"The ‘Nothing’ of Reality"

A recent dust-up between physicist/author Lawrence Krauss and philosopher of science David Albert should be of interest to anyone who studies science and wonders about how such studies interact with and are perceived by scientists. The controversy started with Albert’s NYT review of Krauss’s new book, A Universe from Nothing.

The book is part cosmological primer and part anti-religious screed (featuring an afterword by Richard Dawkins!), building on a lecture Krauss gave in 2009 that’s had over a million hits on Youtube. I haven’t read it, but I have seen the lecture, and based on that I’m not surprised that Krauss is regarded as a lucid and engaging popular science writer.

What Albert took issue with – and where the bickering began – was Krauss’s use of the word “nothing.” It turns out that Krauss can’t explain where things like the laws of quantum mechanics or the fields described by relativistic quantum field theory come from: instead, “nothing” means “the absence of material particles” but not the “absence of everything.”

This is where things get interesting. In an interview with The Atlantic, Krauss blasts Albert as a “moronic philosopher,” saying: “I don’t really give a damn about what ‘nothing’ means to philosophers; I care about the ‘nothing’ of reality.” And he doesn’t stop with Albert:

…the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it.

Now, there’s a lot to doubt here – Is it true that no one outside the field readers philosophy of science? If it is, does it matter? – but instead I want to offer a charitable reading, albeit one Krauss didn’t intend and would probably reject. To my mind, if we re-read “the ‘nothing’ of reality” as “the ‘nothing’ of common sense,” Krauss has a point that’s worth the attention of those in science studies.

For all the bad things about Krauss and his friend Dawkins (and there are many), they are committed to public engagement. And, while we can and should question the version of the “information deficit model” their vision of “the public understand of science” entails, we might take this episode as an opportunity to think about the work we do in science studies and the audiences for whom we do it.

By way of wrapping up, let me just note that today Krauss published some clarifying thoughts on philosophers, spurred partly by his friend Dan Dennett’s suggestion that it sounded like he was condemning philosophy as a whole. There, he moves even further from the position on public engagement that I’ve staked out for him – which is too bad, in a sense.

Why? Because when he concludes by defining “bad” philosophy as that which goes beyond describing what we (scientifically) know, what we might know, and what we can’t, he just barely misses making the point that we might all think more about how disciplinary puzzle-solving relates to what’s interesting about what we (and scientists) do as expressed in ordinary language.


4 thoughts on “"The ‘Nothing’ of Reality"

  1. Lee

    Thanks for this, Hank. I just have a couple clarificatory questions.

    I'm trying to get my head around what you mean when you say, “To my mind, if we re-read “the 'nothing' of reality” as “the 'nothing' of common sense,” Krauss has a point that's worth the attention of those in science studies.” Do you picture Krauss as endorsing a common sense picture of nothingness? Or are you saying that at least Krauss and Co. are involved in public engagement with the people's common sense, whereas perhaps some in science studies tend to focus myopically on their own scholarly navels? Or what?

    Then, a separate question arises, to the degree that we engage the public, what relationship should we take to common sense?

    OK, and finally, I'm trying to understand your conclusion: are you saying that, even if we want to engage the public, “disciplinary puzzle-solving”–say, for instance, historians being in discussion with historiography–is what produces whatever interesting things we have to communicate in a popular venue?

    I think I could be down with that.


  2. Hank

    Hi Lee! Krauss conducts research in the rarefied idiom of theoretical physics – the “nothingness” he endorses is supposed to enable further research in that field. Still, he makes a lot of the “wonder” and “mystery” of cosmology, and his notion of “nothing” as “absence of material particles” definitely plays into that common sense wonder, if for no higher reason than to sell books.

    So, if we read the statement as a warning against unhitching our technical work from what's interesting about it, we can see it as parallel to Dewey's suggestion that “”Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men.”

    Note that if we take that admonition seriously, it answers your last two questions in a way. It doesn't mean everything we do has to be geared toward, or conducted in the language of, common sense. Instead, it means that we should take common sense questions and problems seriously – maybe the most seriously – and use the tools we've developed to address them.


  3. Lukas

    As usual, the comments hide a more interesting discussion than the original post!

    As is also perhaps becoming usual, I'll have to throw my lot in with Lee on this one. I like your Dewey quote insofar as it appeals to my populist instincts. If pressed, however, I'd have to register my skepticism about common sense.

    What is common about common sense? Is it right just by virtue of being common? There's a great article, by Clifford Geertz on Common Sense as a Cultural System.

    My perhaps uncommon sense is that philosophy (and, hopefully, science studies) is most powerful precisely when it forces us to question our common sense, if not undermine it.


  4. Hank

    And as usual, you have largely agreed with my point in antagonistic terms! Though it's unclear what you mean by “skepticism about common sense,” let's see what Geertz has to say about it. In the actual chapter of which you've linked to an excerpt, he says: “Common sense is not what the mind cleared of cant spontaneously apprehends; it is what the mind filled with presuppositions .. concludes.”

    We all know this, but how does it apply here? For one, there's a sense (!) in which we always capitalize on common sense: even by undermining it, since that sense of dislocation is one of the pleasures associated with good art and scholarship.

    For another, and this is the sense in which Dewey meant it, we should *question our common sense* in the language of common sense. Common sense is most powerful as “common sense” – as a naturalizing discourse that masks its own construction. To address the wrongs – intellectual or otherwise – committed in its name, we need to address all of those who invoke it or those to whom it is an appeal.

    Basically, let's ask who the “us” is in Lukas's last sentence: is it mostly other philosophers and science studies scholars? The choir can hear us – they're close at hand – but can anyone else? Why not?



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