Nothing at all

by Dave Maier

UniversefromnothingMost philosophical chestnuts leave me cold. Their standard formulations usually have some confusion or preconception or equivocation in there somewhere, so that even when the original puzzle makes sense, the real philosophical action has moved on, often to places unrecognizable to the layman (for good or ill). Take the one about whether, when a tree falls in the forest with no one around to hear, it makes a sound. (According to a recent TV ad, yes, to wit: “Aaaagh! [*wham*] … little help? Anyone? Hello?”) My answer: it depends on what you mean by “sound”; in one sense, yes, in another, no. Both uses of the term are perfectly well established – you just can't use them interchangeably. There are of course some live philosophical questions about perception and reality to keep us busy; this just isn't one of them.

Naturally this isn't enough for some people. The answer is “merely semantic,” and doesn't engage the real mystery of subjects in an objective world. The other questions about perception I mentioned – where for my money the “real action” is – don't give us that same buzz. They're boring, technical, overly analytic. Worse, their focus is disappointingly narrow. Whatever the fate of, say, the doctrine of epistemological disjunctivism, we're a long way from the wonder in which philosophy supposedly begins. Whatever happened, these people ask, to the quest for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful?

My own response to this is that if we just keep our eyes on the true (in inquiry), the good (in action), and the beautiful (in lots of places), then the all-caps TGB (whatever, if anything, they turn out to be) can take care of themselves. But other philosophers – let's call them “naturalists” – take a more actively deflationary line against what they see as mystical obscurantism. If there are any mysteries here, they are scientific mysteries, best answered with the no-nonsense tools of empiricial science; and philosophy's task is not to try to deal with these questions itself, but just to clear the way for science. To do otherwise, according to naturalists, leads to metaphysics – or worse, theology.

If we get all that from just the tree in the forest, imagine what happens when our question is the greatest chestnut of them all: why is there anything at all, instead of nothing? Here a theological answer is so close you can taste it – and whether that taste be yummy or foul, that tends to be what underlies the more contentious answers to our question. To the main combatants, who think it of such monumental importance, there doesn't seem to be any room between naturalism and metaphysics.

I bring this up today not because I have suddenly developed a philosophical interest in this question (that is, the chestnut itself), but instead because I have just begun physicist Lawrence Krauss's 2012 book A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing, which comes down firmly on the naturalist side, and I'm already not appreciating the characteristic naturalist tendency to run together resistance to naturalism, on the one hand, with creationism/theology/metaphysics (along with right-wing politics and who knows what else) on the other. (Nor do I accept the converse identification, made by the TGB brigade, of resistance to their metaphysical project, on the one hand, with a nihilistic “scientism” on the other.) My kind of philosopher tends to ignore this particular chestnut completely, so it's not surprising that our sensibility is not well represented in these discussions, but I'd like to get a couple of cents in if I may.

The question of something vs. nothing, like that of the tree in the forest, is at least related to some actually interesting and important philosophical questions, but is not so easily diagnosed as naturalists suppose as depending on equivocation. Not only that, the related scientific question is similar enough in form that it is easy either to identify the two, or to see one as trumping or replacing the other. That scientific question – let's call it “how did the Big Bang happen” or something equally noncommital, metaphysically speaking – is the main subject of Krauss's book, and as he is one of the foremost experts on the matter, I expect to have little objection to most of it, and I very much look forward to reading the rest.

But again, there's a unquestionably naturalistic smell about the whole thing that bugs me. The first blurb on the back cover is from über-naturalist Sam Harris, but while he does point out that Krauss's answer has “nothing to do with God,” that's okay, as this is just what we should expect (that is, as an answer to our scientific question). A. C. Grayling, though, is more pugnacious: this is “a question philosophy and theology get themselves into a muddle over, but that science can offer real answers to […] Here is the triumph of physics over metaphysics, reason and enquiry over obfuscation and myth, made plain for all to see.”

Now this could be right, if what it means is this. Philosophy and theology get themselves into a muddle when they confuse their own questions (about ultimate meaning or whatever) with distinct scientific questions about the origin and development of the very early universe. We have no reason to accept any answer about the latter that doesn't – as philosophy and theology do not and cannot – include an account of specific cosmological issues such as the nature and extent of “dark matter,” the curvature of space, whether the universe is “open” or “closed,” the nature of “quantum vacuum,” and so on. This is the stuff of natural science, and Krauss's achivement (if Grayling is right, on this charitable interpretation of his blurb) is to show this. No a priori argument about a First Cause – even if successful – can have any relevance whatever to these properly scientific matters.

However, I'm not at all sure that that's what Grayling is saying, or Krauss either. The part about a “triumph of physics over metaphysics,” for example, seems a bit, well, triumphalistic for a mere statement, however persuasive, of a sharp line of demarcation separating empirical science from other things. For of course philosophers and theologians are often just as concerned as scientists to keep the various questions straight, and naturalists concerned to deny any meaningful distinction. For comparison, consider the strikingly analogous attitudes we see manifested in the traditional “mind-body problem”: materialists point to the undisputed existence of matter, and many equally undisputed explanations of various phenomena in terms of their material nature, and regard as superfluous any further explanation in terms of non-material substance, of the sort dualists demand. Similarly, in our case, no one disputes the existence of the properly scientific questions Krauss discusses; it is the need for further “metaphysical” explanation, in terms of Being or whatever, that naturalists reject as superfluous or unintelligible.

For example, here's Krauss, at the beginning of his book:

I have learned that, when discussing this question in public forums, nothing upsets the philosophers and theologians who disagree with me more than the notion that I, as a scientist, do not truly understand “nothing.” (I am tempted to retort that theologians are experts at nothing.)

“Nothing,” they insist, is not any of the things I discuss. Nothing is “nonbeing,” in some vague and ill-defined sense. This reminds me of my own efforts to define “intelligent design” when I first began debating with creationists, of which, it became clear, there is no clear definition, except to say what it isn't. “Intelligent design” is simply a unifying umbrella for opposing evolution. Similarly, some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine “nothing” as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe.

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 qualities. And without science, any definition is just words. [xiii-xiv]

There are a number of things here which deserve comment (not least the connection to creationism), but let me just focus on that last bit – especially coming as it does after the accusation of “intellectual bankruptcy”. (N. B.: the following is not an argument.) A few weeks ago I wrote about Daniel Dennett's recent book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. Relevant here are Dennett's remarks on what he calls “the 'surely' operator”:

[O]ften the word 'surely' is as good as a blinking light locating a weak point in the argument […] Why? Because it marks the very edge of what the author is actually sure about and hopes readers will also be sure about. (If the author were really sure all the readers would agree, it wouldn't be worth mentioning.) Being at the edge, the author […] has decided in favor of bald assertion, with the presumably well-grounded anticipation of agreement. Just the place to find an ill-examined 'truism' that isn't true!”

PhysicistsHere, that Krauss's “nothing” (out of which the Big Bang banged so long ago) is the only relevant or intelligible conception is the very question at issue. To say that it is “surely” so is flat-out question begging – as is that last sentence, as naturalistic a dogma as you will ever see. On the other hand, at the end of the book (I peeked), in the context of an equally forceful declaration of the primacy of science, it may be that Krauss's actual target is not metaphysics generally, but instead those who invoke God to answer the properly scientific questions his book addresses. (We may make this distinction even if Krauss himself does not.)

But see what you think; here's the quote:

One thing is certain, however. 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. Arguing that it is self-evident, unwavering, and unassailable is like arguing, as Darwin futilely did, when he made the suggestion that the origin on life was beyond the domain of science by building an analogy with the incorrect claim that matter cannot be created or destroyed. All it represents is an unwillingness to recognize the simple fact that nature may be cleverer than philosophers or theologians. [174]

It seems to me that the language of “ironclad conviction” and so forth, no doubt aimed at religious dogmatism but intended more widely if the shoe fits, falls well short of hitting those of us who simply recognize (what we take to be) an obvious and well-marked distinction between empirical science and philosophy, given (now here's my own “surely” operator) that not all philosophers are “metaphysicians” in the relevant sense, without being naturalists either. That distinction isn't a dogma in any sense, nor is it held with “ironclad conviction.” It's just one you should use, on pain of missing something – possibly about the world, but definitely about what we (philosophers) are saying.

That is, again, I cannot recognize my own non-naturalistic position in what Krauss so vehemently rejects, even as (in the proper, albeit rather different contexts) I too use “metaphysical” as a pejorative. More broadly, before any dogmatism or (bad-sense) “metaphysics” can even come into it, nearly all philosophers recognize metaphysical issues properly so called as perfectly respectable. Ontology is a metaphysical issue, which concerns simply “what there is,” and it is (part of) an answer to this question, not a rejection of it as unintelligible, to say, as Krauss seems to be doing here, that what there is is what science says there is.

This is why virtually the entire philosophical community reacted with confusion and disbelief when conservative pundit Ross Douthat complained about his Harvard education that in the philosophy department there, as well as in academia generally (filled with tenured radicals as it is, sworn enemies of traditional Western civilization, yada yada) were to be found neither “metaphysicians” nor “moralists”. In reply to Douthat philosophers pointed, naturally enough, to all those who write reams upon reams about those very subjects. But Douthat didn't mean what most philosophers mean. He meant a particular type of philosopher: one who, as I might put it, identify “metaphysics” and “morality,” as complementary aspects of the same transcendent reality, which the modern science-dominated intellectual world rejects as mythical. We might call these people Platonists, or as I did above, the TGB brigade; and Douthat is right that they are a vanishing breed in contemporary philosophy.

On the other hand, that type of philosopher is indeed more likely than most to be drawn to the Big Question in question like a moth to a flame. For comparison, here's a statement of that compulsion by another writer, unfamiliar to me but most likely a philosopher. Yet it's not clear to me from this excerpt whether the mere compulsion he describes means that he is guilty of metaphysical excess in my sense, even as he exemplfies Krauss's. Again, see what you think:

Thus, since I have no choice but to recognize that there is Something, I have no choice but to conclude that there is foundational force, selector, productive principle or type of necessity—some deep reason—that brings about the absence of Nothing. I cannot rid myself of the conviction that Nothing would have obtained had not something special somehow superseded or counteracted it. Yes, I know that seems circular—and many well-regarded philosophers say, “So there’s a world not a blank; what’s in any way surprising about that?” But I just can’t help feeling that they are passing right over the problem most probative of ultimate reality. (“Levels of Nothing”, by Robert Lawrence Kuhn)

Or, more succinctly: “Why is there Something rather than Nothing? Why Not Nothing? If you don’t get dizzy, you really don’t get it.” (Yet of course one might get dizzy simply by reading Krauss's mind-bending explanation of quantum vacuum and so forth.) As it happens, far from simply relying on what Krauss calls a “vague and ill-defined” notion of nothing, in this article Kuhn lays out no fewer than nine (!) carefully distinguished kinds. And as it also happens, by the time we get to nothing #8, in which “not only is there none of the above (so that, as in Nothing 7, there are no concrete existing things, physical or non-physical), but also there are no abstract objects of any kind—no numbers, no sets, no logic, no general propositions, no universals, no Platonic forms (e.g., no value)”, both Krauss and I will be shaking our heads and wondering what this could possibly mean – but to be fair, the author himself isn't committed to this one either. (Nothing #9? Don't ask.)

This is a good place to stop, not simply because I have run out of room, but because the next step is to connect my metaphilosophical views as manifested (if not exactly explained) here with my discussions of other philosophers in previous columns, in the hope of warding off the traditional charges, from naturalists and Platonists both, of relativism and whatnot, and surely (!) that part can wait. But now I owe it to Krauss to read the rest of his book!