Monday, February 19, 2018

Something comes from Something: Nothing comes from Nothing. Big Deal

The Grand Logical Hiatus.

A post on the de facto ID site Uncommon Descent (See here) alerted me to this blog post by atheist Sean Carroll. Just as atheist PZ Myers is a source of news about American Christian culture so UD is a source of news about the world of atheism. 

Carroll’s post concerns a matter which has been very much a theme of this blog: Viz that science, even if it should ever be in the position where its laws provide a complete description of the cosmos, will nevertheless always leave us with an irreducible kernel of “unexplained” information. “Explanation” in the physical science sense of the word takes the data complexes furnished by observation and merges them into sense making theoretical constructs. In physics these constructs invariably simplify the intricacies of these data complexes by showing how they could be the outcome of relatively succinct principles. In this context a theoretical narrative which “explains” a large data complex is effectively a way to “compress” that data into something smaller and simpler. Ultimately, however, all such constructs, although they may vary in their level of succinctness, obey the “law of compression”; that is they must contain a grand logical hiatus; a kernel of “brute fact” beyond which further “compression” is impossible; you can’t “explain” something from a starting point of nothing! Nothing generates nothing whereas something, though it be relatively little, can lead to a whole lot more.

A rider needs to be added at this point. The laws of physics, which can by and large be expressed as algorithms, are in contrast to statistics, a subject which deals with randomness. (I define randomness here). Random patterns are patterns which, by definition, don’t yield better than chance predictions when attempts are made to predict them using small space, short time algorithms. Such patterns can only be treated successfully with statistics. Unlike the data complexes which are the subject of the laws of physics random patterns do not simplify or “compress”.  The upshot is that the content of the physical sciences is usually an inextricable blend of two kinds of descriptive narrative: Laws and Statistics. This is what I refer to as “Law and Disorder” science.

These themes can be picked up in the following blog posts:

Below I publish the text of Carroll’s article and as usual interleave my own comments.

Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing?
Posted on February 8, 2018 by Sean Carroll

A good question!

Or is it?

I’ve talked before about the issue of why the universe exists at all (1, 2), but now I’ve had the opportunity to do a relatively careful job with it, courtesy of Eleanor Knox and Alastair Wilson. They are editing an upcoming volume, the Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Physics, and asked me to contribute a chapter on this topic. Final edits aren’t done yet, but I’ve decided to put the draft on the arxiv:

Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing?
Sean M. Carroll

It seems natural to ask why the universe exists at all. Modern physics suggests that the universe can exist all by itself as a self-contained system, without anything external to create or sustain it. But there might not be an absolute answer to why it exists. I argue that any attempt to account for the existence of something rather than nothing must ultimately bottom out in a set of brute facts; the universe simply is, without ultimate cause or explanation.

MY COMMENT:   As far as I’m concerned there is no disputing Carroll’s argument that “explanation” in the physical science sense of the word bottoms out with brute fact. And I’ve given the reason for that:  Viz: Once we get a handle on just what we mean by physical “explanation” in the Law and Disorder sense of the word then we can see that its “information compression” effect can’t carry on indefinitely; taking “explanation” as far as it will go finally results in an irreducible kernel of information from which all else is derived.

But I would query Carroll’s claim that Modern physics suggests that the universe can exist all by itself as a self-contained system, without anything external to create or sustain it. Any attempt to “prove”, after the manner of the physical sciences, that the universe can exist all by itself in a “self-contained, self-sustaining” way would, of course, require some Law and Disorder type explanation of this situation. This, as we have seen, always entails an ultimate kernel of irreducible “brute fact”, a kernel which can have no further “explanation”, least of all an explanation as to why this brute fact is somehow “self-contained and self-sustaining” whatever that means. The descriptive role that the explanations of physical science offer do not admit such metaphysical concepts as “self-containment and self-sustenance” – these ideas are simply Carroll asserting his belief that beyond the kernel of law and disorder science there is nothing to say other than that this kernel, in some strange way, has the god-like property of aseity. This is sheer metaphysical assertion on Carroll’s part. He is of course entitled to his (subjective) opinion about such matters, but he can’t claim that ideas like this have proofs in law and disorder science, a science which, as Carroll himself will agree, ultimately presents us with a brute fact kernel. Like Carroll we can if we are so inclined impute the metaphysical property of aseity to this law and disorder kernel…. or perhaps we should look elsewhere for aseity?

CARROLL WRITES: As you can see, my basic tack hasn’t changed: this kind of question might be the kind of thing that doesn’t have a sensible answer. In our everyday lives, it makes sense to ask “why” this or that event occurs, but such questions have answers only because they are embedded in a larger explanatory context. In particular, because the world of our everyday experience is an emergent approximation with an extremely strong arrow of time, such that we can safely associate “causes” with subsequent “effects.” The universe, considered as all of reality (i.e. let’s include the multiverse, if any), isn’t like that. The right question to ask isn’t “Why did this happen?”, but “Could this have happened in accordance with the laws of physics?” As far as the universe and our current knowledge of the laws of physics is concerned, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” The demand for something more — a reason why the universe exists at all — is a relic piece of metaphysical baggage we would be better off to discard.

MY COMMENT; Well, I think I can agree with most if not all of that; but only up until the last sentence – but I’ll speak of that in a little.

Once we understand just what “explanation” means in the physical science sense of the word then it becomes clear that we can hardly ask of it any more than what that explanation actually does; namely, to join the data dots of observation with a descriptive narrative which exploits the natural order in the cosmos so as to encapsulate nature’s patterns in succinct principles.

Like Carroll I understand “cause and effect” to be very much a construction or derived concept based on the arrow of time. It is not as fundamental as those timeless physical laws which Carroll speaks of; without an arrow of time "cause and effect" becomes a problematical concept. Hence, the question “why” often implicitly assumes this conception of time. But physics is less about the contingencies of time than it is about the timeless fundamental cosmic constraints expressed in law and disorder mathematics.

But having said all that I think I would want to re write Carroll’s last sentence as follows:

The demand for something more — a reason why the universe exists at all — I regard as a relic piece of metaphysical baggage I believe we are be better off to discard.

That is, Carroll is really speaking for himself here and not necessarily for the rest of us; hence my additions “I believe” and “I regard”.  As we have already seen Carroll has his own metaphysical baggage about the aseity of law and disorder science but seems to have fooled himself into thinking of it as rigorous physics: He believes that somehow physics’ kernel is self-contained and self-sustaining. It is clear, however, that the mathematics of physics has no self-affirming and self-referencing qualities which amount to aseity. Instead physics must end in a clear logical hiatus of brute fact as Carroll well knows.

Some people like Carroll might consider that our intellectual engagement with the cosmos is complete once law and disorder science has arrived at a comprehensive theory of explanation and thereafter people like Carroll will feel satisfied that this is all we can know. That’s fine by me, different strokes for different folks, but this in itself is a metaphysical response which presupposes the inquiry into meaning must stop there. I can’t stop Carroll stopping at that point or complain about his lack of a metaphysical urge to try to take matters further; that’s just the way he is. But by the same token there is nothing to stop people following up their metaphysical suspicions and trying to press on a bit further. After all, if Carroll continues to carry his own obviously metaphysical baggage about regarding physical self-containment and self-sustenance (although he might disguise it as physics) there’s no reason why we shouldn’t follow his good example, but in a different sort of way; although of course he and other atheists are under no obligation to follow us into those white spaces beyond the edge of the map; in fact they may even believe that it is not meaningful to even talk about those “white spaces”.

CARROLL WRITES: This perspective gets pushback from two different sides. On the one hand we have theists, who believe that they can answer why the universe exists, and the answer is God. As we all know, this raises the question of why God exists; but aha, say the theists, that’s different, because God necessarily exists, unlike the universe which could plausibly have not. The problem with that is that nothing exists necessarily, so the move is pretty obviously a cheat. I didn’t have a lot of room in the paper to discuss this in detail (in what after all was meant as a contribution to a volume on the philosophy of physics, not the philosophy of religion), but the basic idea is there. Whether or not you want to invoke God, you will be left with certain features of reality that have to be explained by “and that’s just the way it is.” (Theism could possibly offer a better account of the nature of reality than naturalism — that’s a different question — but it doesn’t let you wiggle out of positing some brute facts about what exists.)

MY COMMENT: I have a lot of sympathy here with Carroll. It certainly does feel, humanly speaking, that as he says “Whether or not you want to invoke God, you will be left with certain features of reality that have to be explained by “and that’s just the way it is.” And that seems to be true of theology as much as anything else; humanly one seems to be stuck with always having start by postulating contingent givens or brute facts. This, as we have seen, is very clear with Law and Disorder science and Carroll, if I am reading him right, would agree. At first it does seem as if theists have the same problem; they have to start with a given, albeit a very complex and difficult to understand given, namely God himself. But as Carroll points out: As we all know, this raises the question of why God exists; but aha, say the theists, that’s different, because God necessarily exists, unlike the universe which could plausibly have not. Well, as we have seen it is clear that the simple starting objects of law and disorder science don’t appear to have this property of aseity – that is, a necessary existence; they are just too simple to have such a convoluted property. But this is not quite so clear with theism because the postulated infinite complexity of God could hide something well outside human understanding and perhaps therefore infinite complexity could in some way have a necessary existence. This was an idea I first introduced in a blog post here and I quote the relevant parts of this post as follows*:

These are difficult issues, but for a theist their resolution is likely to be bound up with the concept of Divine Aseity.I favour the view that mathematics betrays the a-priori and primary place of mind; chiefly God’s mind. The alternative view is that gritty material elementals are the primary a-priori ontology and constitute the foundation of the cosmos and mathematics. But elementalism has no chance of satisfying the requirement of self-explanation as the following consideration suggests: what is the most elementary elemental we can imagine? It would be an entity that could be described with a single bit of information. But a single bit of information has no degree of freedom and no chance that it could contain computations complex enough to be construed as self-explanation. A single bit of information would simply have to be accepted as a brute fact. Aseity is therefore not to be found in an elemental ontology; elementals are just too simple.

In the search for Aseity elementalisation leads to an ontological dead end because elementals have a lower limit complexity of one bit, a limit beyond which there is no further room for logical maneuvering that could resemble anything close to self explanation. In contrast complexity has no upper limit and hence if Aseity is to be found at all, it must reside at the high end of logical complexity, perhaps at infinite measures of complexity with some kind of reflexive self affirming properties, such as we find in your “there is one true fact” example.

What I’m saying here is that an infinitely complex object could incorporate, in a way not accessible to the human mind, some kind of capital Aseity. In contrast we can see all round the gritty elementals of law and disorder science and nothing like aseity is apparent. Their very simplicity excludes aseity and these elementals can only ever be contingent brute facts with no logical necessity.  Recall also that God, if he is meaningfully a person, must embody the first person perspective of conscious cognition. As I have always had an attraction toward logical positivism, a philosophy which only sees reality in what the first person experiences and theorises about, it seems not unreasonable to me that some kind of divine and irreducible first person perspective should be at the root of all reality. However I admit that all this is rather abstruse and vague and therefore if atheists feel more comfortable with ending the inquiry into the nature of reality at the givens of law and disorder physics I have no basis for complaint.

CARROLL WRITES: The other side are those scientists who think that modern physics explains why the universe exists. It doesn’t! One purported answer — “because Nothing is unstable” — was never even supposed to explain why the universe exists; it was suggested by Frank Wilczek as a way of explaining why there is more matter than antimatter. But any such line of reasoning has to start by assuming a certain set of laws of physics in the first place. Why is there even a universe that obeys those laws? This, I argue, is not a question to which science is ever going to provide a snappy and convincing answer. The right response is “that’s just the way things are.” It’s up to us as a species to cultivate the intellectual maturity to accept that some questions don’t have the kinds of answers that are designed to make us feel satisfied.

MY COMMENT: Once again I largely agree with Carroll here. I’ve heard na├»ve interpretations of quantum mechanic’s potential to bring matter out of empty space (!= "nothing") as if it has solved the problem of why there is something rather than nothing. I have even heard talk along that lines that empty space defines what we ordinarily understand as “nothing” and therefore because quantum mechanics shows that something can come out of an empty space it effectively redefines nothing as something .... a condition which can generate something and hey presto you can get something from nothing!. But Carroll can see through this argument, which was originally simply about the quantum properties of space and not about the something vs nothing debate. As Carroll points out: But any such line of reasoning has to start by assuming a certain set of laws of physics in the first place. Why is there even a universe that obeys those laws? This, I argue, is not a question to which science is ever going to provide a snappy and convincing answer. The right response is “that’s just the way things are.”  In effect science hasn’t redefined the concept “nothing” in such a way that it shows how “something” can come from “nothing”….  rather science has redefined “something” as the laws of physics, laws which have a presupposed transcendent existence! So essentially we are back to the idea of necessarily getting something from something. Big deal.

I probably would depart from Carrol in his last two sentences. Here he clearly expresses a valued judgment on his part. He sees the calm acceptance of the brute facts of physics, with no further questions asked, as a sign of intellectual maturity. Well that’s up him. If he wants to leave the matter there that’s fine by me. In my opinion, however, real maturity is shown if realises that not everyone is going consider the matter closed and done & dusted at that point! Opinions will vary and some people, to quote Carroll, will not necessarily come up with the kinds of answers that are designed to make us feel satisfied.

* In the quoted post I was replying to James Knight in a response to a question about mathematics. He seems have picked this idea up in the following blog post of his:

..where he says:

Unlike our interpretations of God and mathematics, physics just doesn't seem to amount to a complexity powerful enough to contain an ultimate explanation. When we think of complexity, we think of a lower level complexity and an upper level complexity. The lowest level complexity would be something containing just a single bit of information. But once we start to think of an upper level complexity, we find that there really is no limit to how complex complexity can get. To me, such a realisation necessitates either one of the following:

A} Mathematics is the reason that existence 'is'.

B} God is the reason that existence 'is'.

He then goes on to consider the relationship of God and Mathematics

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