Sunday, March 25, 2012

Kitcher and Albert on Rosenberg and Krauss

In The New York Times, philosopher of science Philip Kitcher is critical of Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.  In the same paper, philosopher of physics David Albert takes apart Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe From Nothing.  I suppose it needs remarking, for any ill-informed, kneejerk ad hominem-prone New Atheist types out there, that neither Kitcher nor Albert is known for being an apologist for religion.  (I reviewed Rosenberg’s book in First Things a few issues ago, and have been going through the book with a fine-toothed comb in a series of posts since then.  My review of Krauss’s book is forthcoming.) 


  1. Nihil Fit.
    The nothing.
    Rally reason.
    'Round it.
    Is all.

  2. Ed,

    Thanks for taking this on.

    The nothing issue is a perfect example of how weak and even anti-intellectual most physicists, Gnus, and science/math types generally are when it comes to philosophical foundations. Always followed, however, by bragging about scientific objectivity and logical precision, of course.

    Funny, I never hear such people make a single comment about the cut-throat politics of journal publishing and research funding.

  3. Interesting link.

    David Albert however, may make an unnecessary concession to Krauss' pique.

    "Krauss, mind you, has heard this kind of talk before, and it makes him crazy. A century ago, it seems to him, nobody would have made so much as a peep about referring to a stretch of space without any material particles in it as “nothing.” And now ... the nut cases are moving the goal posts."

    It might be that in the 19th century some people pictured the "empty spaces" of the universe (it would have been the galaxy at that time I guess), or the vacuum that nature was said to abhor as the definition of nothing, but I cannot remember reading of many if any such characterizations.

    Anyway, here's another interesting NYT link. One I only came across because of Ed's link.

    One thing ... leads to

  4. Great link, Ed.
    I recently discovered your blog. I thoroughly enjoyed TLS, am finishing up with Acquinas (great read) and am awaiting my copy of Beginner's Guide to the Philisophy of Mind (there seems to be a delay at Amazon, any idea why?).

    I enjoyed your comments on Krauss, and am looking forward to your review of his book. Meanwhile, it was great to read what David Albert had to say.

    I have not done much reading in quantum theory, but I found David Albert's "fist" analogy to be an interesting one.

    I have two questions in this reqgard. The way I understand David Albert, the fist exists only if fingers are arranged in a certain way. But whether one makes a fist or not, fingers and hands continue to exist. Can the same be said of the quantum field? Dees it continue to exist when particles, takes, chairs, giraffes, solar systems come into being, or at least continue to exist where and when these particles, etc exist? Or is it them "nothing" in the (physical) sense?

    My second question concerns how AT would address this analogy, and indeed quantum field theory generally. How is the quantum field related to prime matter? Are we seeing perhaps at the quantum level empirical corroboration of the form/matter and the act/potency distinctions?

    Thanks again.

  5. @DNW:

    Actually, in the 19th century, ‘empty’ space was most definitely not thought of as ‘nothing’; it was the luminiferous aether — an idea that is beginning to make a comeback, as space turns out to have some very thing-like properties of its own, as opposed to being merely a place to put the real stuff.

  6. In reference to my post earlier, I think my question about the empirical verification of the act/potency and form/matter distinctions is malformed.

    What I am asking is this: is there a way to formulate these distinctions in a way that would not only accord with the happenings at the quantum level, but that would provide a powerful explanatory framework for understanding them? Given that modern natural science (or at least certain modern scientists) do not fully appreciate the distinctions drawn by AT, can we see the strange workings of the quantum world as somehow forcing a reconsideration of certain AT distinctions and categories? And how would one go about making such an argument? Any resources you could direct me to would be appreciated. Just as "empty space" looks more like the old idea of the aether than it does an empty container to hold stuff in, do quantum fluctuations give us a whole new paradign with which to re-imagine the AT categories and distinctions in a way that could perhaps penetrate through the prejudice we see against the old philosophy?

  7. JJS,

    This is just a first stab at how ATs such as Ed might analyze this, based on reading his book The Last Superstition.

    The idea is that the epistemology behind *any* observation and analysis of such things as quantum fluctuations already assumes AT's distinctions, categories, and meta-theoretic framework, but scientism suppresses or ignores or underplays certain aspects of the AT view: final causes, essentially ordered causal series, and so on.

  8. There's an interview with Rosenberg about his 'Guide to Reality' from a few weeks back here:

    just thought it might interest some.

  9. JJS: do quantum fluctuations give us a whole new paradigm with which to re-imagine the AT categories and distinctions in a way that could perhaps penetrate through the prejudice we see against the old philosophy?

    Probably not. It's still all matter and form, so there's nothing new there. Of course, A-T accommodates modern physics in a way that old-fashioned mechanistic metaphysics can't (leading to the proclaimed "weirdness" of quantum physics, such as "uncaused events")… but the mechanistic view never really worked for science in the first place; it was just easier to pretend it did when you could imagine everything as tiny little billiard-balls. So those who haven't abandoned billiard-ballism already are likely to stick with it. On the other hand, my sense is that knowledge of Scholastic philosophy is on the rise, even if slowly, so over time the situation may improve.

  10. Hi, I'm a long-time creeper of this blog (it is excellent, by the way, Sir Feser) and I've been curious about something for a month or so now:

    Where and how did the pejorative "Gnu" appear? I feel like I'm missing something hidden in the meaning of the word. If any of the excellent commenters here could enlighten me, I would be very grateful. It's not urgent, obviously, but it's one of those niggling questions that won't go away - especially not since the term is used so frequently here.

    And by the way, may I say that the comment sections on these blog posts are always scintillating? The most interesting discussions take place, and I have learned much in the past few months.

  11. A gnu is another name for what is sometimes called a wildebeast. Perhaps the name arose as both a pun and a commentary on the herd mentality displayed by those particular people.

  12. Hi Dr.Feser, I again hve to say that I've enjoyed reading your blogs. I'm looking forward to your review of Krauss's book when it comes out!


  13. I hope Dr. Feser takes Dr. Krauss to task over the shifting goal-post thesis. Krauss hand-waves towards an earlier time when "nothing" was thought of as "empty space", but its pretty unclear which philosophers/scientists/theologians he has in mind (I think we'd have to go back to Parmenides, at least so much is suggested by Guthrie). Laughably, the supposed shifting definition of "nothing" operates as some sort of justification for Krauss' blatant use of equivocation (everyone else is making up definitions, why can't I?) So Krauss thinks the universe came from "nothing", and by "nothing", he means a rich, dynamic, and complex quantum foam and the laws by which this foam is described. I suppose he could have argued that the universe came from a cosmic "banana" by stipulating "banana" in just the right way.

    I'm pretty certain that Krauss can't blame Aristotle for mistakenly thinking of nothing as empty space.


    “The existence of place is held to be obvious from the fact of mutual replacement… What now contains air formerly contained water, so that clearly the place or space into which and out of which they passed was different from both.” (Complete Works Vol. 1 1995, Aristotle Physics IV,1, 208b3-8).

    Also, he writes “It is therefore evident that there is also no place or void or time outside the heaven. For in every place body can be present; and void is said to be that in which the presence of body, though not actual, is possible, and time is the number of movement. But in the absence of natural body there is no movement, and outside the heaven, as we have shown, body neither exists nor can come to exist. It is clear then that there is neither place, nor void, nor time, outside the heaven.” (Complete Works Vol. 1 1995, Aristotle De Caelo 286b10).

    My two cents.

  14. @Anonymous

    Thank you kindly for the information. It is a fitting moniker for them, I think.

  15. Aloysius,

    Actually, the "Gnu" moniker was the reaction of those being labelled as "New Atheists" to that label. It actually was spawned by the Gnu software movement, although that it also referred to the animals was also noted. It's not really supposed to mean anything specific, as far as I can tell. This was discussed on Jerry Coyne's site "Why Evolution is True" heavily, but I can't remember if that was the origin.

  16. @Aloysius, its a designator for a dangourous new cult, the cult of New Atheism. Not to be confused with atheism as such. They use this themselves along with such misnomers as 'Brights' etc. If you ever read (or could stand to read) Coyne's ramblings you'll find it quick enough in the comboxes. This strange cult was very well deconstructed over at the New Statesmen by the atheist Bryan Appleyard.

  17. Anon, Wildebeast = Wildebeest. The origin is Dutch.

  18. Yeah, "gnu" was something the gnus came up with themselves believe it or not, but the rest of us have been happy to go along because of how well it captures their silliness and herd mentality. Also, unlike "brights", we don't have to go to the trouble of using scare quotes.

  19. That sound you hear when you are reading Kitcher is John Dewey spinning in his grave.

  20. I'd like to see a treatment like this for Sam Harris' newest book "Free Will", in we which he argues that though free will is nonexistent that should not be an obstacle to our political liberties or morality in general.

  21. Anonymous,

    I wish you hadn't of linked that article. I read some of the comments and I'm now depressed. How can that many people be so blind to reason? I half imagine that they didn't read the article before going off on their rants.

  22. @anonymous 1:38:

    This is why I, and another commenter, have described New Atheism as a "cult", because that is exactly what it is. It is a tribal social movement comprised mainly of socially maladjusted white males with above-average but unexceptional IQ's somewhere in the 1-2 STD range.

    These atheists have a very narrow and predictable set of dogmas that they naively think have been established by "science" and which cannot, in good faith, be questioned or challenged. These dogmas include physicalism, hard determinism, non-theism, and to a lesser extent nominalism and anti-essentialism. Those who question or challenge these dogmas, for any reason at all, are "irrational" and are "enemies of science" who must be personally destroyed and subjected to torrents of vicious, abusive, dehumanizing rhetoric.

    We must stop treating them as philosophical inquirers of good faith and see them for what they really are: a vicious, nasty, anti-social political movement that uses terms like "reason" and "science" and "evidence" in a wholly sloganistic, incantatory fashion.

  23. JJS,

    Check out chapter two of this book:

    The chapter is titled, "From Schroedinger's Cat to Thomistic Ontology: (how the distinction between the corporeal and the physical, and the Aristotelian categories of potency and act, shed light on quantum mechanics-an astounding thesis)," which is quite succinct and to the point... The author is Wolfgang Smith, who is a Roman Catholic, and a member of the Traditionalist school, which I would imagine is an unpopular group around here, alhough I would be pretty curious to hear Dr. Feser's thoughts on them. I don't know enough about about quantum phenomena to make a valid judgment, but I thought the chapter was quite good.

  24. This is interesting: One official Reason Rally sponsor (the National Atheist Party) *invited* the nutty Westboro Baptists to the rally, while David Silverman (American Atheists), who seems to have organized the rally, told the folks at True Reason (Tom Gilson et al) that they were not welcome!

  25. When it comes to Quantum physics and traditional philosophy, Wolfgang Smith, scientist and Catholic philosopher of science, has written on the subject. He extensively uses Scholastic perspectives, but I think he is perhaps more Platonic than Aristotelian.

    Also I'm not sure quantum physics matters that much to the AT position. That position is mostly about basic categories and rational analysis which, as MachinePhilosophy states provides the basis for any science. Also it may not be too wise to try and link AT to current science anyway, because it has a habit of changing, leaving attempted synthesises looking redfaced.

  26. Rather disappointing stuff & shallow tea from Kitcher, evidence that he doesn't have a very deep grasp on the may ways Rosenberg goes wrong.

    And why are professional philosphers so ignorant of the history and meaning of the term "Scientism".

  27. Untenured,

    This is why I, and another commenter, have described New Atheism as a "cult", because that is exactly what it is. It is a tribal social movement comprised mainly of socially maladjusted white males with above-average but unexceptional IQ's somewhere in the 1-2 STD range.

    I agree about the cultists of gnu, but I actually think you overshoot their IQ range. I think one of the primary effects of the cult has been to make gains among the low-IQ set - there's plenty of slower sorts who are under the impression that being an atheist will mean they become smart on the instant, because they heard that atheists typically have better than average IQs. (Yeah, that's poor reasoning, but keep in mind the sort of people who would be persuaded by such an idea.)

  28. Completely off topic, but what do you guys think about one of Roger Scruton's favorite philosophical positions: his Wagnerian position on love - the idea that love is fundamentally a relationship between dying things? (he personally assents to Wagner's position elsewhere)

    Scruton - given his overwhelming sympathies for Christianity - doesn't say this and probably doesn't intend to, but if true it would render the concept of "eternal love" otiose, which in turn would render the whole of Christian eschatology - and by extension, Christianity - incoherent.

  29. @crude

    I think one of the primary effects of the cult has been to make gains among the low-IQ set - there's plenty of slower sorts who are under the impression that being an atheist will mean they become smart on the instant,

    The thought occurred to me too (and I am an atheist)

  30. @Crude:

    That is probably true, and we cannot forget the moral dimension which is often overlooked but is very important. Another of the Gnu-cult's favorite incantations is the term "evidence based" when applied in moral contexts. An "evidence based" morality is one that is sexually permissive, favors abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem-cell research, and so forth. Part of the reason the Gnu-cult has made gains among the low-IQ set is that it is now the default metaphysics for people who embrace these sorts of moral conclusions. While it used to be liberal mainline protestantism, the demographic collapse of that segment has now made "scientific" materialism the go-to worldview for a certain kind of political liberal.

  31. Many thanks to machinephilosophy, Mr. Green, Anonymous and Westcountryman for their responses, insights and references. I have begin to read, and am enjoying, Wolfgang' Smith's works. I am also curious what Ed thinks of Smith.

    Also: does anyone know whether Krauss & Co have responded to Albert's piece?

    Do you think it might be some time before we hear from the "nothing is UNSTABLE" crowd?

  32. Yo, Feser-baby....

    have you seen the movie "Drive" yet? With Ryan Gosling.... check it out. well worth it.

  33. have you seen the movie "Drive" yet? With Ryan Gosling.... check it out. well worth it

    as philosophical fodder, perhaps. As a good movie, not so much....

    Strange, isn’t it, that the more (officially) pacifistic and non-violent our society becomes, the more incendiary and warlike our political rhetoric is? I wonder if there could be any connection with the movies’ penchant for seeking out new but politically correct ways to idolize men of violence? The seemingly endless string of celluloid superheroes is one example. They earn their right to murder and mayhem through their inhumanity. They belong to a master race of their own and live in a world which allows them to operate according to different rules and with a different morality from the rest of us. Vigilante justice in real life, administered by any mere mortal like ourselves, would be in the highest degree unacceptable, but we don’t call it that when superheroes do it. Of course the price we pay for our superheroes is having to live in toon-town with them to the extent that we take them to any degree seriously.

    But there are other ways to revive the old sense of honor attaching to killers. The precursor of the cartoon hero in the movies was the cool hero played by the Steve McQueens and the Clint Eastwoods (before the real-life Clint turned into a morally earnest director) of old and their later imitators: men who earned their right to violent methods by being outsiders, lone men of integrity standing up to a corrupt system. Their violence is sanitized partly by being stylized, like that of the cartoon hero, and partly because they are seen as existing in a state of Hobbesian nature where civilized alternatives to violence are either corrupt or not available. The trope of the lone honest man fighting a corrupt system has become rather a cliché, however, so cool heroes mostly go heavy on the stylization — which means that there is a certain sameness to them.

    The latest example of the breed is on display in Drive...

    Read the rest here:

  34. Yo Fesey-Daddy'O...
    Don't listen to Scott.

    Drive is a great movie.
    Get to see Albert Brooks as a mobster.

  35. JJS,

    Thanks for the kind words. It's gratifying to know that someone is benefitting from the comments.

    Check out my blog, which has the best Feser quotes on the internet. I'm copying Ed's entire blog to glean the best of his remarks, in my quest for global blog domination.


  36. It would seem to me that "nothing" in the strict or absolute sense means nothing other than pure impossibility; or in other words, the absolute absence of any reality whatsoever. Of course, there are realities as relative "nothings" or voids.

    One could also say: nothingness is a self-evident idea as pure impossibility, just as the unconditionally Real or absolute Reality is self- evident.

    Reason can dispose the mind in such a way as to allow intellective insight. This is a "proof" for those who can receive it, but not for those who cannot, as the Greeks used to say, "energize according to Intellect."

    One of the great gaps in modern thinking is the restriction of human intelligence to the reason. In fact, the light of intelligence is a universal reality, to which the human has conscious access, for he is imagio Dei. This is clear from the Gospel of John: the Logos is the one light that shines in every man.It also is that which knowing the archetype existentiates the creation. All creatures, all things are "exemplars" of this universal Intelligence which is also Power. "In Him we live and we move and we have our being."

  37. The Anonymous immediately above this post is obviously not the same Anonymous of the other posts on this thread.