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Is there a "crisis" in cosmology, as science writer Dennis Overbye tells us at the New York Times?1 Or does cosmology merely face "challenges," as we read at Scientific American? 2
Article originally appeared in
Either way, the tale grows strange. We have so much more data now, but it does not provide the evidence many expected. For example, the ardent faith placed in string theory—the hypothesis that the particles of conventional physics are actually vibrating, one-dimensional "strings"—has proven fruitless for decades.
Had evidence emerged for such strings, the theory would unite general relativity, quantum mechanics, and gravity. But the promise they offer naturalistic atheists today is much richer: strings would also provide evidence that our universe is but one among an infinite number of universes. String theory requires ten dimensions to be viable. That, we are told, entails 10500 different universes.3
Hence, our universe is not fine-tuned, as our ancestors fondly supposed. By mere tautology, we could only have lived in a universe that met our needs. Evidence of fine-tuning can be dismissed, not because it is false, but because it is beside the point.
If only those strings would exist. . . . If only some evidence, detectible in this universe, could be found for other universes. . . . In the meantime, many cosmologists and science writers continue to write and speak as if the multiverse they desire is true, waiting in the wings.
But what if actual evidence now matters? Peter Woit, a Columbia University mathematician, is a brave academic. He is an atheist who has long critiqued fashionable string theory (Not Even Wrong, 2007) and the multiverse it supports because the evidence does not really support these theories. But he acknowledged recently that lack of evidence is hardly an obstacle these days.
In January, he dubbed 2016 the worst year ever for "fake physics," offering his choice examples of the genre.4 They are eye-openers, to be sure. We learn, from a variety of publications aimed at science--minded readers, that even physicists find the multiverse "faintly disturbing" (but they'll get over it); that multiple multiverses may be one and the same (we need to revamp our notions of time and space); that the mind bleeds into the world (and it's not clear how real any of it is anyway, in the age of AI); and that, despite all of the above, the multiverse is not just madness. It's just "not on very solid ground."
About one such piece, "The Crisis of the Multiverse: In an infinite multiverse, physics loses its ability to make predictions," Dr. Woit writes,
It essentially argues that the idea of assuming a Multiverse and using it to make statistical predictions doesn't work. But instead of drawing the obvious conclusion (this was a scientifically worthless idea, as seemed likely to most everyone else), the argument is that we need a "revolution in our understanding of physics" that will make the idea work.
Woit worries, with good reason, that many of his well-educated colleagues "believe because they read it on the front page of the New York Times." Yes. And remember, not a single piece of serious evidence undergirds any of the far-flung speculations. Yet the speculations are considered science. Why?
Woit blames the Templeton Foundation. It appears to have given $15 million to physicists to pursue these questions, and $10 million to the publishing group Nautilus, whose flagship magazine, also called Nautilus, features many of these think pieces (but by no mean all of them).5 And he does not understand "why the rest of the physics community is staying quiet."6
Sponsored by Atheism
Dr. Woit is right to be concerned. But he has lost the thread. Templeton is only a patron of speculations about a multiverse. Nautilus, Edge, Big Think, etc., are only media for the ideas. None of these entities can force the science-minded public to agree or even listen, especially in an age of global internet access. If an educated audience eagerly gobbles up the speculations, we must look to that audience, not to their suppliers, for an -explanation.
So what about that audience? Pure, naturalistic atheism is very popular in science, and a traditional religious approach is a minority view.7 That creates an awkward problem in this controversy. Vast evidence supports the view that our universe and our planet are fine-tuned for life, which suggests a cosmic scheme based on some type of meaning, purpose, or intelligence.8 By contrast, no evidence supports the multiverse, which is far more favorable to the naturalistic, atheistic view.
One solution is, as Julie Andrews sang, to "have confidence in confidence alone." The multiverse spills from so many glossy popular science publications that readers might think there is evidence for it. Yet there is none. Such evidence may not even be possible.
The need to defend the multiverse without evidence has led to a growing discomfort with some of the decision-making tools of science, for example, falsifiability9 and Occam's Razor.10 Naturalistic atheism, not traditional religion, is sponsoring this war on reality.
But naturalist atheists have another weapon. They are increasingly comfortable with the idea that human beings did not evolve so as to perceive reality -correctly, which means that we do not need to go to war for or against evidence. We simply cannot understand it. Astrophysicist Adam Frank explains at NPR that he finds that logic, as advanced by cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman, "exciting and potentially appealing" though probably "wrong."11
But wait! Why must Hoffman's logic be wrong? If naturalists are right about the nature of our universe, they can be neither right nor wrong. We are all animals, and animals are never wrong. The correct approach is not to understand nature but to control the Fake Physics news market. Templeton appears to be a dominant brand now.
Recently, we began to hear the term "post-fact" applied to science as well as other areas. Memory researcher Julie Shaw summed up her case for it in December at Scientific American, "So, it's ok that society is post-fact. Facts are so last century."12
Post-fact science is, perhaps, one of those things that we "almost" realize is a problem. We're skittish, we're nervous. We're heading down a steep, icy road with companions who are asking, "What could go wrong?"
Here's what could go wrong: An item crossed my desk the other day, from theoretical physicist Lisa Randall at Harvard. She offers the thought that an invisible civilization could be living right under our noses in the dark matter of our universe.13 How does this thought differ from the idea that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden, except that Harvard is buying it? No wonder Peter Woit worries about what physics is coming to.
The problem is that it's hard to see an alternative if evidence for fine-tuning cannot be accepted for what it is. And Templeton could not have created this malaise. It had to come from within.
Are we looking at the end of science? If so, it is not, as science writer John Horgan famously thought in the 1990s, because "all the big questions that can be answered have been answered."14 Rather, science thinkers decided to ignore answers from evidence and make up the universes they prefer, secure in the knowledge that we did not evolve so as to know reality anyway.
It wasn't murder. It was more like a suicide, really. •
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