Spritzophrenia

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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Hawking The Grand Design’

The Multiverse is a Dead Parrot? Is Atheism In Trouble?

Posted by spritzophrenia on August 26, 2011

Is the Multiverse theory dead? If so, what implications might this have for belief in g0d?

I’ve written on cosmology from time to time. Recently I picked up Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, which does a far better job of explaining M-theory than Hawking and Mlodinow’s recent book. At this point I need to send a public shout-out to Lunagrrrl, who sent me her copy of The Grand Design, which I previewed here. I had good intentions of reviewing it again, but I can’t add much to what I wrote. Get Greene’s book and skip to chapter thirteen instead, it’s much better.

The words below were originally posted last month by Santi Tafarella in his blog, Prometheus Unbound. I think this is worth sharing. Go check out the comments on his blog too.

Santi writes:

parallel multiverse

In 2008, cosmologist Bernard Carr of Queen Mary University of London, told a science journalist for Discover the following:

If there is only one universe, you might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.

Carr said this because our universe appears to have numerous wildly improbable properties hard to explain by chance (especially if our known Big Bang universe is the only roll of the cosmic dice, setting its cosmological constants). Put bluntly, the cosmos appears to have been designed, and with very particular purposes in mind.

In whose mind?

Well, God’s of course!

Like an apple tree following its genetic imperatives, the universe appears to be following the imperatives of its cosmological constants. It apples galaxies, carbon-based life forms (like apple trees), and minds (like our own).

On planet Earth alone, there are 7 billion minds right now and counting.

Whooda thunk it?

Maybe Someone did.

The Discover article gave examples that illustrate our universe’s mind-boggling good luck (or creation by God, if the multiverse doesn’t come to the rescue of atheism). Here’s one:

The early universe was delicately poised between runaway expansion and terminal collapse. Had the universe contained much more matter, additional gravity would have made it implode. If it contained less, the universe would have expanded too quickly for galaxies to form.

The 2008 article that Bernard Carr was quoted in also noted this:

The credibility of string theory and the multiverse may get a boost within the next year or two, once physicists start analyzing results from the Large Hadron Collider, the new, $8 billion particle accelerator built on the Swiss-French border.

Now, fast forward to 2011. What’s the status of string theory and the multiverse in light of the data that has come in from the LHC (Large Hadron Collider)?

Answer: Not good.

Atheists, are you listening?

Theoretical physicist and mathematician Peter Woit of Columbia University, discussing this summer’s String 2011 Conference at his blog, writes that at past conferences they:

. . . often featured a call for progress towards making predictions that could be tested at the LHC [Large Hadron Collider]. With LHC data now coming in, [opening speaker David] Gross acknowledged that this had been a failure: there are no string theory LHC predictions.

None.

As for what the String 2011 Conference’s opening speaker, David Gross, said of the multiverse, here’s Peter Woit again:

Surprisingly, not a word from Gross about anthropics or the multiverse. I assume he’s still an opponent, but perhaps feels that there’s no point in beating a dying horse. Susskind isn’t there and oddly, the only multiverse-related talks are from the two speakers brought in to do public lectures (Brian Greene and Andrei Linde, Hawking’s health has kept him from a planned appearance). So the multiverse is a huge part of the public profile of the conference, but pretty well suppressed at the scientific sections. Also pretty well suppressed is “string phenomenology”, or any attempt to use string theory to do unification. Out of 35 or so talks I see only a couple related to this, which is still the main advertised goal of string theory.

A dying horse. Isn’t that sad? And remember: as goes string theory, so goes the multiverse.

And perhaps even atheism. As uber-atheist Jerry Coyne noted recently at his blog, how the multiverse debate pans out among physicists has unmistakable consequences for the God question:

[M]ultiverse theories . . . represent physicists’ attempts to give a naturalistic explanation for what others see as evidence of design.

But here’s how Peter Woit describes the String 2011 Conference summary by Jeff Harvey:

In Jeff Harvey’s summary of the conference, he notes that many people have remarked that there hasn’t been much string theory at the conference. About the landscape, his comment is that “personally I think it’s unlikely to be possible to do science this way.” He describes the situation of string theory unification as like the Monty Python parrot “No, he’s not dead, he’s resting.” while expressing some hope that a miracle will occur at the LHC or in the study of string vacua, reviving the parrot.

That the summary speaker at the main conference for a field would compare the state of the main public motivation for the field as similar to that of the parrot in the Monty Python sketch is pretty remarkable. In the sketch, the whole joke is the parrot’s seller’s unwillingness, no matter what, to admit that what he was selling was a dead parrot.

And, as for Scientific American’s recent coverage of the multiverse hypothesis, Woit is critical:

One might be tempted to criticize Scientific American for keeping this alive, but they just reflect the fact that this pseudo-science continues to have significant influence at the highest levels of the physics establishment.

The multiverse is pseudo-science. Really?

Based on what Bernard Carr said in 2008, and what Woit reports of the goings-on at the String 2011 Conference and in Scientific American, should this alert us to the possibility that atheism itself might be quietly trending in the direction of Monty Python’s dead parrot?

Monty Python | Dead Parrot Sketch

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Hawking’s Grand Design – Cosmology Still Needs God?

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 17, 2010

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 42 is the answer to “the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything”. It’s a mathematical non-answer to the meaning of life. Stephen Hawking references this in his new book The Grand Design, and in a strange parallel also suggests a mathematical answer, as theoretical physics essentially relies on mathematics. But does it work?

The Grand Design

Cards on the table, I’ve read a vast amount of commentary but haven’t read the book yet. [Edit: I’ve read it now, see below] So this is a review of the reviews, and it’s fair to say the reviews are mixed. There are some five star articles which praise the book as an easy read for a popular audience. Others castigate Hawking and Mlodinow’s book for being dumbed down too much, and for not actually explaining the science.

As I understand it, Hawking isn’t proposing anything new, this is simply a popular account of the current state of play. It happens the author is Stephen Hawking, and he gets a lot of media love. I wonder if a similar book by someone else would have got as much attention?

Blake, Grand Architect of the Universe

William Blake, that hoary old Mason: The Grand Architect of the Universe

Background reading: Cosmogony (Cosmogeny) is the study of the very start of the universe. Cosmology is the study of the whole thing and Wikipedia has a rather good summary of current ideas, although you might need a little science understanding to appreciate some of it.

Hawking and Mlodinow‘s current view is that one version of multiverse theory, M-Theory explains it all, however some reviews say the authors don’t really explain M-Theory, and just use it as a magic bullet. M-theory, as some critics have pointed out, is currently only a mathematical construct in theoretical physics, lacks predictive power and so far is untestable. As happened with its predecessor string theories, it would not be surprising if contradictions or incompleteness are found in the near future. There are also other possibilities under discussion.

Because they’re unobservable, multiverse theories are also untestable, blurring the line between science and speculation and making them controversial in the scientific community. Princeton University physicist Paul Steinhardt has called the multiverse “a dangerous idea that I am simply unwilling to contemplate.”

The same article also speaks of “the growing credibility of multiverse theory”.

So really, Hawking is saying “A few of us think the M-theory multiverse and gravity can generate this universe from nothing, and it doesn’t require a God. (But also doesn’t rule one out.)”

Poor on Science and Philosophy

There are some very positive reviews but I was surprised how many mediocre and even scathing reviews of the book there are by atheists, who want the book to succeed but find it derisory. From a couple of the better reviews:

“Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing […] Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to […] set the universe going.”

This quotation from the book is a good summary of its main thesis. As a statement of our understanding of physics and cosmology this is very likely correct. … As a philosophical statement, however, this is a total disaster. The authors say early in the book that “philosophy is dead”. It certainly is— in their heads.

For instance, what is the meaning of “is” when they say that “there is a law like gravity”? Do they mean that gravity has a real existence, like you and me exist? In this case the creation of the universe is not really spontaneous, because the existence of gravity is necessary to it. …

It is possible that gravity and quantum mechanics allow the “spontaneous” creation of the universe and everything in it. This is, however, not a solution to the problem of existence, because the nature of the existence (or reality) of gravity and quantum mechanics is left unexplained. The authors are too ignorant of basic philosophy to understand this.

My two-star rating is not just because of the bad philosophy. It is to point out that there are much better books on this subject for the general reader. I particularly recommend Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality as an informal, but deep introduction to cosmology. I also recommend Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes and Its Implications as a book on the theory of everything. Deutsch’s book is particularly important because it is very sophisticated from a philosophical point of view. Of course, Deutsch’s philosophy is totally wrong, but it does not matter: Deutsch’s book is an important one, while the present book is lightweight fluff (just look at the illustrations!)

~ Filipo Neri (accessed from Amazon 12 Sept 2010, but now unavailable)

Another cites errors:

On philosophy, he takes many out of context. An example of this can be given on page 22, “Epicurus (341 BC-270 BC), for example, opposed atomism on the grounds that it is “better to follow the myths about the gods [than] to become a ‘slave’ to the destiny of natural philosophers”. Yes, Epicurus certainly says that; but, he was also a staunch materialist. He certainly didn’t reject atomism— he even created his own special kind. Again, on page 135, “Over the centuries many, including Aristotle, believed that the universe must have always existed in the order to avoid the issue of how it was [caused].” Aristotle believed God created the universe and set it into motion before retreating to self-contemplation. Above and beyond outright confusing statements, there are also many statements that are left without support, and kind of feel out of place. Claims that “[Pythagoras] did not discover the theorem that bears his name”— then who did and what is your point?

The science explanations are also exceptionally poor. …

On speaking of Ptolemy’s model being poor “it contains dozens of adjustable parameters whose values must be fixed to match observations, rather than being determined by the theory itself”. I’m just not sure I can conclude that M Theory or String Theory aren’t fixed to match observations. From the text it sounds like they are.
~ from Amazon

The book opens with the claim “Philosophy is dead”, which in context probably just refers to the particular area of philosophy that discusses the origin of the universe. I doubt philosophers are afraid they’ll be out of a job (echoes of the Hitchhiker’s guide, again). Several reviewers point out the book spends a great deal of time presenting what is actually philosophy, not science, and poor philosophy at that.

The God Question

Now for the big question, the one the book is marketed on: Does a multiverse pose a problem for belief? A very useful look at this topic written before Hawking’s book was published says multiverse theory “has failed to create the opposition between religion and the multiverse that [some critics] expect.”

Oxford’s professor of theoretical physics, Frank Close, writes, “I don’t see that M-theory adds one iota to the God debate, either pro or con.” And the University of Surrey’s equivalent, Jim Al-Khalili, calls M-theory “tentative” in The Times, quoted here.

Physicist and science writer Paul Davies, referencing Hawking’s book says that the multiverse hypothesis doesn’t necessarily do away with the idea of God. While accepting that cosmology can probably now explain how our universe began— a claim I was unaware of— Davies writes: “A much tougher problem now looms, however. What is the source of those ingenious laws that enable a universe to pop into being from nothing?”

The multiverse comes with a lot of baggage, such as an overarching space and time to host all those bangs, a universe-generating mechanism to trigger them, physical fields to populate the universes with material stuff, and a selection of forces to make things happen. Cosmologists embrace these features by envisaging sweeping “meta-laws” that pervade the multiverse and spawn specific bylaws on a universe-by-universe basis. The meta-laws themselves remain unexplained— eternal, immutable transcendent entities that just happen to exist and must simply be accepted as given. In that respect the meta-laws have a similar status to an unexplained transcendent god.

Davies concludes “there is no compelling need for a supernatural being or prime mover to start the universe off. But when it comes to the laws that explain the big bang, we are in murkier waters.”

It appears The Grand Design is a very easy popular book, with some serious flaws, and which doesn’t actually remove the need for philosophy, or perhaps God. I’d like to read it and see if there really are black holes in the book.

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[Edit: Having read it, I think it’s a pretty good basic introduction and a good read. However, I agree with the criticisms – very poor on argument. My review coming.]

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Blast from the past: Thomas Dolby | She Blinded Me With Science
(featuring the wonderful Magnus Pyke)

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