Saturday, April 28, 2012

Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing

Lawrence Krauss's book, A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, continues to cause controversy, as noted below. Peter Woit writes:
In this morning’s developments, we have prominent skeptic Michael Shermer, in Much Ado About Nothing, making the case that the Multiverse finishes off that “God” business, using “multiverse hypotheses predicted from mathematics and physics”.
Krauss doubles down against bad reviews with his Atlantic interview:
Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, "those that can't do, teach, and those that can't teach, teach gym." And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. ... [philosophy] hasn't progressed in two thousand years. ...

Well, I read a moronic philosopher who did a review of my book in the New York Times ...

But if you can show how a set of physical mechanisms can bring about our universe, that itself is an amazing thing and it's worth celebrating. 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. ...

The religious question "why is there something rather than nothing," has been around since people have been around, and now we're actually reaching a point where science is beginning to address that question. And so I figured I could use that question as a way to celebrate the revolutionary changes that we've achieved in refining our picture of the universe. ...

"the remarkable revolutions that have taken place in our understanding of the universe over the past 50 years -- revolutions that should be celebrated as the pinnacle of our intellectual experience." ...

If I'd just titled the book "A Marvelous Universe," not as many people would have been attracted to it.

So his title is flamebait, but it suckered Dawkins into endorsing the book by saying that it is the "deadliest blow to supernaturalism" since Darwin.

Krauss continues to defend himself, and attack philosophers, in a comment to Coyne's blog

I haven’t responded to the review by Albert simply because it seemed to me not worthy of response.. and nothing has changed my mind about that.
and now in a SciAm article:
Which brings me full circle to the question of nothing, and my own comments regarding the progress of philosophy in that regard. When it comes to the real operational issues that govern our understanding of physical reality, ontological definitions of classical philosophers are, in my opinion, sterile. ...

That question can be phrased as follows: How can a universe full of galaxies and stars, and planets and people, including philosophers, arise naturally from an initial condition in which none of these objects—no particles, no space, and perhaps no time—may have existed? Put more succinctly perhaps: Why is there ‘stuff’, instead of empty space? Why is there space at all?

About the only philosopher Krauss credits is Peter Singer, the wacky animal rights guru.

I attack philosophers myself on this blog, and in my book. But the NY Times reviewer, David Z. Albert, was a legitimate physicist before he turned to philosophy, and his criticisms are never directly addressed by Krauss. Albert wrote a book on the many-minds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is pretty goofy, but not directly relevant.

The core of the problem is that modern physics has nothing to say about nothingness. There is no such thing, as far as we know. The closest we can get to empty space is the luminiferous aether, also called the quantum vacuum state. Our best quantum theories, such as quantum electrodynamics (QED), are really perturbation theories of the aether. That is, what seems like empty space to us is really a complicated set of fluctuating relativistic quantum fields.

A few decades ago, cosmologists proposed that the observable galaxies are the remnants of quantum fluctuations during the first nanosecond of the big bang. Krauss elaborations on this, and says that the whole universe might be the result of quantum fluctuations. As he tacitly admits, he is not really telling us Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, but rather giving a modern variant of Turtles all the way down.

All of this nonsense would be hardly worth commenting on, except that Krauss and Dawkins are two of our leading science expositors, and they are peddling nonsense. They should know better. I don't bother attacking crackpots. I started this blog when I realized that our leading academic scholars were promoting ideas about science that are entirely mistaken. The current May SciAm cover story is a wildly speculative story about combining supersymmetry and gravity into supergravity:

More profoundly, the novel methods breathe new life into a unified theory that physicists left for dead in the 1980s. The force of gravity looks like two copies of the strong subnuclear interactions working in unison.
The tipoff is that the authors keep talking about how radical and revolutionary their approach is, but cannot point to any substantive progress since the 1980s when many experts decided that it was a dead-end. The same issue has a separate article explaining why supersymmetry is dead. While there is some debate about that, supergravity is surely dead and not worthy of a SciAm cover story.

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