Saturday, September 11, 2010

Should Physicists Be Exempt From Being Consistent? Should Scientists Allow Themselves Special Rules? [Anthony McCarthy]

Note: If you want to read an important, real world, post about this issue, I'd suggest you skip mine and read Suzie's below.

I hadn’t expected to spend so much time on this but someone who read my post from last Saturday, insisted that Sean Carroll’s video endorsement of Hawking’s great declaration would clinch their argument.

Not having been able to look at a copy of Stephen Hawking’s most recent book, my library doesn’t have a copy yet, I hadn’t realized last week just what “evidence” Hawking used to make those much touted, much cited, statements about the beginning of the universe, excusing God from that task.

Reading a bit more about it this week I was, frankly, shocked to find that he’d based what was widely taken as his absolute conclusions on some of the most unsettled and controversial branches of theoretical physics and cosmology. Controversial primarily because they are entirely theoretical, without any present physical evidence or prospect of being testable or observable. If you doubt that you should read what Sean Carroll had to say in defense of his favorite part of this new physics.

Carroll is a very smart guy and he does it with charm and grace but there is no getting around the fact that he’s excusing his work from some things that are inconveniently not available to it. That those things are exactly what used to be required in the validation of theories and is the constant demand made of people of faith is a huge hole in the ballyhoo over Hawking’s declaration. I’ll point out in passing that it is exactly the stuff that has turned evolution from a theory into the most documented phenomenon in science.

The criticisms of mutliverse and M-theory include that they are not based in observation, they aren’t based in, nor have they produced, experimental evidence or predictions. I’m the most outside of outside observers in this argument but it looks to me that it can be summed up in the observation that there is no evidence that the theories represent anything in reality other than that they seem to have some internal cohesion. And even that seems to not be entirely certain. This seems to have led Hawking to change the definition of what physics is all about. Peter Woit quotes Hawking:

We seem to be at a critical point in the history of science, in which we must alter our conception of goals and of what makes a physical theory acceptable. It appears that the fundamental numbers, and even the form, of the apparent laws of nature are not demanded by logic or physical principle. The parameters are free to take on many values and the laws to take on any form that leads to a self-consistent mathematical theory, and they do take on different values and different forms in different universes.

I didn’t intend to spend much of the week on this issue until someone who read what I wrote last week challenged me to watch Sean Carroll’s video endorsement of Hawking’s statement. I was a bit familiar with Carroll because I was a bit interested in the disagreement on the validity of the idea of multiverses, having read a bit of what Woit and others said from the opposing side. That’s why I was so shocked to see that Hawking had, as Woit said, given up on what used to be the basic requirements of physics, for it to have some evidentiary basis. As to Woit’s assertion that the theory used by Hawking satisfies none of Hawking’s stated requirements for a “good physical model”, (see the link to Woit's blog) from what I can see, that’s a valid point. But it’s that there is no physical evidence for it that is the basis of my point.

As seen in Richard Dawkins memes and his Just So stories of the entirely unobserved behavior of our very remote ancestors - including his and Dennett’s Just So Genesis of Religion - this dependence of their allegedly scientific refutation of religion on these areas of theoretical physics is entirely evidence free. As of this morning the theories they are using have absolutely no known basis in the material universe. None. They are not only 99 44/100 % evidence free, they are 100% evidence free.

Call me old fashioned but for the people who are always demanding evidence of the supernatural they seem to have exempted themselves from having any for their assertions about the natural universe. If they want to construct self-referenced, scholastic models of possible universes that’s their affair*, though as pointed out in Physics World if they want funding for it, that makes it everyone’s business.

But if they want to extend their speculations past physics and into religion, they either have to give up their demands for evidence from religious believers** or they have to put up their evidence relevant to the subject of religion. They’re not going to get to have it it both ways from anyone with a sense of fairness and integrity. That is one rule in real life that they are not going to get away with changing in their favor anymore. No more than I’d accept it by those claiming to be able to use science to confirm their supernatural beliefs.

I don’t fault science for not being able to dispose of God, it never having been the subject matter of science anymore than it is double-entry accounting to begin with. Hawking and the others should realize that they are relieved of that task and take the opportunity to look for that missing confirmation in the physical universe that they obviously so much want to have.

I got into a long argument about this at Carroll’s blog, which he apparently chose not to notice. It might be of some interest to some readers. You can watch his video there. You might notice that a question I posed three or four times, if there was a single object which phyiscs studied which was comprehensively and exhaustively know to them, hasn’t been answered by Carroll or any of the other physicists who blog with him or who read his blog. I’d think that the claims to complete understanding, a Theory of Everything, would find that a relevant issue.

* If I wanted to be cruel I would have pointed out that its complete lack of known usefulness might lead some to consider it a hobby.

** Especially from religious believers who don't make scientifically refutable claims about the physical universe because they know that their belief isn't for that. As I said in the argument, if someone believes that a god created the universe exactly as it really is, as opposed to how any group of people believe it to be at any given time, which would, of course, include physicists, then nothing you discover with science could conflict with the belief in that god. And, let me break this gently to you, I’ll bet if you put it to most religious people that way, they’d agree with the idea.

Update: Can the possibility be dismissed that physics divorced from the necessity of reference to physical reality could risk becoming entirely artificial without any basis in reality except possible vestigial and subconscious habits unremembered from experience? And if that is possible for physics, the physical science par excellence, if physics can become a self-contained scholastic system, what other areas of intellectual life couldn’t?

What would physics be like in that case? An analog of Freudian psychology written in mathematical symbolism, increasingly remote from the origin of even those, answerable only to its internal dialogue, eventually generating schisms over illusory differences about nothing real? Even more remote from reality than the most fantastic fiction? What would mathematics be like if it was cut loose from its subject matter?

If anyone has thought that out, I’d really like to know where it’s written down.