Saturday, April 28, 2012

Anti-intellectualism is Easy

Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss has "apologized" for some "off the cuff" statements he made to an interviewer for The Atlantic, disparaging the role of philosophy as it relates to physics and other sciences. Statements such as the following:
Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then "natural philosophy" became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there's a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers. 
Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, "those that can't do, teach, and those that can't teach, teach gym."  
Pressed by the interviewer to defend such sweeping statements, which would seem to indict some pretty big names in analytic philosophy, Krauss dodges, now suggesting that many of those philosophers who did make important contributions weren't really doing philosophy. Wittgenstein, for example:
Formal logic is mathematics, and there are philosophers like Wittgenstein that are very mathematical, but what they're really doing is mathematics. (my emphasis)
 (This is false, by the way: math is a subset of formal logic, not the other way around. And while Wittgenstein may have a tendency to be very methodical in his analysis, in a way that could analogize to being mathematical, his primary occupation was with the way we use language. This is in no way "doing mathematics.")

And Russell:
Bertrand Russell was a mathematician. I mean, he was a philosopher too and he was interested in the philosophical foundations of mathematics... (my emphasis)
Some of Krauss's pals, whose careers fall directly in the lineage of analytic philosophy established by Russell and Wittgenstein, including a certain Daniel Dennett, apparently took exception with the implication that they were really just glorified mathematicians, inducing a bit of a walkback by Krauss on the Scientific American website yesterday, where he took pains to stress that the statements I have cited above (not to mention his tendency to repeated append the modifier "moronic" before mentions of philosophers) were not intended as a "blanket condemnation of philosophy as a discipline."

His defense of philosophy's value, however, is quickly dispensed with in a couple of short paragraphs, and Krauss applies the rest of his considerable verbiage defending the idea that philosophy of physics (his field) is best left to physicists, a defense which consists entirely of the argument that Krauss is only interested in the ideas he is interested in.

That's his right, of course, but the reason this particular cloud of cyber dust has been stirred up is that Krauss has also claimed to have answered, in his recent book A Universe From Nothing, the old and intractable philosophical problem "why is there something rather than nothing?" -- a question which dates back to Leibniz, but is also implied by the classic metaphysical distinctions between "being" and "becoming" dating back to Plato.

The question itself serves as kind of a shibboleth between curious and incurious minds. We cannot, on the one hand, inquire into the reasons for things, (as the physical sciences do), and simultaneously cordon off some of those possible reasons as boring or moribund because physics cannot explicate them. Once we have decided that it is interesting to ask why certain things are the way they are, and use causal reasoning to provide answers, we are stuck with problems of infinite regress, which come with the territory. There is no logically intrinsic reason why some questions admit of answers (why is the universe expanding, why can't matter exceed the speed of light? what happened in the first 3 seconds of cosmic time?) and some do not (why does the universe have the properties it has, and not other properties? why does it have any properties at all?)

Sean Carroll, for example, writes in a 2007 blog post that the correct answer to the question why is there something instead of nothing is "Why not?" Can we possibly imagine him as blithely presenting this answer to the question why are there galaxies, or why are the nuclei of atoms bound together?

Krauss's incuriosity is worse, though, because he explicitly claims (using Richard Dawkins as a proxy, in an afterward to A Universe From Nothing) that "Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages." That is he claims (or at least endorses Dawkins' claim) to be answering not merely a scientific question of how the first instances of matter could have arisen from quantum fields, but the ontological question of why the universe is inherently structured to allow these fields. Why these fields, and not others? --or no fields at all?

When it is brought to Krauss' attention that he has addressed the former, but not the latter, he firmly denies he ever set out to do anything more than this. From the Atlantic interview:
I don't really give a damn about what "nothing" means to philosophers; I care about the "nothing" of reality. And if the "nothing" of reality is full of stuff, then I'll go with that.
So Leibniz' question stands, then? Wherefore then Dawkins' talk of trump cards? This is the point physicist and philosopher of science David Albert made in the New York Times (earning him the characterization of "moronic" from Krauss):
Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-­theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves.
Interestingly, after dismissing any explanations that don't invoke empirical fact, Krauss concludes his apologia by offering just that, an angels-on-the-heads-of-pins type rationalization made of pure speculation:
If all possibilities—all universes with all laws—can arise dynamically, and if anything that is not forbidden must arise, then this implies that both nothing and something must both exist, and we will of necessity find ourselves amidst something.  A universe like ours is, in this context, guaranteed to arise dynamically, and we are here because we could not ask the question if our universe weren’t here.   
This is a muddle, logically, but the least we can say of it is that it begs the question, posed by Albert, of why "all universes with all laws can arise dynamically." It just gets worse from here:
If “something” is a physical quantity, to be determined by experiment, then so is ‘nothing’. 
I look forward to these experiments with great interest.

Again, there's no reason at all for Krauss to be interested in anything other than what he is interested in. His field of cosmology is rich with opportunities for him to remain very engaged for several lifetimes without ever venturing into other areas. It is his going out of his way to paint other people's concerns as "moronic," "sterile," "impotent," "useless," and "just noise" while demonstrating serious difficulties in even summarizing those concerns (Wittgenstein is "doing mathematics") and in engaging in questionable ontology himself ("nothing" is a "physical quantity to be determined by experiment") that makes Krauss, in this context at least, something of a reactionary boor. This is the same kind of defensive, know-nothing, tough guy posturing we see all too often in the "hard" sciences, and it is completely unnecessary.

1 comment:

John Pieret said...

Thanks. Intellectuals needed that!