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

Larry Krauss, author of A Universe From Nothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subject and Object: Reality as Person or Thing?

The distinctions between various philosophies and religions are often spelled out in hyper-technical language. An understanding of the millennia-old conflict between Idealism and Materialism, for example, demands an in-depth discussion of the nature of observation, causation, the nature of being, formal logic, and a host of other relatively arcane knowledge. It’s interesting, and even important, especially for those who want to understand all the twists and turns of the historical development of philosophy. But for most people, understanding the details of the conflict between these two philosophical approaches won’t result in any life-changing revelations–particularly since there are many conflicting subtypes of both Idealism and Materialism.

But at the heart of even such a seemingly arcane debate crucial questions lie. The origin of the Idealist v. Materialist debate was an attempt to explain the coincidence of thought, on the one hand, and the material world, on the other. Though modern science has basically resolved this conflict in favor of materialism’s view that thought is an “epiphenomenon” arising from specific structures of matter, modern existentialism and post-modern philosophy, especially in artistic and literary criticism, suggest that there is something yet deeper at question. Ultimately, one of, perhaps the, central question in philosophy is how to account for subjectivity and objectivity in one approach. It’s one thing to show how matter and energy, when organized in a very specific way, can generate, as it were, thought. It’s another question, though, of how to account for the experience of subjectivity. In other words, describing the physical and energetic causes of thought is still an objective understanding of it–how do we understand subjectivity itself?

Ultimately, the neuroscientific explanation of thought can only account for a broad matrix of electro-chemical interactions–billions a second–but there’s no clear reason that such a series of synaptic firings ought to yield anything but a piecemeal computation system. We don’t experience each of our sensory stimuli, each of our emotions, each of our cognitive responses, as individual events. They appear to us as a holistic experience that we call “I” or “self”. While there seems to be some evidence pointing to certain regions of the brain as the center of self-awareness, this would only explain the capacity of our cognitive processing system to analyze its own data–the actual experience of consciousness is not reducible to any specific physical action. It seems only to occur as a relationship of energy-matter in space-time. But its important to point out that it doesn’t “exist” at any given place or time; it occurs at certain places and times in very specific systems, but it’s impossible to actually witness–unless you are the consciousness in question! Consciousness, in other words, can never be reduced down to any simple system, it only occurs when a very specific and complex relationship exists. Yet, as subjective beings, our subjectivity is not some abstract philosophical idea–it’s literally the most real thing we ever encounter.

One of the interesting consequences of this is that what I experience as subjective, everyone else can only understand objectively. This is a central issue that Martin Buber took up in his I and Thou: he defined two ways in which people can interact with the world. The first is the I-It paradigm. In this frame, we look at everything in the world as a body of matter which we can interact with, modify, combat, destroy, or cooperate with to our advantage. Thus everything–from minerals to plants, animals, and other people–is seen only as a physical phenomenon, which we can understand and master through analysis and technology. The other frame is the I-Thou relationship, in which people experience whatever they are encountering as a “thou”–an independent center of reality and meaning. Essentially, in the I-It frame we treat the world as object; in the I-Thou frame we recognize the subject in what we encounter. But this recognition of the subject is always taken, as it were, on faith–I can never experience another’s subjectivity, I can only respect it.

Buber had no intention of denigrating the I-It objective frame; he recognized its vast importance in human life. But he did argue that it is only in the I-Thou subjective frame that we can build real communities, love each other, experience God, and work for the renewing of the world. Where Idealism failed to build a separate sphere for the mental world independent of the material, Buber succeeds, not be cordoning each off the other as Socrates, Plato, Plotinus, Kant, et al. tried to do, but to show that they were actually united in a paradox. The objective is reductive and analytic; the subjective is relational and synthetic.

But a central question is to what extent this view of reality can be seen as scientifically valid. And on this question I turn to Fritjof Capra, a physicist who, in The Tao of Physics and The Turning Point, explored the links between the spiritual and the scientific. What was most crucial and interesting, however, were his points that, in fact, even the most reductive science is relational: the fundamental forces of physics (the weak, the strong, the electromagnetic, and gravity) only explain what various particles and fields do when they interact with one another. It’s not possible–not even theoretically–to analyze a particle without interacting with it energetically, and thereby engaging it in relationship. This fundamentally challenges the classical understanding of atomic physics developed pre-Einstein that assumed a sort of unchangeable basic “stuff” which was sort of stacked together to built the universe. Strange as it is, quantum mechanics, at least as Capra explains it, suggests that there is no fundamental stuff–the stuff only comes into existence as various probability fields interact with one another. So the idea that consciousness is nothing itself but a relationship, which would have been scandal to pre-Einstein science, seems, under the light of contemporary physics, not only be a valid route of philosophical inquiry, but perhaps the only way forward in an attempt to understand subjectivity.

For modern people–or at least for one modern person, me–this is crucial for “rescuing” not only subjectivity, but value and meaning in a scientific world. A relational approach to the world allows us to integrate the lessons of analytical empiricism with our subjective experience of the world as a place populated with persons, not just material-energetic activity. This has clear implications for spirituality, ethics, politics, economics, and almost every human social endeavor, which I hope to explore in later posts.