Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex

I don’t know what’s the matter with physicists these days. It used to be that they were an intellectually sophisticated bunch, with the likes of Einstein and Bohr doing not only brilliant scientific research, but also interested, respectful of, and conversant in other branches of knowledge, particularly philosophy. These days it is much more likely to encounter physicists like Steven Weinberg or Stephen Hawking, who merrily go about dismissing philosophy for the wrong reasons, and quite obviously out of a combination of profound ignorance and hubris (the two often go together, as I’m sure Plato would happily point out). The latest such bore is Lawrence Krauss, of Arizona State University.

I have been ignoring Krauss’ nonsense about philosophy for a while, even though it had occasionally appeared on my Twitter or G+ radars. But the other day I read this interview Krauss just did with The Atlantic, and now I feel obliged to comment, for the little good that it may do. And before I continue, kudos to Ross Andersen, who conducted the interview, for pressing Krauss on several of his non sequiturs. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Krauss is proud (if a bit coy) of the fact that Richard Dawkins referred to his latest book, entitled “A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing,” as comparable to Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” on the grounds that it upends the “last trump card of the theologian.” Well, leave it to Dawkins to engage in that sort of silly hyperbolic rhetoric. (Dawkins still appears to be convinced that religion will be defeated by rationality alone. Were that the case, David Hume would have sufficed.) The fact is, Krauss’s book is aimed at a general audience, popularizing other people’s (as well as his own) work, and is not the kind of revelation of novel scientific findings that Darwin put out in his opus, and that makes all the difference.

Krauss’s volume was much praised when it got out in January, but more recently has been slammed by David Albert in the New York Times:

“The particular, eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world, according to the standard presentations of relativistic quantum field theories, consists (unsurprisingly) of relativistic quantum fields... they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.”

That’s harsh, and Krauss understandably doesn’t like what Albert wrote. Still, I wonder if Krauss is justified in referring to Albert as a “moronic philosopher,” considering that the latter is not only a highly respected philosopher of physics at Columbia University, but also holds a PhD in theoretical physics. I didn’t think Rockefeller University (where Albert got his degree) gave out PhD’s to morons, but I could be wrong.

Nonetheless, let’s get to the core of Krauss’ attack on philosophy. He says: “Every time there's a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers.” This clearly shows two things: first, that Krauss does not understand what the business of philosophy is (it is not to advance science, as I explain here); second, that Krauss doesn’t mind playing armchair psychologist, despite the dearth of evidence for his pop psychological “explanation.” Okay, others can play the same game too, so I’m going to put forth the hypothesis that the reason physicists such as Weinberg, Hawking and Krauss keep bashing philosophy is because they suffer from an intellectual version of the Oedipus Complex (you know, philosophy was the mother of science and all that... you can work out the details of the inherent sexual frustrations from there).

Here is another gem from this brilliant (as a physicist) moron: “Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, ‘those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.' And 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. ... they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.”

Okay, to begin with, it is fair to point out that the only people who read works in theoretical physics are theoretical physicists, so by Krauss’ own reasoning both fields are largely irrelevant to everybody else (they aren’t, of course). Second, once again, the business of philosophy (of science, in particular) is not to solve scientific problems — we’ve got science for that (I explain what philosophers of science do here). To see how absurd Krauss’ complaint is just think of what it would sound like if he had said that historians of science haven’t solved a single puzzle in theoretical physics. That’s because historians do history, not science. When was the last time a theoretical physicist solved a problem in history, pray?

And then of course there is the old time favorite theme of philosophy not making progress. I have debunked that one too, but the crucial point is that progress in philosophy is not and should not be measured by the standards of science, just like the word “progress” has to be interpreted in any field according to that field’s issues and methods, not according to science’s issues and methods. (And incidentally, how’s progress on that string theory thingy going, Lawrence? It has been 25 years and counting, and still no empirical evidence...)

Andersen, at this point in the interview, must have been a bit fed up with Krauss’ ego, so he pointed out that actually philosophers have contributed to a number of science or science-related fields, and mentions computer science and its intimate connection with logic. He even names Bertrand Russell as a pivotal figure in this context. Ah, says Krauss, but really, logic is a branch of mathematics (it’s actually the other way around), so philosophy can’t get credit. And at any rate, Russell was a mathematician (actually, he was largely a logician with an interest in the philosophy of math). Krauss also claims that Wittgenstein was “very mathematical,” as if it is somehow surprising to find a philosopher who is conversant in logic and math. Nonetheless, Witty's major contributions are in the philosophy of language.

Andersen isn’t moved and insists: “certainly philosophers like John Rawls have been immensely influential in fields like political science and public policy. Do you view those as legitimate achievements?” And here Krauss is forced to reveal his anti-intellectualism, and even — if you allow me gentle reader — his intellectual dishonesty: “Well, yeah, I mean, look I was being provocative, as I tend to do every now and then in order to get people's attention.” Oh really? This from someone who later on in the same interview claims that “if you’re writing for the public, the one thing you can’t do is overstate your claim, because people are going to believe you.” Indeed people are going to believe you, Prof. Krauss, and that’s a shame, at least when you talk about philosophy.

Krauss also has a naively optimistic view of the business of science, as it turns out. For instance, he claims that “the difference [between scientists and philosophers] is that scientists are really happy when they get it wrong, because it means that there’s more to learn.” Seriously? I’ve practiced science for more than two decades, and I’ve never seen anyone happy to be shown wrong, or who didn’t react as defensively (or even offensively) as possible to any claim that he might be wrong. Indeed, as physicist Max Plank famously put it, “Science progresses funeral by funeral,” because often the old generation has to retire and die before new ideas really take hold. Lawrence, scientists are just human beings, and like all human beings they are interested in mundane things like sex, fame and money (and yes, the pursuit of knowledge). Science is a wonderful and wonderfully successful activity (despite the more than occasional blunder), but there is no reason to try to make its practitioners look like some sort of intellectual saints that they certainly are not (witness also the alarming increase in science fraud, for instance).

Finally, on the issue of whether Albert the “moronic” philosopher has a point in criticizing Krauss’ book, Andersen points out: “it sounds like you’re arguing that ‘nothing’ is really a quantum vacuum, and that a quantum vacuum is unstable in such a way as to make the production of matter and space inevitable. But a quantum vacuum has properties. For one, it is subject to the equations of quantum field theory. Why should we think of it as nothing?” Maybe it was just me, but at this point in my mind’s eye I saw Krauss engaging in a more and more frantic exercise of handwaving, retracting and qualifying: “I don’t think I argued that physics has definitively shown how something could come from nothing [so why the book’s title?]; physics has shown how plausible physical mechanisms might cause this to happen. ... I don’t really give a damn about what ‘nothing’ means to philosophers; I care about the ‘nothing’ of reality. And if the ‘nothing’ of reality is full of stuff [a nothing full of stuff? Fascinating], then I’ll go with that.”

But, insists Andersen, “when I read the title of your book, I read it as ‘questions about origins are over.’” To which Krauss responds: “Well, if that hook gets you into the book that’s great. But in all seriousness, I never make that claim. ... If I’d just titled the book ‘A Marvelous Universe,’ not as many people would have been attracted to it.”

In all seriousness, Prof. Krauss, you ought (moral) to take your own advice and be honest with your readers. Claim what you wish to claim, not what you think is going to sell more copies of your book, essentially playing a bait and switch with your readers, and then bitterly complain when “moronic” philosophers dare to point that out.

Lee Smolin, in his “The Trouble with Physics” laments the loss of a generation for theoretical physics, the first one since the late 19th century to pass without a major theoretical breakthrough that has been empirically verified. Smolin blames this sorry state of affairs on a variety of factors, including the sociology of a discipline where funding and hiring priorities are set by a small number of intellectually inbred practitioners. Ironically, one of Smolin’s culprit is the dearth of interest in and appreciation of philosophy among contemporary physicists. This quote is from Smolin’s book:

“I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today — and even professional scientists — seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historical and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is — in my opinion — the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.” (Albert Einstein)


  1. As someone in philosophy, let me say that not all of us would endorse the sort of childish namecalling in the blog post above. I agree that physicists often do embarrass themselves when they moonlight as philosophers, and Krauss's comment on "nothing" is one such example. But surely they're right when they make the point that philosophy has basically done nothing to advance the progress of physics. Philosophy is typically contrasted with mathematics, another armchair endeavor which surprisingly does do a great deal to advance the progress of physics. I'm inclined to forgive a physicist who takes progress of physics to the only sort of intellectual progress worth mentioning.

    The truth is that physicists are doing just fine without us, or if they're not, it won't be we philosophers that get physics back on track. So if physicists want to hold us in contempt, they have every right to because we really don't help them answer their questions. The converse is false: We can't hold physicists in contempt, because they do help us answer our questions, and we don't accept their help as much as we should. For example, I don't see philosophy departments wrestling with the mind-boggling consequences of framework-independent fundamental theories. What is space and what is time will not be answered without great help from physicists. I'm not saying that we should pass over in silence their philosophical mistakes, but we shouldn't be sniveling at them.

    1. yes but... Krauss' interview is quite edifying.

    2. I'm confused. Didn't Massimo spend quite a lot of keystrokes emphasizing that Philosophy is not in the business of solving scientific problems, and that is precisely why it is unreasonable to accuse Philosophy of failing to do so? Do any philosophers claim to be solving scientific problems by doing Philosophy? When trying to resolve the philosophical issue of confirmation, do philosophers claim that they are actually confirming any particular Scientific theory?

    3. >>>Didn't Massimo spend quite a lot of keystrokes emphasizing that Philosophy is not in the business of solving scientific problems, and that is precisely why it is unreasonable to accuse Philosophy of failing to do so?

      Yes quite. It might have been a good idea if Anonymous had bothered to actually read Massimo's post (and the interview with Krauss to which it is a response) before posting such a breathtakingly idiotic set of comments. (Seemingly Anonymous even fails to notice that if anyone has been guilty of a whole lot of "childish name-calling" of late, it is Krauss himself.)

      As for Anonymous's claim to be "someone in philosophy", I very seriously doubt it, considering the views s/he sets forth: e.g. that philosophy has never contributed to the progress of physics, and never will; that it's "surprising" that mathematics does contribute to the progress of physics; that it's perfectly fine to take progress of physics to be "the only sort of intellectual progress worth mentioning", and for physicists to hold philosophers in contempt for not solving problems in physics, etc.

      At any rate, if this commenter really is "someone in philosophy", little wonder that he or she prefers to remain anonymous.

  2. Anonymous,

    that's a really sorry statement to see from a philosopher. You seem to be missing the basic point: philosophy isn't in the business of doing science (we've got science for that). Which means that Krauss's (and your) position is sheer anti-intellectualism.

  3. A very odd, but quite common assumption in Krauss's argument (which seems to be hinted at by Anonymous above) is that philosophy of science isn't valuable unless it influences scientists. It's a very odd claim, assuming that philosophy of science can't stand on its own -- a brilliantly circular argument, when you sit back for a moment to admire it.

    Zac Ernst

    1. surely, even krauss would agree that phi sci is no less relevant to scientists than particle physics is to fundamental particles and ornithology to birds ;-)

  4. Dan Dennett (whom I contacted when the Atlantic interview with Krauss was first published) has just sent me this link:

  5. All good points--especially the one about ornithology. But by far the most annoying aspect of Krauss' dialectic is that when he is presented with examples of philosophers who have contributed to physics, or computer science, or whathaveyou, he replies that "they were essentially doing physics" or math, or whatever. Um, so, is it actually logically possible for a non-physicist to contribute to physics under these parameters?

  6. 'What is philosophy?' is a question that will tend to draw a lot of different answers from practitioners. Some of the most prominent philosophers of the twentieth century (I am thinking Quine here and the school of naturalism he influenced) have thought that there is no properly philosophical subject matter and that philosophy, properly construed should be continuous with science. I think Quine would agree with Krauss, not Albert (or Leiter, or Massimo) on this matter. The only interesting philosophical question about 'nothing' is the scientific one.

  7. Anonymous,

    well, nothing I have written necessarily contradicts Quine's take (though I do think it would be a good idea to start taking with a couple of grains of salts what he wrote). Still, the sort of moronic attack that Krauss launched on philosophy in general, and philosophy of science in particular, simply doesn't follow.

  8. I remember seeing the review when it came out in the NYT review and thinking Huh??, reading through abuut a third of the nearly 175 critical comments on M. Pigliucci's cross-post on his home blog devoted to this thing called 'rationality' (which in its derision of this other thing called 'nonsense' can sometimes get pretty nonsensical), thought "Huh??". Reread the review and bits about this Krauss, got no further with Huh: 'Huh' defined loosely as why did he attack philosophy? Finally made some headway with junk on the internet you can research yourself, but basically we have a Cormac McCarthy / Krauss relationship with events containing keys to Krauss' printed internal conflicts. I don't know the lurid details, but its easy enough to figure out that both McCarthy and Krauss are using each other to change professional gears and advance other agendas. In Krauss' case, I did not see anything new on the anti-spiritual front. Anyway, NYT readers got the benefit of a misguided rant.

    Both non believer Krauss and believer Albert however made the same mistake about physical stuff that most do. The existence of a quantum field is not a physical thing, unless of course it is observed by a physical thing. Same of course goes for a tree.

    One of these days, possibly within 1-2 years we will bury our Blackberries in favor of Androids and iPhones. But in doing so we would do well to remember the legacy of the Blackberry. Much of its profits were invested in the study of quantum information up in little Waterloo Ontario Canada via the Perimeter Institute, that science may have some more surprises for us in 20-30 years that rival the Bell work starting in the 60s and I think put to rest in the 70s.