Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

Cosmology Is Naturalism’s Playground. But Does the Fun Mask a Science Decline?

Denyse O'Leary

I have been thinking about how naturalism rots science from the head down — for example, by making it nearly impossible to have a rational discussion of the Big Bang or the apparent fine-tuning of our universe and our planet for life.

Oddly, the naturalist theories that attempt to account for these facts without design in nature do not necessarily require assessment against each other, as would be the case if they represented whole, complex schools of thought. They appear mostly to be churned up ad hoc. Reading current cosmology literature is an adventure. We are a long way from relativity, quantum mechanics, and finding the Higgs boson.

Cosmology has become an art form. Stylish essays are decked out with a very brief skirt of science. Frequent topics give some sense of the genre: For example, consider the claim that our universe is actually only two-dimensional but appears to be three-dimensional — a hologram.

We are told that it is a three-dimensional “mirage” of a collapsing star “in a universe profoundly different than our own.” Or perhaps an illusion born from information encoded elsewhere, on a “two-dimensional chip.” One source claims that there is substantial evidence for the holographic universe. From another source, we learn that the universe “neither confirms nor denies its holographic nature.”

What are the stakes? The hologram universe is thought to account for the Big Bang, space, and time. That would just be another arcane controversy in science except that there is no clear, consistent trail of evidence for any of it. At least one effort to test the holograph universe came up with “no evidence of holographic noise.” Despite that, “New evidence for the strange idea that the universe is a hologram” is frequently aired. But, as with so much cosmology today, one wonders what role evidence really plays anyway. Would any evidence cause proponents to abandon the idea?

We see the same thing with the claim that our universe is a computer simulation created by aliens, taken seriously by well-known astrophysicist and science presenter Neil deGrasse Tyson and by theoretical physicist and Templeton winner Martin Rees. Aliens? Joshua Rothman explains at The New Yorker that, “The simulation argument is appealing, in part, because it gives atheists a way to talk about spirituality.” Notice how ideas that would have been slammed as religion suddenly became science as long as they can be grafted onto naturalism. Even if they make prominent science figures sound as if they are the people who think that NASA is hiding space aliens.

Then there is the notion of universes parallel to ours.  Or that we live in the past of a parallel universe, worth noting here along with the other more modest claims such as the hologram universe and the computer simulation universe. A Cosmos Magazine article invokes Darwinism in support of these parallel worlds: “Is this not all too absurd to take seriously? Not for the physicists, it seems. And as David Wallace points out in The Emergent Multiverse, our sense of absurdity evolved to help us scratch a living on the savannahs of Africa. The universe is not obliged to conform to it.”

So the standard of evidence has been reduced to that of Darwinism. Indeed, we are informed that we can believe in parallel universes if we would only discard a classic science principle like Occam’s Razor (that is, go with the simplest explanation).

Time does not fare much better. Maybe time is a grand illusion or else it isn’t real or it is all in our heads. Or else we can change the past. Or else the future can shape the past. Or there is a mirror universe where time can move backward. Some philosophers of science do still defend the reality of time. That said, some prominent scientists argue that the universe is conscious, a curious claim in an age where consciousness itself is considered to be an illusion. So is the universe the illusion of an illusion?

Those who still defend a reality-based view of science seem to be slowly losing ground. Overall, science is experiencing a massive invasion of post-fact.

There is a marked difference between the style of the literature that celebrates naturalism in and of itself and the more traditional excitement around, say, finding the Higgs boson. Theory now needs only a tangential relationship to the methods and tools of science. But then perhaps our expectations of science are changing. Possibly many no longer want information so much as they want attitudes  they can live with.

What strikes one is the fundamental unseriousness of it all. That would not necessarily matter. Unserious disciplines can often be ignored.

However, there is a looming, much more serious problem, which I hope to explore in more depth later: Efforts are underway to change the rules of science to accommodate theories that seem to have lost touch with evidence: For example, Columbia University mathematician Peter Woit notes at Not Even Wrong that the organizing committee for the 2015 Munich conference “Why Trust a Theory?” was chaired by a philosopher of science who, to oversimplify (in Woit’s view), thinks that the solution is to “change our understanding of the scientific method.”

Actually, it is not an oversimplification. That is exactly what we are being asked to do, in order to accommodate non-evidence-based theory. If this trend continues, science will become indistinguishable from literary fiction.

Note: The multiverse (ours is only one of an infinite number of universes) is the principal naturalist claim regarding the cosmos but it merits a separate discussion.

Photo credit: Free-Photos via Pixabay.