A minor snit has broken out between outspoken physicist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University and, well, the philosophers of the world. Krauss has become a darling of the cable TV world of NatGeo and the Science Channel. It seems that you can’t swing a dead cat without knocking over the same dozen television astronomer/cosmologists and quantum physicists. This rotating crew of scientists are filmed on various locations straining to explain the universe in terms of string theory, dark matter, and quantum wierdness using language with a Fog Index of 8 or less.
I’m not slighting these folks in the least. Using the English language to convey the essence of these concepts is difficult, as is preventing the reflexive use of the remote control by viewers with the attention span of a house cat.
Anyway, Krauss has managed to inflame those philosophers who pay attention to popular science. His latest book, A Universe from Nothing: Why there is Something Rather than Nothing, has precipitated this argument. I don’t care about the merits of his argument here. The reader is invited to dive in.
What I am writing about is the social and intellectual mistake Krauss made. Like all physical scientists, he is a reductionist. The drive for a ToE, Theory of Everything, is the ultimate act of reductionism. His assertion that philosophy is obsolete in the face of discoveries in physics and the emergence of big subassemblies of a ToE has been received with dismay by philosophers. A large fraction of people (adults, anyway) are hardwired to be receptive to mysticism and no amount of handwaving, no matter how logical and crisp, is going to cause the bell curve to skew substantially away from cherished mystical beliefs.
Krauss has fallen into the same trap as those in the 19th century who may have declared that physics was pretty much complete with Newtonian mechanics. While quantum mechanics provides a template for the description of how particles behave constrained to a region of space, it fails as a replacement for philosophy. That is, quantum mechanics and cosmology do not provide any concise analysis on how people should treat each other, how to conduct a worthwhile life, or how to interpret what the meaning of quantum mechanics is in your life.
This is the realm of philosophy and religion and these kinds of questions must be freshly examined by each generation born into this strange universe. The meaning of existence is not yet settled science.