The quantum science claim that things arise from nothing

The argument is familiar to everyone. For an instance chosen more or less at random, see here.

This is popularized science, of course. Most of the drama of the claim fades on closer examination, and is softened through qualifications. Due to circumstances that are not entirely rational, theists and Thomists are presumed to have to dispute the claim and see it as somehow a threat; as though the scientists had dethroned some basic axiom of perennial philosophy or Christina theism. Oddly enough, Aristotle and St. Thomas never mention the axiom “nothing comes from nothing” except when they are taking exception to its universality (note that if it were true without qualification, creation would be impossible, which Christians deny). It’s not clear what there is in the data as such that makes the scientist not want to take it as an observable case of the exercise of divine power (look, things are really being created here, just as the Christians say!) But, at any rate, I might as well play my role as the one who has to be skeptical about the claim.

More than one person has pointed out that the quantum action ex nihilo is not really from nothing. This argument is not usually fleshed out, but it can be – “nothing” is an intentional term. The quantum scientist understands “things arising from nothing” as one reality – called “nothing”- giving rise to another reality, called “being”. There is a paradox in the wording here, but scientist can define his terms well enough, and they are tolerably close to actual usage. But this is certainly not what the classic formula of “creation ex nihilo” is. Creation ex nihilo is not the claim that one reality (being) arose from a previous one (nothing), but simply that God did not depend on any matter when making things. “Ex nihilo” is a claim about the difference between the divine art and our own art, not a claim about a state prior to existence. More importantly in the classic doctrine “nothing” is an intentional term, that is, a term that has its whole existence from the activity of the human mind. “The denial of dependence” is not a thing, nor is the absence of divine dependence on matter. If the scientists were speaking in the same terms as the classic doctrine, then their claims would be absurd in a rather straightforward way – it would be the same sort of claim as saying that you picked your teeth with the thought of last Tuesday; or that you measured the distance from London bridge to Christmas day. But their claims aren’t absurd, and so whatever their speaking of is utterly set apart from the classic doctrine of creation ex nihilo.


On a cause of corruption in popular governments.

After giving a lengthy discourse on the rise and extent of the decadence of popular government (with a focus on the rise of the regulatory state), Jacques Barzun concludes to the formula that the moment when good intentions exceeded the power [of the average reasonable person] to fulfill them marked the onset of decadence. There is evidence in Barzun’s discourse that this moment is very difficult to avoid, and that this formula indicates a way in which popular governments contain the seeds of their own collapse into decadence. So how does this corruption happen?

There is a fundamental desire in popular government to ensure fair play and equal access, and this requires regulation. There nevertheless remains a perpetual genius for a.) extending the scope of what will count as fair play and equal access (the gradual extension of rights) and b.) discovering ways to cut off persons from a fair share and equal access (new modes of fraud, monopoly, or impinging on the ever expanding notion of right). Both give rise to diverse sorts of regulation to ensure justice and punish crime, and the perpetual genius to extend equality or outwit the system lead to more and more regulation. At some point, the good intentions of the regulators amass to the point that no reasonable person can be expected to make his way through the labyrinth of regulation, and at this point the government is no longer a popular government. Thus the very regulations made to ensure the equal ability of everyone to compete amass to where they become an impediment to the ability of persons to compete.

This is not an argument for libertarian deregulation. It is, in fact, a claim that such deregulation is not effective, since it claims that the very process of ensuring justice in a popular government involves a ratchet-effect of regulation that is ultimately incompatible with popular government, since at some point the ratchet turns past the point where we could expect a majority of the people to maneuver their way through the regulations. The system of regulations we have in place for opening a business seem to have reached this point: who but the most intelligent and/ or motivated could figure out and accomplish everything needed to open a business? The same thing is true of political office: who in the world knows what one has to do to get nominated for an office? There are, of course, people who know what to do – but does anyone think that an average person knows what to do? I doubt that I’ve ever met anybody who could tell me the concrete steps one would have to take to run for a congressional seat or open up a McDonald’s.

There are degrees of decadence and loss of popular government. Clearly, businesses still open and people still get elected. But at some point it is no longer true to say that the people can do these things, even if there are new businesses everywhere and many reversals of political fortune made by popular vote. A hundred new big corporate businesses – even with all their popular benefits and attractions – don’t go very far to showing that the people have the power to open a business; and the power to “vote the bastards out” or enjoy the hopeful euphoria of electing someone who exceeds all our expectations does not prove that the people have the power to run for office. Again, the standard is not that everyone should be intelligent or motivated or connected enough to run, but at some point the intelligence, motivation, or resources required become so prohibitive that any claim to having a popular government is a sham.

When the people have no power in a society that still sees value in equal access for all to the levers of power, the system is by definition corrupt and the citizens hypocrites.  This is the decadence that promises to collapse into either a revolution or quiet death.

Nic. Eth. III- 5

Men beget their actions like their own children. (Nic Eth. II -5 III- 5)

– On the one hand, trying to talk your way out of your responsibility for begetting is the most obvious of pretensions. On the other hand, the impulsion and determination of nature is evident on both ends on the action in the intensity of the desire that moves to it and the actions that unfold of themselves after the part of the begetting that is in our power.

– Before committing the action, we might think anything about it; after repeating the same action for some time we come to love it whatever it is.

– Our actions are at once the same as billions upon billions that have come forth and at the same time uniquely our own.

A sense of faith that deserves to be kept distinct

Discussions belief easily leap from a meaning that is so general that it means simply “to think that” to a meaning that is so precise that it can only describe Christian faith. This gives the idea of belief the odd character of being at once unavoidable (How can you “know p” and not “Believe that p”?) and yet mystical; at once the same as knowledge (we believe what we have evidence for!) and yet somehow set apart from it (I don’t know it, I believe it!). The questions about whether science is a “belief system” or “worldview” highlight all this confusion.

One useful beginning is to divide faith from belief. This doesn’t mean to divide every reality that can be called faith from every one that can be called belief (which is both impossible and undesirable), but to isolate a reality called faith which deserves to be kept distinct from belief in a general sense.

There are certain beliefs that, though reasons can be given for them, do not need to be believed for those reasons; and/ or which should be believed before the reasons are known. Good reasons can be given for why a child must listen to his parents or a tribesman should love his tribe, but the virtues of piety, patriotism, obedience, etc. do not require that the one with the virtue know the reasons for his action. A child who listens perfectly to his parents or teachers would be viewed as having a virtue even if we did not know if the child had a reason for what he was doing; and you can love your family or children even apart from any evidence that they are lovable.

The takeaway here is some beliefs do not require for their reasonableness that the believer be aware of the evidence of the beliefs. There would be something perverse in a mother who waited to love her children until she saw a reason to love them more than the other persons she loved; or in a child not obeying anyone until he had discovered for himself compelling reasons for the belief. The sense of the axiom “my country right or wrong” is like this: it is not fanaticism but the very reasonable idea that a country deserves love like a family does – and that we should love ours before others even before or without having any evidence that it deserves greater love.

Notice that the idea that “beliefs must always be proportionate to the evidence” would make obedience, patriotism, piety, and even most motherly love a kind of irrational fanaticism. Even the common arguments we give for these things would be vicious if judged according to the canons of rationality: the cute things that mothers love in their own kids occur in many kids (and who could endure the horror of a mother who loved you for a reason?) and the arguments for patriotism all have confirmation bias. This does not make them irrational – it shows that there is not one standard for what will count as rational. If your theory of rationality X makes patriotism or maternal love a form of fanaticism or a belief based largely on confirmation bias, then theory X is false. The characteristic cynicism of contemporary persons towards patriotism and obedience is not a sign of our greater sophistication and enlightenment, but of our narrow minded understanding of what is rational.

And so there is a sort of belief that gives a certain perfection to a person (a virtue), even apart from his believing it for a reason. The virtue of faith is this sort of belief. Faith adds to this idea that we believe the thing unconditionally. Here again, there are degrees of unconditionality – just because there are some times when a soldier or a child should disobey his superior does not mean that we have to say that their obedience is conditional



1 / 20 / 11

Compare: “what is X” or “is there X” to “what test will establish that there is an X”.

We think that the criteria for what will count as something are prior to the thing. This is not even true of games or artifacts.

The filter idea of the mind: criteria are prior to things; establishing “what will count as an X” is prior to “what is X”. It is not clear that this is true except in very rare and contrived circumstances. It’s not as simple as agreeing to what will count as a foot and then going out and measuring.

Consider the standard as an abstraction of the thing observed, or a way of understanding it through a proxy. For a security system, “a burglar” is “one who interupts a light beam under specified conditions X” and “burglary” is the physical event of doing so. There are benefits to defining burglary in this way – one can certainly “show the results” of doing so. How can such results ever measure up to defining burglary as “illegal entry into a building with the intention of theft”?

“Wanting to get testable results” will smuggle in some vague notion of what the thing is. It in fact will be conditioned by the vague understanding, and be a certain extension of it.

A laser beam is interrupted or not. We reduce the burglar to a yes/ no condition, physically verifiable. We catch him. Now what?


Modes of induction as distinguishing the modes of natural science

(A note on John of St. Thomas. Curs. Phil 1. p. 200)

Knowledge is from sense and so from induction. Either the term of the induction can be reached by a single instance, or many are required. But just as many is indefinite the sufficiency of the manifestation is indefinite. The first sort of induction is the most common kind, used in metaphysics, mathematics, logic, grammar, etc.

(Note – this does not remove the need to pick the best instance that suffices. If one proved Euclid’s interior angle proof with a right triangle, and the right triangle as the opposite angle, we could easily think that the proof rested on the equality of right angles.)

But the study of nature, as a rule, involves the second kind of induction, and so as a rule the term of the induction is always indefinite. New refuting evidence is always a possibility. Though this is true as a rule, it is not true without exception. That motion is continuous, or that a principle is ordered to a term, or that motion actualizes some potential are not the sort of inductions that become more manifested by multiplication of experiences. Any particular instance of experience suffices to manifest them, which is to say that the sort of  multiplication that is required is not of the same sort as the multiplication that, say, moves experience from “a theory” to “a law”.

The problem of popular government

It’s hard to see how anyone could work towards popular government given the present popular ideologies of the right and left: the right right tends to argue that people should minimize their contact with government, and the left only approves of popular government so far as it is leftist, that is, so far as there is government not by the people but by a faction.

The founding and Constitution are (attempts at?) a solution to a problem that neither side of our political ideologies appears to see. How does one get the citizens to value government as a positive good – even one of the greatest goods – (the blindness of the right) while at the same time insisting that their own view of the greatest good is inseparable from factional, and therefore not popular, interests (the blindness of the left)?

Being as the first thing in the intellect

St. Thomas raises an objection to thinking that the one and the many are opposed:

If “one” is opposed to “many” it is opposed as the undivided to the divided, and thus as lacking something to the possession of it. But this is inappropriate, since it would follow that the one would come after the many and be defined by it. But a multitude is defined by the unit, so there will be a vicious circle in the definition…

si unum opponitur multitudini, opponitur ei sicut indivisum diviso, et sic opponetur ei ut privatio habitui. Hoc autem videtur inconveniens, quia sequeretur quod unum sit posterius multitudine, et definiatur per eam; cum tamen multitudo definiatur per unum. Unde erit circulus in definitione…

This not St. Thomas’s most fundamental objection to his thesis that one and the many are opposed (it’s the fourth objection). What makes the objection so notable is that, in responding to it, St. Thomas articulates a theory about the  basal structure of every human thought:

One is opposed to many as a privation, so far as the ratio of the man is that which is divided. So it is necessary that division is prior to unity, though not simply speaking, but according to the ratio of our apprehension. We apprehend simple things by composite ones, which is why we define a point as what is partless, or as the principle of a line. But multitude, even by its ratio, stands to one in such a way that we do not understand the divided to have the ratio of a multitude, except from the fact that we attribute unity to both of the divided things. So one is put in the definition of the multitude, but not multitude in the definition of the one. Now division falls into the intellect from the very negation of being. So what first falls in the intellect is being; second that this being is not that – and by this we apprehend division; third, one; forth, multitude.

unum opponitur privative multis, inquantum in ratione multorum est quod sint divisa. Unde oportet quod divisio sit prius unitate, non simpliciter, sed secundum rationem nostrae apprehensionis. Apprehendimus enim simplicia per composita, unde definimus punctum, cuius pars non est, vel principium lineae. Sed multitudo, etiam secundum rationem, consequenter se habet ad unum, quia divisa non intelligimus habere rationem multitudinis, nisi per hoc quod utrique divisorum attribuimus unitatem. Unde unum ponitur in definitione multitudinis, non autem multitudo in definitione unius. Sed divisio cadit in intellectu ex ipsa negatione entis. Ita quod primo cadit in intellectu ens; secundo, quod hoc ens non est illud ens, et sic secundo apprehendimus divisionem; tertio, unum; quarto, multitudinem.

There is not much in Thomistic epistemology that is not a commentary on this response. What has stuck with me the longest is what first falls in the intellect is being, second, that this being is not that – and thus we apprehend division- [which he earlier identifies with the negation of being]. Some questions:

1.) If we understand the complex before the simple, then why is the understanding of being first?

2.) How can being be known first, and then this is not that being? Where are the “this” and “that” coming from?

Some responses:

1.) The question muddles St. Thomas’s “falling into” (cadit) the intellect with “apprehension” in the single word “understand”, but the two must be kept separate. Every apprehension involves something falling into the intellect, but the reverse is not so, since apprehension is a grasping or an active engagement with something, and therefore is properly in the second act of the intellect. Notice how the second stage St. Thomas describes transitions from the first to the second act, for after being “falls” into the intellect, it next (befalls it): that this being is not that – and by this we apprehend division. And so the first apprehension is of division, but it is not the first thing present in the intellect.

The first thing known is thus not the first thing apprehended – to apprehend being involves working back up to the first thing known. Apprehension, or whatever has a truth value for us, is always something in media res. It comes after something already known.

(It’s worth raising the question whether, if one overlooks the first act of the intellect – as happens when truth is made absolutely fundamental in human knowledge – that he is led logically to believe in the priority of non-being)

2.) “Being” falls into the human intellect formally, and in the mode of a human intellect. But what is formal to a human intellect is understood in the mode of a predicate, and so our first apprehension of being is in the mode of a predicate. But the predicates of a human intellect involve two things: communicability (as formal) and being said of a subject. The “this” or “that” arise in respect to both: according to communicability, we get this and that; according to being said of a subject, we get either this or that (which is to say, some subject or another).

Thus the human intellect truly understands being first, and even being as most formal – but it apprehends it according to the mode of a predicate, and thus it does not first understand being as a subject – certainly not grammatically, but more importantly, not as a subject of discourse. It is precisely because being is understood in its most formal character that we do not first apprehend it as a subject – it is because we understand metaphysical being first (sorry Laval school, Toronto is right) that we cannot be metaphysicians first (Sorry Toronto, Laval is right).

7/ 12/ 11

Science was able to make more progress since it based itself on definitions phenomena confirmable in particular cases, that is, definitions that could be evident in the concrete particular. This required a dialectical method and stipulative definitions, since what we know first is not concrete or particularized but vague and certain.

7 / 12 / 11

The physical sciences are based not just on measurement, but measurement of a rationalized continuum, which means that there is no possible measurement without a definite numerical value.

The measurement makes no distinction between “being at X” and “going through X”, which is only possible if one does not view motion and rest as contraries.

So far as our science is essentially metrical, there is no difference between motion and rest “in themselves” since measurement is a way of treating something in relation to another.

There is a way to determine motion or rest apart from measurement – through the experience of lifting ones limbs, feeling ones heart beat. Objection this is the same as to say that, if we use a straw, we can tell that we pull something up as opposed to creating the conditions under which the atmosphere pushes something up. Isn’t this based on the same experience of living activity? response: that is a difference between one action and another, not action and inaction. Insist: No, it’s saying that there is no difference between my action causing my motion and my action causing motion in another. I’m not the per se cause of motion when I use the straw – the atmosphere is. response We hit on contraries when we divide being in one place and to being in another and another continuously. How can “same” and “other” not be contraries? But I give up trying to come up with a concrete criterion to distinguish motion and rest in a particular case.

The account of motion turns on whether we need some criterion that verifies what is moving or resting in a particular case. Einstein goes further – how in the world do you rule out the ideas of crackpots without having such a criterion? Aristotle responds: we can study the difference between motion and resting without knowing what is moving or resting. In fact, we are forced to look at it this way when asking certain questions: How is motion possible given that motion is a multiplicity? What is required for there to be a real difference between going through and being at? What can become another being? If coming to be and being are contraries, how can being come to be? Isn’t this the same as heat becoming cool? How can something exist temporally if temporal existence involves ceasing to be (which is true whether we see all the moments of time  as equal or not – there isn’t much dispute that even equal moments are not identical ones).

Heidegger and Parmenides are speaking about the world.

“Method X answers everything” = “I’m only interested in the questions X answers”

One-method-for-everything thought is a sign of inappropriately narrow interests. Who could hold it who loved literature, music, poetry, daily social relationships, blind devotion to causes, politics? Who could hold it who did philosophy as though he we an actual human being?

“This method explains everything about the world”. It sounds like a late-night infomercial. It’s marketing, not philosophy.

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