Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Krauss Reponse

Lawrence Krauss gives a response to philosophers and theologians who critique his recent book in a review for The Atlantic (link here).  In it he says: "What's amazing to me is that we're now at a point where we can plausibly argue that a universe full of stuff came from a very simple beginning, the simplest of all beginnings: nothing" and then "That it's possible to create particles from no particles is remarkable---that you can do that with impunity, without violating the conservation of energy and all that, is a remarkable thing. The fact that "nothing," namely empty space, is unstable is amazing. But I'll be the first to say that empty space as I'm describing it isn't necessarily nothing."

However, he then says "When I talk about empty space, I am talking about a quantum vacuum, but when I'm talking about no space whatsoever, I don't see how you can call it a quantum vacuum. It's true that I'm applying the laws of quantum mechanics to it, but I'm applying it to nothing, to literally nothing. No space, no time, nothing. There may have been meta-laws that created it, but how you can call that universe that didn't exist "something" is beyond me. When you go to the level of creating space, you have to argue that if there was no space and no time, there wasn't any pre-existing quantum vacuum."

We are still dealing with semantic problems here.  In the second quote above (my first paragraph) Krauss accepts that he is using the term "nothing" to refer to something.  In the third quote (my second paragraph) he seems to change this and refer instead to "no physical thing, including space."  Since naturalists believe that only material beings exist (where "material being" means being that has extension, like space, particles, quantum foam, etc) then if there is no material cause the naturalist must say there is no cause.  However, if naturalism is false and there is non-material being then while there may be no material cause there can still be a cause.  

Krauss' claim that philosophy doesn't make advances is partly true.  Philosophy as a discipline is badly divided about its own contribution.  However, "making advances" has a practical ring to it.  Philosophy does make advances by identifying the foundational questions on which all other disciplines rest, and in critically analyzing the answers given by those disciplines.  Krauss says that philosophers of science are irrelevant and not read by scientists; however, they are doing two different kinds of work.  Philosophy of science as a field is dealing with interpretive and critical questions, whereas science it collecting empirical data.  Much of the work done by Krauss falls into interpretive work, not into physics itself.

Krauss claims that philosophers are not specialized enough to know what he is talking about, and use terms without understanding their actual meaning.  While this might be true sometimes, it is also true that the attempt to say one's field is so highly specialized no one else can understand is a standard move to avoid critical analysis.  Appealing to higher mathematics understood by only a handful does not avoid the problems of relying on an uncaused event to save naturalism.  Anyone of thinking age can identify uncaused events as impossible, even if they can't do higher math.  Appealing to the unknown by relying on obscure or undefined terms is also a common way of avoiding critical analysis.  

Krauss sees that his naturalism is logically opposed to theism.  Formally, they are answering the same questions and Krauss sees this.  He appeals to an infinite regress of material causes, or the multiverse, and says: "I don't ever claim to resolve that infinite regress of why-why-why-why-why; as far as I'm concerned it's turtles all the way down. The multiverse could explain it by being eternal, in the same way that God explains it by being eternal, but there's a huge difference: the multiverse is well motivated and God is just an invention of lazy minds."  This is not an empirical claim, but a statement of his interpretive philosophy.  The problem is whether there can be an infinite regress of matter.

The tone of the interview reveals the seriousness of the worldview conflict at hand.  Naturalists will respond fiercely to critical analysis of their worldview assumptions.  This includes deriding the other, appealing to the authority of science, appealing to unknown terms, and generally beginning the question.  Any response to naturalism that relies on these, or on fideism, is simply repeating the same mistakes.  If progress is to be made it will be through philosophical identification of the most basic questions that can be asked, and learning how to interpret empirical data in relation to the answers to these questions.


  1. I read the same interview with Krauss too, and thought it was rather revealing about what he means by 'nothing,' and his dismissal of book reviews such as those found in the New York Times. It appears that rather than engaging with the critic he retreats back.

    Also, I found interesting that he critiques the philosophers and theologians for appealing to something eternal, yet then he appeals to an eternal regress through the multi-verse, which he laughingly likens to turtles all the way down. Likely not done on purpose I think it is interesting that in both cases skepticism is supported by appeals to an infinite regress. Makes me curious as to why he is okay with an infinite regress and the implications of that.

    Here is a link to the interview:

  2. I agree with your critique of materialism.

    Though I have a very limited awareness of Krauss' work, it seems to be more akin to that of the new atheists than of any productive science. I find it difficult to see him as anything more than a wayward philosopher, forever attempting to postulate his way out of necessary inferences.

    @Matt Nolen: Thanks for the link.

  3. yes! this is great. good stuff.
    it should also be pointed out that he is jumping from his original claims. if you watch the other video that was promoting his book, i believe it was the first, he specific says "literally nothing". now he is claiming to have been tricking people and using the term nothing more lightly. then he says he was refering to no physical thing, but then chooses an infinite regress. alot of unstableness there.