Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Friday, March 22, 2013

2013 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: The Existence Of Nothing

I wasn't able to watch the live stream of the 2013 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate.  I'm looking forward to seeing the full video when it is available online.  For now, I've found a review of the event at Engspurdishabic.  Unsurprisingly, the debate had a very philosophical dimension.  Issues concerning the definition of the word "nothing", the metaphysical implications of nothingness and the boundaries between science and other disciplines were all discussed.  It's just the sort of stuff you'd like a professional philosopher or two to weigh in on.  Alas, none were on hand.  Also worth noting:  It appears that Lawrence Krauss compared their amateur philosophizing to the works of Mozart.  (That's not true.  See update below.)   I'm sure I will have more to say about this event once I see the video for myself.

Thanks to Russell Blackford for pointing out that my initial phrasing was misleading.  I did not mean to imply that Krauss thought his philosophical contribution was more relevant or valuable than those of the other panelists.

Update (March 24, 2013): I just watched the video (here) and the review at Engspurdishabic misrepresented Krauss' comment about Mozart and the relevance of their discussion.  Krauss mentions Mozart (and Picasso) when asked a different question--not about relevance, but about the practical applications of the discovery that particles can come out of an unstable "nothing." Krauss first replies that none of his own scientific work has practical applications, and that he's fine with that. He then compares his scientific work to a Mozart symphony or a Picasso painting, which can be interesting and beautiful even if it has no practical function. He says, "the ideas of science are among the most beautiful intellectual discoveries that humanity's ever come up with." But he then goes on to explain that, in fact, the spontaneous emergence of particles in a vacuum is integral to quantum mechanics and modern technology.

Later on, a different person does question the relevance of their discussion, but that question is focused more on whether or not the panelists have ignored an important why-question at the expense of the how-question. Krauss responds that the why-question unjustifiably assumes intentionality. He doesn't say anything about Mozart or the aesthetic value of their discussion at this point. (Also interesting, another of the physicists on the panel, J. Richard Gott, says that science deals only with how-questions. However, Holt disagrees with Krauss and defends the need to ask why-questions, denying that they imply intentionality.)

So Krauss did not compare his or anybody else's amateur philosophizing to the works of Mozart. He compared his own scientific work to the works of Mozart and Picasso. But I'm sure he didn't mean to suggest that any of his particular insights or contributions were nearly so valuable or beautiful. He was clearly making a more general point about whether or not science needs to have a practical application in order to be justifiable and worth pursuing. That's a much more interesting point, but also questionable.  The thing is, unlike works of art, we expect science to have at least some practical relevance.  We have very different expectations about art and science, so the comparison to art is not so persuasive.  But maybe Krauss thinks that our expectations about science are wrong.  That may be a tough argument to sell.

For more thoughts on the debate see here.