Thursday, January 26, 2006

Design's Last Stand

I finally finished Leonard Susskind's book The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design. Susskind's main argument is that the universe as we know it is just one small piece of a vastly larger landscape inhabited by something like 10^500 different pocket universes. The laws of physics can vary from universe to universe. If this is correct, it provides a satisfying explanation for the apparent examples of fine-tuning we find in the fundamental constants of our own universe. Why does our universe appear to be so well-suited for life? Because if it weren't we wouldn't be here to ask the question. And if you get 10^500 tries to get it right, there is bound to be some corner of the landscape where the constants will work out the right way.

I won't attempt a full review of the book. Overall I liked it quite a bit, but there are also a lot of small problems along the way. My main criticism is that as an explainer of difficult ideas from physics, Susskind can't hold a candle to Brian Greene.

But his main argument strikes me as very satisfying on two fronts. First, the main rival to Susskind's idea is that the fine-tuning of the universe represents the action of an intelligent designer. This idea is based on nothing more than people's desire that it be true. Susskind's idea, by contrast, arises naturally from modern String Theory. Susskind writes (in a discussion of the idea of Eternal Inflation):


The bubbling up of an infinity of pocket univerdses is as certain as the bubbling of an opened bottle of champagne. There are only two assumptions: the existence of a Landscape and the fact that the universe started with a very high density of energy, i.e., that it started at high altitude. The first may prove to be no assumption at all. The mathematics of String Theory seems to make the Landscape unavoidable. And the second - high energy density - is a feature of every scientific cosmology that begins with the Big Bang. (p. 304)


I also liked this:


In any case the difficulties in testing the Landscape, Eternal Inflation, and the Anthropic Principle are real, but there are many ways to test a theory. Mathematical consistency may not impress the most hard-nosed experimental physicist, but it should not be underestimated. Consistent theories that combine quantum mechanics and general relativity are far from common. Indeed, this is the reason that String Theory has so little competition. If no alternatives show up and if String Theory proves to have as varied a Landscape as it seems, then the populated Landscape will be the default position - the theory to beat, so to speak. (p. 375)


So the choice between ID and the Landscape is the choice between an explanation made up out of whole cloth for its emotional value on the one hand and an explanation that makes sense out of such data as we have on the other. String theory can hardly claim to have proven itself correct, but it has a lot going for it.

The second reason I find the Landscape appealing is that it fits so well with everything else we have learned from science over the years. Everything science has been telling us has been in the direction of downplaying the metaphysical significance of our existence. Comparative anatomy reveals to us that there is nothing in our physical make-up to distinguish us from the animals. Neuroscience can find nothing to support the idea that the mind exists separately from the brain. Evolution shows that we are just one more species among many, formed by the same processes that formed every other species. And we did not arise in a puff of smoke in one moment of creation, but rather as one end result of a billion year process; a process, no less, that gives no indication of having had us in mind. Astronomy shows that the Earth is not the center of it all. Rather we are just an unremarkable planet orbiting a nondescript star; one of countless solar systems in countless galaxies that litter the universe.

And now here comes the Landscape to show us that even our universe is not distinguished in any important way. That is why I have titled this blog entry the way that I have. The relentless march of science over the last few centuries has been paralleled by one ignominious retreat after another for the design argument. Today design advocates can only play one, last, desperate card - the fine-tuning of the constants. Upon this one puzzling phenomenon they base their conclusion that despite all the evidence to the contrary, humans are still the point of it all. Can any thoughful person seriously believe such a thing?

And is there any argument at all - I'll take one! - for rejecting the Landscape, or more generally, the megaverse? Can the other side offer any actual reason for thinking that we are not part of a vast Landscape? It certainly can't be that we have no direct evidence of the existence of other universes. After all, we have no direct evidence for the existence of God either, but ID folks are quick to assure us that it is the height of rationality to believe it nonetheless.

Susskind himself points out some unsolved problems with the Landscape, and he also points to ways we might possibly, someday, be able to experimentally test various aspects of his theories. So it is possible that String Theory and its logical correlates will eventually fail the only test that matters - fit with experimental data. But until that day comes the Landscape has to be regarded as vastly more probable than ID. Even if some people find that idea unpleasant.

56 Comments:

At 2:33 PM, Blogger Mark said...

No rejection. But I do have two questions and one comment.

1.Does string theory explain where the vast energy that created it all came from?
2.Or does it simply come back to it all either always existed or it all came from nothing?

Comment: Many on this blog say that Christians hate science or evolution science. I for one love science and want to see an increase in funding to science in general instead of just to the big money makers like pharmaceuticals. Just because I disagree with your conclusions does not mean that I hate your science.

Mark

 
At 2:57 PM, Anonymous Matt Daws said...

I have a slight problem here, and that is with String Theory itself. This is still a very immature scientific field; after all, there's some considerable debate whether String Theory has ever made a single experimentally testable claim! (See the blog Not Even Wrong for the most famous anti-String Theorist).

String Theory is an interesting counter-point to ID, I find. You'll find people having incredibly passionate, very technical debates about the subject, much like evolution vs ID. However, real science is being done here! It's a good example of how science should have controvesy, but only *real* controvesy.

Anyway, given that String Theory has yet to be verified in experiments, and that clearly even the mathematical formalism needs much, much more work, I'm rather skeptical about using it to attack ID. I mean, ST could well be completely wrong (it's certainly not completely right). ID has *so* much wrong with it, and is open to so many other forms of attack, that I'd rather stick to those better arguments.

By bringing debatable views about the start of the universe into the ID debate, one runs the risk of either derailing the argument into one over whether ST is right (or which version of ST is correct, and so forth), and you possibly hand IDers a good argument along the lines of "Here are a *load* of serious scientists who have a problem with ST, ergo they agree with ID" which while rubbish, is much easier than trying to find serious scientists who agree with ID.

 
At 7:03 PM, Blogger Norm Conway said...

Jason, I always like your posts. However, I sense in this post that you still believe that with enough data and reasoned arguments to talk ID/Creationist proponents out of their core beliefs. IMHO, this will never happen.

As I said once in my blog, science is subservient to method; religion subservient to conclusion. The devoutly religious in this world will always exploit the necessary doubt inherent in all science to dismiss all scientific data and arguments that run counter to their belief systems.

As a theorist at Berkeley 20 years ago, I worked on the beginnings of string theory. Perhaps along with the general theory of relativity, ST is one of the most profoundly beautiful intellectual creations of humankind. However, I doubt its arguments, or any data which ever may come about to support it, is going to sway an evangelical one way or the other. I wish it were so, but I have used far more practical and down-to-earth arguments against much more humble core beliefs of evangelicals, and gotten nowhere.

My conclusion is that, in the mind of a fundamentalist, even the most mundane core belief will be maintained at all costs. There is simply no mechanism for them to change a belief.

 
At 7:06 PM, Blogger Norm Conway said...

BTW, here is an example of a dialogue I had with a fundamentalist preacher: http://normanconway.blogspot.com/2005/12/physicist-and-preacher-part-ii-in-part.html

 
At 7:41 PM, Blogger Ginger Yellow said...

While I am in principle a supporter of string (M-) theory, does the multiverse hypothesis not suffer from the same sort of problem that ID does, in that until it is empirically grounded, it's just one of an infinite number of possible non-consensus hypotheses?

 
At 8:37 PM, Blogger Norm Conway said...

Ginger-yes it does. In fact, much of theoretical high energy physics, for practical reasons, falls into this category as well. I've had more that one ID/Creationist respond to my objection to lack of data, that this is true for many areas of physics as well, and therefore these areas shoyuld not be considered science either.

I guess for historical reasons, as well as the theoretical possiblity that many fo these hypotheses can be tested, makes most of us think of this as science as well.

 
At 10:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is a pointless thread and should be deleted

 
At 7:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Susskind himself points out some unsolved problems with the Landscape, and he also points to ways we might possibly, someday, be able to experimentally test various aspects of his theories. So it is possible that String Theory and its logical correlates will eventually fail the only test that matters - fit with experimental data.

If nothing else, the above statement is an excellent example of how science/scientists go(es) about coming up with explanations and testing them.

I am sure Susskind is proud of his ideas, but I'm also sure he's not so caught up in them (personalizing or religion-izing them) that he would have been unwilling to offer ways to test and falsify his ideas.

Darwin did likewise. As did Einstein and every other great scientist that did not start with a foregone conclusion that had to be shown true, even if it meant mangling future data/discoveries to make it so.

True scientists are slaves to nature and the data it provides. Religionists are slaves to foregone conclusions.

 
At 7:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My conclusion is that, in the mind of a fundamentalist, even the most mundane core belief will be maintained at all costs. There is simply no mechanism for them to change a belief.

As a former Christian fundamentalist, it is possible that a slight crack open of the mind can be opened further with good, sound argument. But, the crack has to appear first, before you have a prayer to persuade.

But, I do believe that actions speak louder than words when it comes to creating the open-mind crack in the first place. Fundamentalists are taught certain ideas about the nature of human beings, and especially those who are "unbelievers."

Children of fundamentalist parents that are raised in sheltered environments are more likely, IMO, to have a crack in the mind develop because reality flies in the face of everything they were taught about how damned sinners are "supposed" to behave.

The real world simply does not conform to the ideas of Christian fundamentalism. Yes, there are "evil" people in the world. But, that spans continents, cultures, religions, genders, etc. So, it's hardly a monopolized quality of the "unsaved."

Anyway, maybe I'm just engaging in wishful thinking. However, as the only apostate in my family, I've been able to observe my nieces and nephews and am cognizant of the fact that they are more influenced (and more likely to doubt) by the actions and behaviors of their environement rather than words.

 
At 9:38 AM, Blogger Norm Conway said...

Anonymous--no disagreement there, especially in the case of kids. This is why most of us here pay so much attention to what is being taught in the public schools. This is our only chance of giving kids the tools to find true understandnig of the world around them. My only point is that there will always be a suset of the population who are so wedded to their own conclusions that it is impossible to reach them, even regarding the most simple and obvious of conclusions.

 
At 10:55 AM, Blogger David said...

What is your take on Susskind’s quote:

“It would be very foolish to throw away the right answer on the basis that it doesn't conform to some criteria for what is or isn't science” (Nature, “Outrageous Fortune”, Jan 4, 2006)

And how much would you have excoriated Behe, if he made it?

As for the possibility of the landscape being verified experimentally, in his review of Susskind’s book, cosmologist George Ellis looks at the possibility:

"The particular multiverse version proposed by Susskind, however, has the great virtue of being testable in one respect. It is supposed to have started out by quantum tunnelling, resulting in a spatially homogenous and isotropic universe with negative spatial curvature, and hence with a total density parameter &Omega<1. The best observationally determined value for this parameter, taking all the data into account, is ?=1.02+/-0.02. Taken at face value, this seems to contradict the proposed theory. But given the statistical uncertainties, the observations do not definitively exclude ?<1, so the theory survives; nevertheless, the observed value should be taken seriously in this era of 'precision cosmology'. These data are not discussed in the book — a symptom of some present-day cosmology, where faith in theory tends to trump evidence. Presumably the hope is that this observational result will go away as more evidence is collected." (Nature 438, 739-740, 8 December 2005)

Ouch. (It should also be noted that a detection of a slight negative curvature would be consistent with the landscape, but it wouldn’t prove it.)

I hope (and at some level agree) you are right with your title. If the landscape is "design's last stand," then design is in very good shape.

 
At 12:27 PM, Blogger Jason said...

David-

I agree completely with Susskind's statement and I would not have excoriated Behe in the slightest for saying the same thing.

The reasons for rejecting Behe's arguments are that (a) He is wrong as a matter of logic, since irreducible complexity as he defines it poses no particular challenge to gradualistic evolution and (b) He is wrong on the facts, since biologists have a lot of evidence for explaining the formation of numerous IC systems, including ones (like the immune system and the blood clotting cascade) that he tends to emphasize.

Many of the arguments made by ID advocates are, indeed, unscientific, because even in principle they can't be tested. That fact is of relevance when you're trying to decide the constitutionality of teaching ID in science classes, but it is not relevant in deciding whether those ideas are correct.

As it happens, some of Behe's arguments can be tested, and they have been shown to be false. For example, if you construe Behe as saying that gradual evolutionary mechanisms can't produce an IC system, then he has been proven wrong in the lab, as explained by Ken Miller in Finding Darwin's God. I am aware that Behe has responded to Miller, but the fact remains that Miller is right and Behe is wrong.

As for the Ellis quote, I'm afraid I don't know enough about it to comment. But his statement about faith in theory trumping evidence is completely uncalled for. Susskind is a proud theoretician, but he makes it perfectly clear in the book that fit to data is the ultimate goal. There are plenty of far less sinister explanations for why Susskind did not discuss Ellis' point in his book.

As I said in my post, I don't regard string theory as a done deal. I simply point out that it has a lot more going for it than ID. For example, as Susskind observes, mathematically consistent theories that encompass both relativity and quantum mechanics are not easy to come by.

And I would ask you the same question I asked in my post: Can you provide any argument against the idea of a megaverse? Alternatively, can you provide any reason for believing that ID is a better explanation than a megaverse for the fine-tuining of the constants?

 
At 1:00 PM, Blogger David said...

I'm shocked you agree with Susskind's statement (I don't) and am skeptical that, if Behe made such a statement, you'd give him a free pass. I wouldn't.

Susskind's megaverse is, as even he recognizes, effectively unfalsifiable, so I cannot provide any empirical argument against it.

Esthetically, it's a friggin' nightmare. It means the search for a fundamental theory--one that would predict the constants, is a fool's errand. It would mean, ultimately, that physics is not beautiful but rather hideous.

ID is just as good/bad and just as (un)testable as the landscape. At this point, you simply have to choose your preferred pseudo-scientific explanation.

 
At 6:47 AM, Blogger Ginger Yellow said...

I suppose the key difference between ID and string theory (let alone any specific version or interpretation thereof) is that as far as I know not a single string theorist is pushing for it to be included in school curricula.

 
At 9:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David,

I would argue that there is nothing at all wrong with the statement:

“It would be very foolish to throw away the right answer on the basis that it doesn't conform to some criteria for what is or isn't science” (Nature, “Outrageous Fortune”, Jan 4, 2006)

IF "some criteria" refers to a set of criteria that is inappropriate.

Unfortunately, I think the demarkation problem has been greatly oversimplified by a number of people, and I would assert that viewing "falsifiability" as a silver bullet that can be used to forever banish the non-falsifiability from science is misguided.

By this I am asking something relatively simple -

First, think of the two extremes for developing a theory:

1. From the "bottom up" - starting from considerations of mathematical consistency, for example.
2. From the "top down" - starting with the ability to fit the data.

In the extreme, scenario 2 gives "laws" with no real predictive power outside of the parameter space for which it was generated. Used properly, it can (obviously) be very powerful. And it conforms to what many think of as science based upon Popper (though I think Popper himself would have been more flexible - so I sould say "based upon a simplistic interpretation of Popper")

However, note that scenario 1 (which - I would add - is closer to the origins of relativity) raises the possibility of a period where the theory is not directly testable.

If that period goes on forever, or if the theory is arbitrarily modified to fit data whenever contradictory data appears, then it is fair to complain. But to demand a theory be testable (in principle) the moment it is published is also unreasonable.

For example, if the value of omega=1.02+/-0.2 is a standard deviation in a typical frequentist framework, that would imply about 84% confidence that omega >1.0 -- certainly an issue but hardly fatal (after all, there is an about 16% chance of omega < 1.0).

I would also add that the potential for systematic errors due to inappropropriate assumptions in the estimation of omega. I was struck by the short feature on the use of gamma ray bursts to estimate lambda in the 20 Jan Science (I'm way behind on reading so I certainly haven't read the primary literature). Bradley Schaefer (LSU) states that he was able to reject a constant lambda and there was a 3% chance of that rejection being a "fluke". He then states, "This is not high enough confidence that I have formally rejected the cosmological constant."

Bravo - his results point away from a cosmological constant BUT he admits both a constant and variable lambda model remain in the credible set of models. Data suggesting omega=1.0+/-0.2 should be viewed as lowering the probability of Susskind's model -- but NOT excluding it from the credible set of models.

I would argue that the single biggest correlate of pseudoscience is not "unfalsifiable" theories -- it is falure to reject or drastically modify a theory when the accumulated data exclude it from a reasonable credible set of models. IF Susskind commits that crime (and I doubt that he will) it is reasonable to have a beef with him for stepping over the line into pseudoscience. For now both of his feet are planted firmly in the arena of science.

Peace!

-Edward

 
At 9:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

P.S. - Obviously - "forever banish the non-falsifiability " was an error of phrasing. Apologies.

 
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So the choice between ID and the Landscape is the choice between an explanation made up out of whole cloth for its emotional value on the one hand and an explanation that makes sense out of such data as we have on the other. String theory can hardly claim to have proven itself correct, but it has a lot going for it.
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