Thank you, Lee Smolin: The Multiverse as an exit sign for real science and an “explanatory failure”

NASA pic
Let’s play “Count Universes”–Yay! OK, here we go: ONE… Uh… Well, all I see is one. Um… Do you have any evidence of any others? No? OK… Well, maybe we should just stick with one. Sound good? Yes? OK, good here, too.

Quick hit, today. Life is pretty occupied with other things!

I’ve wanted to write about this for a while, but will have to settle for just referring to it. If you’ve read the Tomorrow’s World article “Do We Live in a Multiverse?” then you are already aware that I’m not a fan of the theory. There is no good scientific reason to believe that multiple universes exist (let alone some of the weirder versions of multiverse theory, which the article did not have enough space to include in detail), and it seems that when you dig one of the main reasons the concept is latched onto is because it is seen as a means of avoiding a Creator. As one quote in the article from New Scientist says, the fine tuning of the universe’s parameters “has two possible explanations. Either the Universe was designed specifically for us by a creator or there is a multitude of universes—a ‘multiverse’.” And as the scientist quoted in the article said very plainly, “If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.” And, let’s face it: Many people don’t want God.

(It should be noted before continuing, by the way, that even if it did exist the multiverse does not actually do away with the need for God’s existence. True for many reasons, one of which I hit here: “Invasion of the Boltzmann Brains!”)

And, as I have ranted about in a rantiforous, ranty rant here on my personal blog, some of the ideas of a multiverse–especially the extreme versions–are science destroyers. It becomes the ultimate “God of the Gaps”–really, a “Multiverse of the Gaps” that explains everything. The rant is here: “The Multiverse Kills Science”–it’s a long post (definitely longer than it needed to be), so don’t try to read it without a venti salted caramel mocha in your hand and, as my Beautiful Wife might suggest, a fork to stab yourself in the leg with to keep yourself awake. (Funny Spokesman Club story associated with that reference I will have to post sometime.) But I can summarize it with the words “Jello-filled 747s raining from the sky.” OK, maybe that doesn’t summarize it very well. How about this: “In a quantum mechanical multiverse where all things happen somewhere, even those things with an unimaginably low probability of being true, science becomes impossible and cause and effect is useless as a means of understanding anything. All is explained, meaning that nothing is explained.” Maybe that’s better. If you want to slog through my terrible writing of that day and let me know how you would summarize it, feel free.

However, you could also just read this one article by physicist Lee Smolin and learn the same thing.

His article is “You think there’s a multiverse? Get real” and it has officially become my favorite New Scientist article ever. It’s in the 17 January 2015 issue. While New Scientist‘s consistent cheerleading for multiverse ideas is normally a great irritant for me–though I can hardly blame them too much, given how popular an idea it is–they deserve kudos for featuring this essay as a counterbalance, however small, to the mass of nonsense they have helped to peddle.

The statement right under the title summarizes Smolin’s point well: “Positing that alternative universes exist is just disguising our lack of knowledge of the cosmos. It’s time to move on.” Pretty plain, that.

But the rest is worth a read for anyone who is interested in the topic. For instance, he summarizes the better points of my rant-ish post I mentioned earlier very succinctly: “Thus the multiverse theory has difficulty making any firm predictions and threatens to take us out of the realm of science.” Later: “As attractive as the idea [of a multiverse] may seem, it is basically a sleight of hand, which converts an explanatory failure into an apparent explanatory success. The success is empty because anything that might be observed about our universe could be explained as something that must, by chance, happen somewhere in the multiverse.” That’s a science killer. And later, still: “And thus with an infinite ensemble of unobservable entities we leave the domain of science behind. In some sense, the multiverse embodies the unreal ensemble of all possible solutions to the laws of physics, imagined as elements of an invented ensemble of bubble universes. But this just trades one imaginary, unreal ensemble for another.”

It’s all good stuff. And Dr. Smolin’s essay puts the lie to such completely inane statements as physicist David Deutsch’s ridiculous comment that “Multi-universe physics has the same kind of experimental basis as the theory that there were once dinosaurs.” (Just seeing that sentence again gives me the willlies and makes me feel embarrassed for the man. What rot. Hopefully the article’s author was experiencing a medication mix-up and the quote from Deutsch is actually the result of a chemically-induced hallucination.)

It should be noted that Smolin gained a great deal of attention back in 2006 for his broadside attack on string theory in his book The Trouble with Physics. It stirred a large amount of controversy (much needed controversy, IMHO), and in it he makes many of the same points he makes in this multiverse article. And it is great to see that he is still at it. While I don’t agree with his implied assessment of intelligent design theories as inherently untestable hypotheses, I like the fact that he points out the hypocrisy of scientists getting on the multiverse bandwagon while rejecting intelligent design as somehow “not science.”

As for the three principles Smolin and his colleague Roberto Mangabeira Unger recommend in the article to solve the problems in science that result in things like assuming multiverses everywhere, I’m good with #1 and #3, although for #2 I’m very happy with “time is real” but unsure about what he states is the consequence of that conclusion. Still, I’m open, and I hope their ideas get enough traction to be seriously considered. (Also of note: Unger is a philosopher, and, personal evaluations of Unger’s ideas aside, kudos to Smolin for seeing the benefit of philosophy in the work of science where its place and position used to be, and should be, a given.)

The multiverse really is an example of how many scientists who wish to bash believers in God cling to gods of their own, and often do so for reasons flimsier than those they attribute to those same believers. How nice it would be if the sentiment expressed by Dr. Smolin was an indication of sanity returning to science.

OK, I said this would be a “quick hit” and, as usual, took longer than I thought. We now return you to your regularly scheduled surfing…

10 thoughts on “Thank you, Lee Smolin: The Multiverse as an exit sign for real science and an “explanatory failure”

  1. Are you sure “intelligent design theories” are “testable? scientifically? I’m not. The only explanations which pass a close shave with Occam’s Razor, yes. But wouldn’t Smolin mean something else entirely – such as experimentally reproducible? We weren’t there, as God reminded Job, when “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, and (again as God reminded Job) we can’t do what He did (“so far”, some scientist might chime in) in creating life. (“Go get your own dirt!” God might say to us if we tried, as a punchline to one of my favorite jokes says.) Thoughts?

  2. His book is currently packed away inaccessible to me along with the rest of my library, but I believe I can say that he does not mean reproducible, which wouldn’t be the same thing as testable. And as for whether intelligent design hypotheses are testable, that’s why I hedged myself with “inherently.” I believe it is entirely possible that intelligence may be detectable in many circumstances and see no reason to conclude that it should be impossible to do so.

  3. Dave Machanick

    The problem with multiverse theory is that each possibility creates another universe. How many possibilities take place every instant of every day in the whole universe?
    Then each new universe will have its probability splitting. We end of with the total number of universes to an endless power of infinities.

  4. Thomas

    The multiverse concept seems like a science killer in more ways than one. How would you come up with a consistent scientific theory for a system where everything is true somewhere? You could never prove anything false. In fact everything would be both true and false. Inconsistent and therefore useless.

  5. Thomas & Mr. Machanick: Indeed.

    Mr. Wheeler: I’m not sure I see the source of your confusion. I mentioned that he indicates he thinks intelligent design hypotheses are inherently untestable and I disagreed with that idea. What’s confusing?

  6. Perhaps a discussion on your part of the following will clear up confusion all around and on multiple levels:

    Surely he means at least one or both of the first two. Aren’t special creation and its handmaiden, intelligent design, just as outside of scientific testability/falsifiability so defined above as evolution and its various handmaidens are (even if few evolutionists want to admit it)? If logical fallacies and/or factual errors are being committed by philosophers of science, then they need to be exposed.

    One obvious fallacy is confusing the union of two self-refuting philosophies, naturalism and scientism, and then mistaking that union for the discipline of natural science (or at least the necessary metaphysical groundwork for natural science). Are there others we might consider on this whole issue?

    I await what you have time to do with great eagerness. Sorry I don’t have time to do more than to point you toward those links, which I sought out when I wanted to be more sure of my own ground than my fallible memory usually makes me.

  7. Right. A testable theory should make predictions that can be tested. So, if a theory can make predictions (generate hypotheses) that need not be true but might be and which can be actually compared to reality, then it has hope of being testable.

    A prediction would be of the form “If A is true, then B should be observed,” where B is predicted by the theory but is not an observation such that one is essentially saying “If A is true then A should be observed.” For instance, if “A” is a theory explaining the complexity of genetics, then “B” would have to be an observation other than the complexity of genetics. That is, if one is hypothesizing A as the cause of B, then the observation of B does not prove it was caused by A, since A was formulated with B as a given. One would need some other prediction conditionally dependent upon the truth of A.

    I hope this helps. 🙂

  8. Thanks for saying I was clear. 🙂 I’m not so sure reading it again and think I would have said things differently if I hadn’t been rushing. But if you waded through my words and got something useful, I’ll take it. 🙂

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