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old idea that nothing might involve empty space, devoid of mass or energy, or anything material, for example, has now been replaced by a boiling bubbling brew of virtual particles, popping in and out of existence in a time so short that we cannot detect them directly.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.