Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

But Who Needs Reality-Based Thinking Anyway? Not the New Cosmologists

Denyse O'Leary


In Scientific American‘s profile of Leonard Susskind, “the bad boy of physics,” we are told, “Susskind now wonders whether physicists can understand reality.” Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, authors of The Grand Design (2010), wonder too:

Most people believe that there is an objective reality out there and that our senses and our science directly convey information about the material world. … The way physics has been going, realism is becoming difficult to defend.

Science-Fictions-square.gifHawking is comfortable with non-realism: “I’m a positivist. … I don’t demand that a theory correspond to reality because I don’t know what it is.” The end of reality is captured in a telling vignette: The lead character in the film Happy Go Lucky, browsing in a bookshop, pulls Roger Penrose’s Road to Reality from a shelf, glances at the title and puts it straight back, saying, “Oh, we don’t want to go there!”
A question arises: If, in the multiverse (especially the many worlds version) everything possible is true, why do cosmologists trash traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs? Because there is a critical catch: Anything may be true, including contradictory states, except serious dissent from the Copernican principle–the principle that Earth and our universe are nothing special. Physicist Rob Sheldon sums it up:

Multiverse theory is designed for one purpose, and one purpose only, and that is to defend atheism. It makes no predictions, it gives no insight, it provides no control, it produces no technology, it advances no mathematics, it is a science in name only, because it is really metaphysics.

He warns that science cannot thrive outside reality: “Now some will say that this is still a small price to pay for the freedom it provides from a creator-god. But I want to make it very clear what the terms of the exchange will be.” Lest any reader think that the circus outlined in previous instalments of this series is an unfortunate, temporary side effect of the onward march of science, here are some of the terms:
Evidence is irrelevant. Too many critics dismiss the multiverse because it lacks evidence. In other words, they assume — without warrant in this case — that that matters. But the Copernican Principle was developed precisely to work around the evidence (of the Big Bang and fine tuning of our own universe). Evidence is not going to suddenly start to matter again.
Logic and reason are likewise irrelevant. Consider the multiverse claim that there are “infinite copies of you and your loved ones leading lives, up until this moment, that are absolutely identical to yours.” Mathematician George F. R. Ellis notes that, if so, the deep mysteries of nature are too absurd to be explicable and that the proposed nine types of multiverse in one scheme are “mutually exclusive.” True, but in a multiverse, “inexplicable” is okay. “Absurd” and “mutually exclusive” are meaningless concepts. It is equally meaningless to assert that one event is more probable than another. As David Berlinski puts it, “Why is Newton’s universal law of gravitation true? No need to ask. In another universe, it is not”(Devil’s Delusion, p. 124).
You can, of course, make reason and logic your personal brand of nonsense if you wish. In that case, statements like this will annoy you: Earth’s habitability rating has “taken a hit” because it is too close to “the warm edge” of our zone. Earth’s habitability has a probability of 1, so how can its rating take a hit? Berlinski would likely say, no need to ask. In another universe it has not.
All distinction between science and metaphysics vanishes. New Scientist‘s Amanda Gefter noted (2005) “Alternative universes, things we can’t see because they are beyond our horizons, are in principle unfalsifiable and therefore metaphysical.” Which is okay. In the same year, University of Toronto physicist Amanda Peet — a proponent — called string theory a ‘faith-based initiative.'” Whatever.
Atheists and agnostics do not rush en masse to embrace these post-meaning worlds. Many openly resent their blatant implausibility. Science writer John Horgan pointedly asks, “Is theorizing about parallel universes immoral?”

These multiverse theories all share the same fundamental defect: They can be neither confirmed nor falsified. Hence, they don’t deserve to be called scientific, according to the well-known criterion proposed by the philosopher Karl Popper. Some defenders of multiverses and strings mock skeptics who raise the issue of falsification as “Popperazi” — which is cute but not a counterargument. Multiverse theories aren’t theories — they’re science fictions, theologies, works of the imagination unconstrained by evidence.

And mathematician Peter Woit has warned science journalist Michael Shermer that the multiverse fad might discredit atheism (which both espouse).
But some value the multiverse explicitly as an argument against intelligent design of life forms. Prominent molecular biologist Eugene Koonin thinks that in “an infinite multiverse with a finite number of distinct macroscopic histories (each repeated an infinite number of times), emergence of even highly complex systems by chance is not just possible but inevitable.” and that such emergence “sidesteps the issue of irreducibility and leaves no room whatsoever for any form of intelligent design.”
Koonin may have inadvertently come up with the strongest argument for design; a multiverse — for which there is no evidence — is required to discredit it.
Image source: Sterneck/Flickr.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.