Friday, July 13, 2012


Our minds and our language can play tricks on us.  "Have you stopped beating your wife?" I read that Norbert Wiener was very upset by what he took to be immoral dishonesty on the part of his parents in the matter of the jolly man from the North Pole associated with Christmas.  

As I was walking up the stair
I met a man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again today.
I wish, I wish he'd stay away.
Hughes Mearns, in "The Psychoed"

Here's a good rule of thumb:
Too clever is dumb.
Ogden Nash

That time was like never, and like always.
So we go there, where nothing is waiting;
we find everything waiting there.
Pablo Neruda, in
"Poem IV, One Hundred Love Sonnets"

I saw "A Universe from Nothing" by Lawrence Krauss, an astrophysicist, and I knew I was interested.  It's been a New York Times bestseller.  I was immediately struck by the value of Krauss on "nothing":

Before going further, I want to devote a few words to the notion of "nothing"— a topic that I will return to at some length later. For I have learned that, when discussing this question in public forums, nothing upsets the philosophers and theologians who disagree with me more than the notion that I, as a scientist, do not truly understand "nothing." (I am tempted to retort here that theologians are experts at nothing.) "Nothing," they insist, is not any of the things I discuss. Nothing is "nonbeing," in some vague and ill-defined sense. This reminds me of my own efforts to define "intelligent design" when I first began debating with creationists, of which, it became clear, there is no clear definition, except to say what it isn't. "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.

He continues:

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...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."

There is an inexpensive series of Very Short Introductions from Oxford University and one is "Nothing: A Very Short Introduction", which also focuses on the voids of space and physical nothing.  

We learned back in logic class about Occam's Razor, the principle that concepts should be invented with care and not created carelessly.  Anytime we make the lack of something into a real thing, we can create trouble for our heads and they already have enough trouble.

I used to say to my daughters that it was too bad they weren't here.  Not here?  Right.  You aren't in Chicago, are you?  No.  If you are not in Chicago, you must be somewhere else.  If you are somewhere else, you aren't here.

No elephant is a jackass.  You are no elephant.  Therefore, you are ...

I recommend scrapping causal use of "nothing", which may not exist anywhere in any form except as specified in science.  I am putting the term into the same mental folder I used for infinities, another area where our minds and language habits can confuse us.

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