Thursday, 5 January 2012

Changing the definitions of words does not prove anything

I read with interest this statement by Lawrence M. Krauss:

I spend a great deal of time in the book detailing precisely how physics has changed our notions of “nothing,” for example.  The old idea that nothing might involve empty space, devoid of mass or energy, or anything material, for example, has now been replaced by a boiling bubbling brew of virtual particles, popping in and out of existence in a time so short that we cannot detect them directly.  I then go on to explain how other versions of “nothing”—beyond merely empty space—including the absence of space itself, and even the absence of physical laws, can morph into “something.”
 Many modern physicists believe they have provided an answer to an age old philosophical question:

 “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

 But there's a big problem with their claimPhysicists originally thought that a vacuum has no activity whatsoever, and hence is "nothing". Subsequently they discovered that a vacuum is a hive of activity with particles spontaneously popping in and out of existence.

Now what they should have done at this stage is acknowledge that what they thought of as nothing, was completely utterly incorrect.  That is to say that a vacuum is not nothing -- indeed far from it.

But they persisted in using the label nothing to describe a vacuum, which means that their definition of "nothing" is totally at odds with standard usage. Indeed their definition of nothing has nothing to do with the standard definition of nothing!

So they use an incorrect definition to then argue that physics has solved the age old philosophical problem of whether something can come from nothing. They even write books about it!

In short what they do is this:

They define nothingness as a vacuum.  However lots of activity is occurring in that vacuum with particles popping in and out of existence.  It is then presumably not too problematic to show that something can come from such nothingness. They then blur their definition of nothingness to imply that their demonstration equally applies to the standard definition of nothingness.  Hence they maintain they've provided an answer to the ancient question of whether something can come from nothing!

I have no idea whether:

a) They know what they're doing and are aware of the transparent dishonesty of their arguments.

b) They genuinely are unable to understand the error they are making.

Krauss does mention that in his book he shows that something can come from nothing even in the standard absolute sense  i.e. no space-time, no physical laws -- indeed absolutely nothing whatsoever.  Now Krauss is a professor of physics.  However he cannot use physics, or more generally science, to show that something can morph from absolute nothingness into something.  This is because physics can only be applied where there exist physical laws.  Hence a philosophical argument is required.  But in my experience physicists, even though they do not seem to realise this,  are in general notoriously very poor at philosophy.   Hence I am sceptical  of the notion that he has produced any worthwhile argument in this regard.  I do however have a certain curiosity as to what his argument might be.  If anyone knows what his argument is then I'd be much obliged if you could email me or add a comment outlining his argument.

What are my own opinion regarding the question of whether something can come from nothing?  Well first of all I do not find it incoherent to suppose an object can spontaneously acausally appear in front of me out of thin air. I don't mean through the equations of quantum mechanics, or by any other causal mechanism or scientific explanation, but truly acausally.

However something appearing out of absolute nothingness is quite a different kettle of fish.

The thing is nothingness is something we simply cannot grasp. If the Universe didn't exist there would be nothing at all. No space! No time! Just nothingness. And my mind simply can't quite grasp it. 

Can something come out of such absolute nothingness? I have no idea. Personally I suspect it's way beyond the intellectual capacity of human beings to answer such a question.


  1. Read "Endless Universe" by Neil Turok.

    BTW, what Krauss was attempting to show was there is no such thing as "nothing" in the sense you are thinking. Even if you remove space and time, and all matter including every atom in the universe you would have a quantum field where virtual particles pop in and out of existence. So the "nothingness" you are trying to comprehend in the philosopher's definition of the word simply does not exist.

  2. It's not the philosophers definition of the word, it's what nothing means!

    Yes there is something rather than nothing. The question is why? If Krauss doesn't address this point then the title of his book is inappropriate.

    "Endless Universe" is another book by a theoretical physicist. It's not clear to me why you think I would be interested in reading it.

  3. You seem to misunderstand. What we call "nothing" is not really nothing. This is what Krauss was attempting to show you. So the nothingness in question is not nothing in how you interpret it. Get it?

    Now, the question you ask why is that so. It simple is. It is a brute fact. Krauss first shows you why there is no such thing as nothing by showing you that nothing is in fact "something". Then he shows you that this "nothing" is unstable and will always produce something.

    The reason I recommend that you read Endless Universe is that Neil Turok does have an explanation that to me is more satisfying then Krauss. He theorizes that the universe is engaged in an eternal cycle of expansion and contraction: There have been many Big Bangs, and there will be many more.

    The only real assumption that has to be made in the cyclic model is that dark energy can and does decay. When this happens the expansion will eventually start to slow down and ultimately contract. Within the cyclic theory, the energy associated with the force of attraction between these two membranes is responsible, in part, for the dark energy.

    Inflation cannot account for dark energy at all.

  4. I am very aware that Krauss misuses the word nothing.

    You cannot show that nothing is something, any more than you can show that the meaning of any other word is other than how it is defined.

    He would be required to demonstrate that the concept of absolute nothingness is logically, or at least metaphysically, impossible.

    Regarding "Endless Universe" I am not interested in ill-founded speculations by theoretical physicists. And that includes the alleged existence of "dark energy".

    This communication is at an end.

  5. You're right Ian. Lawrence confuses the concepts of nothingness and emptiness: the emptiness is not nothingness, but something, a field of virtual particles. Maybe the universe emerged from this field, but from which emerged the field and the physical laws that govern it? At the moment be taken as a primitive fact, without further explanation, which prevents it from having an explanation for everything. So not really answered the question why is there something instead of nothing. Science will always have to take something as primitive fact.
    Look here:

  6. You are right, Ian. Krauss' "nothing" is defined as follows: a zero point vacuum configuration of quantum relativistic fields. He discusses in his book how those vacuum fields MIGHT spontaneously produce the universe we have come to know and love. However, he never even comes close to addressing why there are zero point vacuum configurations of quantum relativistic fields to begin with! His title is a gimmick.