Serious Thoughts about Something and Nothing

There is an interview over on Sam Harris’s blog that is worth checking out. It’s with physicist Lawrence Krauss about his new book on why there is something rather than nothing. The exchange is quite fascinating.

The question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, has long been a important philosophical question, not to mention a theological one (“Why are there beings at all, instead of Nothing?” the philosopher Martin Heidegger famously asked.). Those looking to find something more than the workings of matter in the activities of the universe have used this question as a pointer to a mystery not yet explainable in the physics department. Turning nothing into something, goes the argument, requires more than we’ve yet discovered in particle accelerators or mathematical speculations. Wherever one stands on questions of science, spirit, or God, it is certainly a question that gets to the heart what has been the source of creativity in our marvelous universe. I love the question itself, because it points to the beautiful mystery and extraordinary creative power that lies at the foundation of existence, no matter to whom or to what we might attribute that creativity.  As for myself, I don’t believe that an omnipotent deity reached down from on high and said “let there be light” or that supernatural interventions were the extra special ingredient in the pre-Big Bang cosmic soup, but I do think there is a mystery at the foundation of the universe that challenges many assumptions we make about life, no matter who we are.

Krauss, however, doesn’t seem quite as impressed with the profundity of this question. He suggests that the nature of this debate has fundamentally changed in the last decades with new discoveries in physics, and the resulting knowledge we have gained is a challenge to theology, not science. I excerpt part of his answer here:

Modern science has made the something-from-nothing debate irrelevant.  It has changed completely our conception of the very words “something” and “nothing”.  Empirical discoveries continue to tell us that the Universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not, and ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ are physical concepts and therefore are properly the domain of science, not theology or philosophy. (Indeed, religion and philosophy have added nothing to our understanding of these ideas in millennia.) I spend a great deal of time in the book detailing precisely how physics has changed our notions of “nothing,” for example.  The old idea that nothing might involve empty space, devoid of mass or energy, or anything material, for example, has now been replaced by a boiling bubbling brew of virtual particles, popping in and out of existence in a time so short that we cannot detect them directly.  I then go on to explain how other versions of “nothing”—beyond merely empty space—including the absence of space itself, and even the absence of physical laws, can morph into “something.”  Indeed, in modern parlance, “nothing” is most often unstable.  Not only can something arise from nothing, but most often the laws of physics require that to occur. 

I love the fact that science is exploring questions like this, so I should give Krauss some real credit for that. And I haven’t read his book, so please take that into account. But this is still problematic on several levels.  And calling the whole issue “irrelevant” is the height of overstatement. First, Krauss is right that our conception of nothing, in science at least, is changing. We once thought the vacuum was essentially a sort of nothingness. But now we know that as he says, in a wonderfully poetic phrase, it is a “bubbling brew of virtual particles popping in and out of existence.”  I’m not sure how something popping in and out of existence is entirely distinct from something coming from nothing, but leaving that aside, I don’t see how this constitutes any sort of statement about the larger question of creation itself, of something coming from nothing at that level. So the vacuum is not empty. Great, that’s fascinating science. For the most part, it has little bearing on the mystery of the “first cause.”

Second, notice how Krauss claims, just as an obvious aside, that religion or philosophy have added nothing to our ideas on the subject in millennia. Far be it from me to defend the extreme backwardness of much religious thought, but the statement is simply not true. And I hate that scientists get away with statements like this, casually brushing aside the idea that philosophy (or perhaps even mysticism or theology) could ever have anything to do with the advance of knowledge, as if they don’t even have to defend such a statement. (I suspect it has to do with a whole belief system about how knowledge advances, but I’ll leave that for another post.)

Third, are something and nothing really physical concepts?  Krauss asserts that they are and therefore claims them for science, but I wonder. It seems to be there can be a something that is not physical, like a thought or a natural law. Are such things physical? It’s not immediately obvious to me that the answer is yes. I guess Krauss defines science as having to do with physical things, and but not sure science is limited to that, or should be limited to that. Even physics isn’t’ really limited to physical things—not these days.

Then, Krauss goes on to point out two other ways that we are changing our conceptions of nothing—the nothingness of the absence of space, and the nothingness of the absence of physical laws.  I’m less versed in the science here, but again, these raise fascinating questions—like, when do the laws of physics enter into the picture of our universe? Were they there at the beginning, or were they there before the beginning, and if so, would that really be the beginning?

But none of these reconceptions of nothingness explain away the fundamental conundrum of how something emerges from nothing. In fact, if you don’t have space, time, objects, or even physical laws, then we are really talking about nothing, not just a metaphor or an approximation. And Harris, to his credit, immediately notices this. He queries:

You have described three gradations of nothing—empty space, the absence of space, and the absence of physical laws. It seems to me that this last condition—the absence of any laws that might have caused or constrained the emergence of matter and space-time—really is a case of “nothing” in the strictest sense. It strikes me as genuinely incomprehensible that anything—laws, energy, etc.—could spring out of it. I don’t mean to suggest that conceivability is a guide to possibility—there may be many things that happen, or might happen, which we are not cognitively equipped to understand. But the emergence of something from nothing (in this final sense) does strike me as a frank violation of the categories of human thought (akin to asserting that the universe is a round square), or the mere declaration of a miracle. Is there any physical reason to believe that such nothing was ever the case? Might it not be easier to think about the laws of physics as having always existed?

I appreciate this question because it is intellectually honest, and gets to the heart of the something-from-nothing mystery, which I’m not sure Krauss fully appreciates.

Harris seems to dislike the idea of a true nothingness giving rise to something, and I understand that aversion. It smacks so much of a non-rational, throw-up-your-hands metaphysical leap. Krauss’s answer is simply to point out that the universe is often averse to our preferences and we have to accept it the way it is whether we like it that way or not. Fair enough, but he sort of sidesteps the more basic issue of something-from-complete-nothing, which is what Harris is getting at here. Indeed, there is that true issue of creation out of zilch, and then there are a number of other issues connected to that basic philosophical issue. It seems that Krauss is mostly talking about all of these connected issues, which is fine, but it hardly makes the more basic issue irrelevant.  Truthfully, I’m not sure if it’s possible to say that much about the first cause. We just don’t know. (Turtles all the way down, I guess J).

The interview goes on to address where things stand in Physics’ quest to understand the universe, and Krauss’ s thoughts are compelling and interesting.

Reflecting further on the interview, I think that perhaps the more important question that gets sparked by all of this is not just “how does something come from nothing?” but “exactly what kind of something needs to be part of the nothing that was there at the beginning of the universe in order to get to the world of today?” In other words, what needed to be implicit in that original potential 13.7 billions years ago in order to evolve a universe of life, consciousness, human culture, and the enormous complexity of information, mind and matter that we now see before us. What, if anything, needed to be involved in order for it to evolve?


To paraphrase Brian Swimme, you take hydrogen gas, leave it alone for 13.7 billions years and it turns into rosebushes, giraffes, and human beings. How does that happen? I mean, that must have been some kind of special hydrogen gas. To paraphrase the movie My Cousin Vinny, this hydrogen gas must come from the same guy who gave Jack his beans. So to me, the fascinating question is: what needed to have been there at the origin of the evolutionary process to get the results we see after billions of years. Indeed, how does one achieve entire new categories of existence like biological life or human cognition along the cosmic evolutionary journey if some of those qualities were not already implicit in the origin—even if only in some kind of highly implicit, proto-form? That is why some people want to say that the whole universe is a “living universe” right from the beginning, because it helps avoid the issue of having life emerge out of an otherwise dead universe.  It is why some would like to place consciousness at the foundations of reality, implicit in some early, proto-form even at the quantum level, perhaps, because it helps explain why intelligence and highly individuated consciousness emerges in such a striking way later on the temporal process. Or maybe we are underestimating the sheer creative power of evolution. Maybe you don’t need those qualities there at all in the beginning, just a few natural laws and hydrogen. But then you really are talking about incredible creative leaps.

Of course, it’s cleaner, metaphysically speaking, if less is there at the beginning, but then the creative demand on the evolutionary process is greater. Emergence must then play a stronger role. I lean in that direction, but am not sure you can go all the way and fully scrub all of these higher potentials of evolution from earlier levels.  I do believe in the creative power of our universe, and the critical importance of real novelty in the unfolding of our cosmic timeline. Incredible leaps can and do happen. But magnificent somethings from next to nothing—over and over again? Well…that remains to be seen.

The Economist takes on God

Came across this article on religion from the Economist.

The good god guide

One theory of the origin of religion is that it underpins the extraordinary capacity for collaboration that led to the rise of Homo sapiens. A feature of many religions is the idea that evil is divinely punished and virtue is rewarded. Cheats or the greedy, in other words, get their just deserts. The selflessness which that belief encourages might help explain religion’s evolution. But is the idea of universal just deserts truly instinctive, as this interpretation suggests it should be?

The Economist takes on explaining religion, citing a multi-year, multinational project of the same name that attempted to understand this ubiquitous part of our cultural heritage. Like most of science’s attempts in this particular area, this one is quite clumsy, and there is simply not much to conclude. The experiments are interesting, but so preliminary and tentative that not much of anything can be deduced. It ends with this rather non-committal statement:

So, even though Explaining Religion did not actually achieve its rather ambitious eponymous goal, it has found some promising avenues of investigation, and led to that great desideratum of science, more research. Most importantly, though, it has opened to disinterested investigation an area of human behaviour that all too rarely sees it.

I guess that’s all well and good, but if anyone actually thinks that scientific investigation of religion is entirely “disinterested”, they have not been paying much attention.

I guess it’s good to have science looking into religion. Good knowledge can come of it no doubt, but jeez, sometimes the tools are so clunky that it feels like some form of investigative autism. Can religion even be thought of as one thing? And much of this feels designed to prove an already commonly held position, one referred to a the beginning, that religion is instinctual because of the survival benefits it bestowed through group bonding.

I love the idea that we should step back and have a very careful, rational, thoughtful exploration of exactly what religion is and what it means in the vast scope of human culture. Just not sure science is providing that yet. Over time, I’m sure we will do better.


What Is an Evolutionary?

“If you wish to converse with me,” the French philosopher Voltaire is said to have remarked, “define your terms.” Since I am about to publish a book titled with what is essentially a new term—“Evolutionaries”—Voltaire’s wisdom applies doubly. So this post is intended to briefly explain what I intend to mean by this term, which is beginning to be used by greater numbers in culture today. (A note of gratitude—I did not coin the term “Evolutionary,” but received it from branding visionary Kevin Clark. Others have also independently coined the term, as far as I know.) In the coming months, I’ll be expanding on my definition of the term, building up to the book’s release in May of this year.

Perhaps the closest word to “Evolutionary” in today’s parlance is the term “evolutionist”, a word commonly associated with evolutionary theory in academic circles. Evolutionist is defined in dictionaries as a person who is an “adherent to the theory of evolution.” As suggested by that distinction, it is a term that has traditionally been associated with a person who strongly believes in and is influenced by the scientific theory of evolution. It is a term often contrasted with creationists, or biblical literalists, or other various Darwinian dissenters who proliferate on the reactionary edges of modernity.

Clearly, there is much overlap between Evolutionaries and evolutionists. But I intend for Evolutionary to convey something more as well. Evolutionary is a play on the word revolutionary, and I mean it to convey something of the revolutionary nature of evolution as an idea. Evolutionaries are revolutionaries, with all the personal and philosophical commitment that word implies. They are not merely curious bystanders to the evolutionary process, passive believers in the established sciences of evolution. They are committed activists and advocates—often passionate ones—for the importance of evolution at a cultural level. They are positive agents of change, who subscribe to an underappreciated truth: that evolution, comprehensively understood, implicates the individual. Indeed, an Evolutionary is someone who has internalized evolution, who appreciates it not only intellectually but also viscerally. Evolutionaries recognize the vast process we are embedded within but also the urgent need for our own culture to evolve and for each of us to play a positive role in that outcome.

Are you an evolutionary? Do you suspect that there may be hints of meaning to be found in the process that turned a seething lithosphere into a thriving biosphere and eventually into a surging noosphere? Do you think there may be a relationship, however subtle, between the vast processes that have governed cosmic evolution, the biological forces of terrestrial evolution and the cultural processes that have taken us from totems and taboos to terabytes and human rights in less then 10,000 years? And if so, what does all of that mean about the problems and issues—political, social, philosophical and metaphysical—facing us today? What does the world look like through the eyes of an evolutionary? Let’s not raise our fists; let’s elevate our minds and invest ourselves in the great challenge of our time—embracing the deep-time past and the creative possibilities of the future, and bringing them both into the conversations of the present.

What is Life?

Last night I read a very interesting chapter in Deepak Chopra’s new book with Leonard Mlodinow, War of the Worldviews. The book is a series of answers that each author gives to questions about the nature of the universe. This particular chapter was called “What Is life?” Talk about an age-old question.

Mlodinow’s answer is interesting in that it seemed to reflect the general approach to this question, as far as I can tell, in the scientific community at the moment, which is to say, dismissive. Dismissive of it as an important issue, or a critical unsolved dilemma. “Biologists don’t agree on the best way to define life,” he points out. And then he goes on to suggest that perhaps the best approach is to just accept that there are multiple way to think about life depending on what kind of life we are talking about. He lists many of the attributes that we see in life—homeostasis, metabolism, reproduction, etc. That’s fine, but  listing a series of characteristics does not necessarily get you closer to capturing what life is all about.  I’ve read several of his essays in the book, and find him an engaging writer, but this wasn’t one of his better efforts. He just doesn’t seem to make much effort to really get at the question.  And to the extent that he did, it was the question “What is Life?” seen through the eyes of a physicist—“if I tell you the physical processes that make up the characteristics of life, then I think I have more or less explained the issue.” But whatever life is, it’s not fully captured by appealing to physics and chemistry.  I was surprised that he didn’t even mention agency, which Stuart Kaufmann likes to say is perhaps the essence of what distinguishes life from non-life. I don’t know if Kaufmann is right or even if there ever could be one right answer to such a question, but at least his answer feels more satisfying in identifying one quality we often see when we recognize something to be alive.

Chopra criticizes Mlodinow for relentlessly confusing levels when it comes to reaching for an explanation to this fundamental question. For example, we don’t think gasoline drives a car, he points out. Such a conclusion would be confusing levels of causation, assuming that all answers are to be found in the physics and chemistry of cars rather than in the agency of the driver and the car designer. Or that the products of thought—such as literature or poetry or invention—can be captured or explained by appealing merely to the firing of neuronal connections in the brain. The meaning of poetry and the subtlety of brain chemistry represent difference levels of existence, different levels of causation, different levels of explanation.

So, good for Chopra on that front. But then he goes further, making, to my mind, the exact opposite mistake to Mlodinow. Deepak’s spiritual worldview asserts that consciousness is foundational in the cosmos. That’s all well and good, but in an effort to assert that intelligence, consciousness, and life are not merely the product of evolution but are intrinsic to the universe itself (and to counter those who dismiss these qualities altogether as fundamentally important) he tends to overstep. He has a habit of attributing higher expressions of these qualities to lower levels in the process, as if intelligence in a fairly advanced form can be found at more basic levels of the universe. Is an electron alive? Well, only if we really change our definition of the term. Otherwise, we may be short-shrifting the actual evolutionary breakthrough that biological life represents.

Instead of life and consciousness being the disrespected byproducts of a material universe, Deepak wants to see them as foundational, having been there all along. “Life has always been,” he observes. But to my mind, he is inserting too much intelligence and consciousness into the origin and not leaving enough to develop in the process itself. So I find myself somewhere in the middle of this debate. Let’s make room for evolution, for emergence, for the novelties of life and consciousness to have slowly emerged over time in all their glory as the universe has developed. And if we want to claim they were there at the origin (which is a spiritually understandable thing to claim), then let’s at the very least acknowledge that they would have to have been such proto-versions of life and consciousness, such early precursors of what these qualities are today, that we don’t confuse them with actual biological life or human intelligence. Let’s not make the mistake of trying to insert higher qualities at lower levels of the process.  That’s when you start trying to say that stars might be intelligent or Gaia might have a high level of awareness. In the name of standing for consciousness, it’s easy to go overboard and implicate intelligence too far down in the evolutionary chain. Biologist Rupert Sheldrake, whose work I respect a great deal, can make the same error, speculating about the consciousness of the sun or planets in ways that are, to my mind, are an unnecessary over-response to reductionism. Not only do I think such claims are false, but they also just embolden those, like Mlodinow, who already want to undervalue things like consciousness altogether and their importance in our understanding of the universe. And it also undervalues the role that evolution plays in the development of all of these qualities, even qualities we might call spiritual.

So, what is Life? To me it seems clear that we barely understand the question. But it’s also true that fascinating things emerge as we try to give answers. Kudos to Mlodinow and Chopra for giving us more food for thought.