were truly a state of “nothing”, it’s fair to ask what this entails for possibilities. Does it imply nothing is possible, since there’s nothing at all? But if there’s nothing at all, this would also imply that there are no ontological constraints on what’s possible either.

    • ivo
      Posted April 30, 2012 at 4:02 am | Permalink

      I have now read Carrier’s article, and it is quite interesting indeed. As such little games go (i.e. proofs from first principles), I find his reasoning quite compelling.

      If I understand correctly, the central idea is that “nothing” – in the most absolute sense – must also be completely devoid of physical laws (which would be something), and so, roughly speaking, anything whatsoever may well happen, barred logically impossible things of course. As strange as it sounds, I think this idea actually makes sense.

      (As discussed above, one may think that in the absence of laws anything goes… but this would be nonsense, because physical laws are descriptive, not normative. So I take the above to mean that, in a state of absolute nothingness, by definition there cannot be any regularity, any feature, any physical law at all. Only the logical rules of what is or is not possible or probable still have a say, because they don’t depend on any contingency whatsoever!)

      So now it remains only to reason on the relative probability of all possible outcomes…
      And here

  5. Posted April 29, 2012 at 5:10 am | Permalink

    Aw! Cmon! A not so subtle sleight of hand: “That’s okay; the point of philosophy is not to be “useful” to science, any more than the point of mycology is to be “useful” to fungi.”

    First, fungi are a group of organisms. Science is a discipline. So the quote should have read “”useful” to scientists”.

    Second, sometimes mycology is useful to fungi. Those chosen by humans to breed do very well when the humans have more knowledge of these beasts.

    Third,the goals of philosophy regarding science (e.g.logic, standards of argumentation) are darned useful to scientists. Those scientists who neglect, do so at their own, and their subject’s, peril!

    • MH
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      I’m not sure that mycology really is especially useful to fungi, even given what you’re pointing out. (It’s useful for us, regarding fungi, but that’s not the same thing.)

      The reason that mycology isn’t useful to fungi is, of course, because fungi aren’t smart enough to understand what mycologists are saying about fungi. (If they were they’d find it very useful knowledge.) I’m not certain that’s exactly what was intended by the analogy, though it might have been.

    • MadScientist
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      The standards of logic applied in science come from mathematics, not philosophy. It would be pretty funny if philosophy dared have radically different ideas of logic from mathematics. If philosophy did ever contribute to logic (and it’s really hard to tell), it was long ago and not all that much. Nor can we assume the preclusion of independent discovery and development of logic. To me, arguing that philosophy is important to science is like arguing that Edward Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” was important to the emperor Hadrian.

  6. DV
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    >>Philosophers of science aren’t trying to do science, they are trying to understand how science works, [blah blah blah].

    Do you really need a whole branch of philosophy to do that? Any high school teacher could explain that half a session.

    • darrelle
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      In the event that you are being sarcastic, then very good, please ignore this comment. Otherwise, could you please comment on the following questions?

      Do you really think that the actual practice of all the various branches of science is that simple? If a high school teacher can so easily explain it all, then why are so many science students so unprepared for understanding the practice of science at an undergraduate level?

      I’ve got no issues with criticizing philosophers work, that’s great, that’s how we get to what is actually relevant and useful. But, the same applies to science, in spades. That is what science is all about. I don’t understand why so many scientists seem to have such strong negative emotions towards philosophy. What, are you jelous of your territory or something? Afraid someone outside your discipline might come up with something useful regarding the practice of your discipline?

      I understand, and agree, that a large amount of philosophy is ridiculous navel gazing, but so what? Smack down the ridiculous stuff. But going by past performance there is going to be the occasional jewel that will be a worthy addition to anyones store of knowledge.

      • MadScientist
        Posted April 29, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

        Have philosophers explained it in a meaningful way? Have philosophers really explained any of it at all?

        I agree with DV. The bases of science are very simple even though it took a very long time to refine the numerous ideas and produce the discoveries in every scientific field.

        #1: Observation: In the beginning we have to start with an observation. We know that human perception is flawed – can we overcome these flaws? If other people observe the same thing, then we at least eliminate some classes of defects of perception. Other defects are universal – and yet we can overcome them using systems and processes of measurement.

        #2: Conceptual models: Why do we observe X? Can we explain it in terms of what we already know? If not, can we develop a mathematical model for it? Does the model describe the observation well? Are there mathematical implications of the model which we can test (predictions)?

        #3: Replication (essential to #1 and #3): If other people can repeat a measurement/observation then we have confidence that we are not victims of perceptual problems. If a model makes a prediction and we can observe/measure that prediction then we have even more confidence that we understand things and are not victims of perceptual problems.

        There we go – that took less than 30 minutes to write out that summary of the basis of science. Observation, modelling, replication, mathematics – that’s all there is to it. However, simple ideas does not mean easy to master or execute. “Let’s go to the moon” is a simple idea.

        • darrelle
          Posted April 29, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

          Have philosophers explained it in a meaningful way? Have philosophers really explained any of it at all?,

          Regarding philosophy, all I am claiming is that the practice of philosophy has made useful contributions to human knowledge. And that I don’t see any reason to doubt that it could do so again in the future.

          Regarding my first question above, it was not my intent to suggest that philosophy had done so, though I can see how people would reasonably assume that, particularly considering the context. My fault.

          That question was the result of my surprise at the claim “Any high school teacher could explain that (in) half a session.”, when there is a whole lot of circumstantial evidence that that is not the case. At least not in a way that most students can understand.

          As you so ably showed, stating the basis of the scientific method does not take much time. However, teaching the why’s and how’s, teaching how to derive the methods and instilling an understanding of why they were arrived at takes a bit more time and effort.

          • darrelle
            Posted April 29, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

            Note, to try and be more clear, I was not attempting to address, one way or the other, the issue of whether or not philosophy had achieved a useful explanation of how science works. That first question did not involve philosophy at all, on my part.

          • DV
            Posted April 30, 2012 at 7:11 am | Permalink

            >>teaching how to derive the methods and instilling an understanding of why they were arrived at takes a bit more time and effort

            The methods and practice of science is part of science not philosophy.

            • darrelle
              Posted April 30, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

              If you had actually read the above comments you would have easily noted that I never claimed any such thing, and that I went overboard explaining how I was not making that claim.

              What I was claiming is that your claim of how easy it is to explain how science works, in a useful* way, is ludicrous. To boil it down to the most general terms, don’t use silly arguments to support your position, especially when there is no need to.

              *As in conveying a clear understanding to people who have not already been schooled in science.

              • DV
                Posted April 30, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

                See what MadScientist posted. That took less 30 minutes.

                Who are you talking about that are not already schooled in science? Kids get science ed from elementary school.

                When did you take up a course on Philosophy of Science? Did it hinder your science education in anyway before you took that course?

  7. Cor Haagsma
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    A Univers from nothing by Alexei Filippenko and Jay M.Pasachof. Insights from modern physics suggest that our wondrous universe may be the ultimate free lunch.
    “Astronomy in the New Millennium, 1st edition 2001

  8. Andrei
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    So, the whole issue is basically reduced to:

    1. Krauss wrote a book on physics (a good one but perhaps a bit clumsy and technical), not on philosophy.
    2. The subtitle of the book suggests that it should be a book on philosophy.

    I still think that part of the blame for name calling etc. should go to David Albert. He concludes his review with a rather distasteful attempt at religious apology along the lines of: if you fail to say something nice about religion, your book is nothing but a pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is dumb.

    It is hardly an invitation to engage in a polite and learned discussion, and it kind of sets the tone for subsequent exchange.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:06 am | Permalink

      Correction: Krauss wrote a book on physics (a fair one…).

      His topics were not original and there are better recent books.

      • Andrei
        Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:09 am | Permalink

        Correct, but he also provided some recent empirical evidence strongly supportive of the old claims. I am not aware of any recent books discussing issues like the direct measurement of flatness of the universe.

        • newenglandbob
          Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:17 am | Permalink

          That is wonderfully dealt with by Ethan Siegel’s Starts With a Bang” in several blog entries over the years.

          • Andrei
            Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:22 am | Permalink

            I am sure there is also a host of technical papers. Krauss brought this knowledge to public attention, which is what such a popular science book is all about.

  9. jdr
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    Have physicists ever read Godel or Turing? There are probably undecidable questions that cannot be answered within a given system. If maths has them, then a discipline which utilizes such a system will find tools inevitably missing. Of course this displaced one question with an other: can answerablility be determined. In maths I think, it cannot. But as a lay spectator, I can only speak in anecdotes.

    • Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      Of course they have! But I don’t think the incompleteness theorems are relevant to ‘real’ physicists doing empirical science. Seems to me ‘we’ have a loooong way to go yet before we know what type of critter the universe is & thus the in-built leakiness of formal logic isn’t relevant. However as a layperson I’m happy to be corrected by anyone here 🙂

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:13 am | Permalink

      At least there is a superficial understanding.

      As for Godel, the consensus seems to be that math can’t tell anything on empirics. (For myself, I think empirics or rather quasi-empirics decide math.) Physicists groan when crackpots are pulling out Gödel and what not, in an attempt to impute physics from math.

      One way to see it, which isn’t at all consensus or safe, is that physics resist axiomatization. The science is algorithmic in nature, you can still derive fully consistent relativistic field theories despite lacking an axiomatic method.

      On the other hand you can consistently note that you can add consistent axioms indefinitely as per Gödel, and hence possibly push axiomatic methods towards descriptions of algorithmic nature.

      Turing’s results is the foundation for computer science, which is a science concerned with computational resources. Hence it can be seen as a subfield of physics if you wish.

    • MadScientist
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      “Probably”? The probability is 1. What Godel established is that for any system of mathematics there will be a class of questions which cannot be answered (class of problems which cannot be solved) but which can be answered in a superset of that system. So in principle, without any other limitations of reality such as the finite capacity of the human mind, the field of mathematics can expand without limit.

      And yes, of course, there would be physicists who have read articles by Godel and Turing. Utilizing mathematics does not imply that we must have tools missing. Perhaps further advances in mathematics will offer more tools to use but the tools we have so far are quite adequate. Perhaps mathematics will come up with a new tool which helps to simplify or improve some of our current models – however, the models are already pretty good as they are. Even Newton’s flawed model of gravity is so good that we’re not rushing to replace all calculations with relativistic ones.

  10. mkray
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    In the Messenger Lectures, given at Cornell in the early 1960s, Feynman say that thing: The eact quote, as you can see in the quantum chapter of his book, `On the character of phyical law’, which is pretty much a transcript of the lectures, is :`On the other hand, I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.’
    From the context, and from the tone of the lecture, I’ve always taken it to mean what it said with the added unspoken idea “… if by `understand’ you mean `map it onto a model constructed of bits of the familiar world’ ”. I know about the Messenger Lectures because I’ve shown the film of it at QM summer schools so many times that I almost know Feynman’s words off by heart.
    On another matter, Feynman has also sometimes been accused of anti-phiosophical barbarism, but if you read what he says, you often realize that he’s read more philosophy than he lets on.

    • Posted April 30, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      Ah, that’s consistent with what he said in the well known video about how magnets work:

      So I am not going to be able to give you an answer to why magnets attract each other except to tell you that they do. And to tell you that that’s one of the elements in the world – there are electrical forces, magnetic forces, gravitational forces, and others, and those are some of the parts. If you were a student, I could go further. I could tell you that the magnetic forces are related to the electrical forces very intimately, that the relationship between the gravity forces and electrical forces remains unknown, and so on. But I really can’t do a good job, any job, of explaining magnetic force in terms of something else you’re more familiar with, because I don’t understand it in terms of anything else that you’re more familiar with.


  11. raven
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    We should be good empiricists and be open to the possibility that what we think of as the universe really does exist within some larger context.


    Almost all Cosmological theories these days seem to require a Multiverse.

    As to why our laws of physics are what they are, one common theory is that they froze out at the Big Bang and another Big Bang might have different laws. String theory predicts 10(exp)500 different possibilities.

    I’m about 2/3 of the way through Krauss’es book so can’t really say much. But it is so far very readable and understandable. As to why there is something rather than nothing.

    1. A lot of data says nothing is unstable. The lower energy state is something rather than nothing.

    2. As to the ultimate WHY, the Multiverse could be simply eternal and constantly spawning Universes. As Carroll says, it just is and there is no “why”.

    When our Universe is cold, dark and low density, maybe Nothing will start another one or maybe they are branching off from black holes. A mathematical treatment of what happens inside a black hole shows extremely high energies.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:16 am | Permalink

      That is a good summary of some current ideas I think. (But do read the last 1/3, I’m eager to know if it is solid.)

  12. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    I have to agree on Carroll on the two sets of questions.

    It is harder to understand Carroll’s reasoning on why we would not know anything about the “why” questions of laws. We have Noether’s two theorems on laws for example: fundamental laws comes out of symmetries. And he seems to be somewhat sloppy when he says this:

    “And sometimes, on the other hand, modern cosmologists talk about different laws of physics in the context of a multiverse, and suggest that we see one set of laws rather than some other set for fundamentally anthropic reasons. But again, that’s just being sloppy. We’re talking here about the low-energy manifestation of the underlying laws, but those underlying laws are exactly the same everywhere throughout the multiverse. We are still left with the question of there are those deep-down laws that create a multiverse in the first place.”

    There is no reason why selection isn’t acting on everything, in the same way that it isn’t confined to finesse traits in biology but can come up with new traits. That has even been proposed, say by Tegmark. It is if you saty close to the current basis of string theory and its founding in existing quantum mechanics that you get just one multiverse.

    On the other hand we have to ask retorically but also purposefully, if you are adamant that quantum mechanics is unique, surely you can, and have to, tell why.

    AFAIK QM is unique because it minimizes both number of hidden parameters (none), as well as the non-hidden ones (number of dimensions in qubits, say). But I am prepared to understand that simplicity as a result of selection.

    Where I have to part ways with Carroll and Coyne is in their defense of philosophy. Obviously it hasn’t contributed anything in this one-sided show of science of “how” and “why”.

    Contra Coyne I can’t see how analyzing philosophy and its purported, and as here observable, failures can be indefensible. It seems important here as elsewhere to identify what works and what doesn’t and what harms or what doesn’t. And it is mostly motivated instead of bashing, if it wasn’t shored up it would be indefensible indeed.

    I am sorry if skepticism ruffles feathers, but science has had to prove its usefulness in understanding. If philosophy is reduced to art as a means to be useful to society, well fine, but then people can have opinions on its beauty or ugliness.

    “Philosophers of science aren’t trying to do science, they are trying to understand how science works, and how it should work, and to tease out the logic and standards underlying scientific argumentation, and to situate scientific knowledge within a broader epistemological context, and a bunch of other things that can be perfectly interesting without pretending to be science itself.”

    That is precisely the point, isn’t it?

    If we want to understand how science works empirically, we need empirical study, a “science of science”. If on the other hand philosophers _would_ contribute in understanding science efficiency, they would, by definition, be doing science.

    • raven
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:17 am | Permalink

      If we want to understand how science works empirically, we need empirical study, a “science of science”.

      One thing I learned early on about science.

      A lot of money is extremely useful and often essential.

      The most successful project I worked on cost 300 million dollars and was a great bargain.

      These days in some fields, that would be considered just a good start.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

        Ha, serves me right! I find economics boring.

        [Can’t we just agree that it is a constraint? I mean, most social activities needs investments and cash flows.]

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:26 am | Permalink

      Say, that is interesting.

      What if everyone _agreed_ on philosophy as art?*

      Then you could probably well say “I happen to like my Pigliucci and my Paganini, and I won’t abide undue dissenting voices if I bring them up, my tastes are hands off.”

      But I can’t see such a universal agreement coming anytime soon.

      * The art of making “just so” stories, say.

  13. raven
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    As Dr. Coyne says, modern physics is pretty esoteric.

    1. I, at least, understand the point that a universe that isn’t expanding won’t last long. Gravity in a static universe would just eventually make one large black hole.

    2. In Krauss’es book, he states that dark energy is always constant in density. This is even though the universe is expanding and will eventually be 1,000 times larger and infinitely more someday.

    I’m so far missing how this can be. Where is the dark energy coming from to keep it constant even though the universe is blowing up like an infinite balloon? From nothing?

    3. Intelligent Design my foot. The future of our universe is to end up cold, dark, and empty.

    Privileged Planet my foot. The Andromeda galaxy is scheduled to collide with ours in 2 billion years. Two spiral galaxies colliding are the largest collisions in the universe AFAIK. Where is that magic sky fairy when you need him anyway?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

      Where is the dark energy coming from to keep it constant even though the universe is blowing up like an infinite balloon? From nothing?

      – To borrow from the movie “I, Robot”: “that is the wrong question.” The more fundamental hurdle should be, where is the spacetime coming from when the universe is expanding?

      If you can accept that spacetime is expanding out of earlier spacetime, the constance of dark energy shouldn’t be a problem.

      – It is often thought that dark energy, which is constant, is a residual of vacuum energy. This makes the correspondence spacetime – dark energy deeper. (Vacuum energy is in turn the “zero point” quantum rest energy of all our quantum fields, due to the Heisenberg relation.)

      – As Carroll points out in an article on his blog, there is no conservation of energy or concept of total energy in general relativity.

      This is because we are not confined to local systems which can be made closed. An extended patch of expanding spacetime can’t be observed to conserve energy, and in fact it isn’t.

      – It is first when you embed general relativity into standard cosmology you can speak of “the total energy of the universe”. It is locally flat, which can mean zero energy*, and globally so, which sums up to zero energy. By studying the universe as a system, Faraoni et al have claimed that the universe is exactly zero energy.

      I don’t think that is agreed, but gives a background to the dark energy issues. Quite sensibly it seems the total energy of the thermodynamically closed system of our pocket universe doesn’t change as it expands. (Closed unless there are bubble collisions, naturally.)

      * Depends on the global geometry. But this is besides this topic, and I don’t understand that aspect much anyway.

      • raven
        Posted April 29, 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink

        Thanks Torbjorn.

        If dark energy is an inherent property of space time, then as space time expands, dark energy will increase in parallel.

        Clearly, by observation space time is expanding. We do live in an expanding universe readily visible.

        If I’m not confused (always possible), what then is driving the expansion of space time?

        IIRC, some theories have it as the coming from the original curvature of the early universe become less curved.

      • raven
        Posted April 29, 2012 at 8:15 am | Permalink

        Faraoni et al have claimed that the universe is exactly zero energy.

        Krauss and most other cosmologists say that the universe has exactly zero net energy.

        I’ve always taken this as meaning that there is indeed a multiverse filled with lots of bubble universes.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 8:05 am | Permalink

      Oh yeah, I forgot: Cosmological redshift is a classical example of how expanding spacetime doesn’t conserve energy.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

      I’m not the expert Torbjorn is, but the way I look at it is that the universe is forever falling into a hole of its own making. The energy of the fall appears as vacuum energy aka dark energy, which pushes space apart and increases its total mass, which in turn makes the hole deeper and perpetuates the fall.

    • Andrei
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      I’m so far missing how this can be. Where is the dark energy coming from to keep it constant even though the universe is blowing up like an infinite balloon? From nothing?
      It’s because of the “negative pressure” of the dark energy (assuming it is indeed an energy of empty space, which may or may not be the case).

      Negative pressure is even harder to picture than negative energy. Gas, say in a balloon, exerts pressure on the walls of the balloon. In so doing, if it expands the walls of the balloon, it does work on the balloon. The work it does causes the gas to lose energy and cool. However, it turns out that the energy of empty space is gravitationally repulsive precisely because it causes empty space to have a “negative” pressure. As a result of this negative pressure, the universe actually does work on empty space as it expands. This work goes into maintaining the constant energy density of space even as the universe expands.

      Krauss, Lawrence (2012-01-10). A Universe from Nothing (p. 104). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

      • Andrei
        Posted April 29, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

        Sorry for the mess with blockquotes.

        • darrelle
          Posted April 29, 2012 at 11:32 am | Permalink

          Where is the dark energy coming from to keep it constant even though the universe is blowing up like an infinite balloon? From nothing?

          Well, currently it is thought by most physicists that dark energy is a property of space time. In that case, the more space time the more dark energy. As Torbjörn Larsson, OM, said above.

          If you can accept that spacetime is expanding out of earlier spacetime, the constance of dark energy shouldn’t be a problem.

          I sure as hell don’t understand the math, which apparently indicates that dark energy causes the expansion of space time. What I wonder is, how solid is that? If dark energy is a property of space time, and therefore increases as spacetime increases, in which case the density of dark energy remains constant, perhaps the expansion of space time is caused by something else not yet known or hypothesized.

  14. Myron
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    The physical laws/laws of nature don’t transcend and aren’t independent of MEST (= the matter-energy-space-time system); they are immanent in it and dependent on it. Therefore, if MEST doesn’t exist, there aren’t any physical laws/laws of nature either.

  15. stevehayes13
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    The expectation that the universe should conform to our intuitions (intuitions that evolved in animals trying to eat and avoid being eaten long enough to pass on their genes to the next generation)strikes me as religious, magical thinking. The universe is whatever it is, regardless of how counter-intuitive it may be. Indeed, it may well be more than just counter-intuitive; it may be that there are questions people can dream up that are simply unanswerable.

    • ivo
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:40 am | Permalink

      Very true.
      In fact, we now know that there are question that are unanswerable, or at least, wrongly asked. For instance in several areas of mathematics, where “unanswerable” can also be made precise; e.g., such and such system of equations has no exact solution; or such and such function is not computable; or such and such statement cannot be proven to be true in any such and such a theory.

      It seems quite reasonable that our understanding of the physical world is subject to similar limits, if only because our best understanding of it comes about by the use of mathematical models.

    • GodlessPenguin
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      My thoughts exactly. A mere few million years separate us from our ape ancestors who were still trying to figure out sticks and stones. There is absolutely no reason to assume that in this blink of the eye, the human brain would’ve evolved the means to comprehend the underlying true nature of reality and existence, especially when there is no such selection pressure in nature.

      It may be that we’re approaching the limits of our mental abilities. If so, we’ll just have to admit we don’t know for now, and wait till we evolve, or more likely build, more advanced brains (computational devices).

      • stevehayes13
        Posted April 30, 2012 at 2:23 am | Permalink

        ‘It may be that we’re approaching the limits of our mental abilities.’

        Although it is interesting to note that IQ (whatever it precisely measures) has to be periodically re-calibrated as people are, according to IQ tests, getting more and more intelligent, so much so, that if the population of one hundred years ago had taken contemporary tests, using contemporary standards, the average would have been 70 rather than 100.

  16. Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    As I pointed out in the comments of Carroll’s article, Krauss actually does address the “why are there physical laws” version of “nothing”. He even describes that answer as more of an environmental science that physics, and admits that version of something from nothing isn’t fully answered but describes the plausible answer in the multiverse which covers all possible realities.

    The problem with going any further than this is that you have to define a “nothing” that is self-contradictory. What are the properties of a “nothing” that has no properties? On what basis would we wonder why “something” shouldn’t emerge from such a “nothing” when such a restriction would constitute of law of physics (particularly, of thermodynamics) which we’ve just said it can’t have. Such a definition of “nothing” is impossible and contradictory, and it leaves me curious why anybody would wonder why reality isn’t in an impossible state.

    • Myron
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

      The nothing/nothingness is the absence of being—end of story. It is not a possible entity but, necessarily, a nonentity, which has neither Dasein (German word, “there-being” = “existence”) nor Sosein (German word, “so-being” = “essence”/”nature”).

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 8:19 am | Permalink

      Read Carroll’s piece again. His point is that the multiverse is a consequence of the degrees of freedom implicit in wave functions and Hamiltonians. It does not and cannot explain why there are wave functions and Hamiltonians in the first place.

      • Andrei
        Posted April 29, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

        Krauss discusses multiverse in a wider context. He says that we don’t know which subset of currently known laws is essential, and which one is accidental, and therefore we cannot say what laws if any can possibly govern the multiverse. Chances are there are no fixed laws at all and multiverse is like “anything goes”.

        Perhaps we need to make a distinction between the multiverse suggested by QM and completely lawless multiverse, which is not suggested by anything, but we cannot rule out its existence anyway.

        • Posted April 30, 2012 at 8:19 am | Permalink

          Thank you for the correction. Indeed, this was my point. Krauss does talk about the origin of the laws of physics, and uses the multiverse paradigm in a more general context. He is honest that this level of question can’t be answered by physics. I think his point has been that nobody can ever really answer that level of question.

          My interpretation is that it can’t be answered because it requires a definition of “nothing” that has no properties in a language that has no fundamental concepts (like “fields”). That is impossible and even implausible. You can’t define such a “nothing” as it is self-contradictory. In that “nothing”, what is to stop “something” from happening? And where did that restriction (law) come from?

          All Albert (and Carroll) do is describe what “nothing” isn’t by tacking on a “why this?” to every possible answer. That version of “nothing” is useless, which I think has been Krauss’ point all along.

          I’ve written up my criticism in greater detail:

  17. Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    “my understanding always breaks down when someone claims that the notion of time doesn’t mean what I think it does, or could even be illusory.”

    Mind if I take a stab at it? As fellow life forms, we who live and die perceive the passage of “time” acutely. We dread getting old along with all its accompanying inconveniences, like stiffening joints, heart palpitations, and other bodily malfunctions. Non-living things suffer no such worries, and care nothing about the status of things past, present, or future. Perhaps we have invented the notion of time in order to mark significant events in some standardized way.

    One possible downside of this view: if time is illusory, then so is everything that makes reference to “t”, like math & science! uh oh, better stop now.

    • Tyro
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      Hmm… No. That’s the pot-head’s explanation of time being illusory but it has nothing to do with physics.

      Read Carroll’s article for the physicists’s perspective. You know, the one that’s based on reality.

      (Pardon the snark but seriously, this is way out there.)

      • Posted April 29, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink

        I’d rather talk philosophy with a pot-head than with a prick.

        • Tyro
          Posted April 29, 2012 at 9:22 am | Permalink


          I mistakenly believed we were talking about science.

        • Naked Bunny with a Whip
          Posted April 29, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

          You’d obviously rather talk with anyone who won’t disagree with you.

  18. Neil
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    IMO, the question Krauss asks (and answers)–why is there stuff rather than just the vacuum state–is meaningful; the question Albert asks–why is there even physical law (the quantum field)–is meaningless.

    We can express the “Why is there something rather than nothing?” question more precisely as “Why does something exist rather than nothing exist?”. Nothing, in the Albert sense of the word, cannot exist. Existence presumes a something to exist.

  19. Tyro
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    I should mention that Carroll has written a book that covers much of the same ground called “From Eternity to Here.” He recently commented that he felt it didn’t properly address its audience but I disagree. I think it was one of the best, most expansive and best explained books on cosmology that I’ve ever read. Far better than anything Greene has come up with. Like many of his blog posts, Carroll’s book rewards an active reader, especially one that has a rough familiarity with some of the concepts.

    Highly recommended.

  20. Kent
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    I find the “why” question to be illusory as well as time. The question should be reframed to ask what “is”. We can conceive of alternatives to the natural laws, but perhaps there could not have been an alternative. Perhaps what IS is all there COULD be.

  21. Posted April 29, 2012 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    I’d like to weigh in briefly with an explanation on the “something from nothing” argument that I have not seen discussed by in popular science or philosophy. Now, I’m nether a scientist or a philosopher so I ask that my naiveté at least be greeted as an opportunity to enlighten those who may be inclined to pursue a similar line of reasoning or to help me in better clarifying my thinking on this issue.

    It’s this: there is no such thing as nothing. There is only something.

    I believe that the concept of “nothing” is merely a convenient linguistic invention that we’ve devised during the course of the enlargement of our brains to help us in our better understanding of what “something” is, whether it be a rock or the physical laws that govern the very existence and evolution of that rock, within the context of all things that encompass and define the nature of what we call “somethiness.”

    I strongly sense that those who speak of “nothing” oftentimes evoke this concept in a similar manner to the IDers who evoke the concept of “irreducible complexity.” When we look at the “natural order” of things, I maintain that we see only something. Those seemingly blanks spaces that we perceive between masses of what we call “something” are not blank spaces at all; they simply comprise a less dense mass of the things that can and do coalesce to present themselves as things to comprehend as “something,” within our limited conceptual framework.

    We’re inclined to look across vast expanse of the space above our heads, see what we describe as “empty space” and, in general terms, speak as if “nothing “ exists between the tips of our heads and the stars and planets that we gaze upon. But as any thinking person knows, this simply is not so. The “space” that we describe as “empty” is actually filled to the brim with everything from gamma rays emitted from within deep space to the dust particle that escape our forced air heating filters and ultimately define Saturday as house cleaning day.

    • Tyro
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      . It’s this: there is no such thing as nothing. There is only something.

      Krauss does touch on this briefly. I think his title is a nod to the theistic argument that something can’t come from nothing therefore god. He points out that something does come from what the original authors would have considered nothing. Much of the book consists of discussing (and ridiculing) the changing ideas of “nothing”, and how today they essentially don’t define it at all.

      • darrelle
        Posted April 29, 2012 at 11:55 am | Permalink

        This whole issue does, of course, come down to just what whoever is speaking at the moment, understands “nothing” to mean.

        Defining the meaning of a word is one thing. You can make up words to express whatever concept you can conceive of, whether it has a basis in reality or not. But for the word “nothing” to have useful meaning in the context of how reality functions the only relevant definitions of “nothing” are those that can plausibly be considered probable to exist in reality based on our current best understanding of reality.

        It goes without saying that the classical definition of the word “nothing” may not be possible in reality.

        Oops. This comment might be out of place. Too late now.

        • Tyro
          Posted April 29, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink


          When I get a chance to talk to people about this in person (as opposed to trying to write a book that deals with everyone’s ideas, oy!), I try to get definitions. What is a “thing”? Is it only matter? Most people that think about this are most concerned with where matter comes from, so in this sense “nothing” leaves a lot, really any energy that isn’t matter.

          Next, is god a “thing”? Most people reflexively say no, god is not a thing. But if that’s right, then they do believe that something can come from nothing, since the universe (something) came from god (not a thing).

          Depending on how that goes, then I might start talking about the difference between bosons and fermions and discussing how much more there is in the universe that is not matter as we commonly understand. Are photons a “thing”? If we create a vacuum in a chamber, is that empty or do we say that it is just filled with non-baryonic matter?

          Then there’s the question of whether a physical law like QM exists in its own right (whether it is a “thing”) or whether it is an abstract concept which merely describes the properties of actual things? Many people will say (rightly, in my mind) that it doesn’t exist in which case Krauss’s book is perfectly adequate. The people that think that theories are things which exist and need origins are certainly interesting to talk to, but will almost always say that God is something fundamental and will have more complexity and structure than these theories so a cosmos with a god isn’t “nothing” so won’t be so obsessed with this nothing argument to begin with.

          • darrelle
            Posted April 29, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

            Next, is god a “thing”? Most people reflexively say no, god is not a thing. But if that’s right, then they do believe that something can come from nothing, since the universe (something) came from god (not a thing).

            Ha Ha, nice. The savvy ones probably say that god is not a thing and everything, at the same time.

            I often think that defining terms so that no one mistakes what you are trying to say is the most difficult part of communication. You spend time defining as best you can every term that you think could be misunderstood in a way that would cause what you are saying as a whole to be misunderstood, and the first comment you get shows you how inadequate your efforts were.

            I swear, it sure seems that often a person will intentionally misconstrue the definition of a key word simply so they can say whatever it is they want to say.

            • Posted April 30, 2012 at 9:33 am | Permalink

              Yup. You just summed up 99% of the content on the internet!

    • Posted April 29, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      “It’s this: there is no such thing as nothing. There is only something.”


      …and on the “big bang” model, i want to see the proof of the “size” of the original. I read many colorful ‘descriptions’ such as “the entirty of what is now the universe was inside a “thing” the size of an atom” etc etc.

      But TheThing would still be in existence, right?

      …so, for the CameFromNothings, where is the actual proof TheThing “came from nothing”. What is the refutation that TheThing was the result of the “last contraction” from the “prior bang.”

  22. Nom de Plume
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Basically, Krauss just chose a title for his book to make it more saleable (nothing wrong with that), and now he has to defend it.

    • Posted April 29, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      (nothing wrong with that)

      I see what you did there 😉

      Seriously though, I agree. I’m amazed that so many people feel so spurned by his chosen title. Book seller tries to sell books!! Egads!

  23. TFJ
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    From the lay perspective I’d like to see the fundamentals of philosophy more widely taught, with particular emphasis on logical fallacies. The counter-intuitiveness of physics is being used to justify much of the alt med and spiritual woo which abounds. It’s feasible (isn’t it?) to give people the tools to see through such things without them having to understand the intricate details of the physics involved. It might also help people to identify abuses of philosophy. It seems to me that philosophers can be roughly divided into 2 camps, those looking for ways to cast light on important questions and those seeking to justify their conclusions.

    Basic instruction in cosmological arguments might also stimulate public appreciation of the nature of the issues with which physisists are grappling. Questions about the nature of time, the implications of being ‘outside of time and space’ for causality, ‘nothingness’ are fascinating, at least to me, and don’t require much knowledge of physics to consider. Dispelling simplistic justifications for a conscious creator might be a side-effect.

    • TFJ
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      Physicists, not physisists.

  24. Nicolas Perrault
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    It has been said of quantum mechanics that it is a philosophical monstrosity. If philosophy was unimportant quantum mechanics would not be so bothersome.

    • Neil
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      You have it backwards. If QM is a philosophical monstrosity, then so much the worse for philosophy. QM is not bothersome–it has been precisely measured and tested. Philosophy has to adjust to QM, not the other way around.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted April 29, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

        QM has adjusted to philosophy, at least in terms of interpretation. Dissatisfaction with the Copenhagen interpretation and the development of alternative interpretations has arguably been driven largely by philosophical considerations. If people didn’t care about such things, they’d have no problem with Copenhagen.

        • Neil
          Posted April 29, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

          I agree, although I think it is more aesthetics than philosophy. The Copenhagen interpretation is simply ugly. Physicists, of course, could care less. They say “Shut up and calculate.”

  25. Posted April 29, 2012 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Thanks. You make me want to read Krauss’ latest work.

  26. DrDroid
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    I agree that modern physics is increasingly hard to understand in terms that we can easily relate to. More-or-less I think this started when physicists began trying to understand the atom, which led to the development of quantum theory. In the realm of the very tiny, things just don’t seem to behave in ways that agree with ordinary common-sense. And as time has gone by physics has achieved escape velocity and acclerated off into Alice-in-Quantum Land. In fact it’s gotten so bad and the math so esoteric that I’ve begun to worry sometimes that modern physicists are guilty of just “making stuff up” like the theologians. But what always pulls me back from this distressing thought is the realization that, for all its violations of common sense, quantum physics WORKS (think lasers, for example).

    I think Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow had a useful view of “reality” in their book The Grand Design (p. 42):

    “There is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality. Instead we will adopt a view that we will call model-dependent realism: the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observations. This provides a framework with which to interpret modern science.”

    By this artifice they sidestep the question of what is “really” going on down at the quantum level. Instead of a touchy-feely understanding we just have mathematical models that allow us to predict things in the world of the very tiny that agree quite well with experiments whose results we can see in the macroscopic world we inhabit.

  27. Posted April 29, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    the verb “is” indicates existence. Therefore, the formulation “why is there something rather than nothing” is void. “nothing” cannot be validated within existence.

    Nothing can not be.

    I suggest anyone attempting to foist “the fact of nothing” is unreconciled with the fact of existence and the metaphysically given conditions of being alive.

    • Roz
      Posted April 29, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      Indeed, who be it to judge what is nothing and what is not nothing?

  28. Kevin
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    “‘As long as you admit that there is more than one conceivable way for the universe to be (and I don’t see how one could not), there will always be some end of the line for explanations….’
    Sean’s conclusions are two:
    1.  Krauss’s book is useful at dispelling the theological notion that God is required to create something from nothing”

    If I have followed this introduction to the discussion correctly, I do not see how the above two points can be reconciled. A traditional Catholic theologian, for example, would say that “God” is the label given to “the end of the line for explanations”.

  29. couchloc
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Permalink


    Thanks for this piece. I’m a philosopher and when I first visited your website a while back, I was taken aback at the philosophy criticism around here. I presumed you were included in this group since I occasionally saw comments critical of philosophers here, or comments which lazily lumped together “philosophers and theologians and all that fluffy stuff.” But several of your more recent entries have convinced me that I was mistaken and that your views about these issues are more interesting than I would have thought. For instance, I thought the earlier piece on David Albert where you said you were sympathetic to his criticisms, despite being a fan of Krauss, was honest and showed real integrity (in my view, David’s complaints were quite reasonable). In addition, I think your description here of Carroll’s view is well stated. Philosophers are aware that not everything they do is perfect or entirely useful; but that doesn’t mean there are not some contributions philosophers have made that have improved our knowledge of the universe (or our critical reflection on our knowledge of the universe; or however you prefer to parse this).

    Too often scientists think that philosophy of science is seen by philosophers as a way of *doing* science, but that isn’t what they are doing. The subject is really more like the study of the history of science. Nobody would think it needs to be said that historians of science aren’t needed for *doing* science; everyone already knows this. But people don’t see that the same point applies to the subject we’re considering. The historian’s interest in science needn’t match the scientist’s interest for the historian’s work to be useful in its context. The same thing goes for philosophy and its context. In any case, thanks for helping me understand your views better.

    –a student of Philip Kitcher’s

    • TFJ
      Posted April 30, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      Do you not think that the profession could be more vocal in drawing a distinction between serious, honest philosophy and the ‘nobody knows anything, so my facts are as good as yours’ muck that has pervaded modern society?

      • couchloc
        Posted May 1, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

        If you’re talking about the distinction between serious, honest philosophy and what passes for philosophy in some other departments where Freud and various French thinkers are studied, I would agree there is an issue here. But we can’t control what other departments teach their students and convey to the public. Are you aware that when Cambridge University wanted to give an honorary degree to Jacques Derrida, the philosophy department there and several major figures in philosophy wrote a letter publicly objecting to this? John Searle later wrote a devastating review that showed why he thought this work was rubbish? Noam Chomsky has published several well received articles which have been critical of the French intellectual climate. Even Gary Gutting recently wrote a critical review of certain european schools of thought in the NY Times. Over the years philosophers have tried to distance themselves from the less intellectually serious work done in some areas, but we can’t control what gets studied in fields like literature and history unfortunately and which have more students than us.

  30. raven
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    I’m a philosopher and when I first visited your website a while back, I was taken aback at the philosophy criticism around here.

    You need to get out more. It’s quite common in science to laugh at philosophy.

    Part of it is that there is just a lot of really, seriously bad philosophy out there. Post modernism is cuckoo, especially when applied to science. It neglects the fact that there is only one real world, one reality.

    Part of it is some really stupid attacks on evolution by philosophers who don’t really understand it. They were so lame, I’ve already forgotten most of the names, one is at Boulder, and a few others. Seems like anyone who needs a cheap publication in philosophy knows they can get one by attacking evolution. The christofascists will cheer and drool as predictably as Pavlov’s dog.

    I’m not one that says it is completely useless because there are at least a few good philosophers e.g. Pennock and Dennett among others. But you have to do a lot of threshing, separating the wheat from the chaff.

    • Pirate
      Posted April 30, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      First, if you think postmodernism is rife in philosophy, you really don’t know much about contemporary philosophy. You would be hard pressed to find an academic philosopher in America who identifies as a postmodernist.

      Second, while there are philosophers who attack evolution, they are a very very small minority. I don’t know why this is supposed to reflect poorly on philosophy as a discipline. Michael Behe is a biologist and a very prominent anti-evolutionist. Does this affect your opinion of biology as a discipline?

      The person at Boulder you’re thinking of is Brad Monton. And he has never attacked evolution per se. In fact, he has repeatedly emphasized that he believes in evolution by natural selection. He is also an atheist (as are 73% of philosophers). What he did was write a book partially defending intelligent design. His line in the book was “I think ID ultimately doesn’t work, but I don’t think the arguments for it are as bad as people make them out to be.” Maybe this is a silly position, but characterizing it as attacking evolution is incorrect.

      Look, I think there are a number of problems with how philosophy is practiced. I think a lot of it needs to be more responsive to cutting edge science. But a lot of the criticisms of philosophy are coming from people who seem to know next to nothing about the discipline except for what they have read in blog posts. Dismissing an academic discipline on such flimsy bases is anti-intellectualism.

      • raven
        Posted April 30, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

        The person at Boulder you’re thinking of is Brad Monton. And he has never attacked evolution per se. In fact, he has repeatedly emphasized that he believes in evolution by natural selection. He is also an atheist (as are 73% of philosophers). What he did was write a book partially defending intelligent design.

        Yes he did attack evolution. That is all ID is, creationism with a shallow disguise.

        And he was pretty vicious about it despite your trying to whitewash him. I crossed with him online a few times and wasn’t impressed with him as a person or his ability to think.

        And his arguments were lame. Just creaationist arguments rehashed. He had nothing original to say and clearly didn’t understand evolutionary biology or care.

        I found his claims to be an atheist laughable. If he is an atheist, he should join an ugly xian cult. He would fit in much better.

        We biologists are getting sick and tired of all these attacks. It’s been 150 years now and they happen on a daily basis. Like a lot of scientists I’ve been getting death threats from fundie xians for over a decade. Monton is just another in a long line of very creepy attackers.

        • Pirate
          Posted April 30, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

          Look, I have no interest in defending Monton. I haven’t read his book, but I suspect it’s pretty bad. Also, from what I’ve read by him, he doesn’t seem like a very nice person. However, I am willing to bet Monton never sent anyone a death threat because they believe in evolution, so associating him with fundamentalists who do that is monumentally unfair.

          Second, Monton might be guilty of taking ID too seriously, and he is a bit too cozy with the Discovery Institute crowd, but he has repeatedly stated on the record that he does not think the ID program actually works. I see no reason to suspect he is lying about this. If you think someone who says “Look, ID arguments fail, but I think they’re really interesting and worth taking seriously” is on par with a crazy Christian fundamentalist, I don’t know what to say to you.

          • raven
            Posted April 30, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

            Oh, another fallacy, the straw man.

            I didn’t say or imply that Monton was sending out death threats. Even most creationists don’t threaten to kill people although I suspect a lot of them would like to.

            It’s pretty dumb. Death threats are federal crimes, felonies and the FBI will arrest people for it.

            But Monton has aligned himself with the creationist crowd. Free country but we don’t have to like it. And we don’t.

            You don’t quite get it but I’m getting bored with this. How do you think philosophers would react if scientists kept writing books about how stupid it is, how irrelevant it is, and how wrong it is? (Not that I necessarily agree with all that). Judging from the philosophy people who show up on science blogs and scream, they wouldn’t like it at all.

            Scientists don’t like people from other fields who don’t know much attacking them either. And science is attacked on a daily basis from groups with close to $100 million dollars a year just to attack science, the budgets of all the anti-evolution groups combined. Throw in the climate change deniers and you could probably up that to half a billion.

      • raven
        Posted April 30, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

        Second, while there are philosophers who attack evolution, they are a very very small minority.

        I hope you aren’t a philosopher. This is the No True Scotsman fallacy. We haven’t seen it for a few days at least.

        You at least managed to get one thing right and it is a repeat of what I said.

        There are a lot of bad philosophers and bad philosophy, although not all of them. As scientists we generally only pay attention when one of them attacks us which happens often. And a lot of scientists overgeneralize, and assume it is indicative of the whole field.

        And guess what. That is philosophy’s problem not ours. When some idiot philosopher attacks science, scientists, and evolutionary biology, who criticizes them back. Mostly scientists.

        First, if you think postmodernism is rife in philosophy, you really don’t know much about contemporary philosophy.

        No I don’t and don’t really care. I’m a medical researcher, why should I? How much do you know about the results of genome wide gene hunts for autism genes?

        If postmodernism is dying, news to me. I guess even philosophers will abandom a dead horse. I just ran across it because one of the worst humans and worst philosophers who has been attacking evolution for decades is Steve Fuller, a PoMO.

        • Pirate
          Posted April 30, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

          I am not a philosopher, but at least I understand how the “No True Scotsman” fallacy works. If I had said “No real philosopher attacks evolution. Plantinga attacks evolution, so he’s not a real philosopher.” that would be fallacious. But that’s not what I said. I stated a fact: There are philosophers who attack evolution, but they are a very small minority. Plantinga is one of them.

          I’m not saying it’s your fault that there’s bad philosophy out there. I’m saying it’s ridiculous to stand in judgment of a discipline while demonstrating an almost complete lack of awareness about its content. I’m with you on disliking it when philosophers criticize science without having a very good grasp of it. I’m consistent, though: I also dislike it when scientists criticize philosophy without having a very good grasp of it.

          Also, the claim that its mostly scientists who criticize anti-scientific philosophy is baseless. The majority of Anglo-American philosophers are robustly pro-science (Dennett is not some lonely exception) and are very critical of anti-scientific arguments. As an example, when Fodor recently published his anti-Darwinism book, the most cogent critique I read was (linked on this site) was from two philosophers – Ned Block and Philip Kitcher.

          Finally, Steve Fuller is not a philosopher. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy but he is employed in a sociology department. I doubt very much that any reputable philosophy department would hire him at this point.

  31. Posted April 30, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink


  32. Posted April 30, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    For those who’d like to see why a theory that explains how a universe can come from nothing is nothing but philosophical, there is a very good article here about that topic:

    Philosophy Lives
    Why Stephen Hawking’s attempt to banish natural theology only shows why we need it.
    John Haldane

  33. Vishnya Maudlin
    Posted May 1, 2012 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Philosophers all should be thankful to Krauss for giving a good name to philosophy and philosophers by his ridiculous ranting against it:

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] Something from Nothing Posted on April 29, 2012 by revelmundo A popular discussion of late has been around the question of why there is “something rather than nothing,” an argument that I have always felt had the stench of theology riddled throughout its core.  The discussion has become a little more intense since the publication of Lawrence Krauss’ new book, “A Universe From Nothing.”  One such debate is goin’ on right now over at WEIT. […]

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