Aug. 3rd, 2012

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Over at Slate, Ron Rosenbaum has an interesting review of a new book on nothingness and the universe's origins. (The book in question is Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist?). Based on what he says, the book looks well worth a read and has officially gone on my Amazon wish list. At the moment I'm too burned out from teaching summer school - which, huzzah, is done now except for the grading - to take on deep thoughts like why there's something rather than nothing or even what nothing truly is, in any prolonged fashion. So the book itself will have to wait a few books, at least.

But this review, like most reviews of philosophy books, is more than just a review of the book. It's a condensed introduction into why this topic matters, and so I think it's worth reading for that reason alone. Just what do we mean by nothing, and what counts as proof for it? It's also a nice look back at the whole Lawrence Krauss dust-up. Obviously as a philosopher I have some very strong and long-winded opinions on Krauss, but Rosenbaum did a better job of explaining just what was so wrong with Krauss's assertions than I ever could have, and in less space. So as someone sitting on her hands through that whole set of interviews, it was nice to see a response with a bit of distance.

Anyway, back to the point of this whole book review. Rosenbaum starts by pointing to Aristotle's famous question of how we get something out of nothing. He notes that it "isn't, by the way, as some who have tried to discredit it have suggested, a "religious question. It's a philosophical question. And at its heart, it's a common-sense question." I took a little bit of issue with the "not a religious question" bit, because I think it's one that's intimately and immensely important to religion, particularly to a philosophy of religion. Religious people sometimes point to the fact that without God as a kind of first cause there's no way the whole chain of one thing causing another could ever get started in any way. This is motivated by the claim that everything has a cause. Atheists naturally argue that if everything needs a cause then a God that exists would too, so saying that God causes everything eosen't really get us anywhere. On the other hand if we're going to choose something and say this one thing doesn't have a cause, why start with God and not something less unlikely, like a particular law of physics or the Higgs-Boson particle or whatever?

And the atheist is on to something here, so far as the argument I've laid out goes. People like Aristotle pose a harder question by finetuning the principle driving the whole problem. It's not that everything needs to have a cause, but that everything that changes needs to have a cause behind the change. (At least that's how I remember Aristotle; it's been a few years since I've read the Metaphysics where this is all laid out, so bear with me.) The Prime Mover causes change, but not by changing itself, like one moving ball striking another and causing it in turn to move. It's more like a magnet that is itself stable but attracts everything else to it. Based on that definition, I don't think it's so obvious that God (or the Prime Mover) has to be caused by something. Of course there's still the major issue of whether this first cause need look anything like the Judeo-Christian God (or any other conception of God!). And it wasn't Aristotle's position that this proved Zeus or anything of that sort actually existed, so I don't want to push him there.

But Christian theology and christian philosophy - including some of the greats of western philosophy like Augustine and Aquinas - was premised on the idea that not only was their a first agent involved in the creation of the universe, but that this Creator actually created something out of nothing. Or at least they say they do. Christians at least often speak of a God who spoke into the darkness and created the light. And even if darkness is simply the absence of light (like with Augustine's privation theory), the fact that God could speak into implies there is a something, a space even if it is a vacuum. And as Rosenbaum makes clear, this isn't what we mean by nothing at all.

There's a more fundamental sense in which this is a religious question, too. On the Christian view of things, God spoke into the nothingness and created something. More specifically he created everything - implying that the something, whatever it is, didn't exist before God spoke. This seems to mean that God isn't something, doesn't it? This is one of the questions that's at the heart of my own research. What does it mean for God to exist? If by nothing we mean true nothing - no space, no time, no matter, etc. - then what does it mean to say there is a God as opposed to there not being a God? A lot of this will depend not only by what we mean by nothing (which is hard enough to define precisely) and what we mean by something. I know some philosophers, particularly early-medieval philosophers, looked at the question of whether God existed as part of space-time or all of space-time or in some other way entirely. Does that get around this question? To answer that I'd need to bone up on my Boethius but I'd also need to understand more of what we mean by something. But that's a curious idea, isn't it? That something could exist without being something?

Welcome to the fascinating world of philosophy of religion. ;-)

But what I think Rosenbaum really means is that Aristotle's question isn't just a religious question, and not one that depends on what a certain religious tradition has to say. And on that point I think he's definitely right. It's not just that people other than those with religious motives should be interested in it, but that it has implications that go far beyond whether or not God exists and what kind of God there is. What we mean by nothingness probably has serious effects for causality, freedom and responsibility, even the possibility of knowledge because it looks at how far back our explanations can and should go. As Rosenbaum puts it: "Any proposed First Cause such as "the laws of quantum mechanics" will presuppose a cause previous to it that caused the purported First Cause. You can never get back to the big question: How do you (initially) get something, anything, from nothing?"

For the record, Rosenbaum doesn't think this is a scientific question either, or at least not a purely scientific one. And here, I think, Rosenbaum is spot on. Or rather, philosopher Gary Gutting is, because Rosenbaum quotes him at length. I'll throw in that same quote, because it's worth repeating:

While Krauss could appeal to philosophy to strengthen his case against 'something cannot come from nothing,' he opens himself to philosophical criticism by simply assuming that scientific experiment is, as he puts it, the 'utlimate arbiter of truth' about the world. The success of science gives us every reason to continue to pursue its experimental method in search of further truths. But science itself is incapable of establishing that all truths about the world are discoverable by its methods.

Precisely because science deals with only what can be known, directly or indirectly, by sense experience, it cannot answer the question of whether there is anything - for example, consciousness, morality, beauty or God - that is not entirely knowable by sense experience. To show that there is nothing beyond sense experience, we would need philosophical arguments, not scientific experiments.

Let me say something that I really hope is completely unnecessary: I like science. More to the point, I believe in it. I watched the search for the Higgs-Boson over these last several months with great interest. I also believe that science is incredibly useful and that it's the best tool we have to explaining how atoms, forces, and other such things interact and affect our lives. But I also think Dr. Gutting is right here, to say that if you want to prove there's something (or nothing) that our senses can't detect, you need to go beyond what our senses tell us. In this particular case, to show that something really can come from nothing, you need to work out what nothing would look like. And it's not obvious you can get that by looking at the world around you, not directly. This is where philosophy gets really cool: propose a certain conception of nothing and ask whether it's even possible, what the implications are.

Really, go read the book review. I can't speak to what it says about the book, not having read the book myself; but it's a good primer on a really fascinating conversation going on these days between physicists and philosophers.  

(Originally posted at LJ.)

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