Philosophy of Science Poll

I’m told the following quotation from esteemed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking is very profound:

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.

Huh? I can’t make sense of it at all. Is it just me that finds it entirely devoid of either logic or  meaning?

Please tell Mr Polldaddy what you think….

You might even try to explain it to me via the comments box, but be patient because I’m thick.

19 Responses to “Philosophy of Science Poll”

  1. The “can” part is Hawking’s colorful paraphrase of the fact that the total energy of a closed universe is zero in general relativity. If there were no such thing as gravity, there would be no such thing as a “closed universe,” so gravity is what makes it possible to have a zero-energy universe. Only universes with zero energy (and other conserved quantities), one presumes, can be created from nothing.

    The “will” part is presumably referring to quantum mechanics and the idea that any process that is not disallowed by conservation laws should have some nonzero amplitude. This goes beyond the existence of gravity, and may or may not be actually true, but isn’t completely unreasonable.

    • telescoper Says:

      That may be a correct interpretation,but what he actually said is “Because there is a law such as gravity..” which I still find impossible to parse.

    • “The “can” part is Hawking’s colorful paraphrase of the fact that the total energy of a closed universe is zero in general relativity.”

      Spatially (k=1) or temporally (will collapse in the future) closed? (Back when people assumed lambda was 0 for no better reason than fear of Rocky Kolb, one implied the other, but in general that is not true.

      Observationally, and assuming nothing we don’t know exists, it looks like the universe will expand forever while the question whether or not it is finite (assuming a trivial topology) is too close to call.

  2. I suppose it all depends upon – can laws exist independently of a universe? And if they can, what do they exist within, if anything? Laws are weird.

  3. I think the poll’s a little unfair. Taken at face value, obviously the statement has meaning. (Though funnily enough, most responses to the poll disagree.)

    But then it is dealing with complex theoretical concepts and phrasing them in very simple lay terms, so one has to question the deeper meaning of almost every word – what does ‘can’ mean in this context, what does ‘will’ refer to, what does it mean to ‘create itself from nothing’? I wouldn’t expect to understand it out of context. But with Sean Carroll’s comment to make sense of the concepts packed into each word, the statement clearly has meaning even beyond the face value.

    The question is really whether or not it is logical: why should the existence of gravity mean that the universe will create itself from nothing?

    • telescoper Says:

      I’m afraid I disagree. Taken at face value it looks to me like gibberish!

      However, I am fully prepared to admit that it might have a meaning buried underneath, perhaps like a cryptic crossword clue…!

  4. I find the intended meaning of the statement tolerably clear: given that there are certain laws of nature, including gravity (among other things such as quantum mechanics), a vacuum state (“nothing”) can and will evolve into a state containing a universe like ours.

    That strikes me as meaningful and quite possibly even true. As a piece of science communication to the general public, though, it’s counterproductive. In context, it’s clear that Hawking means to claim this as an answer to hoary old questions of the “why is there something rather than nothing” variety, and it doesn’t do that. If you’re the sort of person who’s inclined to be bothered by questions of that sort, you’ll be just as bothered after understanding this claim as you were before. You’ll just want to know why there was a vacuum state lying around obeying these particular laws of physics.

    Similarly, this argument certainly doesn’t prove the non-existence of God, as Hawking seems to be claiming.

    Scientists harm our brand when we make overly broad claims about what science can “prove.” Hawking should know better.

    • telescoper Says:

      I always worry about these “because” statements. The question remains why the laws exist in the form they do, so this response does not answer the question it purports to. I think it’s more reasonable just to say that “spontaneous creation does not violate known laws of physics”.

      • That is exactly what I meant by the concept of existence of laws not being clear in this context. All our laws of physics are, by definition, descriptions of the universe we observe. It is not at all clear how we should understand those laws in relation to the creation of the universe.

  5. The statement is logical: “[(if p then q) and p] therefore q.” Perfectly valid deduction. The problematic part is that the premise “if p then q” is not obvious if we look at what the statements p and q are in this case. p is “a law such as gravity exists”, while q is “the universe creates itself”. Even in the light of Sean’s helpful comment, it is not particularly clear neither what the implication itself means (or that it is true), nor what we should mean by existence of laws or by “creates itself”.

    To my mind, the statement, while catchy and all, contains too many hidden assumptions and vagueness of concepts to be particularly meaningful.

  6. telescoper Says:

    I take these points, but the opening part “Because there is a law such as gravity..” remains problematic. Even if you disregard the question of what kind of “because” is implied here, “a law such as gravity” seems intended to mean something other than, simply, “gravity”. I don’t know though. Maybe I’m just being pedantic.

    However, my fundamental problem with this line of argument is the concept of “nothing”. There is no such thing. Not in physics anyway.

    • Not at all. In fact, that is again one of those points where the concepts are a little too vague. I would take “a law such as gravity” to mean that certain properties of the law of gravity are necessary for the statement, i.e., that there are some specific properties of the law of gravity that imply that the universe “will create itself” (whatever that means). This then ought to mean that one could, at least in principle, think of a law other than gravity that had those same properties and would then also imply the self-creation of the universe. However, it so happens that the (only?) example we actually have is gravity.

      So yes, Hawking could have simplified his statement to “Because gravity exists, the universe will create itself.” However, stated that way, it becomes immediately obvious that it relies on several hidden premises and/or assumptions. We then immediately ask what it is about gravity that implies that the universe must necessarily create itself.

    • As a professional pedant (like you), I object to the pejorative use of the word “pedantic.”

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    The concept of nothing is not so obvious, and I don’t mean quantum energy fluctuations and all that. Tell a non-scientist to imagine nothing and they will imagine an absence of matter in three dimensions. But genuine nothing would have no dimensions. And perhaps no laws…

    Peter Rowlands of Liverpool U has had a go at constructing the laws of physics from the concept of nothing. It’s something I keep meaning to look at when I have some extended spare time.

  8. If nothingness is ‘all there is’, how can there be ANY law which will kick in the instance anything appears, without there being some law-maker/controller/creator?
    Starting with nothing, matter appears. After big enough globs form, a magnetic force within such globs appears & draws other matter closer & accelerates the enlargment of these astronomically huge masses. Does this force, gravity, HAVE to act in lawful fashion? Only if there is that Lawgiver. Without Him, chaos woud reign, utter unco-ordinated mess without any orderly form, & ‘nobody’ to sort it out into the magnificent Universe we are in, controlled by many other laws.
    These theoretical ‘experts’ actually define nothing as what God is — God is one great ZERO. But, this “Nothing” who claims to exist & be above all else, labels mankind as nothing, even less than nothing (cryptic) compared with Him. If only those self-elevated would descend to levels where their ‘oxygen-starved’ brains can function in some meaningful manner beneficial to the rest of us.

  9. Did that help? Or has it scared away all who can’t answer, won’t answer or who are baffled that ANYONE is still around who would still be wallowing in such ignorance & superstition? Logic? That would have to do with non-God assumptions & theroetical fizzyness?
    Q: If we burst one their bubbles, is it still there, spreading outward like the matter from the Big Bang, containing all time & space, sucking everything into its wormholes, blackholes until even the black stump is gone.

    • telescoper Says:

      Who are the “they” referred to in your rant(s)?

      • You asked for all help you can get. If that was no help, too bad, but it was offered in good faith. It contains the element of satire, a very very naught-ie thing to invoke. “They” might be anyone who’d like to try this alternative old-fashioned way of non-thinking as a refresher while their batteries are re-recharged for the next qantum leap into the great unknown. Good health & prosperity in all parts of your life which are firmly anchored to the actual great reality. End of involvement. Cheers Mate!

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