Saturday, June 02, 2012

Fictional absolute nothing and theology

By Mathew Goldstein

David Albert, in addition to being a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, has a doctorate in theoretical physics from Rockefeller University. So it was appropriate for him to be selected by the NY Times to review Lawrence Krauss' book "A Universe From Nothing". In his critical review (the title of this post links to the review), David Albert correctly points out that the definition of nothing favored by theologists and some philosophers as a perfect nothingness does not exactly match the concept of nothing described by Lawrence Krauss. For David Albert, Lawrence Krauss' up-front refusal to adopt the theological/philosophical definition of the concept of nothing as absolute and total is a fatal flaw in Lawrence Krauss' argument. David Albert, despite his multiple doctorates, is wrong about this, and it is important to understand why.

It is often true that something is either absolutely and totally present or absent. Furthermore, we can generalize from the fact that there can be more, or less, of something, to the concepts of total nothing and allthing. There is no word in English that is the opposite of nothing, so I am making up this word "allthing". We go from less and less of something until we have a complete absence of something, and we go from more and more of something until we have a total presence of something. Similarly, we can imagine a complete cold and a complete hot, a complete dark and a complete light, etc. There are many phenomena that can be measured on a line of less and more, and we can generalize from the concept of less and more to the concepts of complete presence and absence of that phenomena. That is clearly what David Albert and theologians are doing when they imagine their concept of total nothing.

But David Albert and theologians are not stopping with imagining total nothing, they are also insisting that this imagined concept is a fact and that total nothing is the initial condition. After all, if those theological/philosophical concepts of total nothing and allthing are fictions then clearly Lawrence Krauss is doing nothing wrong by excluding those fictions from his efforts to describe how our universe works. So why does David Albert insist that the theological/philosophical concept of total nothing is factual? Does David Albert also insist that total darkness and total light are factual conditions? Total cold and total heat? We can imagine many things this way that are fictions. Where is the empirical evidence for this total nothing that justifies this assumption that it is a fact?

The bottom line is this: When it comes to determining what is true and false about how the world works, empirical evidence trumps everything else. Human intuition and imagination are not up to the task. So when philosophers and theologians place their intuition first, as they are doing when they insist a-priori that there is a starting point of total nothing, they are making a fundamental mistake. They are, in effect, putting the cart of human ideology/psychology ahead of the horse of evidence. In contrast, Lawrence Krauss takes the better approach here. Lawrence Krauss is simply pursuing the evidence and allowing the evidence to dictate the conclusions on a best fit basis.

David Albert also points out, again correctly, that our understanding of how the universe works is substantially incomplete, as Lawrence Krauss acknowledges in his book. Thus, we don't know why the forces of gravity and dark energy are as weak as they are. Similarly, Lawrence Krauss cannot demonstrate that his underlying assumption that quantum mechanics characterizes at least some of the multiverse beyond our universe is correct. But it is still reasonable, on a best fit with available evidence basis, to assume that the quantum mechanical and general relativity properties of our universe are also properties found elsewhere in the multiverse. If David Albert and theologians are going to dismiss that assumption in favor of the less plausible assumption that our universe is unlike the rest of the multiverse for being quantum mechanical, then they need better reasons for their preferred assumption than that we lack proof either way.


Don Wharton said...

Thank you for this Mathew. I was outraged by Albert's editorial for exactly the same reasons. His fiction is very much something that needed to be responded to.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Thanks for this post Mathew. I think you hit exactly the right focus to prefer broad, yet deep empirical based concepts that are consistent with our other knowledge of space, time and matter to some abstract, philosophical reasoning.

We often go astray when we use some seemingly familiar concepts to discuss another topic with critical analysis. So some cast this question of nothingness into some representational forms like a null value as if it is in some mathematical system. True we represent some aspects of reality such as velocity with a mathematical value like zero. Or say the set of unicorns is null or that some truth function is false.

But for some mathematical structures, a null value has no useful role. In most versions of mereology,dealing with parts for example, there is no empty part.

Such mathematization of nothing often fools us into thinking we know what we are talking about in reality when we are just talking about a math or logical version of reality.Is nothing no entity at all or just the empty set?

I popular metaphor is to interpret 'nothing' as analogous to a blank sheet of paper -sans drawing. I don't think that these
interpretations help with a deep issue but they make us feel that we know what we are talking about and can reach some strong, logical conclusion. Really they are full of implicit assumptions.