Characterising Science and Beyond

This week the Templeton Foundation is funding yet another conference on the Multiverse, this one is entitled Philosophy of Cosmology 2009: Characterising Science and Beyond. The conference is also celebrating the 70th birthday of Templeton Prize winner George Ellis. The conference web-site includes a page showing the book covers of recent multiverse books, noting that:

The selection of books shown here (at both the popular and technical level) demonstrate the fact that the notion of the Mutliverse is becoming increasingly mainstream.

Ellis has expressed some skepticism about the question of whether the multiverse idea is testable, but, as usual with these Templeton conferences, there seem to be rather few skeptics invited. On the other hand, there do seem to be quite a few philosophers of science, and some philosophers of religion, (Alex Pruss of Baylor and Robin Collins of Messiah College), which I guess is appropriate.

Sean Carroll, who seems to have overcome his earlier qualms about Templeton funding, is live-blogging the conference (see here and here). He notes that Ellis is worried that the multiverse may be inherently untestable and thus not science, but doesn’t himself think this is worth worrying about. Presumably he’ll continue tomorrow, covering the rest of the conference.

Update: Sean Carroll’s live-blogging of the Templeton conference is the lead item of the front-page news on their web-site.

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29 Responses to Characterising Science and Beyond

  1. Tom S. says:

    Dr. Woit. I see you discuss posts that seem to link the concept of the multiverse with religion. (Or at least with templeton.)

    Not that it matters, but I was just curious, are you implying that since some religious people see the concept of a multiverse strengthening their beliefs a sign that the concept of the multiverse is a bad thing?

    For a specific example, once you pointed out that mormons are liking the multiverse. Are you suggesting that since some mormons find a use for the idea this proves the idea is bogus?

    Not that I care, I was just wondering how a scientific idea supporting religious views in the minds of some make it so that such a scientific idea should be frowned upon.

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Tom S.,

    My problem with multiverse research is that it’s mostly not science and is often conducted with the motivation of trying to use pseudo-science to explain away the failure of string theory as a unified theory.

    What religious people think about the multiverse is pretty much irrelevant to me, and no I don’t think the fact that Mormons believe something is any kind of argument for or against it. Some religious people may think the multiverse gives an argument for their faith, others an argument against their faith (e.g. one can use the multiverse to counter the argument from design). Either way, their interest in the topic is motivated by something other than science, something I don’t care about.

    What I do find worth pointing out is the role being played by organizations like Templeton. They have an agenda to bring together religion and science, and are implementing it by funding this kind of conference. The participation of philosophers of religion is just one indication that something funny is going on here, something that has nothing to do with legitimate science.

  3. Marcus says:

    Why is Joe Silk involved?

  4. Peter Woit says:

    Marcus,

    It’s a cosmology conference at Oxford and he’s a cosmology professor at Oxford…

    There are several mainstream cosmologists participating.

  5. Marcus says:

    Of course I know he’s at Oxford. Even if disinclined he’d almost be obliged to participate, if for no other reason than to nominally honor George Ellis.
    But I think that such a slanted meeting, greased with Templeton fat, is no real honor to Ellis. It is sad to see people like Ellis and Silk drawn in. Just my personal view. I have enormous respect for both Ellis and Silk—think of them as scientists of the great integrity. Sad to see them roped into a event that looks rigged. Used.

  6. Einstein advocated combining Spinoza’s “religion” with science.

    He said: ‘Religion without science is blind; science without religion is lame’, or words to that effect.

    If the Templeton Foundation was promoting this specific, and far more mature, form of combining science and “religion”, would you still object.

    Is there any credible evidence for a more dubious hidden adgenda pursued by the TF?

    Might TF be promoting the Deism of Democritus, Spinoza, Jefferson + Franklin, and Einstein rather than Theism? There is a profound difference between the two, but both could be labeled “religion”.

    RLO

  7. Peter Woit says:

    I don’t think the problem here is the Templeton Foundation, the problem is the toleration of pseudo-science by mainstream scientists. Templeton funds some real science, all sorts of things that have nothing to do with science, and some pseudo-science. If they didn’t have prominent scientists signing on to participate in their pseudo-science activities, there would be no real problem.

    It’s unclear to me who at this conference besides Ellis is skeptical about the claims of multiverse studies to be science. Presumably there are quite a few. I get the impression though that the idea behind this conference was a somewhat misguided one: to bring together philosophers and physicists to examine the “is the multiverse science” question. The problem is that it’s not a philosophical question, it’s a physics question: do you have a theory that has any hope of giving what is needed? No one does, and as far as I can tell, the reasons for this are not being examined. They’re the same reasons string theory can’t predict anything about non-cosmological physics.

  8. Marcus says:

    Dear RLO,
    what the Templeton Foundation is promoting is neither honest religion nor honest science.
    You ask for evidence of (what I would call openly harmful and misguided, but not hidden) agenda. Look at the program of talks. It is slanted to promote multiversalism with a speaker lineup with celebrated proponents not balanced by strong critics.

    Had they wished, I expect the organizers would have had no difficulty finding speakers to argue that religion has no need for a multiverse, nor does multiversalism do religion any good.

    Likewise they could have found speakers (e.g. Paul Steinhardt) to argue that acquiescing to a landscape of multiple versions of physics is a betrayal of scientific values and not even opportune: Aside from some specialists in a stalled line of research who would benefit by abandoning the goal of a predictive as well as explanatory physics?

    Left to itself, without the support of Templeton money, the multiverse speculation of the years 2003-2007 would have dried up. We wouldn’t be hearing it discussed. Science has self-regulatory mechanisms. For instance the string theory landscape was almost entirely excluded as a topic from the main conferences Strings 2008 and 2009. A big change compared with 2005. Templeton funds tend to drag the clock back.

    “Religion” is fine. “Deism” is fine, they’re not the issue. I think Jefferson Franklin, and Einstein would have seen though the multiverse hype, and seen Templeton for what it is, a corrupting manipulation.
    In my humble opinion.

  9. Mark says:

    I attended the Wheeler Symposium: Science & Ultimate Reality. (Mar 2002) which was funded by TF. Lots of great talks. Zeilinger explained a new delayed choice experiment he had carried out and Smolin argued that LQG was the long sought quantum gravity, to which Cecil DeWitt replied smiling, “This is probably the Xth time I’ve heard that announcement. Let’s hope you fair better than your predecessors.” Bryce DeWitt was there. Raymond Chao. There was only one mention of anything to do with the sponsor — someone said this was the first time he’d heard of talks motivated by the phil-anthropic principle. I’d attend a conference like that regardless of who funded it — Satan, the Pope — it was a great conference!

  10. Kea says:

    Well, I am fairly certain that Roger Penrose is also skeptical of such multiverse ideas.

  11. anon says:

    Marcus,

    The Templeton foundation just provides the funds for a proposed conference. They don’t have any say in who is invited. I attended and it was a good workshop with a lot of participants for and a lot against the multiverse idea. Peter, I bet if you attended one of these workshops you might actually soften your stance a bit on the whole multiverse issue. I got the impression that even Ellis did and he’s probably even a bigger sceptic than you.

  12. Peter Woit says:

    anon,

    The problem with Templeton funding is not that they choose the speakers, but that they use their money to try and legitimize a pseudo-scientific subject as science, a project then carried out by legitimate scientists. I believe that the majority of physicists consider most multiverse research to be pseudo-science, and would object to a conference about it being funded out of standard peer-reviewed sources.

    From Sean Carroll’s account, of the many speakers there, the only one who spoke about the problem of multiverse research not being science was Ellis (were there others?), and you say the conference may be causing him to soften his stance. From your account, the Templeton money is having the desired effect….

  13. anon says:

    Peter,

    Roger Penrose, Robert Brandenberger and a number of philosophers where talking against the multiverse. Some speakers like Joe Silk where taking a more neutral position. I disagree with you about the multiverse being pseudo science. I think it provides the only solution to the cosmological constant problem. Until someone comes up with an alternative explanation I think people will be interested in the multiverse. the hope is that eventually some other signature will be found. People once said “don’t study quarks because you can never see an individual quark so its not science”. I think its good to be skeptical but then there are also advantages to keep an open mind on things. I don’t agree with religion being mixed with science but as long as the templeton foundation keeps a hands off approach to the projects they fund, I think it is nice to have the opportunity to have a conference about some slightly more speculative issues as well the usual hard nosed stuff.

  14. Peter Woit says:

    anon,

    The cosmological constant is about the only “prediction” of the multiverse anyone seems to be able to come up with. Here’s my alternative theory of the cosmological constant: “I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what determines it, so it’s equally likely to be any value”. That theory makes exactly the same experimental predictions as the multiverse theory. They’re both equally vacuous, and if I were to organize a conference devoted to my theory, it would be a conference devoted to pseudo-science.

    This is really the heart of the matter: unless your “multiverse theory” is something with non-trivial content, i.e. it makes different predictions than the “I have no idea what is going on” theory, all you are doing is cloaking your ignorance in grandiose nonsense and trying to promote yourself as doing science when you aren’t.

    The argument about quarks is silly, this has nothing to do with the problem of direct vs. indirect observability. The quark hypothesis was a non-trivial one that made a lot of strong, testable predictions which worked. If Gell-Mann had started going on about his quark theory, which was functionally the same as the “I have no idea what is going on in the strong interactions, could be anything”, people would have (rightly) dismissed him as a crackpot.

  15. anon says:

    Peter,

    I disagree with your description of the multiverse solution to the cosmological constant problem. If there is a potential landscape which covers a broad enough range of values then somewhere the overall vacuum energy will be small enough to allow galaxies to form. Inflation then provides a natural mechanism to populate the landscape and then string theory KKLT extra dimension stabilization provides the landscape. There are several ways this scenario could get into difficulty. For example if gravity waves are detected by PLANCK and supersymmetry is detected by the LHC, see recent papers by Linde and Kallosh. Also if SNAP (or one of its reincarnations) finds w not -1 that will also be hard to incorporate into the above picture. Yes that is not directly falsifiable of the landscape but I really think this Popper view of science is very overly simplistic. In practice I think science works more by induction and finding supportive evidence than falsification. Also another interesting ways that more supporting evidence could be found for the landscape is in studies like http://arxiv.org/pdf/0712.2454 .

  16. Peter Woit says:

    anon,

    Do you really believe that the din of rejoicing from string theorists if supersymmetry is found at the LHC would be affected at all by a subsequent discovery of gravity waves by Planck? Or that string theorists will proclaim string theory dead if SNAP finds w not equal to -1?. Of course not. In both cases, finding string theory “scenarios” that could reproduce whatever is found is not likely to be hard, if it hasn’t already been done.

    The Hall et. al. set-up is rather complicated and I haven’t followed its details. From spending a little time looking at it I don’t see any use of any fundamental theory of the multiverse, their fundamental multiverse theory is effectively the same theory as my “I got no idea what is going on” theory. They do seem to be doing something potentially interesting, putting into the anthropic mix some information about the physics of electroweak-symmetry breaking, but, again, I haven’t invested the time to follow the details.

    By the way, a more useful sort of multiverse conference would be one that dumped some of the philosophers in favor of physicists, and concentrated on examining this issue of whether the “string theory landscape” is capable of being tested in any conventional manner. All claims I’ve seen so far about this appear to be bogus, sorting them out and seeing what’s really there would be a public service.

  17. anon says:

    Peter,

    The multiverse explanation of the size of lambda is not the same as a theory saying “I have no idea of what lambda is”. Such a theory would have a prior with a uniform distribution of lambda over some large range of values. The multiverse calculation puts the prior probability of lambda being proportional to the fraction of matter that collapses into galaxy sized objects or larger. This gives a prior distribution whose peak is quite close to the Omega_lambda \approx 0.7 that is observed. This was done BEFORE the supenovae measurements surprisingly showed Omega_lamda \approx 0.7s, see eg
    http://arXiv.org/pdf/hep-th/0511037 for a history and references. With a bayesian analysis your “I have no idea of what lambda is” would be hugely disfavored compared to the multiverse calculation.

  18. Peter Woit says:

    anon,

    By “prior” I mean the probability distribution of values that you get out of your underlying model of the multiverse, before you fold in your favorite way of doing anthropics, selection effects, etc. In the string landscape model of the multiverse, people take this distribution to be flat over the relevant range.

  19. Shantanu says:

    Peter or anon or others, Could one of you point whether we can test anthropic predictions with Tevatron or LHC?
    Thanks
    shantany

  20. Peter Woit says:

    Shantanu,

    Depends what you mean by “anthropic” predictions. Predictions based on no fundamental theory, just anthropics, can’t possibly be wrong, they are true by definition.

    If you take as your fundamental multiverse theory my “I don’t know what’s going on, it’s all equally likely” theory, you can get some sorts of statistical predictions, e.g. that we won’t observe things to be out in the tails of statistical distributions. What the string landscape people do is start with this, then when something is found to be out in a tail (e.g. proton decay), they say “well, we don’t actually know what the distribution is”.

    There are no predictions about anything at any energy (Tevatron, LHC, Planck) that the people promoting this kind of research will stand behind, saying “if we don’t see this distinctive experimental signature of my theory, it’s wrong”. This is why it’s pseudo-science.

  21. anon says:

    Peter,

    I would prefer to say its work in progress. Yes its not producing testable predictions at the moment, but its an interesting area worth exploring. Maybe one day there will be some testable predictions, but it may take time. You may think that its not worth exploring, others have a different view.

  22. Peter Woit says:

    anon,

    The reason there are no testable predictions about cosmology is the same reason there are no testable predictions about anything else. People have been working on this for 25 years, and everything they have learned has just made it clearer and clearer that this is an inherently vacuous conceptual set-up that can never predict anything. There’s some point at which, if you refuse to admit the failure of an idea you are working on and insist on keeping going, you become a pseudo-scientist. That has happened already in this field.

  23. Sad, but true.

    Maybe it is time to back to go back to basic science based on testable predictions. And if tests give negative results, one does not “adjust” the model, but tries new ideas.

    Speculation is fine by me, so long as it is clearly labeled as such and not treated as ‘the next big thing’. Unfortunately we have been conflating beautiful science like General Relativity with junk bond science like “string theory”.

    RLO

  24. anon says:

    Peter,

    I’m not a string theorist but I think you are being too harsh. Research into such large energy and time scales is obviously going to be quite open ended. I don’t think you or anyone else can say it will or wont eventually become a testable theory. My impression as an outsider is that string theory is the best theory of quantum gravity and its intersection with the multiverse and inflation may eventually lead to some very fruitful results.

  25. Peter Woit says:

    anon,

    Like most outsiders, your impression reflects very well the hype being put out on this subject, often funded by Templeton. Again, it would have been much more helpful to science if the conference you attended was not devoted to hyping pseudo-science, but instead to a serious examination of the what is known about attempts to describe the multiverse using the string theory landscape. Enough is known to make it very clear that it is a dead-end. Even most string theorists I believe now have begun to agree about this. The people promoting string theory pseudo-science are often not string theorists….

  26. Giotis says:

    Peter, what is the majority opinion? At the end of the day this is what counts. If somebody is not crazy but the majority thinks he is crazy, they are gonna lock him up no matter what. So unless the majority of physicists thinks otherwise string theory ‘hype’ as you say is not a pseudo-science.

  27. Peter Woit says:

    Giotis,

    Based on my discussions with many scientists, string theorists and not, I’d say that string theorists are now divided between those who think there still is hope for 10/11d unification and those who have given up on it as a lost cause and are now doing AdS/CFT or something else, with perhaps this last group approaching a majority. Non-string theorists generally take the attitude that string theory itself is too technical for them to evaluate, however they almost uniformly recognize that invocation of the anthropic multiverse is an admission of failure.

    Take a look at the “multiverse” conferences and see who is funding them. They are rarely funded by granting agencies that peer-review grants, since getting such a proposal past a peer-review panel is very difficult. Instead they’re funded by organizations like Templeton whose explicit mission involves the promotion of pseudo-scientific ties between religion and science.

    For some similar data about this, see this quote:
    “in his current view, the effort to regard superstrings as a fundamental theory of everything was a blind alley. Later that year I related Charles’ pronouncement to string theory colleagues on three continents and solicited their own opinions. About half of them agreed with him, more often the younger people.”

    from page 58 of this review article

    http://arxiv.org/abs/0907.4238

  28. anon says:

    Peter,

    I think you are indulging in a bit of sophistry here. Ok you don’t like string theory, and some of your arguments are perhaps persuasive, but I think a lot of what you are saying, especially about the sociology, is quite misleading as well. Anyway I’m exhausted with these blog based arguments and will now get back to my own slightly quieter area of research.

  29. Peter Woit says:

    anon,

    I can see why you might not trust my views on the sociology, but I don’t why you believe that Richard Woodard is lying.

    I urge you to look into this for yourself: don’t ask the people who attended that conference what they think, virtually none of them know much about string theory. Ask experts who have worked on string theory what they think about the string theory landscape/multiverse. If you do this outside the Bay area, I suspect you might find the result enlightening.