Physics Vs. Philosophy: When Nothing is Something
I may be a physicist, but I don’t read physics blogs as much as I would like or maybe I just read the wrong ones, because, while researching for a previous article, I stumbled upon a war.
Yes, a war. It’s a devastating war where reputations and careers are on the line. It’s a war fought in every form of media from books to blogs to interviews to videos to any and every form of media that offers time and space. It’s a war where you, my dear readers, are the pawns and the weapons are words. Strangely enough, it’s all about nothing.
Much ado about nothing.
In January of 2012, a man by the name of Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and Director of the Origins Institute at Arizona State University, published a book. Now, normally this wouldn’t amount to much. He had already published many books before this, all with little or no fanfare. Unfortunately, Krauss is a bit of a narcissist. So he couldn’t resist fanning the flames when David Albert, a philosopher of physics from Columbia University, ridiculed the book in his review in the New York Times in March. Now, what was once an inside joke and friendly competition for decades has turned into an all-out war.
Yes, the war is all about nothing, or, more specifically, the definition of nothing. Krauss’s book, A Universe From Nothing, describes many of the leading theoretical models on what occurred exactly at and before the Big Bang (i.e. what banged, why did it bang, how did it bang, how long did it bang, etc.). I am not going to go into specifics here, but in summary, the book describes what physicists believe to have happened at the beginning of time as well as what is to be truly nothing: quantum foam, a state in which no particles of any kind exist, essentially a state of pure, unaltered, raw energy. I have not read the book myself, but, from those who have, it is quite clear that Krauss is both factually correct in the book and remain impartial to any of the models. He just used the book to describe them in layman’s terms.
So what’s the problem?
Nothing should have come out of this, but in his review of the book, Albert dismissed all of Krauss’ assertions for the definition of nothing and any claims that physics was closing in on understanding the Big Bang and the Universe at large, stating that:
The particular, eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world, according to the standard presentations of relativistic quantum field theories, consists (unsurprisingly) of relativistic quantum fields… they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.
In response, Krauss retorted that “philosophy and theology as useless wastes of time.” Soon, other physicists and philosophers came to the aid of their respective soldier, and before anyone figured out what was happening, the whole thing exploded. Not even an apology from Krauss could stop what was already in motion.
What are you fighting over?
So, now there is a war over nothing. Physicists claim that they are alloud to set nothing to be equal to the quantum foam mentioned in Krauss’ book as doing so is well within the rules of physics, science, and the scientific method. As any scientist will tell you, all measuring systems and scales are arbitrary. You can set them as you see fit, provided you are consistent when using them. This includes the three-point scale of nothing, something, and everything. Since quantum foam is the least physically assessable state of existence, we can appropriately set it to nothing, the zero-point of the scale.
In response, philosophers cry “objection!” and then accuse physicists of cheating and changing the rules. Philosophers proclaim that nothing should always be set to absolute nothing, an ideal state where not even quantum foam, space-time, nor anything else can exist. Physicists counter by noting that since absolute nothing is not a physically assemble state, we can safely neglect it.
Now, philosophers are correct in one instance. All the current physics models are unproven. Physicists are still attempting to figure out how to test them. However, many of the leading models have presented plausible, testable predictions, and are now just waiting for the experiments to be conducted. Still, having a specific and properly-established scale to work with is a good thing, and you can do a lot with just the speculations.
In return, philosophers retort that there can be no such tests because these ideas can never be tested, and thus, they , the philosophers, possess jurisdiction over them, as well as any associated concept. This includes the origins of the universe and beyond.
Whether or not the philosphers are correct in their assertions is yet to be seen, but to physicists, the hostility is simply uncalled for. The two camps use the word nothing for different and unrelated purposes, and could easily coexist. Even finding out that our universe is truly not alone and there is a vast multiverse outside it would never answer the big questions of philosophy, nor will seeing that foam is indeed the end of it all. These and other discoveries like them will simply give the philosophers more questions to ponder, but maybe that’s the whole problem.
Thus, the great physics – philosophy war of our time continues. Only time will tell who will win, but who can claim victory when you are fighting over nothing?