The “Universe from Nothing” Brouhaha

Or maybe it’s a kerfluffle.  Clearly more than a spat.

When last we checked in on this, Lawrence Krauss’s book A Universe from Nothing had been savaged in the New York Times by David Z. Albert, a physicist/philosopher from Columbia. That’s gotta sting.

Krauss then gave an interview to someone at the Atlantic in which he referred to the reviewer as a “moronic philosopher.”  Ouch!  He also dissed philosophy in general.  He then had to walk that back in the Scientific American.  You can’t be messin’ with philosophers.

Sean Carroll at Discover Magazine attempts to referee the dispute:

Very roughly, there are two different kinds of questions lurking around the issue of “Why is there something rather than nothing?” One question is, within some framework of physical laws that is flexible enough to allow for the possible existence of either “stuff” or “no stuff” (where “stuff” might include space and time itself), why does the actual manifestation of reality seem to feature all this stuff? The other is, why do we have this particular framework of physical law, or even something called “physical law” at all? Lawrence (again, roughly) addresses the first question, and David cares about the second, and both sides expend a lot of energy insisting that their question is the “right” one rather than just admitting they are different questions. Nothing about modern physics explains why we have these laws rather than some totally different laws, although physicists sometimes talk that way — a mistake they might be able to avoid if they took philosophers more seriously. Then the discussion quickly degrades into name-calling and point-missing, which is unfortunate because these are smart people who agree about 95% of the interesting issues, and the chance for productive engagement diminishes considerably with each installment.

But he does grant one of Krauss’s major points, which is that modern physics has removed the need for a Creator:

If your real goal is to refute claims that a Creator is a necessary (or even useful) part of a complete cosmological scheme, then the above points about “creation from nothing” are really quite on point. And that point is that the physical universe can perfectly well be self-contained; it doesn’t need anything or anyone from outside to get it started, even if it had a “beginning.” That doesn’t come close to addressing Leibniz’s classic question, but there’s little doubt that it’s a remarkable feature of modern physics with interesting implications for fundamental cosmology.

You may not think that has interesting implications, but anyone who uses the argument from design will have to contend with this kind of rebuttal, in the way they have to contend with evolution as an alternative explanation for how humans came to be.

On philosophy: Clearly, bad-mouthing philosophers is going to land you in a heap of trouble, but I take Krauss’s point.  When scientific knowledge overtakes philosophical speculation, it must be frustrating for a scientist to see philosophers go on speculating, as if this hard-won knowledge didn’t exist.  But I think the criticism is more properly applied to theologians, for whom belief will always trump knowledge.

Let’s all go back to school!

The big education news of the day is that Harvard and MIT are teaming up to offer free online courses.

I am a huge consumer of free online courses downloaded from iTunes University.  I have downloaded courses from Berkeley, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, and other places and listened to them on my endless commute.  Some of these now come with reading lists, sample exams, and other materials, none of which I bother with. I’ve taken enough tests. Berkeley in particular provides a treasure trove of courses every semester, like John Searle teaching Philosophy of Mind and Brad DeLong teaching Intro to Economics.

I am not the target audience for edX (the Harvard/MIT venture), or Udacity, or Coursera (the Michigan/Penn/Stanford/Princeton venture).  They apparently want people to sign up, take online exams, write papers that are peer-graded or something, and get a grade, which will lead to some kind of certificate.  This is fine.  A certificate from MITx will never be the same as a degree from MIT, but it will probably be worth more than a degree from Greendale Community College.  As the Times article says:

“Projects like this can impact lives around the world, for the next billion students from China and India,” said George Siemens, a MOOC pioneer who teaches at Athabasca University, a publicly supported online Canadian university. “But if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits course.”

Likewise, if you wanted to learn about the Civil War, why would you sign up for some local community college overview if you could listen to David Blight’s Open Yale course, which was one of the best educational experiences of my life?

For my own selfish purposes, I hope that you’ll be able to download and audit all these new courses, and that they won’t all be on practical subjects like circuit design and computer programming.  And if that doesn’t happen, I hope Berkeley keeps doing what it’s doing.

Prejudice and Conservatism II

Following up on this post: Derbyshire has been fired by National Review.  Here is an interesting article about it. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who always has interesting things to say, puts the matter succinctly:

Let’s not overthink this: John Derbyshire is a racist. Declaring such does not require an act of  of mind-reading, it requires an act of Derbyshire-reading:
I am a homophobe, though a mild and tolerant one, and a racist, though an even more mild and tolerant one, and those things are going to be illegal pretty soon, the way we are going.
I guess it’s admirable that Rich Lowry is taking time away from pondering why people think he’s a bigot, to denounce Derbyshire. But ‘Derb’ told you what he was in 2003. And National Review continued to employ him. That’s who they are.
What else is there?

What we can expect now, I suppose, are charges of reverse racism, which exercise the right far more than real racism.

On my endless commute I’m currently listening to a course on Social Psychology from UC Berkeley.  Social Pyschology experiments often seem to me to be exercises in proving the obvious.  But today the (very funny) teacher was talking about  studies done by Devah Pager providing evidence of continued racism in hiring, even for candidates with absolutely identical backgrounds and qualifications.  Here’s an overview of what she found. Was this result obvious?  Maybe to blacks, but not necessarily to me.  Certainly not to the right.

Anybody want an encyclopedia?

The Encyclopedia Britannica is going out of print–the company is just going to concentrate on online services from now on, according to the Times.

Back in the 70s we bought the first of the macropedia/micropedia sets of the Britannica — a big expense for newlyweds.  We still have it, sitting unused in its own special bookcase.

I remember the controversy over the new structure, which seemed unnecessarily complicated to me (and lots of other people).  I used to dip into the encyclopedia a bit, but I haven’t opened a volume in years.  I occasionally think it would be interesting to see what the state of knowledge was in some field back then, but I was never curious enough to actually find out.  I don’t think our kids ever used it.  The Times article mentions that these encyclopedias are widely available on Craigslist and eBay.  We’ve tried to give ours away–surely someone would have a use for it!.  But no success.  The world has passed it by.

Free to a good home…

Update: Some of us were reminiscing about encyclopedias, and we recalled that there was an Encyclopedia Britannica booth at the Harvard Coop way back when, manned by a distinguished silver-haired guy wearing a tweed jacket who patiently answered all the questions from the crowds besieging the booth desperate to purchase the latest edition.  Okay, that last part was a lie.  We never saw him talking to anybody, except maybe one of the clerks in the Coop’s book department.  We figure that the only people who would buy an encyclopedia at the Coop would be rich parents who thought that their kids needed one for their dorm rooms.  Why should Muffy have to trek over to the library and share an encyclopedia with the unwashed masses when she could do her research in the comfort of her well-appointed room?

What was that guy’s story?  How did he end up sitting by himself on a stool, waiting in vain for someone to ask him about the difference between the macropedia and the micropedia?  There’s a depressing novel in there waiting to be written.

The Big Bang Theory and Pope Pius XII

I’ve started reading A Universe from Nothing — $11.95 for the Kindle edition, not cheap for a short book but not ridiculous, I suppose.

The Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe was first proposed by a Belgian priest/physicist, George Lemaitre, in the 1920s. There’s some significance there, because religious people find the Big Bang very appealing.

Georges Lemaitre

During my endless commute I’ve been listening to a fabulous Open Yale course on Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics, and the professor, Charles Bailyn, notes that Catholic scientists tended to favor the Big Bang explanation, while atheistic scientists preferred the alternative Steady State theory.  The Big Bang was the one that finally received convincing empirical support in the 1950s, and here is Pope Pius XII exulting:

It would seem that present-day science, with one sweep back across the centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to the august instant of the primordial Fiat Lux, when along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, and the elements split and churned and formed into millions of galaxies.  Thus, with that concreteness which is characteristic of physical proofs, [science] has confirmed the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction as to the epoch when the world came forth from the hands of the Creator.  Hence, creation took place.  We say: “Therefore, there is a Creator.  Therefore, God exists!”

Here is Pius XII, who always struck me as a pretty grim-looking guy:

Pope Pius XII

Pius’s approach is standard.  The belief comes first, and if there is corroborating evidence, the believer will embrace it.  He may even come to believe that it’s the basis of his belief.  In this case, the pope is delighted to embrace modern cosmology when it can be interpreted as confirming the Church’s teaching.  But of course the teaching was there before the cosmological evidence, and it has no empirical basis whatsoever.

It is Krauss’s contention that the cosmological playing field has now changed.  And this is going to cause problems for theologians who have been content with the Big Bang Theory.  He notes that, when he talks about a universe from nothing, they challenge his definition of the word “nothing” — that it’s not really nothing if something can spontaneously appear out of it.  Ultimately, he thinks they want to define it as “that from which only God can create something.”  Which may make theologians happy, I suppose, and people who want to hold on to their beliefs.  But not the rest of us.

Stuff I Should Have Read in College

One of my background projects, which should take me well into the next century, is to read some of the books I should have read before real life took over.  After college it’s hard to go back and fill those gaps.  For me, these gaps are in political philosophy, moral philosophy, and economics.  Mostly, I’d like to understand why so many people believe so many things that seem to me to be obviously wrong, raised as I was as a knee-jerk liberal.  Am I the one who has these things wrong?  This is almost impossible to conceive.  On the other hand, how can I be sure?

So, let’s start with John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government.  It is also almost impossible to conceive, but I have nothing interesting to say about this treatise.  Even so, I’m going to say these three things:

  • Modern life is amazing.  You can pull John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government out of the air at no cost and read it on a device that also contains all your old photographs as well as Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black and some games your kids have put there without your permission.  On the other hand, you have to put up with suboptimal optical character recognition.  It took me a while to realize that when I came across the word “cloth”, Locke really meant me to be reading the word “doth”.
  • Lock spends an inordinate amount of time explaining the duties parents have to their children, and vice versa.  This seems to be significant to his theory on how government developed historically, but it’s really pretty uninteresting to a modern reader.
  • Locke apparently was absent the day they taught about the three branches of government, because he comes up with something called the “federative” branch instead of the judicial branch.  (He got the first two right.)  The federative branch has to do with foreign policy, which he lumps in with the executive branch.  Apparently Montesquieu later came up with the right answer.

The no-free-will experiment, avec video « Why Evolution Is True

What is more interesting than free will?  Jerry Coyne finds it interesting, anyway.

The no-free-will experiment, avec video « Why Evolution Is True.

Also Sam Harris, according to Coyne.  During my endless commutes I have been listening to lectures by John Searle on the philosophy of mind, and he openly admits he hates lecturing on free will, because he has no good solution for it.  The only way he can make sense of free will is by invoking quantum indeterminacy, and he openly warns you to stop believing philosophers when they bring up quantum indeterminacy.