A Universe from Nothing?

Some of you may have been following a tiny brouhaha (“kerfuffle” is so overused, don’t you think?) that has sprung up around the question of why the universe exists. You can’t say we think small around here.

First Lawrence Krauss came out with a new book, A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (based in part on a popular YouTube lecture), which addresses this question from the point of view of a modern cosmologist. Then David Albert, speaking as a modern philosopher of science, came out with quite a negative review of the book in the New York Times. And discussion has gone back and forth since then: here’s Jerry Coyne (mostly siding with Albert), the Rutgers Philosophy of Cosmology blog (with interesting voices in the comments), a long interview with Krauss in the Atlantic, comments by Massimo Pigliucci, and another response by Krauss on the Scientific American site.

I’ve been meaning to chime in, for personal as well as scientific reasons. I do work on the origin of the universe, after all, and both Lawrence and David are friends of the blog (and of me): Lawrence was our first guest-blogger, and David and I did Bloggingheads dialogues here and here.

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.

How the universe works

Let’s talk about the actual way physics works, as we understand it. Ever since Newton, the paradigm for fundamental physics has been the same, and includes three pieces. First, there is the “space of states”: basically, a list of all the possible configurations the universe could conceivably be in. Second, there is some particular state representing the universe at some time, typically taken to be the present. Third, there is some rule for saying how the universe evolves with time. You give me the universe now, the laws of physics say what it will become in the future. This way of thinking is just as true for quantum mechanics or general relativity or quantum field theory as it was for Newtonian mechanics or Maxwell’s electrodynamics.

Quantum mechanics, in particular, is a specific yet very versatile implementation of this scheme. (And quantum field theory is just a particular example of quantum mechanics, not an entirely new way of thinking.) The states are “wave functions,” and the collection of every possible wave function for some given system is “Hilbert space.” The nice thing about Hilbert space is that it’s a very restrictive set of possibilities (because it’s a vector space, for you experts); once you tell me how big it is (how many dimensions), you’ve specified your Hilbert space completely. This is in stark contrast with classical mechanics, where the space of states can get extraordinarily complicated. And then there is a little machine — “the Hamiltonian” — that tells you how to evolve from one state to another as time passes. Again, there aren’t really that many kinds of Hamiltonians you can have; once you write down a certain list of numbers (the energy eigenvalues, for you pesky experts) you are completely done.

We should be open-minded about what form the ultimate laws of physics will take, but almost all modern attempts to get at them take quantum mechanics for granted. That’s true for string theory and other approaches to quantum gravity — they might take very different views of what constitutes “spacetime” or “matter,” but very rarely do they muck about with the essentials of quantum mechanics. It’s certainly the case for all of the scenarios Lawrence considers in his book. Within this framework, specifying “the laws of physics” is just a matter of picking a Hilbert space (which is just a matter of specifying how big it is) and picking a Hamiltonian. One of the great things about quantum mechanics is how extremely restrictive it is; we don’t have a lot of room for creativity in choosing what kinds of laws of physics might exist. It seems like there’s a lot of creativity, because Hilbert space can be extremely big and the underlying simplicity of the Hamiltonian can be obscured by our (as subsets of the universe) complicated interactions with the rest of the world, but it’s always the same basic recipe.

So within that framework, what does it mean to talk about “a universe from nothing”? We still have to distinguish between two possibilities, but at least this two-element list exhausts all of them.

Possibility one: time is fundamental

The first possibility is that the quantum state of the universe really does evolve in time — i.e. that the Hamiltonian is not zero, it truly does push the state forward in time. This seems like the generic case (there are more ways to be not-zero than to be zero), and it’s certainly the one that we spend time considering in introductory courses when we foist quantum mechanics on fearful undergraduates for the first time. A wonderful and under-appreciated consequence of quantum mechanics is that, if this possibility is right (the universe truly evolves), time cannot truly begin or end — it goes on forever. Very unlike classical mechanics, where the universe’s trajectory through the space of states can bring it smack up against a singularity, at which point time presumably ceases. In QM, every state is just as good as every other state, and the evolution will go happily marching along.

So what does this have to do with something vs. nothing? Well, as the quantum state of the universe evolves, it can pass through phases where it looks an awful lot like “nothing,” conventionally understood — i.e. it could look like completely empty space, or like some peculiar non-geometric phase where we wouldn’t recognize it as “space” at all. And later, through the relentless influence of the Hamiltonian, it could evolve into something that looks very much like “something,” even very much like the universe we see around us today. So if your definition of “nothing” is “emptiness” or “lack of space itself,” the laws of quantum mechanics provide a nice way to understand how that nothing can evolve into the marvelous something we find ourselves inside. This is interesting, and important, and worth writing a book about, and it’s one of the possibilities Lawrence discusses.

Possibility two: time is emergent/approximate

The other possibility is that the universe doesn’t evolve at all — the Hamiltonian is zero, and there is some space of possible states, but we just sit there, without a fundamental “passage of time.” Now, you might suspect that this is a logical possibility but not a plausible one; after all, don’t we see things change around us all the time? But in fact this possibility is the one you immediately bump into if you simply take classical general relativity and try to “quantize” it (i.e., invent the quantum theory that would reduce to GR in the classical limit). We don’t know that this is the right thing to do — Tom Banks, for example, would argue that it’s not — but it’s a possibility that is on the table, so we should think about what it would mean if it turns out to be true.

We certainly think that we perceive time passing, but maybe time is just emergent rather than fundamental. (I don’t like using “illusory” in this context, but others are not so circumspect.) That is, perhaps there is an alternative description of that single, unmoving point in Hilbert space — a description that looks approximately like “a universe evolving through time,” at least for some period of duration. Think of a block of metal sitting on a hot surface, not evolving with time but with a temperature gradient from top to bottom. It might be possible to conceptually divide the block into slices of equal temperature, and then write down an equation for how the state of the block changes from slice to slice, and find that the resulting mathematical formalism looks just like “evolution through time.” In this case, unlike the previous one, time could end (or begin), because time was only a useful approximation to begin with, valid in a certain regime.

This kind of scenario is exactly what quantum cosmologists like James Hartle, Stephen Hawking, Alex Vilenkin, Andrei Linde and others have in mind when they are talking about the “creation of the universe from nothing.” In this kind of picture, there is literally a moment in the history of the universe prior to which there weren’t any other moments. There is a boundary of time (presumably at the Big Bang), prior to which there was … nothing. No stuff, not even a quantum wave function; there was no prior thing, because there is no sensible notion of “prior.” This is also interesting, and important, and worth writing a book about, and it’s another one of the possibilities Lawrence discusses.

Why is there a universe at all?

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.

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.

Sometimes physicists pretend that they are addressing these questions, which is too bad, because they are just being lazy and not thinking carefully about the problem. You might hear, for example, claims to the effect that our laws of physics could turn out to be the only conceivable laws, or the simplest possible laws. But that seems manifestly false. Just within the framework of quantum mechanics, there are an infinite number of possible Hilbert spaces, and an infinite number of possibile Hamiltonians, each of which defines a perfectly legitimate set of physical laws. And only one of them can be right, so it’s absurd to claim that our laws might be the only possible ones.

Invocations of “simplicity” are likewise of no help here. The universe could be just a single point, not evolving in time. Or it could be a single oscillator, rocking back and forth in perpetuity. Those would be very simple. There might turn out to be some definition of “simplicity” under which our laws are the simplest, but there will always be others in which they are not. And in any case, we would then have the question of why the laws are supposed to be simple? Likewise, appeals of the form “maybe all possible laws are real somewhere” fail to address the question. Why are all possible laws real?

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.

The end of explanations

All of these are interesting questions to ask, and none of them is addressed by modern physics or cosmology. Or at least, they are interesting questions to “raise,” but my own view is that the best answer is to promptly un-ask them. (Note that by now we’ve reached a purely philosophical issue, not a scientific one.)

“Why” questions don’t exist in a vacuum; they only make sense within some explanatory context. If we ask “why did the chicken cross the road?”, we understand that there are things called roads with certain properties, and things called chickens with various goals and motivations, and things that might be on the other side of the road, or other beneficial aspects of crossing it. It’s only within that context that a sensible answer to a “why” question can be offered. But the universe, and the laws of physics, aren’t embedded in some bigger context. They are the biggest context that there is, as far as we know. It’s okay to admit that a chain of explanations might end somewhere, and that somewhere might be with the universe and the laws it obeys, and the only further explanation might be “that’s just the way it is.”

Or not, of course. 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.)

Sounds and furies

That’s all I have to say about the (fun, interesting) substantive questions, but I am not strong enough to resist a couple of remarks on the (tedious but strangely irresistible) procedural questions.

First, I think that 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. Note that the afterword was written by Richard Dawkins, and Lawrence had originally asked Christopher Hitchens, before he became too ill — both of whom, while very smart people, are neither cosmologists nor philosophers. If your real goal is to refute claims that a Creator is a necessary (or even useful) part of a complete cosmological scheme, then the above points about “creation from nothing” are really quite on point. And that point is that the physical universe can perfectly well be self-contained; it doesn’t need anything or anyone from outside to get it started, even if it had a “beginning.” That doesn’t come close to addressing Leibniz’s classic question, but there’s little doubt that it’s a remarkable feature of modern physics with interesting implications for fundamental cosmology.

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.

This entry was posted in Philosophy, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

176 Responses to A Universe from Nothing?

  1. BillyJoe says:

    “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.”

    Krauss actually explains this in his book.
    He says the proper question is “How is there something rather than nothing”, but he used the word “why” instead of “how”, because that is the way the question is usually stated.
    And the title “How is there something rather than nothing” looks a little awkward don’t you think?
    Therefore, I don’t think he forfeits the right to say that the “why” question is not a legitimate question.

  2. EF says:

    Finally clarity! The ‘Executive Summary’ nails it. Krauss and Albert are talking about two different questions.

  3. Chad English says:

    While I appreciate this article, I don’t think it is completely accurate. If you read Krauss’ book or watch his videos he does address the question of why there are physical laws at all. He address three, not two, definitions of “nothing”:

    1. Classical “nothing” where space and time exist and matter and energy emerge from this empty vacuum.

    2. Relativistic “nothing” from where space and time (“spacetime”) emerge.

    3. Lawless “nothing” from which laws of physics themselves emerge.

    Hence, when you say, “The other is, why do we have this particular framework of physical law, or even something called “physical law” at all? ” and suggest this is the version that David Albert is interested in, you are wrong that Krauss does not address it. He does, and here is where he discusses the “environmental” science of the multiverse as a possible yet not entirely satisfactory answer. Yes, he says it isn’t completely satisfying and says physics can’t really address it at that point. Krauss says the same thing you do here.

    Later in the article that you change this question to one about the origin of the multiverse, which is a problematic question. It is here that the question itself loses coherence: “We are still left with the question of there are those deep-down laws that create a multiverse in the first place.”

    As an exercise, try to define a “nothing” that has no properties. What words do you use to describe it? More importantly, it is a self-defeating question. It is impossible to define such a “nothing” from which you’d expect that “something” can’t spontaneous emerge because that restriction would constitute a law of physics, and then one simply asks where that law comes from.

    The only coherent questions one can ask is what are all of the possible realities and why do we exist in this particular reality. This is the multiverse question and Krauss does address that. If anybody is looking for questions beyond that then they are trying to ask why the possible exists instead of the impossible, and that kind of question answers itself.

  4. What these philosophers and scientists apparently fail to realize is that there isn’t any problem to be solved, because the universe is still nothing! The idea that there is this great “something” called the universe which must be explained is a fiction created by our minds, a learning which must be unlearned, an illusion which one can only dispel through meditation. This is the great revelation of the East, and it is a truth which Western man would do well to heed now that he has found himself in the mental cul-de-sac of a godless, meaningless universe and has no idea where to go from here. This predicament has driven many of our finest minds mad, and it will continue to drive them mad, until they learn how to look inward!

    As I see it this is the great challenge for atheistic Western man going forward: to look not to the outer cosmos for your meaning, but to the inner cosmos. As Osho put it in one of his more interesting talks: God is Dead, Now Zen Is the Only Living Truth. So I suggest scientists and philosophers of the West try to develop a “Western Zen”, a scientific mysticism, an inner orientation which does not depend on the latest scientific findings for its validation. Because without this, you will continue to debate meaningless questions and beat your heads against the walls of your own minds, and you may soon find yourself, like history’s first God-killer, Nietzsche, driven utterly mad!

    May the Force be with you…

  5. Kele Cable says:

    re: where do the laws of physics come from

    I have been reading God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stenger and in Chapter 4 (“Cosmic Evidence”), he discusses where he thinks the laws of physics came from (p129-132). He says that the laws of physics follow from conservation of energy, momentum and angular momentum through “gauge invariance.” He cites Emmy Noether’s work on the problem. Is this argument generally accepted? (Not that I can even begin to understand it anyway.) Stenger does admit that such a view isn’t consensus, but has it gained traction at all?

    Also, what I like about Stenger is his combination of both physics and philosophy. He doesn’t appear to have the same anti-philosophy biases a lot of other people seem to have…

  6. Cary says:

    I am not a scientist, but can’t seem to get my hands on enough good books that are readable, so I couldn’t wait to get this book. Having just finished it, and loving it, I though that Lawrence Krauss made understood some very complex ideas. (Sean Carroll has the same talent in his books)

    And what’s all this talk in the comments about God…..Science tries to find out what the truth is, while religion states “this is the truth”. The warning for believers came early in the book, so don’t criticize the author!

    There is also the elegance of math behind the latest probes into the laws of nature that has many of the world’s greatest minds converging to the same ideas. There is no math in religion.

    Religion is a remnant of times when people had no explanations for the way nature behaves. We don’t have all the answers yet – perhaps we never will, but we are certainly much further down the path of understanding than humans were long ago.

  7. James Goetz says:

    Hi Sean,

    I have a little beef. I got the impression from this article that the Hamiltonian is critically important to any theory of time and I thought to myself that that surely FROM ETERNITY TO HERE will list “Hamiltonian” in the index. So I searched the index of my new copy of FROM ETERNITY TO HERE and found no direct reference to “Hamiltonian.” I will get over this and enjoy your book, but I wanted to mention that.

    Also, I arrived to the conclusion that a non-zero Hamiltonian with infinitely lapsed time is impossible. This should not be taught as science except to indicate its impossibility. Otherwise, it is mathematical pseudoscience.

  8. TB says:

    Krauss’ attitude towards philosophy of science is rather disheartening. It was the same with Weinberg. When a scientist is disparaging towards philosophy in a popular science book borne from a position of ignorance it does a lot of damage to the public perception of philsophy. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one ought to keep schtum, Wittgenstein might have said. Ah well, at least Einstein was a fan.

  9. Uninvisible says:

    Are not the questions of why/how the law of physics exist precisely the same as why/how the alphabet exists? are not laws and alphabets both exclusively human constructions, precisely like supernatural stories, and thus the questions themselves merely questions about how/why human beings do what they do?

  10. Jens says:

    Why the laws of nature are the way they are is of course an incredibly interesting question, but to me an equally interesting, and perhaps related question is, what makes the laws of nature actually work? I.e. we can deduce properties and laws of our universe from observation, but what “breathes life” into those properties and laws? What makes them work?

  11. Kevin says:

    Another great post. Your lucidity and clarity are always appreciated, especially on this topic which is often ill-posed and the source of much confusion. I have found “Does the Universe Need God?” and the original “Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?” post to be great references for discussing this topic with others, and this post will join that list.

  12. David Brown says:

    (1) Why is there something rather than nothing?
    (2) Why does the universe exist at all?
    If Milgrom is the Kepler of modern cosmology, and if Wolfram is a serious rival to Newton and Einstein, then the Rañada-Milgrom effect and the Space Roar Profile Prediction give an answer based on the monster group, the 6 pariah groups, and a Wolframian information network below the Planck scale — string theory goes nowhere without Wolfram.
    “Even extremely simple programs can produce behavior of immense complexity.” — Stephen Wolfram
    http://wolframscience.com/reference/quick_takes.html
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_New_Kind_of_Science
    Is Wolfram a serious rival to Newton and Einstein? Is NKS Chapter 9 empirically valid if and only if the Rañada-Milgrom effect is empirically valid? How might Stephen Wolfram win the Nobel prize in physics? Wolfram might direct and hire 2 gravitational experimentalists to test the Rañada-Milgrom effect. According to McGaugh and Kroupa, Milgrom’s acceleration law is empirically correct. According to Prof. Matt Strassler, testing the Rañada-Milgrom effect is straightforward, easy, and relativity cheap. (Strassler is fairly certain the Rañada-Milgrom effect is wrong since it contradicts Newtonian and Einsteinian gravitational theory. However, alternate universes are needed to allow Wolfram’s mobile automaton to simulate linear operators on infinite-dimensional Hilbert space.) The Rañada-Milgrom effect and the nonzero cosmological constant are empirical evidence that alternate universes exist. The space roar might be experimental evidence that the Wolframian updating parameter is manifested in nature.
    http://en.wikipedia.or/wiki/Space_roar
    http://vixra.org/pdf/1204.0095v1.pdf “Seiberg-Witten M-theory as an Almost Successful Predictive Theory”
    The Gravity Probe B science team and the OPERA team completely ignored Milgrom’s work — this is a big mistake. All Wolfram has to do is to establish empirical evidence that the Rañada-Milgrom effect is true, and then NKS Chapter 9 will take its rightful place in theoretical physics.

  13. Jason says:

    @19, Kevi n Says: So you are saying that because you don’t have a good understanding of physics or cosmology, god must have done it? Surely you must know that is a nonsensical argument.

    @29, Sean the Mystic: If you are going to assert that nothing exists to a physicist, you will need to explain it with mathematical equations and empirical evidence. Otherwise, your argument is exactly the kind of bullshit philosophy Lawrence Krauss complains about.

    @34, Uninvisible: No. Why physical laws exist and why the alphabet exists are completely different questions. By studying history, you can learn when the various alphabets were created and how they have changed over the years. For the physical laws, there is no evidence that the laws had a creator, have ever changed, or that other variations exist. There is a lot of speculation, but there is no evidence or even any good idea of how we could get evidence of different physical laws. So, the most that a scientist could say is that the physical laws are what they are, and any other speculation is squarely outside the realm of science.

  14. Foster Boondoggle says:

    I confess to puzzlement at the deference being given to Albert here. His review in the widely read NYT was savage, polemical, and almost certainly based on a deliberate misunderstanding what Krauss was doing. “He started it” is not usually a helpful argument, but if you’re going to accuse Krauss of an intemperate response, you probably should at least gesture towards acknowledging the provocation. And that from an academic who lent his credibility to that cult bs “What the Bleep…”.

    A physics question, as an ex-physicist: you say a Hilbert space is completely determined by its dimension… Wouldn’t it be more correct to say that all Hilbert spaces of the same dimension are isomorphic? The point being that much of the physics consists in mapping the abstract dimensions of the space to the physical system. For example, a system consisting of two 1/2 spin particles on a lattice has a 4-d hilbert space. So does a system consisting of a single spin 3/2 particle on a lattice. But that doesn’t mean the two systems are the same. (Yeah, I know you talked about the Hamiltonian, but the way you characterized the role of the Hilbert space made it seem like that was secondary.)

  15. Len Ornstein says:

    Sean:

    It seems to me that “nothingness” has a fairly unique and simple definition that’s associated with science’s unique difference from most other disciplines (including pure mathematics and religion):

    By axiomatic convention, science requires that its models (theories, laws, etc.) not only be reasonably deductively consistent, but also to be ‘testable’ by direct or indirect empirical observations. Because of the deductive impossibility of proving the absolute truth or falsity of a model, through extrapolation or interpolation from finite numbers of observations (Hume), empirical testing, at best, provides only provisional confidence in its significance – therefore, some level of residual uncertainty MUST be entertained.

    Elements of models that ‘appear’ to lie beyond observation (e.g., are “not even wrong”) are pragmatically close to “nothingness, so long as no information about them appears to be ‘extractable’ through ‘experiment’.

    Since the gravitational effects of the mass of a black hole can be detected by its effects on neighboring stars and gas, on our side of its event horizon, a black hole’s interior should not considered to be “nothing”. Likewise for possible effects of the gravity of dense masses in parts of the ‘universe’ just beyond, what for us, is a cosmic horizon (an alternative to ‘dark energy’?). And observed particle/anti-particle pair creation in the ‘vacuum’, as a ‘consequence’ of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, make ’empty’ space – “something” – rather than “nothing”.

    But so far, multi-verses and the strings and membranes of string theories are reasonable candidates for “nothingness” – along with gods and goblins.

  16. Pingback: The problem with philosophy | Open Parachute

  17. John Merryman says:

    Meaning is what we have left when everything meaningless has been distilled away. Which is to say it’s all meaningless at some level, even science. When we solve all the problems, will this final solution just be a big flatline on the universal heart monitor?
    Personally I would like philosophy to dissect religion a bit more and not just petulantly attack the logic of a monotheistic entity. Organized religion crushed the life out of organic spirituality and creativeness, in the pursuit of civil conformity, long before science came along. Science and math have just emphasized the processes of reductionistic compartmentalization to the point where we exist not just to serve civil society, as religion desired, but now to serve our tools and machines.

    Consider that it was the polytheists who invented democracy. When the Gods argue, than a political system based on debate is logical, but when the Big Guy is in charge, then we get something similar in politics.

    Religion is the vision a society has of itself, while government is how society manages itself. Due to their history, the connection between the two is integral to Islam, but extremely problematic for Christianity. Logical consideration of the historical processes at work might help society understand the nature of culture, as well as other cultures, far better than nitpicking over the merits of a idealized father figure, as seems to be the extent of religious criticism.
    A spiritual absolute would be the essence from which we rise, not an ideal from which we fell.
    One might ask if modern physics had evolved in a culture not obsessed by such a singular entity, would it have produced a cosmology originating in a physical singularity? Could it have gravitated to some fluctuating vacuum state as basis and concocted explanations for such phenomena as redshift and CMBR arising from it? We might be standing on the shoulders of giants, but they were standing on the shoulders of monotheism.

  18. Uninvisible says:

    @Jason

    Thanks for commenting : I claim that alphabets are just like laws “of nature” because they are tools or models constructed by humans for humans to use. This would reduce the “big” questions as discussed to merely trivial artifacts of human activity.

    IOW undiscovered laws of nature, though anyone could discover them, ultimately originate with a human being. The phenomenon itself which is described by the law is something else.

    Where else would a law of nature come from? Would an alien use our law?

  19. Michael says:

    There is an odd fact that does not seem to have been mentioned yet. In the same March 25 issue of the New York Times Book Review as David Albert’s strongly negative review that (as discussed in the blog) talks past Lawrence Krauss’ book, one finds in the final Essay a quite negative review by Philip Kitcher that talks past Leon Wieseltier’s book “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”. Albert (“but that’s just not right”) and Kitcher (“evangelical scientism”) are both in the Columbia University Philosophy Department. Was there something in the water?

  20. Daniel Schealler says:

    @David Roemer #24

    The insight that leads to God’s existence is that finite beings exist and a finite being needs a cause. If all beings in the universe needed a cause, the universe would not be intelligible. Hence, an infinite being exists. In the west, we call the infinite being God.

    We could also call it Primordial Chaos and it would still fit the bill.

    Or we could call it Errol, and it would still fit just as well.

    Applying the label ‘God’ as the answer to the first cause argument is highly disingenuous, because much, much, much more is connoted by the label of ‘God’ than can possibly be merited by the First Cause argument.

    This of course assumes that we grant the first cause argument as valid in the first place, which I deny on grounds that it relies too much on human intuition about causality, which can reasonably be expected to be incorrect or otherwise incomplete when applied beyond the scope of common human experience.

  21. @37: Posting the same comment to multiple threads is rather bizarre. Sadly, it might make some people more sceptical of MOND than they should be. Most people working on MOND (and I know some personally) are not crackpots, but posting the same comment to multiple threads on multiple blogs is something rather typical of crackpots (I don’t think I have to mention any names here), so please, in the interest of rational discussion, stop doing it. Everyone working in the relevant areas of astrophysics is aware of MOND and there is a very healthy discussion. Your comments make it look like just another crackpot idea. Please stop.

  22. “If philosophy of science has a point, and it isn’t to be useful to science, what is it? Why should it get funding?”

    Do you claim that only things useful to science should get funding?

    “And “careful scholarship in another discipline” — do you take Conan Doyle on fairies or spiritualism seriously? or studies in exorcism? or ufology? Some people just are nuts, and don’t deserve respect.”

    False dichotomy. You imply: it is either science, or it is crackpot/esoteric/nutty. But there are things which are not science but are still worthwhile pursuits for humanity.

  23. “the nonzero cosmological constant are empirical evidence that alternate universes exist”

    While I think there is some evidence for the idea of a multiverse, this statement, in this form, is just wrong.

  24. Pingback: The problem with philosophy | Secular News Daily

  25. David Roemer says:

    @ Daniel Schealler #45
    Why don’t atheists admit that metaphysics leads logically to the existence of an infinite being? Wikipedia, for example, in its entry for the cosmological argument, speaks of the infinite being as being a “first cause.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a long entry on the cosmological argument and never mentions an “infinite being.” Martin Heidegger is another example of an atheist who doesn’t understand the cosmological argument.

    To repeat the argument: Finite beings exist. Finite beings need a cause. Hence, there must exist at least one infinite being.