Nothing in particular

April 26, 2012

Photo by laslo

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?… Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?… The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now.


Valid Criticism

Victor Stenger is again talking about nothing. This time he’s defending Laurence Krauss’ new book, which claims to answer the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” from the negative feedback it has received. Chief among the critics is David Albert, himself a theoretical physicist and credentialed philosopher of science, who wrote a scathing review of Krauss’ new book in the New York Times,

The fundamental laws of nature generally take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of that stuff are physically possible and which aren’t, or rules connecting the arrangements of that elementary stuff at later times to its arrangement at earlier times, or something like that. But the laws have no bearing whatsoever on questions of where the elementary stuff came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular elementary stuff it does, as opposed to something else, or to nothing at all.

He goes on,

The true relativistic-quantum-field-­theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.

Even Jerry Coyne, known for his antagonistic attitude towards religious belief, showed integrity, writing

Krauss defines “nothing” as a “quantum vacuum,” without giving us reasons why that would obviously have been the initial default state of the universe. Is that a sensible definition of “nothing”? If not, whence the quantum vacuum? And so on to more turtles. 

And so, to put it mildly, Krauss’ book came in for some intelligent criticism. To his enourmous credit, Victor Stenger seems to have taken that criticism on board, and attempted a reasonable reply.


Stenger’s Defence of Redefining ‘Nothing’

In his latest offering Stenger springs to the defence of Krauss writing,

Clearly, no academic consensus exists on how to define “nothing.” It may be impossible. To define “nothing” you have to give it some defining property, but, then, if it has a property it is not nothing! 

I have to agree with Stenger here. Things with properties are not nothing. The vacuum state has properties like spatial extent, temporal extent, a well defined energy, a frequency, phase and amplitude uncertainties, as well as being responsible for force measured in the lab between two metal plates. Some of these properties I commented on in my previous post. It is these properties make me think the vacuum state is clearly not nothing.

Stenger goes on to say,

The “nothing” that Krauss mainly talks about throughout the book is, in fact, precisely definable. It should perhaps be better termed as a “void,” which is what you get when you apply quantum theory to space-time itself. It’s about as nothing as nothing can be.

The “void” then, is not nothing. Why should “the void” exist rather than nothing? Why are there quantum fields rather than nothing? Why is there something rather than nothing?

We can play word games all we like. We could rename the word “nothing” to be “squiddle” if we liked, and the question would be just as urgent, just as pressing. As long as there are intelligent people seeking to live examined lives, we will be asking this question. Redefining words simply does not make the problem go away.


Photo by Sean Rogers 1 (flickr)


Criticism of theistic arguments

Stenger goes on to critisize arguments for God, saying

Why is there God rather than nothing? Once theologians assert that there is a God (as opposed to nothing), they can’t turn around and ask a cosmologist why there is a universe (as opposed to nothing). They claim God is a necessary entity. But then, why can’t a godless multiverse be a necessary entity?

Edward Feser replies

This simply ignores, without answering, the central arguments of the Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, Thomistic and broader Scholastic traditions, and indeed of modern Leibnizian rationalism — all of which put forward principled reasons why God alone, and not the material universe, can be a terminus of explanation.

He goes on to introduce some of those arguments. Considering he’s written books about them, you’d think he’d know. Philosophical atheist blog “Thy Kingdom Come (Undone)”, offers a similar criticism to Feser’s from a philosophical perspective:

Stenger would like to simply help himself to this “exists necessarily” clause because he thinks that’s precisely what theists do, but any cursory reading of the arguments would show you that necessary existence is not something you merely attach to an entity willy-nilly. It requires rigorous argumentation to get you there. The
theists have done their part attempting these demonstrations; no one (that I’m aware of) has done this for the multiverse. I should not claim it can’t be done, but I’d be very surprised to see it.

Feser also notes that

Stenger also errs in thinking that the proponents of classical philosophical theology suppose that nothing is the “default state” of things. Who ever said that? … The classical theist’s claim is not “There could have been nothing, but there isn’t, and the reason is theism”; it is rather “There could not have been nothing, and the reason is theism.”


The Fallacy of the Fallacy of Fine Tuning

However, the most telling recent criticism of Stenger has come not from the blogosphere, but from a paper on the physics preprint arxiv. Luke Barnes, young physicist, and one of the authors of the excellent blog “Letters to Nature” has written a fascinating paper clearly detailing problems in Stenger’s new book, The Fallacy of Fine Tuning. Barnes is careful not to suggest that fine tuning would imply that God necessarily exists, and suggests possible naturalistic explanations (such as a multiverse) for the fine tuning that he argues is observed.

Given the, frankly, poor state of some emotive arguments for and against fine tuning, with both sides misrepresenting the other, and those of us genuinely concerned by the problem annoyed by the polemics, this paper is a breath of fresh air. Barnes offers a compelling arguments against Stenger’s dismissal, arguing that fine tuning is an empirical fact, and therefore requires a rational explanation.

To give one short example, Barnes incisively points out the difference in meaning between Stenger’s Point of View Invariance (PoVI) normally called covariance, and symmetries of a physical system. This essentially destroys (to my mind) Stenger’s claim that

Physicists have no choice in the matter, or else their models will be subjective, that is, will give uselessly different results for every different point of view.

Barnes begings by explaining, in a pedagogical manner, that any system described using a Lagrangian will be “point of view invariant”. He then graphically illustrates the difference between “point of view invariance” and different symmetries of nature which give rise to conservation laws. Such symmetries are certainly not immediately obvious, but have to established empirically.

The paper is full of similar clear arguments. For anyone interested in the discussion, this is certainly required reading.


Recently Richard Dawkins, speaking at the so-called ‘reason’ rally encouraged the crowd to ridicule Catholics. He said when someone claims to be Catholic that atheists should first not believe that they are, then Dawkins urges his followers to

Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!

Unfortunately this wasn’t a one off comment. Responding to an article about how to treat top scientists who are Christians, he wrote in favor “ridicule” and “contempt”. He says that atheists should ignore those with well thought out opinions, instead:

I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’€™t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.

That’s a pretty major departure from reason. Using reason one seeks to encourage people to think about problems long and deeply. You engage the strongest arguments, not the weakest. You don’t push your beliefs (or lack of them) by social stigma- such you behaving anti-socially towards them, ridiculing and laughing at people in public and urging others to follow your lead. These are the tactics of a bully, not of a scientist.

Dawkins continues,

You might say that two can play at that game. Suppose the religious start treating us with naked contempt, how would we like it? I think the answer is that there is a real asymmetry here. We have so much more to be contemptuous about! And we are so much better at it. We have scathingly witty spokesmen of the calibre of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Who have the faith-heads got, by comparison? Ann Coulter is about as good as it gets. We can’t lose!

He rationalizes antisocial behavior by suggesting that it will be effective. Despite the fact that Dawkins wouldn’t like people to behave the same way towards himself, he thinks he says atheists are better at ridiculing others. I have no doubt he’s right and public mockery is a very effective way of getting someone to take a badly considered position. So why shouldn’t everyone follow Dawkins advice?

Jesus taught the exact opposite. He said,

In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Confucius said,

Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself.

Across the world, from East to West, people recognize treating others in a way which you wouldn’t like is wrong. Dawkins urges us to treat others in a way which he himself would not like to be treated. The reason people shouldn’t behave like Ann Coulter or Richard Dawkins, is not because it is ineffective. It is because it is wrong.

For Christians, Jesus goes further. Even for people who might be considered our enemies, Jesus says we should love them,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

So should we, whether we’re Christian or atheist, act like Richard Dawkins and Ann Coulter, WBC or David Silverman? No. Instead, 1 Peter gives a good way to disagree – to disagree with reason and respect

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.

Yesterday I was told, if God exists he must have evolved. The “proof” that God must have evolved went something like this:

1) We evolved
2) We are intelligent
3) Therefore intelligence can only form due to evolution
4) If God is intelligent he must have evolved.

(3) doesn’t seem to logically follow. It’s that little word ‘only’ which seems all wrong. Pointing out a specific example doesn’t make a general rule.

I mention this, because although it seems like faulty reasoning to me, after Dawkins it is a popular thing for atheists to repeat. Maybe some of my atheist commenters would like to point out what I’m missing.

The only real response I was given by the guy offering the proof was that I am “too stupid to be an atheist”.

Face of the new atheism

January 17, 2010

Craigslist is most famous for its free advertisements, including for adult services and for housing – and it also has a series of active message boards catering to all different interests. One of those is religion:  there is an atheist forum, but no Christian forum. For a few years an impromptu, but unofficial “Celebrate Jesus” forum for prayer requests had served the small Christian community. However, if you visit the prayer forum today, it is over-run by atheists.

Looking through the history, it is possible to piece together what happened. At first a personal request for prayer would meet atheist abuse. For example, to someone experiencing muscle pain, and wanting to go to the doctor:

you’re self-obsessed, uneducated, and you have absolutely NO insight… Pain? You want to know what pain is, you stupid cunt?

There was a lot of this low level stuff, and that is pretty standard for the Internet. Soon, though all Christians posts were “flagged”. Whole pages of Christian posts simply went missing, with only atheist comments left. Sexually suggestive images accompanied increasing volumes of abuse. It  becoming more and more extreme, suggesting that the regular members should commit kill themselves or that they were were paedophiles. Handles were created to impersonate regular Christians. They even impersonated me, even though I was almost never there.

One lovely woman whose ex-husband recently died, was impersonated as saying:


Or the same woman:

Help me! please! I am maries vagina. I need sex like crazy. She deprives me of it constantly

By this this time there was far more spam than Christian posts, so that when a Christian did post, they got a response like this:

josheb isa self-proclaimed alcoholic & sociopath. total gdamn dishonest, manipulative, aggressive, dickwiping, schmoozy, sack of shit… am i glad i don’t have to deal with people like that in the real world, it is why guns were invented.

Unfortunately that is not exactly an isolated example. Even after Christians no longer went to the forum (the prayer forum secretly moved to a different location), spam and abusive posting continued for several months – posting to the silent void. Needless to say there isn’t a rational argument in sight.

To me, this is the face of “new” atheism. They are encouraged by people like Dawkins and Harris not only to despise Christianity, but also to disrespect Christians. It is a sad situation: to spend all day, every single day, for month after month, posting abuse on the Internet. What a bad deal they offer, and what a bad deal they took: To replace love of your neighbour for the abuse of atheism.

Photo: Lawrence OP

Hitchens and Craig had a recent debate at Biola University. For anyone who doesn’t know, Hitchens is the author of “God is not Great”, in which he explains why he thinks that religion is responsible for a large amount of the evil in the world. William Lane Craig is a philsopher and Christian apologist who has debated (and won) against many of the world’s most prominent anti-Christian thinkers. So this was a very anticipated debate.

According to even the atheist blogosphere, Craig won. You can find an interesting analysis of the debate here.

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