Steng operation

I recently linked to philosopher of physics David Albert’s take down of Lawrence Krauss’s book A Universe From Nothing.  (My own review of Krauss will soon appear in First Things.)  A reader calls my attention to this blog post in which Victor Stenger -- Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii, and author of several atheist tomes -- rides to the rescue of Krauss against Albert.  (If only the other philosophically incompetent New Atheists had such a knight in shining armor!  O Dawkins, where is your Stenger?  O Coyne, where is your Victor?)

Unfortunately for Krauss, the intrepid Stenger shoots only blanks.  And misses.  Krauss, as you may know, argues that the laws of quantum mechanics (QM) show how a universe can arise from nothing.  Albert demurs, and Stenger responds:

[Albert] asks, “Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from?”  Krauss admits he does not know, but suggests they may arise randomly, in which case some universe like ours would have arisen without a prescribed cause.  In my 2006 book The Comprehensible Cosmos, I attempt to show that the laws of physics arise naturally from the symmetries of the void.

Later Stenger tells us that the “void” or “nothing” in question “can be described mathematically,” “has an explicit wave function,” and “is the quantum gravity equivalent of the quantum vacuum in quantum field theory.”

Of course, the problem with all of this is the same as the problem with the original suggestion that the laws of QM show that a universe can come from nothing.  The laws of QM are not nothing, and neither are “the symmetries of the void” nor anything that “can be described mathematically,” “has an explicit wave function,” etc.  In general, if you can characterize it in terms of physical law -- which Krauss, Stenger, and like-minded atheists all want to do vis-à-vis “nothing” -- then it isn’t nothing.  It’s something physical, and thus somethingrather than nothing.  Obviously.

Obviously, that is, unless you are a New Atheist dogmatically attached to the utterly groundless proposition that all genuine questions simply must be susceptible of a scientific answer.  At this juncture Stenger does what an increasing number of atheists do when it is pointed out to them that their “explanations” of how the universe arose from nothing merely change the subject -- they feign ignorance of English.  Writes Stenger:

Clearly, no academic consensus exists on how to define “nothing.”  It may be impossible.  To define “nothing” you have to give it some defining property, but, then, if it has a property it is not nothing!

But this is the muddleheaded stuff of a freshman philosophy paper -- treating “nothing” as if it were an especially unusual, ethereal kind of substance whose nature it would require tremendous intellectual effort to fathom.  Which, as everyone knows until he finds he has a motive for suggesting otherwise, it is not.  Nothing is nothing so fancy as that.  It is just the absence of anything, that’s all.  Consider all the true existential claims that there are: “Stones exist,” “”Trees exist,” “Quarks exist,” etc.  To ask why there is something rather than nothing is just to ask why it isn’t the case that all of these statements are false.  Pretty straightforward.  

To admit the obvious, though, would be to admit that there are questions that physics cannot answer, such as where the laws of physics themselves came from -- or more precisely, since “laws” are just abstractions from a concrete physical reality that behaves in accordance with the laws, where this concrete physical reality itself comes from.  That nothing in physics answers this question was Albert’s point, and Stenger says absolutely nothing to answer it.

Of course Stenger thinks otherwise, and the answer he thinks physics provides is contained in these remarks:

Krauss also describes how cosmology now strongly suggests that a “multiverse” exists in which our universe is just one member.  So, the real issue is not where our particular universe came from but where the multiverse came from. This question has an easy answer: the multiverse is eternal.  So, since it always was, it didn’t have to come from anything.

Well, maybe there’s a multiverse, and maybe there isn’t.  “Some cosmologists like to speculate that…” would be a good bit closer to the truth than “Cosmology now strongly suggests that…”  But even if the existence of the multiverse were established conclusively, that would of course just raise the question of why any eternal multiverse exists at all.  Stenger thinks he has an answer to that too, but his answer merely suggests that -- like the better-known New Atheists, and like Keith Parsons and other atheist philosophers of the sort who seem never to have read a theistic book published before 1970 -- Stenger does not understand what the cosmological argument has, historically, been all about.  Here’s what he says:

Albert is not satisfied that Krauss has answered the fundamental question: Why there is something rather than nothing, that is, being rather than nonbeing?  Again, there is a simple retort: Why should nothing, no matter how defined, be the default state of existence rather than something?  And, to bring religion into the picture, one could ask: Why is there God rather than nothing?  Once theologians assert that there is a God (as opposed to nothing), they can’t turn around and ask a cosmologist why there is a universe (as opposed to nothing). They claim God is a necessary entity.  But then, why can’t a godless multiverse be a necessary entity?

But this simply ignores, without answering, the central arguments of the Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, Thomistic and broader Scholastic traditions, and indeed of modern Leibnizian rationalism -- all of which put forward principled reasons why God alone, and not the material universe, can be a terminus of explanation.  For the Aristotelian, the things of our experience undergo change because they are composed of actuality and potentiality, where change is just the actualization of a potential.  The ultimateexplanation of how change occurs can in principle (so the argument goes) lie only in what can actualize without having to be actualized -- a purely actual actualizer, devoid of potentiality (or to use the more traditional but potentially misleading expression, an “unmovable mover”).  For the Neo-Platonist, whatever is in any way composite or made up of parts must depend for its existence on something which combines the parts.  The ultimateexplanation of all things can in principle (so the argument goes) therefore only be what is utterly simple or non-composite (in the sense of “simple” operative in the doctrine of divine simplicity) and thus not in need of explanation by reference to something outside it.  For the Thomist, whatever is made up of an essence distinct from its act of existence must be caused by something which combines these metaphysical parts.  So the ultimate explanation of things (so the argument goes) can in principle only be that whose essence just is existence, something which is subsistent being itself.  For the Leibnizian, whatever is contingent can have its ultimate explanation (so the argument goes) only in that which is absolutely necessary, that which could not in principle have been otherwise.

Now, that is just to summarize the arguments, not to state or defend them.  I have stated and defended some of these arguments myself at length -- in The Last Superstition, at greater length in Aquinas, and in my 2011 American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly article “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways.”  The latter article also contains an account of why, given the general metaphysical conception of the natural world enshrined in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, it is impossible in principle for the material world or any part of it to persist in being for an instant without a divine sustaining cause.  (It seems you can currently read this article online if you go to this page of Google search results, scroll down to the sixth item, and click “Quick View.”)  

Whether or not you agree that any of these arguments succeed, however, there is no question that they provide answers to Stenger’s query.  The reason God is necessary and the material universe is not is that he is pure actuality while the material universe is composed of potentiality and actuality, and thus in need of something to actualize it; that he is absolutely simple while the material universe is composite, and thus in need of something to compose it; and that his essence just is subsistent existence itself whereas material things (and indeed anything other than God) have an essence distinct from their acts of existence, and thus stand in need of something to cause them.  No doubt some atheists will be inclined simply to scoff at the metaphysical ideas underlying such arguments.  But to scoff at an argument is not to produce a rational criticism of it.  And since the arguments in question are the chiefarguments in the Western tradition of philosophical theology, to fail to produce a rational criticism would simply be to fail to show that atheism really is rationally superior to that tradition.

Stenger also errs in thinking that the proponents of classical philosophical theology suppose that nothing is the “default state” of things.  Who ever said that?  In fact what the chief traditional arguments for theism imply is just the opposite.  Since that which is pure actuality, absolute simplicity, and subsistent being itself cannot possibly have not existed, there could not possibly have been nothing.  The classical theist’s claim is not “There could have been nothing, but there isn’t, and the reason is theism”; it is rather “There could not have been nothing, and the reason is theism.” 

[Some earlier, related posts on bad philosophy disguised as physics and the like can be found here, here, here, here, and here.]
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