More about Nothing and the Scientists Who Abuse It

Philosopher of science William E, Carroll has written yet another superb article on the topic of scientists and “nothing”.  Carrol has criticized Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow for their sloppy thinking and writing on the subject, especially in regards to the Big Bang.  Bravo, Dr. Carroll.

It is increasingly difficult for me to avoid a harsh conclusion regarding some scientists and their discussions of the cosmos bringing itself into existence from “nothing”. That conclusion would be either (1) the scientists in question are philosophically incompetent or (2) they’re dishonest, or (3) some combination of the two. Clearly, they don’t mean by “nothing” what most people mean–the absence of any reality altogether. These scientists will talk about quantum vaccums and quantum gravity and fundamental physical laws, etc., as giving rise to the universe out of “nothing”, but the “nothing” in question certainly doesn’t sound like “nothing”. Certainly, they don’t mean by “nothing” what careful philosophers and theologians mean.

Are they aware that other meanings of “nothing” exist? Some seem not to be. Others most certainly are. Krauss, for example, as indicated in the new Carroll article referred to above, certainly understands, even if vaguely, a different sense to “nothing”. He rejects the idea that it is the responsibility of philosophy rather than science to tell us what nothing is. How he scientifically arrives at this conclusion is impossible to say because it is not a scientific conclusion but a philosophical one–only he seemingly doesn’t know it. How embarrassing. 

It is very hard not to feel as if there is some sort of shell game going on (I don’t direct this statement specifically at Krauss). It is getting harder and harder not to think that certain atheist or agnostic scientists find themselves out of their depth on certain fundamental matters. But for personal and professional reasons they seem to think they should be able, or should at least appear to the public to be able, to answer fundamental questions, such as why there is something rather than nothing. So they equivocate. They talk about “nothing” as if they mean nothing but they really mean something. They talk about not needing the Supreme Being as the ultimate explanation for why conditioned, contingent, finite beings exist. But they don’t seem to see the difference between God and fundamental laws or even between something and nothing, or as I say if they see the difference between the latter two words they don’t go out of their way to make that difference clear. In fact, they seem at times to go out of their way to depict God as an old man with a beard, in order easily to discount the notion that such an entity could have anything to do with why there is something rather than nothing. They seem simply unwilling to engage in a seriously sustained and thoughtful discussion of God as the best philosophy and theology have used the word, or a discussion of the philosophical underpinnings of why we have science at all.

I hope I am wrong and that I misread the situation.  But it is difficult for me to account for what I see and hear from these scientists in other terms. To get “nothing” wrong doesn’t, in this case, mean to get anything, let alone everything, right.  Just the opposite. 

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Mark Brumley is president and CEO of Ignatius Press.