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Aug 06 2012

Two philosophers walk into a bar…

This is primarily a response to commenters asking for my own opinion on the origin of the universe.  If this is not your bag, I beg your patience, and suggest you skip on to Crommunist’s and Edwin’s most excellent discussions.

This is written in two parts. First, I’m going to outline the general philosophical discussion on the origin of the universe. This is going to be long. Following that, I’ll express an opinion.

I’m going to begin with Aristotle, and to begin with the three classical laws of logic. You may, of course, disagree with these laws, or disagree that they apply, or whatever the hell you want. That’s fine. Not all Philosophers are committed to these laws. I am, however, not a logician. These rules are the logic that underpins the rest of this essay. I’ll then outline his original position, and how that position has been generalised (and wielded by the religious).

Following that: Kant. Some of you may be giving up on this already. I’d encourage you to bear with me, as I’m going to keep it simple. (Meanwhile, a Philosophy Professor at my Alma Mater will be dying of laughter that I’m going to try to explain Kant to people, should he get wind of this)

Finally, my position will follow, and I’ll rephrase/rehash Krauss’s error in the context of Aristotle and Kant. If all that sounds like a good time, keep reading. I can totally understand if it doesn’t.

Laws of Logic

Rule 1: A thing is identical to itself. Any thing which bears all the same properties of another thing (location in time and space is, in this instance, considered to be a property) is actually the same thing. A == A, the Law of Identity. (here ‘A’ represents any well-formed and well-defined proposition, usually stated as “it is the case that…….”)

Rule 2: “one cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time”. The proposition A cannot be both true and false at the same time. A V ~A, the Law of Non-Contradiction.  (~A  meaning “it is not the case that……”, the negation of whatever A is)

Rule 3: Either something is, or is not. If A is true, then ~A is necessarily false (and vice versa), the Law of the Excluded Middle.

If you don’t like these rules: that’s fine. That’s also irrelevant for the purpose of explaining Aristotle’s position. Note: Whether these are ‘true’ or not is a side issue to understanding Aristotle’s position.

Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover

Starting from a position that we can agree on: the universe currently exists. If you want to reject this premise: feel free to open a different bookmark. I’m not interested in debating this particular point.

We live within an enclosed space. Beyond our world are the celestial spheres. They move. We can see them move. Now, we know from watching stuff move, here in Athens, that objects at rest stay at rest unless they are acted upon by another force or object. Ergo, in order to move, an object must be moved. And since objects cannot move themselves, they must have been initially moved by another object. But for B to move A, B must have been in motion, so C must have moved B. But for C to move B, C must have been in motion, and so on, and so forth.

This chain either continues without end (aka an infinite regress), or it terminates at some special case: the mover that is, itself, unmoved. Aristotle ultimately argued that every celestial sphere had it’s own mover. Yup, not just one single deity kicking everything off, but that every moving object in space was constantly moved by something that did not require moving. This is not a monotheistic position. (it’s not even a theistic position)

There are three major assumptions motivating Aristotle’s position here.

Assumption 1: an object in motion requires a cause

Assumption 2: that cause cannot be the object itself

Assumption 3: infinite regresses are bad, so bad that we should violate Assumption 2 to maintain Assumption 3.

The Modern Generalisation of Aristotle

Rather than discuss ‘motion’, we’ll discuss ‘existence’.

That the universe exists now tells us nothing about it’s condition prior to our observation. So we can roll back and back and back, and there are ultimately two possibilities:

A: It is the case that the universe has always existed

~A: It is not the case that the universe has always existed.

In these premises, ‘the universe’ is pretty much anything and everything. Aristotle’s assumptions come into play here again, modified accordingly:

Assumption 1: anything that exists requires a cause

Assumption 2: that cause cannot be the thing itself

Assumption 3: infinite regresses are bad, so bad that we should violate Assumption 2 to maintain Assumption 3.

This is basically where “you can’t get something from nothing” springs out of (well, here and King Lear), and you end up oscillating between Assumption 2 and Assumption 3 trying to find a solution. I can appreciate that it’s frustrating for people without much background in Philosophy, who want to assert that ‘this thing here, it started it all!’ only to be responded to with ‘well… what created that, then? Or did it create itself by magic?’

All of this applies to Krauss’s quantum fields. On this understanding, to assert that “there are quantum fields, but no universe” is to assert a contradiction. To assert that ‘quantum fields exist, but require no cause’ violates Assumption 1. To assert that ‘Quantum fields came from nothing, but created themselves’ violates Assumption 2.

None of this is to say that “it’s not the case that quantum fields are the basic starting point of the universe, and are self-created and/or have existed forever”. But that’s an empirical claim, that Krauss has no evidence for. Ergo, it’s an unsupported assertion, and should be treated as such.

Kant

So… Up until Kant, this was considered pretty much the ‘hard problem’ of Philosophy. Then Kant wrote the Critique of Pure Reason. Unfortunately, he wrote it really, really badly, so it took a couple of years for folk to figure out that he had resolved it, kinda.

Kant is, as the title of the book says, critiquing pure reason, which is to say that he’s critiquing people speculating like mad and then claiming that they have ‘proved’ something, or that they ‘know’ something. I’m guessing that some readers are nodding along with this, but you must realise: this is exactly what Krauss did. (As an aside, as bad a writer as Kant is, I wholly approve of his title actually matching the content of his book. Krauss should take notes)

The point that I’m digging up can be found in his Prolegomena. Yes, he had to write a second book to explain his first book. Kant’s inability to write clearly cannot be overstated. The area of his that I want to focus on are his antimonies, specifically his first antimony. (on page 94 of the Prolegomena, the link is a page early to include the intro)

Kant reasserts the two main Aristotelian choices:

1. The World has, as to, Time and Space, a Beginning (limit)

2. The World is, as to Time and Space, infinite.

Kant’s purpose with this antimonies is to show that both propositions follow from basic Rationalist principles, and that there are good reasons to support those Rationalist principles. Proposition 1, however, lacks empirical support: we have (at the time of Kant’s writings, and also now) no grounds for believing that Time/Space are finitely bounded. Proposition 2 likewise lacks empirical support: we have no grounds for supposing that the universe is unbounded, either temporally or spatially.

Skipping on down to page 97 (or read on through the other parts if you have a spare hour or three):

Now if I inquire after the quantity of the world, as to space and time, it is equally impossible, as regards all my notions, to declare it infinite or to declare it finite. For neither assertion can be contained in experience, because experience either of an infinite space, or of an infinite time elapsed, or again, of the boundary of the world by a void space, or by an antecedent void time, is impossible; these are mere ideas. [my emphasis]

Kant’s fundamental point is any claims that go beyond empirical evidence have no justification. We can conceive of all manner of things, but the only way to know the truth is empiricism. Flights of fancy, imaginings, redefining the word ‘nothing’: this is not science. This is just speculation (and/or playing with semantics). And so long as Metaphysics engages in flights of fancy, imaginings, and semantic redefinitions, Metaphysics is not a science. This is the limit of reason, thus the Critique of Pure Reason.

My position

Kant is correct. When I say that ‘Krauss is wrong’, I’m not arguing that “you can’t get something from nothing”, I’m arguing that ‘Krauss is wrong’. When the religious argue that “you can’t get something from nothing”, I also assert that they are incorrect. This does not mean that I’m arguing that “sure, of course you can get something from nothing”. It means, simply, that their position is without support, not that the converse of their position is the Fact Of The Matter. I do not know what the fact of the matter is, and neither does Krauss.

I get that Krauss is doing/applying/insert-correct-verb-here-ing quantum mechanics, and I also get that I have zero freaking understanding of quantum mechanics. But to debate this issue, no understanding of quantum mechanics is needed: I’m not debating the ins and outs of quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics is a tool, a very powerful and accurate tool, but it (like all other mathematical models) is merely a model. While it may have had innumerous successes, that does not entail that continued success is inevitable. The universe is how it is, regardless of how quantum mechanics works. I am not arguing that the models wrong: I am arguing that evidence-free assertions are unsupported. I am arguing that making extrapolations beyond the data is nothing more than speculation. Sure, it’s an ‘educated guess’ kind of speculation, but it’s still nothing more than speculation.

It may well be the case that quantum fields are the ground-state of the universe, and that quantum fields have existed for all time (or whatever term you want to insert here). It may well be the case the concept of ‘nothing’, as posited as the negation of ‘something’, has never actually been the actual state of ‘the world’.

It may well be the case that there was a nothing that preceeded the quantum fields, and that those quantum fields (for reasons yet to be determined) did, indeed, spring wholly formed in their current configuration from ‘nothing’.

My position on this is simple: we do not have sufficient evidence to claim that any of the above are the fact of the matter with any certainty. My position is that not only that I don’t know, but that (at our current juncture in time) no-one (on this little ball of mud) knows, and that anyone who claims to “know” the fact of the matter about the start of the universe and whether or not there was anything prior is talking out of their nether regions.

 

Some additional resources:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosohy on Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy.

The Project Gutenberg Etext of The Critique of Pure Reason, by Immanuel Kant

48 comments

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  1. 1
    rturpin

    It’s interesting where Kant still thought logic could take him. Didn’t he think the Euclidean nature of physical space was categorical?

  2. 2
    eric

    I am arguing that evidence-free assertions are unsupported. I am arguing that making extrapolations beyond the data is nothing more than speculation. Sure, it’s an ‘educated guess’ kind of speculation, but it’s still nothing more than speculation.

    All of science extrapolates beyond the data. That’s probably the most important part of science: taking observations A, B, and C, and developing an hypothesis that allows you to predict with some accuracy what will happen in future events X, Y, and Z.

    (1) Is all of science just an educated guess kind of speculation?

    (2a) If not, what makes Krauss’ comment different from regular science? He is pointing out that the theory that best explains data we have also provides an explanation for events we don’t have direct observation of. How is that any different from saying, for example: I am very certain that if you told me you can flap your arms and fly, you’d be lying or deluded. I can’t see you. I have no access to what you’re doing right now. But neverless, I am very comfortable extrapolating beyond the data on that one. Why should I be less comfortable extrapolating beyond the data in this case? QM is arguably the most tested theory in science. If we are being rational, I should be more confident in it than I am in my anti-arm-flapping conclusion.

    (2b) If so, it is still hard to see how anything else is a better alternative. Particularly if Kant is saying you must ground knowledge in empiricism. Philosophy can be empirically grounded, I’m not taking any anti-philosophy stance here, but surely if you do a side-by-side comparison of the cosmological argument vs. QM, QM’s going to come out as the one with more empirical support. We’ve observed local violations of both #1 and #2 of the cosmological argument (for example, matter is created ex nihilo).

  3. 3
    JJ

    Brian,

    Let me preface my comments with the full disclosure that I am not a philosopher nor even someone that can be considered well versed in philosophy. With that said, I have some serious reservations with a few statements in your conclusions that maybe you can clear up for me:

    “Kant’s fundamental point is any claims that go beyond empirical evidence have no justification. We can conceive of all manner of things, but the only way to know the truth is empiricism.”

    In the above statement it seems to me that you (or Kant as the case may be) may have an overly broad understanding of “no justification” and an overly narrow understanding of “empiricism.” It seems to me that taking that particular viewpoint to heart would entail that I would also accept that there was “no justification” for accepting (albeit tentatively) that general relativity had any merit until light was demonstrated to have curved around a gravitating body or that the existence of the Higgs bosun had “no justification” until last month. I have always understood empiricism to include the probability of the likelihood of future results based on experimentally proven principals of the past (please correct me if I’m wrong).

    Also, you bring up, what I consider, to be a very important aspect of the discussion when you state, “…I also get that I have zero freaking understanding of quantum mechanics.” From what I can gather, that is the common consensus of philosophers of science. As far as I can garner from the literature (and again, I’m not a philosopher), philosophers of science have not to date given any coherent philosophical underpinnings to QM. Don’t get me wrong, I can fully understand this, QM defies both human intuition and conventional reasoning in very obvious ways. But, nonetheless, it has been empirically demonstrated to be a mind-numbingly accurate depiction of how nature works. Given that, I think before a QM argument for the events prior to the big bang can be dismissed by the philosophical community, they should have a coherent philosophical explanation of QM (at least if they arguing from a empirical standpoint). Short of that, I would say that Krauss has empiricism on his side, and it is the Kantian position that is “making extrapolations beyond the data.”

  4. 4
    Alexander

    Hmm, a few problems here ;

    1. You’re doing what you seem to accuse Krauss of doing; making bold assertions in a field not your own. As far as human constructs go, it is true that quantum mechanics is a model. But so is philosophy. And if we’re to grade them on a scale between the most abstract and the harshest reality I’d rate quantum mechanics a heck of a lot closer to reality than philosophy.

    2. *You* may not be addressing QM with your nothingness, but Krauss surely was. The definition of “nothing” must be taken more seriously on both sides. A philosophical nothingness isn’t more nothing than the empty nothingness of vacuum in space, unless you’ve got some real good knowledge of the opposite nothingness. You fare no better than Krauss on this point.

    3. Your arguing that Krauss somehow is arguing without evidence (which is a rather preposterous argument, but I won’t go into the details here). So, what assertions have you just made without evidence?

    4. The evidence for a QM nothing is far stronger than the philosophical one. You seem to imply that we live in a binary world of True and False, ignoring that science is a perpetual gradient between the two where we are working very hard to move towards True understanding, and this *includes* the concept “nothing.” We don’t claim our understanding to be False just because we haven’t reached the absolute True yet.

  5. 5
    Brian Lynchehaun

    You’re doing what you seem to accuse Krauss of doing; making bold assertions in a field not your own.

    I’m discussing philosophy (specifically the philosophical underpinnings of science), which is most definitely my field.

    As far as human constructs go, it is true that quantum mechanics is a model. But so is philosophy.

    Philosophy is method, not a model. Philosophy is not an analogue of quantum mechanics, it is an analogue of Science.

    The definition of “nothing” must be taken more seriously on both sides.

    This is playing with semantics. And is addressed in the article.

    I won’t be commenting again on this point.

  6. 6
    Brian Lynchehaun

    Kant believed that the concept of ‘space’ (and ‘time’) were built into the framework of our conceptions about the world, and were not necessarily properties inherent in the objects themselves. That ‘space’ and ‘time’ were conceptions that we used to mentally order and arrange potentially non-spatial/temporal events.

    Suffice it to say that I have a whole heap of problems with this (I’m *so* not a Kant scholar).

  7. 7
    kraut

    . “First, I’m going to outline the general philosophical discussion on the origin of the universe”

    What for fucks sake has philosophy do do with the physical origin of the Universe?
    What can it tell us but the tortured logic of evidence less premises?

    If you claim evidence from physics is lacking – what the hell are the premises of philosophy but pulling premises out of its collective arse?

    BTW – quantum theory is at the base of all electromagnetic and all models of the atomic structure, so it is not “just” a hypothesis but theory with working applications.

    The arguments in the last sentence also apply to the creation of life on this planet – biogenes; attempting any philosophical “explanation” here as well? What about creation by a superior being? That is one philosophy that at least has the backing of several billions of humans

  8. 8
    Brian Lynchehaun

    (1) Is all of science just an educated guess kind of speculation?

    No.

    Hypothesis formation is but one part. If someone merely generates hypothesis after hypothesis, we don’t call them scientists (though we sometimes call them String Theorists… ;) ).

    The next part is testing.

    (2a) If not, what makes Krauss’ comment different from regular science?

    His lack of testing, for one.

    I do not deny the existence of these quantum fields, nor do I deny what Krauss claims that they do.

    He wants to claim that they’re foundational: ok, what evidence do we have for that? Why are they of the configuration that they are? Is that configuration necessarily so? If so, why? Just waving one’s hands and saying ‘Because quantum mechanics!’ is not an answer.

    Furthermore, rather than making the perfectly reasonably assertion that ‘actually, it looks like these quantum fields are foundational to the universe, and that (for lack of a better expression) they have existed eternally’ he asserted that ‘these quantum fields are ‘nothing’, and philosophy is wrong’.

    Good scientists don’t play stupid semantic games. (and the ‘eternally’ thing would still need some sort of evidential justification)

    Why should I be less comfortable extrapolating beyond the data in this case?

    I would be very interested to see the science papers that support the idea that 1) quantum fields are the base state of the universe, 2) they have existed prior and 3) what data all this rests on.

    We have a large body of evidence indicating that humans can’t fly. Our understanding of flight, and the physics thereof, is pretty complete. Stating that “humans can’t fly” is a tiny extrapolation, and if it turned out to be incorrect, it would upset not only the field of aerodynamics, but much of physics. Ergo: safe bet.

    The body of evidence regarding ‘what happened prior to the big bang’ is… less robust than the body of evidence regarding humans’ ability to fly. Your comfort should reflect that. Mine certainly does.

    If we are being rational, I should be more confident in it than I am in my anti-arm-flapping conclusion.

    As much as it may seem that using the Prejudicial Language Fallacy (“If we are being rational”) bolsters your argument, it doesn’t. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loaded_language

    (2b) If so, it is still hard to see how anything else is a better alternative.

    The alternative is “we don’t yet know, but this is the theory that we suspect will pan out. At some point we’ll be able to reach beyond the big bang and access some direct evidence for what we’re saying. We’re not there yet, but it’s looking good”.

    Y’know, as opposed to ‘this thing that I’m talking about is the new “nothing”‘, which is just wordplay.

    I’m not taking any anti-philosophy stance here, but surely if you do a side-by-side comparison of the cosmological argument

    Kant rejects the cosmological argument. The cosmological argument is bad. If you put the cosmological argument beside “the universe was created from peanut butter”, the peanut-butter argument comes out on top.

    You are presenting a false dichotomy.

    QM’s going to come out as the one with more empirical support.

    Quantum mechanics, generally, definitely has a significant amount of empirical support.

    Now, what empirical support is there for claims regarding the state of the universe prior to the big bang? (this is not the same as ‘general empirical support for quantum mechanics)

  9. 9
    Brian Lynchehaun

    Thank you for your input.

    Once you know something beyond the stereotypes and misrepresentations of philosophy, I’ll be happy to discuss this with you.

    But I have neither the time nor the energy to 1) convince you that this conversation is worthwhile, 2) counter all the false beliefs about philosophy that you apparently hold and 3) begin to offer you a basic education in philosophy.

  10. 10
    Brian Lynchehaun

    It seems to me that taking that particular viewpoint to heart would entail that I would also accept that there was “no justification” for accepting (albeit tentatively) that general relativity had any merit until light was demonstrated to have curved around a gravitating body or that the existence of the Higgs bosun had “no justification” until last month.

    So here you are conflating the general support that a theory may have, with the specific support that a particular claim may (or may not) have.

    A theory is usually a large bundle of hypotheses/claims, that are often self-suporting and self-referential (‘self’, in this case, meaning the theory not the hypothesis itself).

    That 99 claims have robust empirical support is a good reason to consider the theory, as a whole, to be good. But that last claim may lack support. So while the claim may rest on the support of the other well-supported claims, that doesn’t entail that that last claim is correct. We certainly have some justification for tentative support of the idea that it’s ‘likely’ to be correct, but that’s about it.

    Kant, in the exerpts that I’ve quoted from, is pointing out that there is no (and arguably can never be any) physical evidence that the universe is unbounded. In that regard, the claim that “the universe is unbounded” is wholly without support, regardless of whatever other arguments are put forward.

    Likewise, Krauss is putting forth that these quantum fields are foundational to the universe: fair enough. I have no reason to reject this supposition, but where is the actual evidence of this? In order to claim that these things are foundational, we require some evidence that logically excludes anything prior. Without that evidence, we have an evidence-free assertion.

    It may well be the case that all of quantum mechanics points in this direction, which would mean that the claim has strong internal support. But evidence could overturn that, right?

    I have always understood empiricism to include the probability of the likelihood of future results based on experimentally proven principals of the past (please correct me if I’m wrong).

    Yes, no, ish. It depends on those principles, it depends on what would be overturned if counterfactual evidence appeared, and if the prior theories could be rewritten in the face of that new evidence, or if a new theory would need to be created to explain *everything*, and, and, and….

    It’s complex.

    As far as I can garner from the literature (and again, I’m not a philosopher), philosophers of science have not to date given any coherent philosophical underpinnings to QM.

    Well, Philosophy of Science is more a critique of science. Philosophers of science have no given any coherent philosophical underpinnings to the theory of Evolution either, nor Relativity. That’s not the work that they’re trying to do.

    Their goal is to hammer down what is (and is not) science, and what is (and is not) ‘good’ science. String Theory gets quite a beating, for example. ;)

    Short of that, I would say that Krauss has empiricism on his side, and it is the Kantian position that is “making extrapolations beyond the data.”

    I would dearly like to see Krauss’s physical evidence for quantum fields being the foundational state of the universe.

    And that request (for evidence) is Kant’s position. I don’t know what extrapolation the Kantian critique (i.e. the bits that I have posted) has made. Please note: I am not going to defend the general works of Kant, as Kant (specifically) is not my area.

  11. 11
    Zombie

    Why all this talk of Aristotle and Kant when the conclusion is that Krauss just doesn’t have evidence, especially considering your first assumption is definitely empirically falsified?

  12. 12
    Brian Lynchehaun

    See the previous post that was linked at the start of the article: http://freethoughtblogs.com/crommunist/2012/07/23/science-vs-philosophy/

  13. 13
    Zombie

    Yes, I read that.

    Kant and Aristotle are definitely wrong, however, without adding additional assumptions that are unfalsifiable. This is can be demonstrated empirically without relying on theory, in any particle decay, nuclear decay, or atomic state transition. (These systems require QM to explain of course, but the actual fact of randomness without cause is empirical fact without reference to the explanation.)

  14. 14
    Alexander

    Hmm, a somewhat crude response. You say: “I’m discussing philosophy (specifically the philosophical underpinnings of science), which is most definitely my field.”

    Um, yes, but that is a terrible, terrible response to the criticism I gave. If I hint to you being a bit hypocritical, the answer isn’t to reaffirm that you are right because you’re doing your thing. The context of this conundrum is that we’re in the space *between* both of your positions, baring in mind that Krauss is no philosopher in the traditional sense, but neither was Wittgenstein; premature optimisation is the root of all evil.

    In short, I disagree with you. Less on some things, lots on more specifics. Like this one ;

    “Philosophy is method, not a model.”

    My initial reaction was, “AAAaaaargh! Nooooo! you’ve created the ultimate sin of trying to deal with the human condition! Abort! Abort! We’re entering infinite regress! Science is futile! Aaaaargh!!”

    A more nuanced reply would be that, I’m sorry, but you are mistaken; Philosophy is a model, just like method is a model: They are human constructs. We came up with it. Our brains cooked them up, processed them, and sometimes wrote it down. They are models. Models. Models. Models. Human constructs. Models. Braaaaains! Models. Kant’s models. Aristotle’s models. Your models. Krauss’ models. My models. What we’re doing is trying to find where they are compatible and what they mean, aka philosophy. Which also is a model.

    Trying to get out of the model field is simply futile. All human endeavours are models; every abstract construct, every nugget of wisdom, any feeling you have to every move you make, they are all linked to models of the brain, and they exists on a gradient scale from most abstract to as close to reality we can muster with our limited brain, always wanting to get to Reality[TM] but never quite making it there, forever locked in … well, models. Philosophy is a way in trying to create, tune and prune models of thought, itself a meta model.

    And saying otherwise is, quite frankly, absurd, unless you plead guilty of believing in some form of duality (or some meta construct thereof), in which we enter a whole different set of problems (which I don’t want to go into here) where you can shift the burden of the constraints of the brain onto something bigger, like a god or something.

    I have a semi philosophical background, and as much as both Aristotle and Kant (in this case) were great thinkers it doesn’t follow that their thoughts still are great. In fact, I don’t think they are our token end-points of thought, because as much as their models can be black and white in order to make sense of the world (easier to see patterns when the contrast is artificially higher), reality tends to be somewhat more spread out over topologically different gradients, like Vegemite on buttered toast. Empiricism, which you yourself places a lot of value on, has shown us this like no other.

    “To assert that ‘quantum fields exist, but require no cause’ violates Assumption 1.”

    But why are you holding on to this assumption to begin with? Why aren’t you questioning the validity of that assertion within the bounds of empiricism? Using constrained logic in order to figure out stuff you yourself have no empirical evidence of, isn’t that your main thrust? Dealing with causation on things (again, models in your brain) without knowing the constraints of the thing are assumptions that we hence can dismiss as easy as you (or Aristotle) can make them.

    You lastly say; “This is playing with semantics. And is addressed in the article. I won’t be commenting again on this point.”

    I find this answer quite infuriating. Not only are you yourself playing with semantics, but you get increasingly arrogant as people point this out (and not just me).

    Could I humbly suggest that even if you did address it in the article, you perhaps addressed it badly? Or, at least, in a way that a lot of people here – your audience, I presume – find problems with that you are refusing to either clarify or deal with.

    I don’t mean to sound a bit of a sour grape at this point, but if nothing else what philosophy has going for it – as *well* as the skeptic movement, I might add – is its ability to discuss, move forward, tune and prune our models of thought. No philosopher were the same philosopher at their life’s perpendicular life-events, and, truly, no skeptic, either. (Not to mention that I’m ever skeptic of people dragging Aristotle or any other bigwig in as some ultimate answer to the big questions)

    So, instead of brushing me off (you maybe think I’m either beneath engagement, or you’re pressed for time, or thought I’m an idiot too dumb to understand, or it’s late at night and you need to get to bed … or any other reason not given), could I ask you to clarify where I’ve misunderstood, misrepresented, misread, gone aloof, pieced together opposites or taken a wrong turn?

  15. 15
    kraut

    I should have formulated shorter:
    what does philosophy have to teach about the origins of the Universe that science cannot: absolutely nothing.

  16. 16
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    While I can’t say that the recipe for this article does much for me beyond saying “Krauss has made a pretty-much evidence-free assertion”, I am completely unimpressed and somewhat astounded by the counter-arguments against whatever the commenters thought the article was about.

    Here’s a one-off hint: QM didn’t make the claim. Krauss did. It doesn’t matter how insanely successful QM is when Deepak Chopra opens his mouth about quantum-whateveritis, and it doesn’t matter when some scientist or mathematician makes a truth claim for their personal favorite conclusion about something, regardless how much actual QM theory was used to build or derive an untested model short of actually even covering the bit over which the claim was made.

    I’ll also confess I’m a bit astonished that anyone still gives a crap about what Krauss said. (This article is, however, clearly a response to what folks are asking, as stated, so I clarify that this is not a jab at the article.) People say all sorts of stuff all the time, including clueless prominent scientists (Michio Kaku) and philosophers (who also require some serious philosophy of philosophy help, as it indeed has become too easy for many intelligent people to dismiss all things labeled philosophy, something of which I have been guilty myself, when I had previously been quite a fan).

  17. 17
    Brian

    Hi, how certain do you think we have to be to justify a knowledge claim?

  18. 18
    Lord Griggs[ Ignostic Morgan, Inquiring Lynn, Skeptic Griggsy, Carneades of Ga., Fr.or Rabbi Griggs]

    The quanta are eternal in accordance with the description -law- of conservation. To ask what caused them merits the response that begs the question!People special plead and beg questions when they deny that we cannot ask what caused or designed God as William Sahakian does.Percy Bysshe Shelley notes:”To suppose that some existence beyond, or above them [ the descriptions of Nature ] is to invent a secondary and superfluous hypothesis for what already is accounted for.”
    God did it means nothing!
    Aquinas’ superfluity argument boomerangs on him: he rightly notes that natural causes suffice to answer natural phenomena but with his five failed ways- suggestions to believe in God- he cannot overcome his argument nor the Ockham nor the Flew-Lamberth the presumption of naturalism!
    We have strong evidence for the quanta but theists just adduce misinterpretations of evidence for their square circle called God!
    Pettifoggery gets us nowhere!
    Krauss and other astrophysicists deal with science, which trumps anything any metaphysical claims.

  19. 19
    Brian Lynchehaun

    I appreciate your comment, and I’m pretty much in agreement with you on all points. :)

  20. 20
    eric

    His lack of testing, for one…He wants to claim that they’re foundational: ok, what evidence do we have for that?

    Every time we observe a far object, we are testing whether QM holds earlier. It always does. That’s the evidence; it is the best inductive inference to the current evidence. An “I don’t know” supporter must draw an arbitrary line in the sand and say something like: “we have no warrant to apply what we know to the point before X.” Why? On what basis do you create such a limit?

    rather than making the perfectly reasonably assertion that ‘actually, it looks like these quantum fields are foundational to the universe, and that (for lack of a better expression) they have existed eternally’ he asserted that ‘these quantum fields are ‘nothing’, and philosophy is wrong’

    I’d support the former statement as more accurate too.

    Krauss, like most scientists, rarely includes the ‘standard caveats’ in his speech. We typically do not say (e.g.) “evolution is right (but all scientific theories are held tentatively and are open to revision based on future evidence).” We just say “evolution is right.” When some creationist claims that the lack-of-caveats in our speech must mean we are claiming philosophical certainty in evolution, they’re wrong. We aren’t, we just don’t always explicitly lay out the caveats. I’m pretty certain that Krauss thinks QM shares the caveats all scientific theories do. His language may be strong (and he does have an anti-philosophy bias), but “quantum fields are that nothing” is, to my mind, just shorthand for “our best inference to date is that quantum fields are that nothing.”

    The alternative is “we don’t yet know, but this is the theory that we suspect will pan out. At some point we’ll be able to reach beyond the big bang and access some direct evidence for what we’re saying. We’re not there yet, but it’s looking good”.

    We never know. Not for sure. Not for gravity, or evolution, or thermodynamics, or QM. But scientists rarely include that hedge when they talk. Philosophers like you understand the limits of science as an empirical, inductive method; we don’t need to include them when we talk to you.

    My question to you, then, is: why should we include all the hedging language in this case when you don’t demand we include it in others? Krauss says QM is fundamental to the universe. Some biologist says evolution is fundamental to life. Why does the first get a rise out of you but not the second? Why do you interpret the lack-of-caveats in the first case as a ‘strong’ philosphical claim yet don’t interpret the lack-of-caveats in the second case the same way?

    Krauss’ anti-philosophy bent aside, I don’t think physicists and philosophers are much at odds here. IMO its making a mountain ouf of a molehill to (mis)interpret the lack of hedging and caveats in physicists’ speech as a claim to some deeper philosophical certainty than normal science provides. That’s not meant. “QM fields are the nothing” is no philosophically stronger than “evolution is the mechanism.” The first claim doesn’t mean we think we have transcended the limits of inductive reasoning any more than the second claim does. Its wrong to take the first statement and make a bigger deal out of it than you would the second.

  21. 21
    eric

    String Theory gets quite a beating, for example

    Every scientist I’ve ever talked to recognizes that the term ‘string theory’ refers to something better described as a set of untested hypotheses. Admittedly, it got a bad and confusing name for historical reasons (let’s chalk it up to lazy speech by scientists). But that’s all. This is not IMO a philosophical problem.

    Spending ink talking about why string theory isn’t a theory is like spending ink talking about how “relativity” doesn’t accurately capture the absolute, invarying speed of light. True, but not a deep problem. Its what I believe you are trying to get away from: semantics.

  22. 22
    Brian Lynchehaun

    Every time we observe a far object, we are testing whether QM holds earlier.

    Thus indicating general support for QM, which is not the same as support for specific future claims.

    An “I don’t know” supporter must draw an arbitrary line in the sand and say something like: “we have no warrant to apply what we know to the point before X.” Why? On what basis do you create such a limit?

    The line is not arbitrary: there is what the evidence supports so far, and then there are the claims that go beyond the evidence. I am not creating any limit at all: the evidence (and lack thereof) is the limit.

    I’d support the former statement as more accurate too.

    but “quantum fields are that nothing” is, to my mind, just shorthand for “our best inference to date is that quantum fields are that nothing.”

    And I’m stopping here. I have no interest in getting into a debate regarding what you think that Krauss thinks (or what does or does not get a rise out of me). You also seem to be under the impression that the certainty regarding how the universe sprang out of possibly-eternal field even vaguely approaches the certainty regarding the mechanisms of evolution.

    Your use of loaded language (“you don’t demand we include it in others?”, “mountain ouf of a molehill”, “Why does the first get a rise out of you but not the second?”) is also something I have neither the time nor energy to push back against. Again, I refer you to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loaded_language

  23. 23
    Brian Lynchehaun

    How certain do I have to be to justify the claim that “there is a can of beer in front of me”?

    That’s a pretty good ballpark notion of ‘certainty’. If that’s insufficient, I welcome any attempt you wish to make to quantify the concept of ‘certainty’.

  24. 24
    BradC

    So, I was intrigued by your comparison of Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” to what appeared to be a version of the modern cosmological argument. I think your formulation of the argument as a tension between assumption 2 and assumption 3 is an instructive way to think about it.

    Then I saw this in your comment:

    Kant rejects the cosmological argument. The cosmological argument is bad. If you put the cosmological argument beside “the universe was created from peanut butter”, the peanut-butter argument comes out on top.

    So if I understood you right, you have two objections to the cosmological argument (or at least two that you’ve stated in this article):
    1. The idea (which originated with Kant) that you can’t make knowledge claims about the universe based on logical argument alone, you need observation/empiricism.
    2. The tension between assumption 2 and assumption 3, with the theist making the (seemingly arbitrary) choice that assumption 3 ultimately trumps assumption 2, therefore God.

    Is that an accurate summary of your view? Do you think these are
    sufficient objections to the cosmological argument?

    Aristotle’s unmoved mover argument has an additional problem, since Assumption 1 (“an object in motion requires a cause”) is based on a misunderstanding of the laws of physical motion (conservation of energy/momentum). Does you think the cosmological argument might have a similar problem with its first assumption (“anything that exists requires a cause”)?

    I’d love to hear more about why the “peanut butter creation theory” is a better explanation for the universe :)

  25. 25
    eric

    The line is not arbitrary: there is what the evidence supports so far, and then there are the claims that go beyond the evidence. I am not creating any limit at all: the evidence (and lack thereof) is the limit.

    What evidence supports the notion that QM doesn’t hold before the (e.g.) planck era? It holds for all observed time after 10E-43 seconds, why should we not make an inductive inference that it holds before then? If “QM holds” is more justified than “I don’t know” at 10E-42 seconds, and “I don’t know” is more justified at 10E-44, what evidence are you using to make that inferential switch?
    I’ve provided the planck era as my best guess as to where your line is, but if its different, just apply those same questions to wherever it is. What evidence do you cite for switching from “QM is the best inference” to “don’t know is the best inference” at some past time t?

    You also seem to be under the impression that the certainty regarding how the universe sprang out of possibly-eternal field even vaguely approaches the certainty regarding the mechanisms of evolution.

    QM is the most tested theory in science. That includes evolution. It also provides the most precise predictions in science. I’m not denigrating evolution, it’s the bedrock theory of biology. But if you think our certainty towards QM is somehow less than our certainty towards evolution, you are wrong. I really can’t comment on your comment any more without using what you term loaded language. But I suggest you review what you just wrote and then review your own “I get that” paragraph from your original post. Before making assertions about the certainty scientists have in different scientific theories, you really do need an understanding (that’s your word, not my loading) of the sort of testing QM has gone through.

  26. 26
    Quine

    Brian, thanks for posting your thoughts on this. I have been mulling this over for quite some time. As it happens, I was in the audience in 2009 when Lawrence Krauss started this path with his presentation A Universe from Nothing and it was quite moving. I had studied Physics through quantum many years ago, but was still up to date enough to follow the presentation.

    Making the distinction between the metaphysical nothing, famously characterized by Leibniz, from the physical nothing that is studied in the lab is not ‘merely’ semantic. Thinkers in the past assumed that if everything were taken away from somewhere you would be left with a void “from which nothing could come.” It does work that way in our “big” world, but now we find out that we can’t rely on that assumption in the world of the very small. I have written more about this on my blog at Physical Nothing v. Metaphysical Nothing and we have had a discussion thread up about this at RichardDawkins.net. My attention is on this, again, because I am thrashing this out with a Catholic theologian over on this thread.

    I completely agree that the job of the physicists is to construct a model of our world that allows us to make predictions with a high level of confidence. We have data to track the past until we get to the point where the Universe was so hot that it was not transparent to light, about 300k years after the extrapolated time zero (ETZ), so we are on the models for all the very early things that matter so much to this discussion of origins. Brian is correct that nothing from those models force a decision about who is right or wrong. In the future there will be more data, but we will always be faced with a wall of ignorance from lack of data, going back.

    The titles of books are so often set by the publishers and not by the authors, themselves. I have not asked Lawrence, directly, if he meant to be provocative to philosophers, but from talking to him, I would not rule that out (see his treatment of WLC). What I get from his book is simply that we now have lab evidence that indicates that matter-energy can arise without anything that could qualify as a “cause” in our big world view, and more importantly, we now know that the sum of all matter-energy in the known Universe (includes both dark matter and dark energy) may be zero, and if so, the “Big Bang” was not something from nothing, but still nothing from nothing, just split into positive and negative piles.

    Again, quantum fields are models, they need not exist; however, we may use them for explanations. We see what we see (extended by our instruments). What we see is matter-energy spontaneously coming into existence where there was none before; what we say is that we have models that match that. The map is not the territory, and we now know enough about physical nothing to distinguish it from the hypothetical void that was set by definition as being not capable of emergent “something.”

    Bottom line, Lawrence Krauss has shown us that spontainious separation of zero matter-energy into positive and negative parts to give us this Universe is not in conflict with the properties of physical reality we measure in the lab. He did not say it had to happen that way. It is not a forcing argument, the way William Lane Craig wants to use Kalam as a forcing argument to gen up his deities.

  27. 27
    aleph squared

    Brain –

    Are you familiary with this argument by Richard Carrier? He demonstrates* that, indeed, something *can* (practically, must) come from nothing (using the philosophical, not Kraussian nothing.)

    *I think his proof is succesful, but I’m a mathematician, not a philosopher.

  28. 28
    Brian

    Sorry, I was a bit tired when I wrote the question. I wasn’t trying to get in a quarrel for impugn you.

    I was more getting at the claims of knowledge of things not experienced. Like the claim that ‘every event has a cause’. Personally, for me this is probable, in that it seems to underpin science and every day thinking.

    But to say it with regards to the universe seems to go way past what experience and probably is an example of the fallacy of composition with regards to a universe. We just don’t know with any certainty anything about the universe needing or having a start or not, whatever the case may be. I do find it interesting that you brought in Kant, who was dead certain that every effect had a cause, contra Hume, and that this was necessary and universal. I think because it was one of his categories. I tend more to side with Hume, that causality might be a contingent fact of the universe, but is not necessary and we don’t know what it has to do with the beginning (if there was one) of the universe.

    That probably makes no sense.

  29. 29
    Jesse

    I think this is one case where empiricism trumps philosophy tho.

    I mean, think of the law of non-contradiction vs. QM. You are aware of the principle of superposition of states, correct? You can’t say which state somthing is ‘really’ in until it is observed. (The short version). Also, Aristotle’s whole physics that you start with is just plain wrong. Stuff doesn’t need a mover in the slightest; Newton proved that.

    WIth that in mind, it just seems that the real problem you are having is that you don’t understand QM well enough to build a philosophical objection to Kauss, no? Not that I understand philosophy all that well, but if the basic physics is wrong there is aproblem heere, as far as I can tell.

  30. 30
    Brian Lynchehaun

    QM is the most tested theory in science.

    Please reread my comments, and take note that there is a major difference between quantum mechanics being well supported, and any specific claim being supported.

    I have said that the specific claim that Krauss has made is not well supported, and you keep going on and on about how well-tested quantum mechanics in general is supported. Your response does not address my point.

  31. 31
    JJ

    Hey Brian,

    Thanks for the reply. One of the reasons that I enjoy having discussions with philosophers is that we tend to have entirely different (if I dare use the next phrase) philosophical outlooks on reality. So let me give you my position on your rebuttals, and you can tell me where I am off base. Please remember, I’m only arguing from a position of the data and proven methodologies of making testable predictions (what I consider to be empiricism). If there is some deeper philosophical principal I’m ignoring, you’re going to have to educate me on it.

    You wrote, “So here you are conflating the general support that a theory may have, with the specific support that a particular claim may (or may not) have.” Actually, I don’t think I was. I was simply looking at the probabilities. If there is a theory, that fully explains all entailed observations that were known when it was formulated, and has made fully (and risky) predictions about what would be found in the future and has been found to be accurate to more decimal places than experimentalists can actually reach, then, just based on the probabilities, I would say it is probably more accurate than anything else that is out there. Given, that is only based on probabilities and not a philosophical certitude, but I don’t see how a philosopher can dismiss it and still claim to be making arguments from a position of empiricism.

    And now to two entirely different definitions of theory:

    You wrote: “A theory is usually a large bundle of hypotheses/claims, that are often self-suporting and self-referential (‘self’, in this case, meaning the theory not the hypothesis itself). “

    To me a theory is a set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, that has been repeatedly tested, is widely accepted and can be used to make accurate predictions about natural phenomena. The fact that what I consider to be theory, by definition, contains that it makes testable predictions, means that it cannot be “ self-referential” (at least not in any meaningful sense).

    Your next point that, “That 99 claims have robust empirical support is a good reason to consider the theory, as a whole, to be good. But that last claim may lack support. So while the claim may rest on the support of the other well-supported claims, that doesn’t entail that that last claim is correct. “
    Fair enough, but instead of 99, what about 99,000 or 99,000,000 or 99,000,000,000? I can agree with your premise that it doesn’t necessarily make the 100,000,000,000 prediction accurate; but as an empiricist, I have to ask, “How accurate have the Kantian predictions been?” Until someone can show 14 or more decimal places, I have to go with QM has the probabilities in it’s corner.

    And now I’ll get to my final point about why, as an empiricist, I should trust that the QM explanation of the universe prior to the big bang is probably more accurate than the Kantian position. You wrote, “Kant, in the exerpts that I’ve quoted from, is pointing out that there is no (and arguably can never be any) physical evidence that the universe is unbounded. “ Well, talk about going beyond the data: In Kant’s time the universe was believed to be; stationary, consisting of only our galaxy, and worked in strict cause and effect manner (no room for statistical indeterminacy); all positions that have been falsified by modern data. Now trust me, I don’t blame Kant for being a man of his times, but nothing in his philosophy could have (or with as far as I can tell did) predicted an expanding universe with billions of galaxies and many events occurring at statistical rather than linear lines of evolution. In my empirical world (where the results are in the data); Kant has hypothetical conjecture, QM has the data. The “physical” evidence is in the incredibly accurate predictions made to date. Something Kant didn’t have.

    Full disclosure: I’m big fan of Kant’s ethics (understanding human interactions), I just think he was a man of times when comes to understanding physics.

  32. 32
    Brian Lynchehaun

    I was not familiar with that. My caveat being that I’m a philosopher, not a mathematician: I’m in complete agreement with Carrier, assuming his math works out. :)

    That was a most excellent post. Thank you for the link. :)

  33. 33
    Jesse

    i should also note that the idea that there can be no physical evidence that the universe is unbounded is simply wrong too. Olbers’ paradox is a siple proof that the universe is finite. Now, granted, it does depend on just what you mean by unbounded, as the math gets tricky. That is, the Earth is unbounded in two dimensions, but not three. So which one do you mean? The universe, as far as we can see (so far) has three space dimensions and one of time. Time might well be unbounded in one direction. Space seems to be, since if it were not in any of the three dimensions the sky wouldn’t be dark, but then you have to ask what shape we are talking about since it might be unbounded in several higher dimensions but bounded in three.

  34. 34
    SayNoMore

    Yeah, that’s not a philosopher’s nothing either. He specifically re-defines nothing in the introduction to be “Nothing + all logically necessary things” – which is by definition not the nothing philosophers are talking about.

    Then by definition he asserts that logical truths are logically necessary, and that they need space to exist, therefore space is a logically necessary thing.

    So now his ‘Nothing’ is “Nothing + logical truths + space (as one of the logical truths)”

    He still claims this is the same thing as the philosophers nothing. It is not.

  35. 35
    aleph squared

    Um, no, you missed the point, I think.

    He specifically re-defines nothing in the introduction to be “Nothing + all logically necessary things” – which is by definition not the nothing philosophers are talking about.

    Um, no. What he says is to talk about nothing in a way such that logically necessary truths do not exist is incoherent: “if it is logically impossible for something not to exist, then there can’t have ever been a state of being where it did not exist.” So, sure, you can talk all you want about an absolute nothing sans logically necessity, but that’s a nothing that could never have existed, so Carrier discards it. Carrier’s absolute nothing is, in fact, the philosopher’s nothing, because the philosopher’s business is, fundamentally, logical argument. If a philosopher at the same time proposes that something which logically must exist did not exist at some point, that philosopher has created a contradiction.

    Then by definition he asserts that logical truths are logically necessary, and that they need space to exist, therefore space is a logically necessary thing.

    His argument is subtler than that. He does not, in fact, propose that logical truths must exist somewhere in spacetime, therefore spacetime exists (did you read the rest of the post, where he actually develops his proof?) He was responding in that section to a potential criticism: namely, that existence of anything requires it to exist at some point in spacetime. His point then is that that means that nothing, as he is talking about it, could never have existed anyway.

    @Brian — apologies for misspelling your name. My fingers don’t always do what my brain tells them too.

  36. 36
    aleph squared

    I mean, think of the law of non-contradiction vs. QM. You are aware of the principle of superposition of states, correct?

    Not sure exactly what you’re saying here — but you are aware that QM as a theory is developed mathematically, and has at its basis, therefore, a logic which includes the law of noncontradiction?

    Also, Aristotle’s whole physics that you start with is just plain wrong. Stuff doesn’t need a mover in the slightest; Newton proved that.

    Pretty sure Brian was talking about Aristotle etc. merely as exposition, describing the origin of the philosophical debate. He wasn’t agreeing with Aristotle, or proposing that Aristotle had it right.

    WIth that in mind, it just seems that the real problem you are having is that you don’t understand QM well enough to build a philosophical objection to Kauss, no? Not that I understand philosophy all that well, but if the basic physics is wrong there is aproblem heere, as far as I can tell

    It doesn’t require a deep understanding of QM to object to Krauss — or at least, not in the sense in which Brian is objecting, which is to say that Krauss’ fundamental starting point is not nothing as claimed. Krauss joined a debate with an established definition of nothing, and claimed to have demonstrated something he didn’t.

  37. 37
    SayNoMore

    “sure, you can talk all you want about an absolute nothing sans logically necessity, but that’s a nothing that could never have existed so Carrier discards it… …Carrier’s absolute nothing is, in fact, the philosopher’s nothing

    These two points are in direct contradiction. The philosopher’s nothing is an absolute nothing. Carrier discards it. Carrier’s absolute nothing is, in fact his own definition of nothing, and nothing to do with the philosopher’s nothing.

    This is perfectly reasonable. Perhaps Carrier is right that “Nothing + logically necessary things” is the only possible nothing. But to assert he is talking about the same thing as people talking about an ‘absolute’ nothing is factually incorrect. That’s all I’m saying.

    “His argument is subtler than that… …His point then is that that means that nothing, as he is talking about it, could never have existed anyway.”

    You may well be right, I did not spend much time on reading the later parts of the post. But the section of your own words I’ve highlighted above exactly captures my point. Nothing “as he is talking about” may be the only possible nothing, it may be the exact correct truth about existence that we will verify eventually, but it is still “as he is talking about” not “as philosopher’s are talking about” as they define it as absolute nothing without ‘logical necessities’ and the space to house them in.

  38. 38
    aleph squared

    Maybe I’m wrong. Can you cite me a philosopher who claims that an absolute nothing could exist or have existed, where nothing includes the absence of logical necessity?

    Because, tbh, I’ve never read one — and I also think any philosopher who embraces the possibility of logical contradiction existing has shot xirself in the foot, because then no logical deduction can really be trusted to prove anything.

  39. 39
    SayNoMore

    “Maybe I’m wrong. Can you cite me a philosopher who claims that an absolute nothing could exist or have existed, where nothing includes the absence of logical necessity”

    Wrong about what? Certainly you are wrong to believe that his nothing is the same as the philosopher’s Nothing.

    As to whether any philosophers believe that ‘absolute nothing’ ever existed – I am not aware of any. All those that have dealt with the concept (that I have read) have concluded that nothing comes from nothing, therefore the fact that there is something demonstrates that there was never nothing.

    What no philosopher that I have ever read would agree to is the assertion that “Absolute nothing” = “Nothing + logical necessities”

    “I also think any philosopher who embraces the possibility of logical contradiction existing has shot xirself in the foot, because then no logical deduction can really be trusted to prove anything.”

    The only philosopher who has embraced the possibility of logical contradiction is the one who says “I believe A which includes the possibility of logical contradiction existing” – that is not these philosophers – their position is “I believe A, which does not include the possibility of logical contradiction existing, but could potentially be a logical contradiction itself – if Krauss is right – in which case A would be wrong because logical contradiction is not possible”

    It is true that if logical contradiction can be true that anything can be true. However it’s not a logical contradiction to believe that “Absolute nothing” refers to “Absolutely nothing” rather than “Nothing + Logical necessities” – that’s just a matter of definition and no-one’s right or wrong. The only thing that would be wrong is to claim that they are talking about the same thing, when they are using the same word to describe different things.
    It’s not a logical contradiction to believe that “absolute nothing is possible” if you don’t agree with his arguments that absolute nothing is an logical contradiction. At the very worst you are wrong.

  40. 40
    Brian Lynchehaun

    Wrong about what? Certainly you are wrong to believe that his nothing is the same as the philosopher’s Nothing.

    Actually, aleph squared is right on the money, on all points.

    “absolute nothing + logical laws” is within the range of “the philosophers’ nothing” (please note where the apostrophe is: there is more than one position here). Carrier’s “nothing” is, indeed, “the philosophers’ nothing”.

    Where Carrier and I would disagree is that Carrier seems fairly committed to a form of realism that I am not, that is to say that the ‘laws of logic’ are “real things”.

    If you are committed to the ‘laws of logic’ being “real things” like chairs and tables (and quantum fields), then yes, it appears that there is a contradiction between Carrier’s explanation, and Carriers claim against Krauss.

    There are a variety of positions within the philosophical literature, mostly to be found within Philosophy of Maths (i.e. whether or not numbers are “real”).

    Given that the ‘laws of logic’ are about how we make logical arguments and are not actual objects (like, I don’t know, quantum fields), then the ‘nothing’ that Carrier is talking about is quite distinctly different from Krauss’s nonsense.

    For a thorough (as in a 70ish page essay) survey of the topic, I strongly recommend “”Realism and Anti-Realism in Mathematics” by Mark Balaguer. I’m not sure if it’s available online, but it’s available in the anthology “Philolosophy of Mathematics”.

    However it’s not a logical contradiction to believe that “Absolute nothing” refers to “Absolutely nothing” rather than “Nothing + Logical necessities” – that’s just a matter of definition and no-one’s right or wrong.

    No, that’s not correct. People who are advancing the position of “absolutely nothing”, without any commitment to logical necessities, are wrong. Logical necessities are (DUN Dun dun) logically necessary. To claim that a logical necessity isn’t necessary is to contradict oneself. It’s an incoherent position. Like saying “let’s say that blue isn’t blue”: it’s self-refuting.

  41. 41
    Brian Lynchehaun

    Just a quick addendum:

    Carrier is definitely commited to the ‘laws of logic’ being real, but I’m quite confident (given the nature of his argument) that he sees them as a different kind of “real thing” to quantum fields. Thus there is no contradiction within his argument.

  42. 42
    aleph squared

    Thanks for the citation of that paper. I did in fact find it available online here. And it seems like a legitimate free pdf, as it along with his other papers is linked to from his university webpage.

  43. 43
    SayNoMore

    ““absolute nothing + logical laws” is within the range of “the philosophers’ nothing” (please note where the apostrophe is: there is more than one position here). Carrier’s “nothing” is, indeed, “the philosophers’ nothing”.”

    Do you have a citation for any philosopher who’s definition of ‘absolutely nothing’ overlaps with his? None of the definitions of I’ve seen have ever included “+ logical necessities”. (Or even agreed that there are any such necessities, when nothing exists).
    If there are those who do define it similarly to him then his arguments address those people alone – this makes no difference to the remainder of philosophers who use the classic definition of ‘absolutely nothing’ – his argument is addressing something completely different, just like Krauss.

    SNM: However it’s not a logical contradiction to believe that “Absolute nothing” refers to “Absolutely nothing” rather than “Nothing + Logical necessities” – that’s just a matter of definition and no-one’s right or wrong.

    “No, that’s not correct. People who are advancing the position of “absolutely nothing”, without any commitment to logical necessities, are wrong. Logical necessities are (DUN Dun dun) logically necessary. To claim that a logical necessity isn’t necessary is to contradict oneself. It’s an incoherent position. Like saying “let’s say that blue isn’t blue”: it’s self-refuting.”

    Yes, it is a definitional thing. Or semantic if you prefer.

    It’s a difference in definition. Definitions cannot be more “true” or “logical” than each other.

    If you say that “nothing without logical necessities” cannot exist and therefore we’re calling “nothing + logical necessities” “absolutely nothing” and calling the former “the nothing that cannot noth” that’s entirely valid because it’s a definitionbut if other people say they’re going to call “nothing w/o necessities” “absolutely nothing” and “nothing with necessities” “Carrier’s ‘Nothing’” you absolutely can’t say they are “wrong” that’s a category mistake – you can say “What you call absolutely nothing can’t exist and by the way we call it something else” but wrong or illogical are not applicable criticisms. (And are therefore wrong!)

  44. 44
    SayNoMore

    p.s. Thanks to both of you for the citation and link – very interesting and informative!

  45. 45
    Brian Lynchehaun

    Do you have a citation for any philosopher who’s definition of ‘absolutely nothing’ overlaps with his? None of the definitions of I’ve seen have ever included “+ logical necessities”. (Or even agreed that there are any such necessities, when nothing exists).

    I will set aside some time this afternoon to find this out.

    I don’t think you fully appreciate how bizarre a request you are making: this is akin to asking “do you have a citation for any physicists who have explicitly claimed that the world is real?”

    The position is so foundational that it’s rarely stated explicitly. Rejecting this position immediately puts you on the fringe in philosophy (unless you have an *amazing* paper).

    this makes no difference to the remainder of philosophers who use the classic definition of ‘absolutely nothing’

    What’s good for the goose…..

    You keep asserting that this ‘absolutely nothing [without laws of logic]‘ is the classic definition: please provide some citations of this.

    I have a degree in Philosophy, and your claims stand in stark contrast to my experience. This is not a blanket assertion that “I have a degree, therefore you’re wrong”, this is the statement that “I spent over 4 years studying this particular discipline, and I have never come across what you are talking about”.

    Yes, it is a definitional thing. Or semantic if you prefer.

    Do me the courtesy of not reframing what I’m saying into something that I completely disagree with. It’s pretty much the fastest way to rile me up.

    This is not merely semantic, nor definitional (which are not the same, thank you very much). I am not dicking around with words.

    The meaning of the expression “Proposition x is logically necessary” is that “in any world where Proposition x is taken to be false, at least one contradiction follows as a direct result”

    If someone says “logically necessary things are not necessary”, then they are asserting that “in a world where Proposition x is taken to be false, at least one contradiction follows as a direct result, but that’s not a problem”. In any argument that a contradiction is allowed, any other (blatantly false) proposition can be logically proved. Thus contradictions are a problem, thus the aforementioned speaker is wrong.

    This isn’t some nonsense question of definition: if you dislike the definition, use a different word.

    This is a question of meaning and understanding.

    If you say that “nothing without logical necessities” cannot exist and therefore we’re calling “nothing + logical necessities” “absolutely nothing” and calling the former “the nothing that cannot noth” that’s entirely valid because it’s a definition

    You’ll notice, upon rereading my posts, that I don’t actually care, at all, what it’s called as long as it’s in accord with the rest of the discussion.

    You’ll notice, upon rereading my posts, that I’m focusing on what people mean, rather than on their specific words.

    You are arguing against a point that I am not making.

    There is an overview of the philosophy of ‘nothing’ at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nothingness/ . You’ll notice that at no point is the exclusion of logical laws discussed, and that they are implicitly taken as a given throughout the entry.

  46. 46
    BradC

    A minor point on your form of the cosmological argument (which I actually like very much):

    Assumption 1: anything that exists requires a cause
    Assumption 2: that cause cannot be the thing itself
    Assumption 3: infinite regresses are bad

    and that they then argue “we should violate Assumption 2 to maintain Assumption 3.” It’s worth pointing out, though, that there are actually 3 ways to resolve this dilemma:

    A) Violate assumption 1: Allow the first cause to be uncaused
    B) Violate assumption 2: Allow the first cause to be self-caused
    C) Violate assumption 3: Allow an infinite regress

    I would contend that most theists are actually arguing for A, not B. I’m not sure if Krauss is arguing for A or B, or if the difference is significant. We can’t even rule out C for certain, since we don’t know (and perhaps can’t know) what happened at or before the big bang.

    I do like this form, though, as it really highlights the “unresolvable philosophical dilemma” aspect of it. Thanks for the article.

  47. 47
    Brian Lynchehaun

    Thanks for your comment. I’m in complete agreement with you.

    Most modern theologians are arguing for A, that ‘god’ is uncaused. Early Christian Theologians have argued that god is self-causing (thus B). There’s a bizarre phase in 17th/18th century Philosophy where “x exists” was treated as an incidental predicate, thus “x does not exist” did not preclude from x causing x to exist. (caveat: I may be misremembering, but that’s my current recollection of the topic)

    Theologians tend to lock in on all three assumptions when arguing against either an eternal universe (now out of fashion, but Krauss may well bring it back), or against a self-causing universe (which Krauss may think he’s arguing in favour of, when actually he’s arguing in favour of an uncaused universe), but are happy to violate A (and sometimes B) when it comes to their god-of-choice.

  48. 48
    BradC

    Maybe we should re-frame this version as the cosmological dilemma instead of the cosmological argument!

    When you do so, it makes it very easy to answer “I see that you’ve chosen to resolve this dilemma by choosing option X, but that doesn’t mean you’ve convinced me that is the necessary result” or something.

    Then quote Immanuel Kant, although if he was as bad a writer as you describe, there probably aren’t any pithy quotes that would work well here…

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