A recent interview on NPR, in their “Short Answers to Big Questions” segment, went to special extremes to demonstrate how monumentally bad science journalism is these days. My discussion here will come in two parts, one short, and one a great deal more detailed. The short part will be a quick debunking of supposedly scientific claims from a conventionally scientific standpoint. In particular, statements are made in this interview with absolute confidence that cannot possibly stand up to even the most basic grasp of physical science. The longer discussion will have to do with philosophical criticisms that run beyond most of contemporary science. This is because so much of that science has degenerated into pure model centrism, and consequently fails to ask any of the fundamental questions that need to be raised. The motivating idea behind all of this is the idea of “empty” space.
The offending NPR piece opened with a question about how empty a volume of space would be were there only (say) three atoms or molecules within a volume of about one cubic meter. After a few moments discussion about the volume of molecules of air in a cubic meter at sea level (a discussion that appears to contain an unimportant typographical error), the discussion moves out into space, into deep, deep space. The conversation leads to the following (slightly edited) highly problematic exchange:
if there are points in space with only three atoms per square meter, what fills in the rest? The answer is nothing…
for a physicist, the absence of matter is nothing. I mean there is still space and time there, but you know, there – the absence of matter we consider to be a state of, you know, zero matter, zero energy density, is a way of putting it.
The problems here come at two levels, one of fairly ordinary physics and the other at a deeper philosophical level. I’ll deal with both in turn.
Physically, admitting that there is space and time has just completely contradicted the claim that there is “nothing.” Because when you include space and time, you’ve also brought the entire electromagnetic and gravitational fields into play. There is also there is also the so-called “quantum foam” variously held to be the source “virtual particles,” boiling away at extremely small scales throughout all of physical space. Even in the absence of material corpuscles this is far from nothing. In addition, the equating of zero material corpuscles with zero energy density seems a little glib, especially when viewed from a cosmological context, though here I am on shakier grounds. But it is not on the physics that I wish to focus my efforts.
A quick mention of my numerous criticisms of what I call “model-centrism” is appropriate here, as a segue to my more philosophical points. Model-centrism is the attitude that valorizes a model far beyond the point where that model can be justified by the available evidence. As I have used the term, it is most frequently directed against contemporary models of gravitational cosmology, and the gatekeepers of the “true faith,” such as Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, and Laurence Krauss. However, the problem shows up any time inquiry has been closed down in favor of “confirmation.” For example Lewis Ford’s extremely questionable application of methods of New Biblical Criticism to the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, and in particular Ford’s claim about Whitehead’s “discovery” of “temporal atomism” (a term that appears nowhere in the entire corpus of Whitehead’s works) has no real support in Whitehead’s texts, yet dominated the secondary literature for a number of decades. (I can say with some confidence that this mode of interpreting Whitehead is no longer viable.) Model-centrism appears to be lying at the fringes (at least) of the NPR piece. The kind of confident disregard for the nature of “nothing,” or even what many physicists consider “something,” comes across as worrisomely shallow. Granted, this is a very brief interview, but the scientist who joined the host could surely have spent one extra sentence on the various physical fields known to fill all of space. A second sentence would have sufficed to add the quantum foam: “a broiling froth of microscopic pulses of energy that usually go nowhere, even though they exist everywhere.”
A deeper analysis of the philosophical assumptions in the above interview, that only material corpuscles “matter” (pun intended), and which highlights even further the model-centrism at play, is the complete disregard of relations as having any reality. This, now, is the philosophical argument; it is controversial (but see the above noted upcoming Routledge publication for a more comprehensive argument.) The problem with NPR interview, and almost all of contemporary science, is that there is no effort to treat relations seriously. One has “things” (like material corpuscles) that are “related,” but those relations have no reality of their own. They are, at best, simply short-hand tricks for talking about the “things,” which alone are considered real. So, for example, space and time – which all contemporary theories, including Whitehead’s – view as relational are also (insofar) viewed as unreal. Thus, the physicist in the interview casually dismisses empty space as being literally nothing.
Things become much worse when the issue of possibility arises, which it must do in quantum mechanics, for example, or any attempt to unify physics at all scales.
“Much worse,” in this instance, is the childish confabulation known as the “multiple worlds” or the “multiple universes” claim. One cannot call this an “hypothesis,” since it lacks even the abstract possibility of test (in this or any other “world”). Beyond the impossibility of even a particle of scientific content in this claim, there lies the absolute, logical incoherence of it. Consider an arbitrary electron, anywhere in the universe, that is currently in an excited state. The relations that bind that electron to the universe dictate that, over the course of any given durational stretch of time (let’s use a millisecond, just to have something concrete) there is a continuum of possibilities when that electron may jump back down to its normal state (releasing a photon in the process.) But, according to the multiple universes people, that continuum of possibilities is realized as a continuum of alternative universes, all springing into their own total and absolute reality, on no other account than to give expression to the relational possibilities represented by that electron’s potential.
It is inconceivable how any living, breathing human being could take such infantile twaddle seriously. Yet that is what the model-centrists must do, because they refuse to take relations seriously on their own account. All that is necessary to avoid this fatuous, metaphysical extravaganza of unintelligible nonsense is to deal with relations (hence, relational possibilities) as having genuine standing in the world, and not merely an artifact to be found in the merely “external” connections of self-identical “things” to one another.
When we bring this back to space, in order to even BE space, there must be nested interconnections of relational occasions and forms of relatedness: electronic occasions, gravitational occasions, quantum foam occasions, relating amongst themselves in unboundedly complicated ways that express themselves as space-like relations. Such a densely related space-like occasion is hardly empty. To be “empty,” to truly be nothing, it would have to stand out of ALL relation to the rest of the universe. And at that point, there’s no logically justifiable basis that we, or any entity relationally embedded in this universe, could claim such a “thing” even existed.
My resort to the word “occasion” in the above is, of course, a return to my Whiteheadian roots. Contemporary physics desperately needs a better metaphysics than model-centrism.
Gilles St-Pierre said:
Thank you, great article. The reality of relations is even more central in biology. John Dupré argues that genes themselves are probably more processes than molecular objects and I agree with him.
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Gary Herstein said:
The bits of Dupre’s stuff I’ve been able to pull from the web are great. I’ve also been reading Reid’s most recent book fairly closely. Thanks for the connection to the slide show, I’ll definitely take a took at that.
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