[Warning, somewhat of a rant follows, and it’s not very original. You might want to skip this one…]
In the last week or so, I’ve run into two critiques of the currently fashionable multiverse mania that take an unusual angle on the subject, raising the question of the “morality” of the subject. The first of these was from Lee Smolin, who was here in New York last week talking at the Rubin Museum. I probably won’t get this quite right, but from what I remember he said that discussions of a multiverse containing infinite numbers of copies of ourselves behaving slightly differently made him uneasy for moral reasons. The worry is that one might be led to stop caring that much about the implications of one’s actions. After all, whatever mistake you make, in some other infinite number of universes, you didn’t do it.
Over at Scientific American, yesterday they had John Horgan’s Is speculation in multiverses as immoral as speculation in subprime mortgages?. There’s more about this in a Bloggingheads conversation today with George Johnson, where Horgan describes his current reaction to multiverse mania as “I can’t stand this shit.”
I’m in agreement with Horgan there, but my own moral concerns about the issue are different than the ones he and Smolin describe. The morality of how people choose to live their everyday lives doesn’t seem to me to have much to do with whatever the global structure of the universe might be. The world we are rapidly approaching in which a multiverse is held up as an integral part of the modern scientific world view isn’t one in which many people are likely to behave differently than before, so I don’t share Smolin’s concerns. Horgan’s exasperation with seeing the multiverse heavily promoted by famous physicists appears to have more to do with the idea that this is a retreat by physicists from engagement with the real world, something morally obtuse in an era of growing problems that scientists could help address. For what he would like to see instead, I guess a good model would be John Baez’s recent decision to turn his talents towards real-world problems facing humanity, see his blog Azimuth for more about this. Personally, I’m not uncomfortable with the fact that many mathematicians and physicists find that they don’t feel they are likely to be of much help if they go to work on the technology and science surrounding social problems. Instead, one can reasonably decide that one has some hope of making progress on fundamental issues in mathematics or physics and choose to work on that instead. One can try and justify this by hoping that new breakthroughs will somehow, someday help humanity, although this may be wishful thinking. Or one can argue that working towards a better understanding of the universe is inherently worthwhile, so pursuing this while taking some care to avoid worsening one’s local corner of the world is a morally reasonable stance.
My own moral concerns about the multiverse have more to do with worry that pseudo-science is being heavily promoted to the public, leading to the danger that it will ultimately take over from science, first in the field of fundamental physics, then perhaps spreading to others. This concern is somewhat like the one that induced Alan Sokal to engage in his famous hoax. He felt that abandonment by prominent academics of the Enlightenment ideals exemplified by the scientific method threatens a move into a new Dark Ages, where power dominates over truth. Unfortunately, I don’t think that revelation of a hoax paper would have much effect in multiverse studies, where some of the literature has already moved beyond the point where parody is possible.
For a while I was trying to keep track of multiverse-promoting books, and writing denunciatory reviews here. They’ve been appearing regularly for quite a few years now, with increasing frequency. Some typical examples that come to mind are Kaku’s Parallel Worlds (2004), Susskind’s The Cosmic Landscape (2005), and Vilenkin’s Many Worlds in One (2006). Just the past year has seen Sean Carroll’s From Eternity to Here, John Gribbin’s In Search of the Multiverse, Hawking and Mlodinow’s The Grand Design, and Brian Greene’s new The Hidden Reality. In a couple weeks there will be Steven Manly’s Visions of the Multiverse. Accompanying the flood of books is a much larger number of magazine articles and TV programs.
Several months ago a masochistic publisher sent me a copy of Gribbin’s book hoping that I might give it some attention on the blog, but I didn’t have the heart to write anything. There’s nothing original in such books and thus nothing new to be said about why they are pseudo-science. The increasing number of them is just depressing and discouraging. More depressing still are the often laudatory reviews that these things are getting, often from prominent scientists who should know better. For a recent example, see Weinberg’s new review of Hawking/Mlodinow in the New York Review of Books.
While most of the physicists and mathematicians I talk to tend towards the Horgan “I can’t stand this shit” point of view on the multiverse, David Gross is about the only prominent theorist I can think of known to publicly take a similar stand. One of the lessons of superstring theory unification is that if a wrong idea is promoted for enough years, it gets into the textbooks and becomes part of the conventional wisdom about how the world works. This process is now well underway with multiverse pseudo-science, as some theorists who should know better choose to heavily promote it, and others abdicate their responsibility to fight pseudo-science as it gains traction in their field.