I noticed that tomorrow (Tuesday, April 5) evening here in New York City there will be not one, but two debates involving theoretical physicists:
- At 7 pm the American Museum of Natural History will host the 2016 Asimov Debate, with this year the topic Is the Universe a Simulation?. You can watch a livestream at that site.
I confess that if this were a few days earlier, I would be convinced it was definitely a joke. But, it seems not, that instead this “has become a serious line of theoretical and experimental investigation among physicists, astrophysicists, and philosophers” and that it’s a “provocative and revolutionary idea”. One thing this is not is new. Nearly nine years ago it got a lot of media attention, and I wrote about it here (and here, where quite possibly my Message to Our Overlords kept them from turning us off). Sadly, the “blink” feature of html no longer seems to be supported, so the red text there won’t blink. Maybe it annoyed the overlords and they had it turned off.
- Much further downtown, at the New York Academy of Sciences, at the same time there will be a panel discussion on a much more sensible and interesting topic What Does the Future Hold for Physics: Is There a Limit to Human Knowledge?. Also at 7 pm, livestream here.
If I’d been asked (actually I was asked, and then unasked, a rather mystifying situation) for my views on this, I’d make the point that there’s no way to know what the limits will be to human understanding of physical laws. It has however become all too clear what the danger is of what will happen when we reach those limits. Instead of prominent theorists frankly admitting “we don’t know”, there will be an attempt to sell the story to the public that theorists have a wonderful, successful theory which describes everything, which sadly has the unfortunate feature of not making any falsifiable predictions. The string landscape/multiverse scenario now is being very aggressively sold as exactly this kind of endpoint to physics, to a large degree by people unwilling to admit the failure of string theory-based unification. There’s a very real danger that this will enter the textbooks, and that we will in our lifetimes see the end of fundamental physics as a human endeavor. The limit we will have hit will be due not to the nature of our minds, but instead the nature of our sociology.
I suppose one other way of seeing if we’ve reached the end of physics would be if physicists started spending their time debating things like whether we live in a simulation. Oh, wait…
Update: At the NYAS evidently there was some discussion of the multiverse, with the audience told “The multiverse hypothesis is no more speculative than the universe hypothesis”.
Update: Clara Moskowitz at Scientific American has a report from the AMNH debate. At least there is one participant I agree with:
And the statistical argument that most minds in the future will turn out to be artificial rather than biological is also not a given, said Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist at Harvard University. “It’s just not based on well-defined probabilities. The argument says you’d have lots of things that want to simulate us. I actually have a problem with that. We mostly are interested in ourselves. I don’t know why this higher species would want to simulate us.” Randall admitted she did not quite understand why other scientists were even entertaining the notion that the universe is a simulation. “I actually am very interested in why so many people think it’s an interesting question.” She rated the chances that this idea turns out to be true “effectively zero.”
One thing I’ve noticed about these kinds of things: they often feature physicists going on about mathematics, but mathematicians are never invited…