It's amazing, how much can be said about nothing.
There's a basic dispute between fact-focused scientists on one side, and concept-obsessed thinkers on the other: is "nothing" a something that can be investigated, or an absolute absence of anything? (including "absence")
I've read a bunch of books and articles that argue both sides of this question, which is central to the classic Why is there something rather than nothing? question. More and more I favor how physicists such as Lawrence Krauss look upon nothing.
"Intelligent design" is simply a unifying umbrella for opposing evolution. Similarly, some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine "nothing" as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe.
But therein, in my opinion, lies the intellectual bankruptcy of much of theology and some of modern philosophy. For surely "nothing" is every bit as physical as "something." It then behooves us to understand precisely the physical nature of both these quantities. And without science, any definition is just words.
A century ago, had one described "nothing" as referring to purely empty space, possessing no real material entity, this might have received little argument. But the results of the past century have taught us that empty space is in fact far from the inviolate nothingness that we presupposed before we learned more about how nature works.
Now, I am told by religious critics that I cannot refer to empty space as "nothing," but rather as a "quantum vacuum," to distinguish it from the philosopher's or theologian's idealized "nothing." ... And we're told that the escape from the "real" nothing requires divinity, with "nothing" thus defined by fiat to be "that from which only God can create something."
In the New York Times, philosopher Gary Gutting asks "Can Physics and Philosophy Get Along?" He doesn't like how Krauss disparages the usefulness of philosophy in understanding the ultimate nature of the universe.
Well, get real, Professor Gutting. That's what science is all about: reality.
If there isn't a way to study the nature of something, either directly or through systematic theoretical models (often mathematical), science isn't interested in it. This doesn't mean that science knows about everything that exists in the cosmos.
Far from it. Science embraces not-knowing. (See "Ignorance: How it Drives Science." Fascinating book.)
However, if there's no sign of something, no way to sense anything about it, no ability to come up with any evidence concerning it, that "something" is a conceptual abstraction which only exists for us humans within the brains that conjured up the notion of it.
This is why most scientists, along with me, reject the astounding statement Gutting makes at the end of his essay.
Precisely because science deals with only what can be known, direct or indirectly, by sense experience, it cannot answer the question of whether there is anything — for example, consciousness, morality, beauty or God — that is not entirely knowable by sense experience. To show that there is nothing beyond sense experience, we would need philosophical arguments, not scientific experiments.
Krauss may well be right that philosophers should leave questions about the nature of the world to scientists. But, without philosophy, his claim can only be a matter of faith, not knowledge.
How could philosophical arguments show there is nothing beyond sense experience? And what makes Gutting think that scientists are interested in proving the absence of anything beyond sense experience through experimentation?
The results of experiments must be sensed by an experimenter. This holds true whether one is talking about "external" science or "internal" science. Meditation could be (and often is) viewed as a means of investigating realms of reality beyond the physical. But any sign of these realms would have to be sensed by the meditator.
So there's no way to get around the need for sensory experience in knowing reality. I have no idea how philosophy or theology can claim to possess knowledge of what lies beyond sensation, such as an ultimate "nothing" about which nothing can be said or experienced because it's, duh..., nothing.
Krauss updates his views about philosophy in a recent Scientific American article, "The Consolation of Philosophy."
It's well worth reading. Krauss is courteous to those he disagrees with about the nature of nothing, yet firm in his conviction: if there's no way to discern nothing, it's a human abstraction, not really real reality.
What I tried to do in my writing on this subject is carefully attempt to define precisely what scientists operationally mean by nothing, and to differentiate between what we know, and what is merely plausible, and what we might be able to probe in the future, and what we cannot. The rest is, to me, just noise.
So, to those philosophers I may have unjustly offended by seemingly blanket statements about the field, I apologize. I value your intelligent conversation and the insights of anyone who thinks carefully about our universe and who is willing to guide their thinking based on the evidence of reality.
To those who wish to impose their definition of reality abstractly, independent of emerging empirical knowledge and the changing questions that go with it, and call that either philosophy or theology, I would say this: Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature.