20 May 2012

Krauss, Albert, Carroll...And Me!

This post is a rewrite of a quickie I tossed up on Google+, about Lawrence Krauss's book A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing and the bit of fuss that followed Krauss's remarks about the general merits of philosophy.

The background of the matter is this.  The philosopher David Albert had some not so nice things to say about Krauss's book. Krauss then dissed philosophy in general as having some kind of science-envy.  Then a whole bunch of other people piled on, some on Krauss's side, others on Albert's.  Recently, Sean Carroll weighed in, looking to try to smooth ruffled feathers.

There's nothing like a controversy to make one want to read a book.  I'd bought Krauss's some time ago, so rather than making it wait it's turn on my iBooks shelf, I cracked its virtual spine, moved it to the top shelf, and dove in.  I just finished it, and I've got a few things to say about the book, and about the kerfuffle that ensued.

I found the book very enjoyable and gripping.  Granted, I'm a science geek, but I thought it was one of the best science books I've ever read.  Krauss's prose is more complex than that of other authors on similar subjects, but the logic and presentation of material was compelling and lucid.  I especially liked how Krauss built up from a simple view of the universe to a more complex, nuanced, and (I think) accurate one by weaving in some of the history of how modern cosmology came to be.  I was especially impressed with the systematic way that he dealt with the multiple interpretations of the title of the book.

And when I got to the end, I realized that Albert and Carroll may not have actually read the book on which they saw fit to comment.  Or, at least, that's the only explanation I can think of to explain the mismatch between what I took from the book, and how these other gentlemen wrote about it.

Let me be clear: I have tremendous respect for Krauss and Carroll.  Albert's work I do not know, so I cannot really comment.  But given his position in the community, I have no reason doubt his intellect, training, or sincerity.  What I write below is not to be taken as a comment on the character or abilities of these men, but rather only my observations of their writings.

Starting at the beginning: Krauss's book is, as I've already suggested, quite fine.  In the latter chapters, he writes about philosophy from a scientific point of view.
But therein, in my opinion, lies the intellectual bankruptcy of much of theology and some of modern philosophy.  For surely "nothing" is every bit as physical as "something," especially if it is to be defined as the "absence of something." It then behooves us to understand precisely the physical nature of both these quantities.  And without science, any definition is just words.
This is why philosophy and theology are ultimately incapable of addressing by themselves the truly fundamental questions that perplex us about our existence.
Please note the words "by themselves" in the second passage.  It is plain here that Krauss is talking about a shortcoming of philosophy as a distinct entity disconnected from other disciplines.  In the service of other disciplines, such as science, Krauss seems to have no difficulties with philosophy.
We may supplement this understanding [science] with reflection and call that philosophy.
I see nothing especially controversial here.  Where did philosophy come from?  How did it arise?  Surely it was borne of primitive humans desire to know the unknown.  We fear the unknown.  Fear causes us stress.  Stress and fear have evolved in us to signal danger.  To know lessens that fear and stress, and quite literally makes us healthier.  Philosophy was driven by our experiences of patterns in reality and by our evolved instincts.  At its core, philosophy is an attempt to understand reality via reflection.  In this sense, philosophy and science are similar, because they both have the same ultimate goals: understanding and lessening the natural fear of the unknown.

The problem is that philosophy alone is entirely insufficient, largely because the brain is so easily fooled.  Reflection is not a good way to go about it.  Science, which has all kinds of checks and balances to address the short-comings of our brains and minds, is far more robust.  Science is, in many ways, Philosophy 2.0, using all the good bits and tossing the stuff that turns out to be useless.

(Some may accuse me here of being quaintly utilitarian.  Whatever.  I'm genetically hardwired that way.  Useless things have always repelled me.  Someday I'll deal with this point specifically, but you'll have to wait for it.)

Okay, that's a (hopefully) accurate summary of Krauss's view of philosophy as presented in his book.

David Albert's critique of the book (linked at the beginning of this post) is reasonable from a philosopher's point of view.  However, Albert seems discontent to play with the rules of the dialogue as set by Krauss's book.  That is, Albert erred in not being able to distinguish between Krauss's scientific argument, and the broader (and some might say less useful) philosophical/metaphysical arguments about somethingness and nothingness.  I think this is a case of an informal logical fallacy called moving the goalposts.

Here are some excerpts from Krauss's book:
Here is the triumph of physics over metaphysics, reason and enquiry over obfuscation and myth.... (from the front-matter; a comment about the book by A. C. Grayling - a distinguished philosopher)
So the notion of a certain frission between physics and metaphysics is not just a question of scientists versus philosophers, but a question of philosophy qua philosophy.
Moreover, even if the Big Bang had happened (which all evidence now overwhelmingly supports), one could choose to interpret it in different ways depending upon one's religious or metaphysical predilections.
And a little later in the book:
But such a metaphysical speculation is independent of the physical validity of the Big Bang itself and is irrelevant to our understanding of it. 
Here we see Krauss simply putting the metaphysical question aside, and letting each reader decide for himself.  Clearly, his interest is not in metaphysics.  It seems that Albert, on the other hand, is determined to keep metaphysics at the heart of things - hence the moving of the goalposts.

The only place in the book where I could find Krauss write something that could be taken as a criticism of metaphysics is:
The metaphysical "rule," which is held as an ironclad conviction by those with whom I have debated the issue of creation, namely that "out of nothing nothing comes," has no foundation in science.  In other words, Krauss is claiming that a rule of metaphysics - or at least of some kinds of metaphysics - is not grounded in science.  Science is grounded in evidence; therefore that which contradicts science isn't grounded in evidence.  Maybe this is an insult to some philosophers, but it shouldn't be.  Krauss is simply drawing a box around the topic of his book, and saying that metaphysics isn't needed in that domain.
So I really do not understand why Albert found it necessary to be so critical of the book on metaphysical grounds.  It's as if Albert didn't read the book, or at least refused to accept the position of the "goalposts" that Krauss set in his own book.  That's like criticizing a biology text for not addressing the production of electricity for industrial use.

Furthermore, Krauss doesn't pick some arbitrary - and possibly contrived - notion of nothingness.  For most of the book, he focuses on one specific type of nothingness - perfect vacuum.  He does this because this kind of nothingness is (a) extremely well understood scientifically and (b) intimately tied to current cosmology and particle physics.  But near the end of the book, Krauss also considers a variety of ever more difficult versions of nothingness.  Each successive version lives further and further out on the bleeding edge of science - and so there is less and less that can be said about each one scientifically.  There is also a logical progression, moving from something that is relatively easy to conceive - a vacuum - and moving on to harder and harder concepts.

Krauss doesn't make anything up to satisfy the philosophers - perhaps that's why Albert is so critical of him.  But again, Krauss states at the outset that his interest is in what science has to say about the universe.  And from this self-imposed mandate, he does not stray.  This is not something to criticize, it is something to praise.

So again I find Albert's criticism to be off the mark.  Albert seems to insist that no discussion about nothingness can be complete without metaphysics, and that Krauss's notion(s) of nothingness are limited.  How this is a problem, I do not see. Krauss is interested in what science - not philosophy - can tell us.  Krauss shows us what the evidence says, yet Albert seems to demand the results of reflection rather than evidence.  Sorry - I'll take the evidence any day.

The next step involved Krauss seemingly "dissing" philosophy (also linked above).  The problem I see here is that, while every other salvo in the argument was in writing, this particular element took the form of an interview.  That is to say, while in every other case, each participant had a chance to carefully consider his words, and to revise and edit to capture both the facts and the spirit in which those facts were being presented, Krauss, in this case, did not have that opportunity.  In the rush of the moment, is it possible for a human being to express himself poorly, no matter how well spoken and educated he may be?  Of course!  We all make mistakes.

I really see this as a tempest in a teapot.

Finally, in comes Carroll trying to calm things down - an admirable intention in any situation.  One of his points is that Krauss was perhaps disingenuous in using "why" in the subtitle of his book rather than "how," because "why" implies an explanation of purpose, whereas "how" implies only causality or function.

Unfortunately, I find Carroll's remark disingenuous, because it is evident to anyone reasonably well versed in english that "how" and "why" can be often used - especially in lay language - interchangeably.

But we don't have to make any excuses for Krauss on this matter.  Krauss deals specifically with this issue in Chapter 9:
...in science we have to be particularly cautious about "why" questions.  When we ask, "Why?" we usually mean "How?" .... "Why" implicitly suggests purpose, and when we try to understand the solar system in scientific terms....  So I am going to assume what this question really means to ask is, "How is there something rather than nothing?"
Again, it's as if Carroll didn't read Chapter 9, because the complaint he makes of Krauss's book is already handled within it.

So.  After it's all said and done, I find myself siding with Krauss.  While errors were made by all parties here, I think in the end, Krauss's impressive book remains standing against the rather odd complaints raised against it - odd because they appear to miss the point or ignore the statements made in the book itself.

Fortunately, in the end, all this discussion doesn't really matter.  The objective universe, over the facts of which these three fine gentlemen have argued, will continue whether we study it or not.  Eventually, I hope, we will all recognize this, and we'll all be better off for it.