Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Something From Nothing

Physicist Lawrence Krauss has recently written a book titled "Something From Nothing."  Here is a link to a video of Krauss explaining his book.  A review of this book from the New York Times can be read here.

In the video linked above, Krauss argues that the study of "nothing" is not for philosophy, but is a matter for empirical science.  He is suggesting a theory that the material universe originated from nothing, which is not actually non-being, but more like potential energy, or what Alan Guth calls quantum foam.  Others have called this chaos, and in another review of his book Krauss discusses how in his view the "eternal multiverse" is perhaps simply chaos where everything that is possible actually happens somewhere.  Krauss argues that empirical science has now shown that God is not necessary.

Is the study of "nothing" a subject for the empirical sciences?  I'd like to argue "no."  My claim is that the empirical sciences study: 1) what is observable, 2) what is repeatable, and 3) laws not origins.

In making claims about "nothing," it quickly becomes evident that Krauss is talking about "something," and not about "non-being."  He talks about dark matter and dark energy, which are clearly something, and not "nothing."  The term "matter" refers to being that is extended (as opposed to something non-extended like consciousness).  "Energy" and "matter" are interchangeable terms in that for physics they both refer to extended being.

The perspective offered by Krauss falls squarely into standard materialist philosophy.  Although some of the words he uses are new, some are not, and all of the concepts can be found in the Ancient Greek Materialists.  The idea of order coming out of chaos is standard Greek theory.  So why is this theory able to be presented as if it is the high-point of human empirical research?

One obvious answer is that empirical sciences have confused my first point above with an ontological claim about existence.  In other words, since the empirical sciences only study the observable, only the observable exists.  Obviously this is a fallacy.  Existence is not limited by what the empirical sciences can study.  Furthermore, Krauss's own materialist assumptions are not themselves the object of empirical study (we cannot observe whether or not all being is material).  The materialist says that only material being exists, and has always existed in some form.  Why accept this belief?  Why use it to interpret scientific and personal experience?

Another part of the answer is that "naturalism" and "uniformitarianism" have been combined with mathematics to make claims about the supposedly distant past.  Naturalism assumes that only the material world exists, and uniformitarianism says that the forces we now see operating have always operated and at the same magnitude observed today.  Combining these means that cosmologists like Krauss are constrained by their assumptions to explain origins by projecting current forces backwards in time.  This results in significant timeframes being discussed.  The authority of daily experience and mathematics can be appealed to for support of "something from nothing."  This results in a kind of rationalism, where mathematics and unproven assumptions are used to make proclamations about existence.

Finally, it is interesting there doesn't seem to be much doubt among physicists about this universe having had a beginning.  Stephen Hawking and other materialists seem to now agree that the material universe had a beginning from nothing.  However, upon closer inspection, Krauss, Guth and Hawking describe this "nothing" as something material.  Whether it is quantum foam, dark energy, or the law of gravity, these are material beings or the relationship between material beings.  Talk about "multiverses" does not change the problem in that these too are material.  The term "universe" applies to the sum total of material being, and so these other "universes" are simply part of that sum total.  Krauss and other materialists might assert that this material being is eternal, like their ancient counterparts.  The philosophical problem is: why should we believe this?

When I teach lectures on science and religion, I tell my students that the issue is not one of protecting religion, but of protecting science.  We need to be able to distinguish between the empirical sciences and a given philosophy's interpretation of empirical science.  In this case that philosophy is the worldview of materialism.  Critical analysis of basic beliefs, such as "all is material," is in the realm of philosophical inquiry.