Saturday, 19 January 2013

A Universe From Nothing? Forget About It!!

Why is there something rather than nothing?  It’s one of the philosophical biggies – maybe even ‘the’ biggest question we can ask.  I don’t know the answer, but then again, as I will show in a moment, neither does anyone else.  It seems that one man, though, Lawrence Krauss, thinks he has the answer, and he’s written a book to demonstrate it.

It’s not because Lawrence Krauss has got his facts wrong that I think his theory is undermined (although I do think he has got his facts wrong too, as we’ll see).  His main problem is that he is attempting to answer a question that humans aren’t primed to answer.  Let’s start with Krauss’s wrong way, and then I’ll offer a suggestion for the right way.

The Wrong Way
When Lawrence Krauss talks of the universe’s ‘beginning’, he is using a pretty shabby reductionist formula to talk of the early origins of nature being elementary, in order to offer a simple speculation about the universe’s cause. He says:

Whether there is something rather than nothing is really a scientific question, not a religious or philosophical question, because both nothing and something are scientific concepts, and our discoveries over the past 30 years have completely changed what we mean by nothing. In particular, nothing is unstable. Nothing can create something all the time due to the laws of quantum mechanics

The way Lawrence Krauss is using the term 'nothing' is as a crude off the peg concept put forward to eliminate the burden of having to run with cause and effect down its inevitable path of regression until we hit a conceptual brick wall.  In his head, up pops 'nothing', like a physical concept that just does a disappearing act right in front of his eyes, and ...voila!....we have a naturalism of the gaps, and the whole cause of existence explained – the universe came from nothing. 
Let me explain how Lawrence Krauss took his studies of physics and came to a misjudged inference.  The universe is really only made up of transformations of energy and matter (and information) – and at a very elemental level we see change in form and change in quantitative information in terms of existence or non-existence within (stress within) the universe*. I can say that Jack the butcher did not exist before he was conceived by his parents, but his composition did exist in the cosmos, it just existed as different transformations of energy and matter.

When Lawrence Krauss argues that “Nothing can create something all the time due to the laws of quantum mechanics” he is only saying something meaningful in relation to amounts of energy or mass which may sum to zero under a very specific kind of measuring system in the quantum world – a measuring system that when taken to its logical conclusion posits a universe of zero total energy.  But this is only the cancelling effect** in operation – zero energy has absolutely no impingement on the universe’s ability to come into being from ‘nothing’. 

Consider a wave such as we have in quantum mechanics. This wave provides information on the whereabouts of a particle. If you have seen a wave form you will know that it is additively symmetrical in that the troughs and peaks cancel completely under an additive transformation.  But in quantum mechanics the information on the probability of the whereabouts of the particle is found by squaring the troughs and peaks, and as a consequence we lose the cancelling negative terms. Hence under one system we have the additive “nothingness” of the wave, but it is meaningless ‘nothingness’ under a spurious measuring system. 

Lawrence Krauss ought to know very well (and I’m sure he does) that using a differentiated field of energy and summing up the squares of the components gives no indication of the entire universe’s origins.  Even Stephen Hawking jumped on the bandwagon recently with his own contention that there is no problem in the universe coming from nothing because current cosmological evidence points to a universe in which positive energy (among other things) is completely cancelled by negative gravitational energy (among other things) and therefore the universe could have come from nothing.  The general mistake being made by Krauss and Hawking is failing to admit that other operations are equally as important, particularly operations that reveal form and configuration rather than bulk accounting. 

You see, the argument from additive symmetry about x=0 gives no clue as to form and configuration, because when using cosmological principles, the WAY something manifests itself can only be measured using bulk accounting metrics, not form and configuration as Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking have tried to do.  The reality of physics is the bulk accounting in this sense, and the whole of reality is mathematical and of far greater form and configuration metrics than those found in physics.

Consider a spreadsheet as an analogy. In effect, Krauss and Hawking are putting all their eggs into the total bar on the spreadsheet and overlooking the importance of the other data bars.  That’s a bit like a shopkeeper's accountant looking at the annual figures for the local corner shop, seeing a zero profit/zero loss and presuming that no goods were bought or sold throughout the year.  To make it simple, you and I could buy and sell all day and find that our income exactly matches our expenditure, meaning at the end of the day we find we've broken even.  Using that analogy for the quantum systems in the universe, Krauss and Hawking are trying to focus on the fact that we've broken even on one small transaction (zero energy) but also trying to ignore all the buying and selling that went into the process.  The spreadsheet analogy is ideal because if you take the universe as we perceive it at the quantum level as being analogous to the information contained in the spreadsheet columns, there are various formulas that underlie the cell contents, giving us our gains and losses.   In the case of the universe, those bulk accounting formulas are the entire complexity of mathematics.

Yes, it is true there is a finding in the study of physics that shows positive energy (among other things) is completely cancelled by negative gravitational energy (among other things), and that at the beginning of the universe this could give us a theoretical ‘nothing’, using only one kind of measurement.  But once we start talking of a ‘universe from nothing' in terms of what kick-started the process, we get into trouble, because clearly a configuration of any sort, even though it returns zero on one mathematical index (such as the average position of random walk or the average energy of a field of energy) is “something” in terms of the universe as a mathematical object as a whole.  So that's why I think Lawrence Krauss has got it wrong in both his philosophy and his science. Here's how I think it should be done.
The Right Way
The first thing I would say on this issue is that I don't think natural selection built minds to answer some of the very complex questions we have gone on to ask - it built us for hunting and gathering.  I suspect the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?", if it has an answer, is one beyond the capacity of the human mind.  It might be that we've put together the correct combination of words, but have actually generated a question that makes no sense, or is beyond our mental sphere.

When philosophers describe ideas and concepts as being true or false, we mean that they relate to facts in the natural world.  This has to flow from a reliable system of logic.  In other words, in philosophy humans created a logical system that works - but that system doesn't easily enable us to speculate about reality outside of that logical and empirical framework. Given that we humans are confined to interfacing within the physical universe (and maybe only a limited part of it, at that), our statements made within that logical framework are inextricably linked to the relationships between symbols, ideas or concepts from within our studies of facts in the natural world.  The question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” doesn’t sound a wholly unreasonable question, but I fancy that the reasonableness of the question may simply be a product of our ability to come up with seemingly consistent and logical statements related to our sensory data.  What I mean is, to the limited human mind that deals with the concepts ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ in everyday terms, it may seem reasonable to incorporate that kind of questioning into existence itself – but it may, in fact, be the case that existence itself is not amenable to the kind of conceptualisations we apply to the everyday world.

In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Hume explores the concepts of cause and effect, and concludes (rightly I think) that they are only discovered through experience of the world.  This is almost trivially obvious really – it didn’t take Hume to figure that out – but to my mind Hume wrote most comprehensively on the subject.  It is through experience that we feel pain when we graze our knee, or put our hand in a fire, or have a headache after too much to drink.  Our whole range of experience is a collection of inferences where we say A causes B, and this gives us predictive power.  The problem with the “Why is there something rather than nothing?” question is that the only earthly inferences we have ever made, where we say A causes B, cannot be justifiably applied to any statement where the universe itself is the B being caused by the A.  I don’t even know if it makes sense to say that something ‘caused’ the universe with the same use of language where someone might say the vodka ‘caused’ Billy to wake up with a hangover, or the wind ‘caused’ the tree to fall to the ground.  And even if it does make sense to talk in those terms, it stands to reason that whatever is capable of causing a universe to come into being is probably beyond the understanding of a mind built within that universe by the laws of physics and biology. 

To us, the simple elementals of physical reality involve grammatical predicates where those predicates act as functions to subjects (an example of which would be ‘space is unstable’) – whereas ‘existence’ itself doesn’t logically have any function in terms of predication.  We use the term ‘exists’ to denote the appearance of X or Y (The laptop in front of me ‘exists’) but once we confront what the grand reality of ‘being’ actually is we find that the binary distinction between existence and non-existence does not hold for the whole of reality at all.  Some form of reality ‘just is’ – there is a reality completely unbounded by terms like ‘existence’ and ‘causality’ - it is a reality that ‘just is’ - no ‘time’ or ‘before and after’ or ‘changes in state’ - just an all-encapsulating ‘is’ that is beyond descriptive terminology. That is why I think all this talk of 'something coming from nothing' is, in the grand ontological terms, meaningless.

So why, then, do people come out with so many absurd statements that they have no hope of justifying, and that are quite clearly beyond the remit of our ordinary use of language?  I think it must be that they are just not very good at philosophy or rational thinking.  Lawrence Krauss has claimed that it has been shown that the universe could have conceivably come from "nothing”, so has Stephen Hawking, which just demonstrates that scientists at the top of their field are just as prone to absurdity as everyone else.  When formulated as a sentence the order of words gives form to an expression of feeling, but as we’ve seen above, it is so philosophically abstruse that it only really exposes the questioner as being unable to deal with difficult questions in the right way. 

If you were to ask them what they actually mean when they make assertions like that, most would be unable to add any qualification at all, certainly not if we insisted they elaborate on the meaning of the terms used.  Let’s break down the statement – “Physics has shown that the universe could have conceivably come from nothing”.  What do they mean “physics has shown” – what specifically has it shown, and how has it done so?  How can it show something like ‘nothing’ when ‘nothing’ is only an abstract concept?  What do they mean by ‘nothing’ – what is nothing?  It is not zero energy, or an empty set, or the number zero, so what is it other than a vague concept?  And what does ‘come from’ mean here?  Is this a causative state from one homotopy class group to a change in form?  How does nature cease from being homotopic – is it by breaking the homeomorphism between N0 and N1 where N = nature in totality?  If we have two continuous functions f and g from a topological space X to a topological space Y then how does a family of continuous functions become nothing when H : X × [0,1] → Y from X given unit interval [0,1] to Y such that, if x X then H(x,0) = f(x) and H(x,1) = g(x)?

They usually try to get round this by smuggling in the multiverse argument, which in relation to the above, basically contends that we have an infinite number of universes which eventually would produce one like ours.  But this is just an example of trying to have it both ways.  Which is it – does the N continuity of functions break to nothing or does it continue N1, N2, N3 to NX where X = infinity of universes?  An infinity of universes suggests one giant mathematical nexus that has sub-nexuses whose space-time manifolds cannot overlap  So how are they homotopically related – and if they are not, how does multiverse solve the problem? Whether we have one universe or an infinite number, the problem of positing ‘nothing’ as the cause doesn’t go away.  Once they ask why such a complex nexus exists at all, it leads them full circle to ask whether it can possibly be ‘something from nothing’ - and that, of course, leads them to question what ‘nothing’ actually is, so they are back to where they started, because if they cannot define ‘nothing’, they have no business claiming it can bring about a universe.  And if there are an infinite number of universes then how did the mathematics come about?  The upshot is, I think, questions like why is there something instead of nothing? are questions the human brain has not evolved the capacity to answer. 

* On top of this, we have the law of conservation of mass, which translates as mass can neither be created nor destroyed, but it can be reconstituted into rearrangement in the closed system of our universe.

** You can even see this on a two-way mirror reflection, in which two frequencies of light create physical regions in which that frequency of light cannot travel, due to repetition of internal structures, amounting to an almost entire cancellation of energy.