Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Science - all the way down

I have just started reading Lawrence Krauss' A Universe From Nothing: Why there is something rather than Nothing, and when I say "started" I mean I have just read the preface. Already this looks like it is going to be a thought provoking read. Like Dawkings with biology, Krauss has been doing physic almost as long as I have been alive, and although I came second in physics in my school in year 12, I still only got 49% in my final. So take all my comments on this book in light of that.

If I do manage to finish this book, I will post a full review, but already from the preface I have a few comments.

One of his first statements is that the universe came from laws of physics and then Kruss anticipates an issue with this and says:
Of course, one can ask, and many do, “Where do the laws of physics come from?” as well as more suggestively, “Who created these laws?” Even if one can answer this first query, the petitioner will then often ask, “But where did that come from?” or “Who created that?” and so on.
These arguments always remind me of the famous story of an expert giving a lecture on the origins of the universe (sometimes identified as Bertrand Russell and sometimes William James), who is challenged by a woman who believes that the world is held up by a gigantic turtle, who is then held up by another turtle, and then another . . . with further turtles “all the way down!” An infinite regress of some creative force that begets itself, even some imagined force that is greater than turtles, doesn’t get us any closer to what it is that gives rise to the universe. Nonetheless, this metaphor of an infinite regression may actually be closer to the real process by which the universe came to be than a single creator would explain.
Kruss here doesn't answer his problem about where these laws came from. The first sentence of this book states he doesn't think creations requires a Creator and here he almost says laws don't require a Lawgiver. Instead he implies that "an infinite regression may actually be closer to the real process by which the universe came to be." It seems that laws beget laws, and that laws are eternal (I wonder if they ever came from nothing).

I was happy with Krauss being upfront about the following:
I stress the word could here, because we may never have enough empirical information to resolve this question unambiguously. But the fact that a universe from nothing is even plausible is certainly significant, at least to me
He is almost saying that you need faith in the doctrine of ex nihilo, to which I say Amen. I think it is quite significant that the universe came from nothing. The Christian church has been saying this from it's inception using Jewish texts from thousands of years before that. If Krauss does manage to show that the universe has been created from nothing, he is perhaps only boosting the argument for ex nihilo. Although he does deny a Creator (and I assume he would deny a Lawgiver), science can only tell you so much about intent before it is handed over to possibility from certainty.

The crux of his argument is on what "nothing" is. In the preface he tries to curtail the argument that he is moving the goal posts as to what "nothing" is:
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.
One of my brother-in-law's turtles
So there you go, right from the start: “nothing” is every bit as physical as “something.” From that statement I'm assuming then we can measure "nothing", ie "nothing" has a charge, or weight, or a length. Before going into this book I thought "nothing" wouldn't have any physical properties by definition... But you know "without science, any definition is just words" - just like love...
It has also been suggested by various individuals with whom I have debated the issue that, if there is the “potential” to create something, then that is not a state of true nothingness. And surely having laws of nature that give such potential takes us away from the true realm of nonbeing. But then, if I argue that perhaps the laws themselves also arose spontaneously, as I shall describe might be the case, then that too is not good enough, because whatever system in which the laws may have arisen is not true nothingness. 
Turtles all the way down? I don’t believe so.

Again, Krauss denies an infinite regress, even though he did say a bit beforehand: "an infinite regression may actually be closer to the real process by which the universe came to be." I guess I will have to read more, perhaps he will answer where these laws of science come from.

And in praise of science Kruss states:
Science has been effective at furthering our understanding of nature because the scientific ethos is based on three key principles: (1) follow the evidence wherever it leads; (2) if one has a theory, one needs to be willing to try to prove it wrong as much as one tries to prove that it is right; (3) the ultimate arbiter of truth is experiment, not the comfort one derives from one’s a priori beliefs, nor the beauty or elegance one ascribes to one’s theoretical models.
His point one is good. It worked for Aristotle, and lead Antony Flew to reject atheism and accept theism based off all the fine tuning of the laws of physics our universe needs to exist.

Now this is just the preface. I don't expect any real answers yet and Kruss has sparked my interest - like any good preface should do. I hope Kruss will cover at least two main issues in this book.

1) Why don't universes appear now in high schools, as if you ask a high school student what they did at school they normally reply "nothing". Or why universes don't appear less than a kilometer away from my office in the ANU Plasma Research Laboratory where they have vacuum chambers that suck everyone out of them to mimic space (I had a mate doing a PhD there and I got to see some Plasma fired off into one of these chambers). It would seriously interrupt my youTube watching if a universe spawned just near my office...

2) My other issue is I would like to know how Kruss gets around the methodical issue of performing experiments (his point 3 of what science is based off above) within our universe to explain how it came about. Even if tests are able to be performed in "nothing" they are still been performed in our universe, which I would think would raise some issues as to what type of blank slate he is starting with...


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