Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Is Nothing Sacred?

Leonard Mlodinow and Stephen Hawking
(Image from MSNBC)

Alan Boyle, writing for MSNBC, asks "Is the grand design within our grasp?" By which, he means to say, has the unified theory of everything been found? Do we finally have GUT, the Grand Unified Theory? The theory that puts even God in the place of unnecessary hypotheses?

Well, I don't know, so interested readers will just have to go to the link and see what they think, but I do have a question about something -- or rather, nothing -- that Boyle reports on in the claims of Lawrence Krauss, Leonard Mlodinow, and Stephen Hawking. Boyle especially cites Krauss:
What Krauss finds exciting is that there could be ways to verify that something can come from nothing -- which is the point behind Hawking's claim that God isn't necessary to explain the universe's creation.

Physicists have noted that the positive energy contained in particles and the negative energy represented by gravitational attraction appear to balance out precisely. "Empirically, we can actually have evidence that the universe came from nothing. One of the key things is that the total energy of the universe is zero, which is only possible if the universe came from nothing. It could have been otherwise. It could have been not zero," Krauss said.

The concept of a zero-energy universe and getting something from nothing may sound crazy, but this article from Mercury magazine and this video of one of Krauss' lectures, both titled "A Universe From Nothing," show that the ideas has (have) been percolating among scientists for years. Such ideas are central to "The Grand Design," as well as to the book that Krauss is currently in the midst of writing.
In an interview that Boyle offers at the bottom of the article, Mlodinow adds to what Krauss has said:
As far as God goes, we describe our theory of where the universe came from, and why the laws of nature are as they are. And we show that with this theory, there's no need for a God to create the universe or to create the laws of physics as they are. All of this can come purely from physics, from science, from nature.
Sounds like Pierre-Simon Laplace redux: "Sire, I have not need of that hypothesis," Laplace reportedly informed Napoleon, when the latter asked why God wasn't mentioned in his celestial mechanics.

Anyway, my postponed question is this: What do Hawking and the others mean here by "nothing"? It actually sounds like an unstable something that can fracture into an exact balance of "positive energy contained in particles and . . . negative energy represented by gravitational attraction." As such, this original 'nothing' would appear to have had some sort of ontological status, a 'nothing' that exists.

Is this the only concept of "nothing" that is possible? Wouldn't a more radical concept of nothing insist on absolute nothingness, which does not exist, rather than a 'nothing' that does exist? We're talking metaphysics, not physics, and I wonder if Hawking and his fellow physicists aren't perhaps equivocating on the term "nothing." One might as well claim that 'nothing' is sacred because it is 'Creator' of the universe!

I suspect that my cyber-friend, Bill Vallicella, would have some choice words on this 'scientific' issue. He's already had some thoughts about nothing . . .

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At 5:37 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

There is no scientific description of god or a mathematical expression to define god, so why would a scientific description of the universe need a creator.

An individual may need a creator or a society, but you don't need that knowledge to hammer a nail or to sequence the genome.

The quest for some to have to have a scientific proof of god, must be because they really don't understand the nature of faith. There are those that have to have the universe fit the bible in order to believe and they are seriously trying to make science religion.

At 5:48 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

off topic,

I grew up in Tennessee when teaching Darwin's Theory of Evolution was illegal, even in a state university.

Fortunately the libraries weren't censored because I read the Origins of the Species and books on paleontology before I went to high school. Although, my biology teacher did discuss evolution.

I wonder if I continued my studies in Physics would questions have arisen about the nature of nothingness. As it was the professor in anthropology stopped any dispute of evolution at the beginning of the course on primates.

At 5:55 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...


I was bothered by the "something from nothing" rhetoric as well. It's even more polemical in the video of Krauss's lecture, in which Krauss seems to argue that it's in the nature of nothing to become something, without taking seriously the idea that nothing truly means "no thing."

At 6:41 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, thanks for the interesting remarks.

I didn't really broach the issue of God as a scientific hypothesis, though the thought was on my mind. I agree that the so-called "God of the gaps" won't work for faith since it depends upon our ignorance of something -- the gap in our knowledge.

What I was explicitly concerned with in this was that science is getting out of its sphere of expertise when it begins to treat empirically such metaphysical concepts as "nothingness."

Krauss and the others are using the term "nothing" to designate something other than absolute nothingness.

Or so it seems to me.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:43 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I agree entirely, Kevin.

I did notice your link to the same article, but I had already seen the news, so I wasn't sure that a hat-tip was in order, but if it was, then . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:24 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

The scientist defined the nothingness as the sum of the opposing energy. It happens all the time, when science or technology uses a word in some other form than the original meaning. I imagine they didn't use zero because that is more mathematical and they don't have the ability to quantify the energy in the universe. In some instance in math we have functions which approach infinity and actually never get there, but for solution sake it is assume to do so.

I guess Physicists could have called "nothing" the "Hawking."

At 7:34 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Then, it would be "The Hawking" that hawked one loogie of a universe!

Jeffery Hodges

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