Saturday, May 26, 2012

Musical Interlude: Improvisation

A short improvisation with unexpected weirdness.

It's an unusally busy time at work, and will remain so for the next month and a half; during which time I also need to finish my masters thesis.  So I have no time for other intellectual pursuits.  I still have a little time for the piano here and there, so . . . I might make a regular weekend thing out of these music uploads, classical, jazz and otherwise.  We'll see.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Musical Interlude: The Minute Waltz

I'm relearning lots of classical music I used to play.  I'm a bit rusty, but a lot is coming back to me quickly.  Today I recorded myself playing Chopin's Minute Waltz . . . twice.  The two recordings are very different, but maybe work in different ways.

Take 2:

Take 1:

I plan on recording and uploading lots more Chopin and also some Mozart and Beethoven, when I have more time to polish them.  Maybe some Liszt eventually.  It'll be a while before I try to tackle any Prokofiev.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Maniacal Moby Dick

A lot of fans and critics of American literature get annoyed when Herman Melville's Moby Dick is summarized as a revenge story.  There's an irony here.  True, thanks to film adaptations, Captain Ahab's mad desire for revenge is often and wrongly believed to be the main theme of the novel.  However, I think there is a revenge story at the heart of Moby Dick--not Ahab's revenge against the whale, but the whale's revenge against civilized man.  The truth is, Moby Dick is just as maniacal as Ahab, if not more so, and it's Ishmael's coming to terms with this mad whale that leads the narrative.

Ahab is perhaps the greatest whaling captain of all time, and thus the strongest, most revered emblem of whaling itself, which had been recognized as mankind's greatest industry.  (Melville twice reminds us of Edmund Burke's 18th-century praise of whaling as an unequaled industry, and he describes at length and speculates about the many great purposes of whaling.)  Ahab is the shining star of this, civilization's most awesome utilization and appropriation of nature.

Among other things, Ahab's greatness shows in his unique willingness to stand up to Moby Dick.  Unlike other sperm whales, Moby Dick strikes first.  He's an aggressor, wrathful, the most unruly and powerful creature nature has ever known (at least, as Melville would have us believe).  Before the action of the novel begins, Ahab's vessel was attacked, like so many others, by Moby Dick.  Yet, unlike other whalers, Ahab did not run in terror from the white whale.  He fought back, with nothing more than his courage and a six-inch blade, and he should have died, but he only lost a leg.

It's not just that Moby Dick took Ahab's leg.  Ahab's not mad about the leg.  Not ultimately.  He's more mad about the whale's wrathfulness.  About Moby Dick, Ahab says, " I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him."  The hatred was there before Ahab lost his leg.  The monomania which resulted from his pain and suffering only intensified and focused a sentiment that was already there.

Ahab's attitude is a natural response to Moby Dick, whose madness is (in Melville's world) a natural response to whaling.  Whaling facilitates an extreme cruelty to whales, as Melville describes most explicitly in Chapter 81, "The Pequod Meets The Virgin" (see below).  During the pursuit of a large sperm whale, the Pequod's first mate, Starbuck, is "humane" towards the whale, as if whales were human--or, if not human, just as deserving of respect and compassion.  Unfortunately, Starbuck's sentiment loses out to Flask's cruelty.  The old whale, sick, suffering, exhausted and terrified, dies in the most painful and pitiable way imaginable.  For what purpose? As Melville explains with implicit condemnation, "in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all."

Can you blame Moby Dick for being a bit mad?

The white whale, wise and wrathful, is a threat to the world's greatest industry, an offense to mankind's impulse to conquer nature.  Ahab's undying mission is not simply to kill the whale who hurt him, but to prove himself against this monstrous insult.  As Ahab says, he'd "strike the sun if it insulted" him.  That is why Ahab must continue to fight till the death, even when he knows he will fail.  To give up against Moby Dick would be to give up on life.

Ishmael respects and admires Ahab's quest.  He goes along with it from beginning to end, even though he doesn't share the rest of the crew's tragic fate.  (He alone is left to tell the tale, fated to cetological evangelism.)  Perhaps, as Albert Camus later suggested, Melville meant the absurd tragedy of Ahab's fight to be a lesson in existential virtue.  However, Ishmael does not simply become a preacher of Ahab and the greatness of whaling and industry.  He is a passionate worshiper of the whale.  Ishmael does follow Ahab, but when all is said and done, he believes in the whale.

While Moby Dick embodies everything Ahab hates, everything that signifies a limit to his eminence and power, Ishmael sees the sublime in the white whale.  Moby Dick expresses the godless, incomprehensible, uncontainable truth of nature.  (See Chapter 42, the last paragraph in particular.)  Ishmael is the one who experiences whaling for the first time, who is transfixed by the philosophical and spiritual vagueries and emptiness that can creep upon the isolated, far-flung men aboard whale ships.  Ishmael has "the problem of the universe" inside of him.  He is the one who appreciates the humility of pluralistic society and the beauty and innocence of primitive, uninhibited man, and who from the very beginning holds civilized society in contempt.  He repeatedly and throughout the novel critiques the hypocrisy and corruption of religion (Christianity in particular) and civilization.  Ishmael understands and respects Moby Dick's fury.  Ishmael does not hate the white whale.  He is in awe of it.  That's why this is Ishmael's story, not Ahab's.

Here's a lengthy excerpt (edited down a bit) from Chapter 81 (for full text see here):

'Full in this rapid wake, and many fathoms in the rear, swam a huge, humped old bull, which by his comparatively slow progress, as well as by the unusual yellowish incrustations over-growing him, seemed afflicted with the jaundice, or some other infirmity. Whether this whale belonged to the pod in advance, seemed questionable; for it is not customary for such venerable leviathans to be at all social. Nevertheless, he stuck to their wake, though indeed their back water must have retarded him, because the white-bone or swell at his broad muzzle was a dashed one, like the swell formed when two hostile currents meet. His spout was short, slow, and laborious; coming forth with a choking sort of gush, and spending itself in torn shreds, followed by strange subterranean commotions in him, which seemed to have egress at his other buried extremity, causing the waters behind him to upbubble.

"Who's got some paregoric?" said Stubb, "he has the stomach-ache, I'm afraid. Lord, think of having half an acre of stomach-ache! Adverse winds are holding mad Christmas in him, boys. It's the first foul wind ever knew to blow from astern; but look, did ever whale yaw so before? it must be, he's lost his tiller."

. . . It was a terrific, most pitiable, and maddening sight. The whale was now going head out, and sending his spout before him in a continual tormented jet; while his one poor fin beat his side in an agony of fright. Now to this hand, now to that, he yawed in his faltering flight, and still at every billow that he broke, he spasmodically sank in the sea, or sideways rolled towards the sky his one beating fin. So have I seen a bird with clipped wing, making affrighted broken circle in the air, vainly striving to escape the piratical hawks. . . .

His motions plainly denoted his extreme exhaustion. . . .

As the boats now more closely surrounded him, the whole upper part of his form, with much of it that is ordinarily submerged, was plainly revealed. His eyes, or rather the places where his eyes had been, were beheld. As strange misgrown masses gather in the knot-holes of the noblest oaks when prostrate, so from the points which the whale's eyes had once occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horribly pitiable to see. But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all. Still rolling in his blood, at last he partially disclosed a strangely discolored bunch or protuberance, the size of a bushel, low down on the flank.

"A nice spot," cried Flask; "just let me prick him there once."

"Avast!" cried Starbuck, "there's no need of that!"

But humane Starbuck was too late. At the instant of the dart an ulcerous jet shot from this cruel wound, and goaded by it into more than sufferable anguish, the whale now spouting thick blood, with swift fury blindly darted at the craft, bespattering them and their glorying crews all over with showers of gore, capsizing Flask's boat and marring the bows. It was his death stroke. For, by this time, so spent was he by loss of blood, that he helplessly rolled away from the wreck he had made; lay panting on his side, impotently flapped with his stumped fin, then over and over slowly revolved like a waning world; turned up the white secrets of his belly; lay like a log, and died. It was most piteous, that last expiring spout. As when by unseen hands the water is gradually drawn off from some mighty fountain, and with half-stifled melancholy gurglings the spray-column lowers and lowers to the ground- so the last long dying spout of the whale.'

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Musical Interlude: I Make Music

Here are two self-made music videos I've just uploaded to YouTube.

I've gone the last five or six years without a piano.  I finally got one a couple weeks ago, and today it was tuned.  Hence the first video.  I often play classical, but today I was in a jazzy mood.  (I recorded this using the memo function on my iPhone. The background noise is courtesy of my daughters.)

The second video is a bit unusual for me.  I got an iPad last year and experimented with Garage Band software one weekend.  The recording on this video is the result.  I tried to spice it up with photographs I took in America, Poland and Czech Republic between 2005 and 2006.  (btw, I never got around to trying to do more with Garage Band or any other music software, and I'm not so eager to try again, but I enjoyed making this.)

Saturday, May 5, 2012


Adam Yauch was an inspiration, and I hope he remains an inspiration after his death.  The CNN obituary features a video from 2009, when Yauch and Ad-Rock announced that Yauch had cancer.  And--and this really gets me--Yauch apologized to his fans for having to cancel shows.  He was sincerely sorry.  The man had just found out he had cancer, and he was getting ready to go into surgery, and he apologized with humility and good humor.  The world needs more such people.

I remember going with my mom to pick up my older sister at a Beastie Boys concert during their controversial Licensed To Ill tour in the mid-80s.  The concert wasn't quite over when we arrived and I was able to catch a glimpse through the doors of the Sunrise Music Center in Sunrise, Florida.  It was wild to my pre-teen eyes and ears.  I was an instant fan.

Looking back, their beginnings were certainly immature and irresponsible, even though their music was inspiring and trailblazing.  Fortunately, the Beastie Boys evolved into a socially conscious and intellectually curious outfit, and their music kept evolving along with them.  Their third album, Check Your Head (1992), is one of my all-time favorite albums.  The title of this track pretty much sums it up:

Friday, May 4, 2012

Blog Stats and Whatnot

Specter of Reason has always and primarily been an outlet for me to work through philosophical ideas, and I've occasionally tried to approach a professional level of scholarship and rigor.  It's also been a way for me to weigh in on public debates (mainly about atheism) that are important to me.  I've tried to maintain a balance between the popular and academic topics.  I'm happy with pretty much all of my attempts to engage professional philosophers and their work, and I think I've managed some unique and valuable contributions to popular debates, as well.  

I can't say I'm proud of everything I've published here.  There's a lot I could do without, and a few word choices and arguments I'd reconsider, but I more or less agree with the bulk of what you will find if you spend some time here.

Though I've been blogging for over four and a half years, I only started collecting data with Google Analytics two years ago, in May, 2010.  Since then, I've had 15,459 visits with 10,749 unique visitors and 23,937 page views.  The average time per page has been 3 minutes and 38 seconds.  Here are the ten most viewed posts in the past two years:

1. Public Displays of Atheism (984 total views; average viewing time: 2:30)
3. Inception Deception (775; 5:53)

I suppose those ten posts can serve as a general introduction to the blog.  If you're more interested in my attempts to stir up some purely philosophical trouble, you might check out the posts listed under the following labels:

Thursday, May 3, 2012

It's Disgusting, But Is It Philosophy?

As devoted as I am to defending philosophy and philosophers against unjust criticism, I'm not opposed to poking fun at philosophers from time to time.  Yes, it's true:  Some philosophers flaunt their disinterest in empirical science and common sense in ridiculous ways.  Here's proof: a humorously scathing review of Colin McGinn's new book, The Meaning of Disgust.

This may be the most entertaining review of a philosophical work I've ever read.  Though I'm not sure how well McGinn's book qualifies as philosophy.  Here's the bottom line, from the review:

For the rest of us—those who actually care about disgust, or aesthetic emotions, or scholarship at all—the book is bound to disappoint. “Who can deny the mood-destroying effect of an errant flatus just at the moment of erotic fervor?” [McGinn] writes. McGinn’s book is just such a flatus, threatening to spoil an exciting intellectual moment for the rest of us. Sometimes with books, as with farts, it’s better to just hold it in.
(H/T Brian Leiter)

Beating A Dead Nothing

I don't want to keep posting about this, but I have to comment on this video, from February this year, featuring a discussion between Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins.

A few minutes in, the notion of "something from nothing" is raised, and Dawkins discusses it in relation to evolutionary theory:  He says Darwin's Origin of Species showed the world how you can get the appearance of intelligent design from simple genetic material and the non-cognizant laws of physics, and while that isn't quite "something from nothing," it's pretty close.  (Of course, you need a suitable environment for the genetic material, too, but whatever.)

Krauss' response is bizarre.  He says Dawkins isn't giving Darwin enough credit--that Darwin did in fact show that you can get something form nothing.  Dawkins disagrees and clarifies that, no, it's not actually nothing.  You do need some conditions before natural selection can take off.  That's obvious, isn't it?

Not for Krauss, who insists that in that moment when chemistry turns to biology, when complexity emerges from simplicity, you really do, quite literally, get something from nothing.  Dawkins looks a bit confused by this (or maybe I'm reading my own confusion into his countenance).  While he doesn't concede, he doesn't quibble, either.  He lets it go, but a few minutes later he repeats that natural selection explains how you get complex life from "almost nothing."  That's civil disagreement, and I can respect it, but I would have liked to see Dawkins put a little pressure on Krauss.

Can anyone make sense of Krauss' thinking for me?  Just what was he trying to say?

Anyway, at about 46 minutes into the video, the issue of nothing comes up again, this time in relation to Krauss' new book.  Krauss emphasizes that one of the purposes of the book is to say something about theism, that the science he is discussing helps us understand how the universe is possible without a Creator.  And he says this is so because it is scientifically plausible that a universe can come from nothing.

Then he gets into the meaning of the word "nothing."  Here's my own (almost flawless) transcription.

". . . this remarkable fact that nothing is unstable, that empty space is unstable. The laws of quantum mechanics combined with gravity will tell you that if you have empty space there and you wait long enough particles will be created, and if you wait long enough, empty space will always produce a universe full of matter, just . . . And it's not a scam.  There's no violation of energy conservation.  It's from the fact that gravity can have negative energy as well as positive energy, and so--so nothing is unstable, and in fact, that's the first answer to why there's something rather than nothing is that nothing is unstable.  The big surprise would be if there were nothing, not that there's something.  Now the problem, of course, with saying that is that people will say, "That's not nothing."  And, you know, when . . . And it's an interesting problem.  When I've discussed this with theologians and philosophers, uh, some of them, and you ask, you know, what's nothing, and my argument is that these are scientific questions, not philosophical or theological ones, and . . . and I think the nothing that Aristotle would have had, or St. Thomas Aquinas, or any of the people who first asked why there is something rather than nothing, that nothing would have been an eternal empty void, namely empty space. But once I argue that empty space can create something, then immediately I'm told, "That's not nothing."  And then I throw that space itself can be created from nothing, and I'm told that's not nothing.  And then I say, well, because there's the laws of physics and then I argue the fact that the laws of physics for the reasons we've discussed--the anthropic principle--there may be many universes, and it's quite likely that even the laws of physics themselves arose by accident when the universe is created.  So even the laws aren't there.  And I'm told, "That's not nothing."  And the definition of theologians, I think, for "nothing" is "that from which only God can create something."  And I find that sort of content-free."

And then he makes a joke--actually, he says he makes the joke in the book, as well--that maybe he is "not fit to talk about nothing, because theologians and philosophers are experts at nothing."  Everybody laughs and there's uproarious applause.  Then Dawkins emphasizes that what is so remarkable to him is that space and the laws of nature came from "literally nothing."

How is that not intellectually dishonest?

I would reject the theological definition of "nothing," too.  But Krauss's argument about the meaning of "nothing" is quite poor.  He implies that people who say he's not talking about nothing are moving the goal posts.  They say nothing is one thing, and then they change their minds whenever he says that something can come from it.  At best, I'd say Krauss' interpretation of his critics is confused.  At worst, it's dishonest.

The reason people are saying "that's not nothing" is that he is talking about quantum fields, and not nothing.  The reason people often say empty space is nothing is because they think it's nothing.  If you tell them that, actually, empty space has mass and energy, then they'll say, "oh, I was wrong.  I thought it was nothing." That's not moving the goal posts.  That's just correcting a mistake.

I guess, if you tell people space itself and even the constants which define the laws of our universe can be produced from quantum fields,  then Krauss thinks the only legitimate response would be, "oh, I guess quantum fields are nothing!"

No, I doubt Krauss would say that.  But then, what is he saying?

Also of note:  Here's a discussion between Krauss and Rodney Holder (astrophysicist and priest).  Krauss is evasive, goes on about semantic disagreements about "nothing," and again insults philosophy:  He says he dismissed Albert's review of his book because Albert is a philosopher.  And Krauss says, quite clearly, that he thinks science shows that "why is there something rather than nothing?" is not an interesting question anymore.  So he's explicit:  He is not trying to answer the question.  He's trying to change the subject.  He says you can always ask, "but why that rather than nothing?"  And he says you can say the same about God.  And so the ontological argument comes up, and . . . well, maybe that's enough about this.

Are Some Atheists Afraid of Nothing?

Seinfeld, one of the most successful shows in television history, was purportedly about nothing.  Of course that was never true.  The show was about a few people with consistent personality quirks, a bit narcissistic and often socially challenged (and challenging).

When physicist and outspoken atheist Lawrence Krauss talks about the scientific concept of nothing, he's not talking about nothing, either.  In his view, if nothing is a scientifically legitimate concept, then it refers to something measurable.  You can quantify it somehow.  I agree.  Science deals in the quantifiable and measurable, after all.  It does not deal in that which cannot, in principle, be measured one way or another.  Yet it's plain as day that, if you can measure some x, then x does not equal nothing.  If you can measure it, it isn't nothing.  And so we must admit that, if science can tell us about x, then x does not equal nothing.  Science has nothing to say about nothingness.

Krauss also believes that science can tell us everything worth knowing, so it is no wonder he has no patience for discussions of nothingness.  And I mean discussions of literal nothingness, not discussions of whatever empirically measurable stuff scientists decide to call "nothing."  Discussions of nothingness are outside the purview of science.  And according to Krauss, if something is worth talking about, it's worth talking about scientifically.  If it's not a scientific question, it's not a question he wants to be bothered with.  Non-scientific (I won't say unscientific) discussions of nothingness, or anything else which might be called "philosophical", are out the window.

Krauss is in a bind, though.  He says there is some concept of nothing which is outside the scope of scientific discovery, and he's telling us that it is not worth talking about it.  He could be right on both counts, but obviously he can't argue that scientifically.  It's a philosophical matter, not a scientific one.  Philosophy, not science, tells us that science cannot tell us about nothing.  Philosophy, not science, makes sense of non-scientific concepts.  By demanding that science alone comprises truth, Krauss is shooting himself in the foot. His rejection of non-scientific knowledge is self-refuting.

I don't want to psychoanalyze, but I wonder how he thinks and feels about this.  I wonder if maybe this bind explains his infamous verbal aggression towards philosophers who, despite his irrational insistence, refuse to let science define the limits of their discourse.

I don't mean to pick on Lawrence Krauss.  There is a lot of aggression towards philosophy coming from atheists--I can provide links if you don't believe me.  And I think this might explain it.  A lot of atheists might be in denial about the need for philosophy in addition to science--about the fact that science cannot say everything that is worth saying.  They might think this is a threat, as if it somehow opened the door to theism.  But that's not the case.  Philosophy does not lead to theism.  Philosophy is not a gateway drug.  In fact, what I've tried to point out is that philosophy is already there, part of the conversation, being used and abused.  The people who attack philosophy just don't seem to realize it.

And those apologists of philosophy who say that philosophy is good because it teaches critical thinking skills, even if it does not generate knowledge of its own, are not helping.  Philosophy can and does generate knowledge, just not scientific knowledge.

A lot of atheists think philosophy (as a field of inquiry, with specialized knowledge) is the enemy, and yet they cannot rationally avoid it.  I think this explains why they so violently and irrationally lash out against it.  It would explain the displays of arrogance and ignorance, not as mere personality quirks, but as defense mechanisms against the perceived threat of theism, which they think is hiding behind philosophy's door. And so we have what I presume to be otherwise good, honest people behaving in very disrespectful and embarrassing ways.

Hopefully the tides will soon turn, and philosophical knowledge will be more widely embraced as a friend, and not an enemy, of atheism.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Carroll on creatio ex nihilo

I acknowledged physicist Sean Carroll's take on the Krauss debacle in my last post, and I was tempted to critique it at the time, but decided that doing so required a new post.  This is that post.

Carroll is critical of Krauss, but he also tries to defend him by putting his work in context.  He says the physics Krauss is talking about does have something to add to "the atheism vs. theism popular debate."  I find that unlikely, and Carroll's argument offers a good opportunity to explore why.

According to Carroll, quantum field theory shows that you don't need a Creator in a complete cosmological model of the universe.  Of course, we're talking about a complete and coherent scientific model of the universe.  But did we need quantum field theory to show us that?  Hardly.

Does quantum field theory actually show it, even?  To do that, wouldn't it have to have an empirically definable notion of a Creator?

Furthermore, is Carroll suggesting that you could have a scientific model of the universe that did include a Creator God?  If so, I think he is quite wrong.

The physics is interesting.  I have nothing against the physics.  And I have no sympathy for theistic arguments about origins and the necessity of a Creator, as I've already explained.  But, contrary to Carroll, I don't see quantum field theory helping out in the atheism vs. theism popular debate.  I see it confusing the debate, producing a lot of heated exchanges and hurt feelings, and, possibly, selling some books.  I also see it doing damage to the reputation of philosophy and I appreciate that Carroll makes an effort to fight against that tendency, but his explanation of the interplay between physics and the atheism/theism debate is not simply weak.  It is profoundly confused.

Carroll's assumption is this:  If you can show that something can come from nothing, then you have delivered a blow to theistic arguments for a Creator God.

I'm not sure that's a fair assumption. I certainly don't like the corollary assumption, that, if you can't show that something can come from nothing, then arguments for a Creator will have more traction.  That's definitely not a fair assumption.

Atheists should feel no pressure at all to show that something can come from nothing.  No such demonstration is called for in the popular debate.

But Carroll thinks this is a relevant question.  And he thinks that something can come from nothing.  He discusses two ways contemporary physics teaches us how this might happen.  Of the first possibility, he writes:

if your definition of “nothing” is “emptiness” or “lack of space itself,” the laws of quantum mechanics provide a nice way to understand how that nothing can evolve into the marvelous something we find ourselves inside.
Unfortunately, this is terribly misleading.  It may be that a lot of people think of "nothing" and "emptiness" as equivalent, but if you tell them that what they think of as emptiness has all sorts of properties, then they are likely to say, "oh, in that case, it's not nothing."  It seems intellectually dishonest to read your advanced science into the way ordinary people talk, which is what Carroll is doing if he supposes that this possibility has any relevance to the popular debate.

Of the second possibility, Carroll writes:
there is literally a moment in the history of the universe prior to which there weren’t any other moments. There is a boundary of time (presumably at the Big Bang), prior to which there was … nothing. No stuff, not even a quantum wave function; there was no prior thing, because there is no sensible notion of “prior.”
So, on this view, we cannot say that there was nothing prior to the beginning of time, because there is no coherent concept of "prior to the beginning of time."  And yet, Carroll says that this is a possible way of thinking about how something came from nothing, a nothing which was . . . prior to the beginning of time.  This is incoherent.

Sean Carroll, if you are reading this, please do me a favor.  Either reconsider your analysis or help me understand how it is supposed to make sense.  Because it seems like a no-brainer.  You have not shown how contemporary physics has anything to say about something coming from nothing in the way ordinary people understand those terms.  And saying that they should understand them differently is, really, just to say that they should change the subject.  You're saying they should talk about quantum field theory instead of theology.  I agree that they should--and if not quantum field theory, perhaps lacrosse.  But how is quantum field theory relevant to their theistic belief?  That's not something you've shown, and I suspect Krauss doesn't fare better.

[Update: I just noticed that Krauss has responded in a comment to the effect that Carroll has misrepresented him by taking him to be answering a "why" question and not a "how" question.  I don't see any misrepresentation.  Carroll presents two possible ways (he thinks) that something can come from nothing.  The question, then, he is answering is, "how could something come from nothing?" That's a "how" question, presumably of the sort Krauss is interested.]

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Something from Nothing: Why is everyone dissing philosophy?

Why do public atheists like Sam Harris and Lawrence Krauss denigrate philosophy without apparently realizing how philosophically poor and unsophisticated their arguments are, and how much better they would fare by taking philosophy seriously?

There seems to be a lot of support for this combination of arrogance and ignorance in the atheist community.  Everybody thinks they know how to think about difficult philosophical concepts.  Everybody has an opinion on philosophy, but hardly anyone has the patience, charity or education to speak about it authoritatively. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop them from pretending.

I complained about the cult of personality back in 2010, when Harris was selling his book on morality, and again recently, after he arrogantly assumed an authoritative aptitude on the issue of free will.  Isn't it odd that Harris, who seems to think rigorous attention to philosophical argument and scholarship is beneath him, is so eager to publicly debate a well-respected philosopher like Daniel C. Dennett?  Or are we supposed to think that Dennett is one of the few exceptions to the rule, and that most other philosophers aren't worth the time?

Perhaps I'm being unfair.  Harris hasn't exactly rejected philosophers in general.  He has only criticized and extensively avoided engagement with their work.  Krauss, on the other hand, has spoken vituperously against philosophers in general.  I'm happy to see Krauss rolling his eyes at theology, but I see no justification for his ignorant and careless debasement of philosophy.

The Krauss kerfuffle has officially been termed a "brouhaha." (See Russell Blackford and Sean Carroll for authoritative use of the word "brouhaha.")  Massimo Pigliucci has capably explanained what is wrong with Krauss' behavior.  Justin Vacula has made some good observations, too.  There are some interesting comments here, as well.

Krauss has since apologized for his behavior, but rather minimally.  His apology does not fairly represent the criticism levelled against him.  It also fails to fully correct his ignorant and unfortunate view of philosophy.  In fact, Krauss still fails to see the important role philosophy plays in the very conversation he is having.

See, in his apology, Krauss offers a brief explanation for why there is something rather than nothing:  As William Carlos Williams famously put it, "That which is possible is inevitable."  There must be both something and nothing, Krauss claims, because quantum fields allow it.  Of course, the existence of quantum fields might be contingent, and therefore the "everything which is not forbidden will happen" line might also be contingent.  More importantly, it seems pretty easy to distinguish between quantum fields and nothing, but Krauss doesn't.  All Krauss has done is explain some contemporary ways of thinking about how quantum fields might generate space and possibly even time as we know it.  That's pretty cool, but it's also changing the subject, and rather deceptively, too, since the book claims to answer the theologically-tinged question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

So the theologian and, yes, the philosopher, will have to wonder:  is Krauss just confused or is he being annoying on purpose?

There's nothing wrong with changing the subject.  It's just that Krauss is getting so offended (and offensive) when it is pointed out that that is what he is doing.

In this case, changing the subject is certainly worthwhile, but you need a philosophical argument for why that is the case.  (I'll provide one in a moment.) It's not enough to say:  Here's where the physics is leading us; your other notions of "something" and "nothing" aren't found in contemporary physics, therefore they are useless.  We rather need an argument that explains why the age-old "why is there something rather than nothing?" question is a dead end, and why people should stop talking about it.  It might help, for example, to explain why it is, as Krauss suggests, that the old conceptions of "something" and "nothing" are bankrupt, though I'm not convinced that these ordinary terms are the problem.  In any case, you would need a rather philosophical argument to explain that, and Krauss doesn't seem interested in such things.

Ironically, it is philosophy that will ultimately be able to explain why the theologians are wrong and the scientists are right.  You need philosophy to understand why the "why is there something rather than nothing?" question is and has always been wrongheaded.

"Why" questions are inquiries into causation.  To ask why there is something rather than nothing is to ask about the cause of the lack of nothingness.  This presupposes that a lack of nothingness was caused.  And that's nonsense, because in order to have a cause, you must have a lack of nothingness.  So a lack of nothingness cannot itself be caused.  Thus, the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" presupposes a nonsensical situation.  It's not a logically coherent question.

A similarly incoherent question is, "What created the universe?" (I'm taking "universe" to mean "that which exists," and let's include quantum fields in that definition, okay?)  We cannot meaningfully speak of a creator of everything, because that would mean that we could refer to something which existed and yet which did not exist.  Because "everything" includes . . . well, everything.

So, yes, Krauss is right that the theological issue of "why is there something rather than nothing?" is bankrupt.  But he doesn't realize that this is a philosophical bankruptcy, and not a scientific one, and does not indicate a problem with the ordinary meaning of the words.

Krauss' behavior does not just betray a lack of intellectual integrity or moral character.  It evidences an ignorance and confusion about what philosophy is, what it is for, and how it should be judged.  Instead of trying to demolish theology with physics, Krauss would be better off leaving it to the philosophers.  That's apparently what Krauss wants to do:  leave philosophers and theologians to duke it out over issues which are of no direct relevance to science.  But at the same time, he wants to have something relevant to say about the philosophical debate.  Isn't that having your cake and eating it, too?