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.