Why are (some) physicists so bad at philosophy?
by Edward Feser
In his book of reminiscences “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”, Richard Feynman tells the story of a painter who assured him that he could make yellow paint by mixing together red paint and white paint. Feynman was incredulous. As an expert in the physics of light, he knew this should not be possible. But the guy was an expert painter, with years of practical experience. So, ready to learn something new, Feynman went and got some red paint and white paint. He watched the painter mix them, but as Feynman expected, all that came out was pink. Then the painter said that all he needed now was a little yellow paint to “sharpen it up a bit” and then it would be yellow.
I was reminded of this story when I read this foray into philosophy by physics professor Ethan Siegel, which a reader sent me, asking for my reaction. Do give it a read, though I’ll summarize it for you:
Arguments for God as cause of the universe rest on the assumption that something can’t come from nothing. But given the laws of physics, it turns out that something can come from nothing.
Is this guy serious? The laws of physics aren’t “nothing.” Ergo, this isn’t even a prima facie counterexample to the principle that ex nihilo, nihil fit. That’s just blindingly obvious. Is this guy serious?
(Actually, that was not my reaction. My actual reaction cannot be printed on a family-friendly blog. This is the cleaned up version.)
Feynman’s painter insisted that you can get yellow paint from red paint and white paint. All you need to do is add some yellow paint. Similarly, Siegel assures us that we can get something from nothing. All we need to do is to add a little something, viz. the laws of physics. I’ll bet Siegel has read Feynman’s book and had a chuckle at the painter’s expense. Little does he realize that the joke’s on him.
Notice that the point has nothing to do with the further question “Where do the laws of physics come from?” It has nothing to do with the debate between atheism and theism. It has nothing to do with whether Siegel’s purely scientific claims are otherwise correct. I’m not addressing any of that here. Let the operation of the laws of physics be a brute fact if you like; let atheism be true, if you insist; let Siegel be a whiz-bang crackerjack physicist, if you must. The point is that as a philosopher, he’s utterly incompetent, incapable of seeing the most blatant of fallacies staring him square in the face.
Siegel is in good company, if that’s the right way to put it. As I showed in my review of their book The Grand Design for National Review, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow are no more philosophically competent than Siegel is. Indeed, one of their errors is the same as Siegel’s: They tell us that “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.” Ignore for the moment the incoherence of the notion of self-causation (which we explored recently here and here). Put to one side the question of whether the physics of their account is correct. Forget about where the laws of physics themselves are supposed to have come from. Just savor the manifest contradiction: The universe comes from nothing, because a law like gravity is responsible for the universe…
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