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Further Reading

SCIENCE: Deprogram

Proving Grounded

Multiverse Supporters Put the Brakes on Falsifiability

by Denyse O'Leary

Remember our science teachers lecturing us about falsifiability? That science is better than other methods of knowledge because, in science, it is possible to prove that some beliefs are false?

Yes! As Neuroskeptic points out at Discover, philosopher of science Karl Popper argued that "a theory should make predictions that could be tested and, potentially, proven wrong. An unfalsifiable theory is just not science."

It's not clear, however, that science is the only source of knowledge capable of that feat. Mary Slessor (1845–1915), a Scottish-born missionary to Nigeria, ended the practice of murdering twins (which were believed to bring bad luck) simply by demonstrating that nothing bad happened to her on account of her living with twins. Common sense is sometimes all that is needed.

Out with Falsifiability!

But today, some scientists want to throw falsifiability overboard. They hope by doing this to protect the concept of the multiverse. Put simply, there is currently no evidence for the existence of any universes other than our own, making the theory of the multiverse unfalsifiable. But if the proposal to dispense with falsifiability were accepted, that would be very convenient for naturalist atheists. They could then argue that any stream of events that occurs in our universe may well have occurred differently in any one of an infinite number of other universes. So no inferences (other than their own) could be drawn from a given state of affairs here in the only world for which we have information.

Thus, falsifiability was one of the ideas included in This Idea Must Die (2015), a recent book on Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress. As cosmologist Sean Carroll cheerily explains in his essay in the book:

Modern physics stretches into realms far removed from everyday experience, and sometimes the connection to experiment becomes tenuous at best. String theory and other approaches to quantum gravity involve phenomena that are likely to manifest themselves only at energies enormously higher than anything we have access to here on Earth. The cosmological multiverse and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics posit other realms impossible for us to access directly.

So, he says, the unwillingness to accept this speculation as science is "as non-scientific as it gets." Indeed, PBS took up the cry recently, pointing out that we live in a universe "by some estimations, too good to be true," so maybe we should ignore falsifiability in search of comforting secular explanations.

Arguing for Post-Empiricism

This idea of getting past evidence as a deciding factor is called post-empiricism. As one supporter puts it:

But we have no god-given principles of theory confirmation. The principles we have are themselves a product of the scientific process. They vary from context to context and they change with time based on scientific progress. This means that, in order to criticize a strategy of theory assessment, it's not enough to point out that the strategy doesn't agree with a particular more traditional notion.1

There are opposing voices, to be sure. Philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci continues to defend falsifiability as a criterion. In December 2014, respected cosmologists George Ellis and Joe Silk defended the integrity of physics against multiverse theory in Nature:

Faced with difficulties in applying fundamental theories to the observed Universe, some researchers called for a change in how theoretical physics is done. They began to argue—explicitly—that if a theory is sufficiently elegant and explanatory, it need not be tested experimentally, breaking with centuries of philosophical tradition of defining scientific knowledge as empirical. We disagree. As the philosopher of science Karl Popper argued: a theory must be falsifiable to be scientific.2

But that is precisely the idea that is under attack. What if "scientific" just means "supports naturalist atheism" and nothing more? And "unscientific" is whatever doesn't support it?

The Next Target: Evidence

Here is a prediction: To the extent that science is dominated by naturalist atheists, falsifiability will not survive as a criterion. That's because it depends on the idea that there is something out there that can falsify things—call it "god" or whatever you want. Instead, whatever speculation supports the multiverse or some similar shibboleth will count for far more than any failure of evidence.

And the naturalist atheists' next war will, of course, be against the very idea of evidence. What evidence counts for will depend on who is presenting it and what causes it is thought to support. That is what post-empiricism must necessarily mean in the current environment. 


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