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The Sciences

Science and Unobservable Things

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Today's Bloggingheads dialogue features me and writer John Horgan -- I will spare you a screen capture of our faces, but here is a good old-fashioned link. John is the author of The End of Science, in which he argues that much of modern physics has entered an era of "ironic science," where speculation about unobservable things (inflation, other universes, extra dimensions) has replaced the hard-nosed empiricism of an earlier era. Most of our discussion went over that same territory, focusing primarily on inflation but touching on other examples as well. You can judge for yourself whether I was persuasive or not, but the case I tried to make was that attitudes along the lines of "that stuff you're talking about can never be observed, so you're not doing science, it's just theology" are woefully simplistic, and simply don't reflect the way that science works in the real world. Other branches of the wavefunction, or the state of the universe before the Big Bang, may by themselves be unobservable, but they are part of a larger picture that remains tied to what we see around us. (Inflation is a particularly inappropriate example to pick on; while it has by no means been established, and it is undeniably difficult to distinguish definitively between models, it keeps making predictions that are tested and come out correct -- spatial flatness of the universe, density fluctuations larger than the Hubble radius, correlations between perturbations in matter and radiation, fluctuation amplitudes on different scales that are almost equal but not quite...) If you are firmly convinced that talking about the multiverse and other unobservable things is deeply unscientific and a leading indicator of the Decline of the West, nothing I say will change your mind. In particular, you may judge that the question which inflation tries to answer -- "Why was the early universe like that?" -- is a priori unscientific, and we should just accept the universe as it is. That's an intellectually consistent position that you are welcome to take. The good news is that the overwhelming majority of interesting science being done today remains closely connected to tangible phenomena just as it (usually!) has been through the history of modern science. But if you instead ask in good faith why sensible people would be led to hypothesize all of this unobservable superstructure, there are perfectly good answers to be had. The most important point is that the underlying goal of science is not simply making predictions -- it's developing an understanding of the mechanisms underlying the operation of the natural world. This point is made very eloquently by David Deutsch in his book The Fabric of Reality. As I mention in the dialogue, Deutsch chooses this quote by Steven Weinberg as an exemplar of hard-boiled instrumentalism:

The important thing is to be able to make predictions about images on the astronomers' photographic plates, frequencies of spectral lines, and so on, and it simply doesn't matter whether we ascribe these predictions to the physical effects of gravitational fields on the motion of planets and photons or to a curvature of space and time.

That's crazy, of course -- the dynamics through which we derive those predictions matters enormously. (I suspect that Weinberg was trying to emphasize that there may be formulations of the same underlying theory that look different but are actually equivalent; then the distinction truly wouldn't matter, but saying "the important thing is to make predictions" is going a bit too far.) Deutsch asks us to imagine an "oracle," a black box which will correctly answer any well-posed empirical question we ask of it. So in principle the oracle can help us make any prediction we like -- would that count as the ultimate end-all scientific theory? Of course not, as it would provide no understanding whatsoever. As Deutsch notes, it would be able to predict that a certain rocket-ship design would blow up on take-off, but offer no clue as to how we could fix it. The oracle would serve as a replacement for experiments, but not for theories. No scientist, armed with an infinite array of answers to specific questions but zero understanding of how they were obtained, would declare their work completed. If making predictions were all that mattered, we would have stopped doing particle physics some time around the early 1980's. The problem with the Standard Model of particle physics, remember, is that (until we learned more about neutrino physics and dark matter) it kept making predictions that fit all of our experiments! We've been working very hard, and spending a lot of money, just to do experiments for which the Standard Model would be unable to make an accurate prediction. And we do so because we're not satisfied with predicting the outcome of experiments; we want to understand the underlying mechanism, and the Standard Model (especially the breaking of electroweak symmetry) falls short on that score. The next thing to understand is that all of these crazy speculations about multiverses and extra dimensions originate in the attempt to understand phenomena that we observe right here in the nearby world. Gravity and quantum mechanics both exist -- very few people doubt that. And therefore, we want a theory that can encompass both of them. By a very explicit chain of reasoning -- trying to understand perturbation theory, getting anomalies to cancel, etc. -- we are led to superstrings in ten dimensions. And then we try to bring that theory back into contact with the observed world around us, compactifying those extra dimensions and trying to match onto particle physics and cosmology. The program may or may not work -- it's certainly hard, and we may ultimately decide that it's just too hard, or find an idea that works just as well without all the extra-dimensional superstructure. Theories of what happened before the Big Bang are the same way; we're not tossing out scenarios because we think it's amusing, but because we are trying to understand features of the world we actually do observe, and that attempt drives us to these hypotheses. Ultimately, of course, we do need to make contact with observation and experiment. But the final point to emphasize is that not every prediction of every theory needs to be testable; what needs to be testable is the framework as a whole. If we do manage to construct a theory that makes a set of specific and unambiguous testable predictions, and those predictions are tested and the theory comes through with flying colors, and that theory also predicts unambiguously that inflation happened or there are multiple universes or extra dimensions, I will be very happy to believe in the reality of those ideas. That happy situation does not seem to be around the corner -- right now the data are offering us a few clues, on the basis of which invent new hypotheses, and we have a long way to go before some of those hypotheses grow into frameworks which can be tested against data. If anyone is skeptical that this is likely to happen, that is certainly their prerogative, and they should feel fortunate that the overwhelming majority of contemporary science is not forced to work that way. Others, meanwhile, will remain interested in questions that do seem to call for this kind of bold speculation, and are willing to push the program forward for a while to see what happens. Keeping in mind, of course, that when Boltzmann was grounding the laws of thermodynamics using kinetic theory, most physicists scoffed at the notion of these "atoms" and rolled their eyes at the invocation of unobservable entities to explain everyday phenomena. There is also a less rosy possibility, which may very well come to pass: that we develop more than one theory that fits all of the experimental data we know how to collect, such that they differ in specific predictions that are beyond our technological reach. That would, indeed, be too bad. But at the moment, we seem to be in little danger of this embarrassment of theoretical riches. We don't even have one theory that reconciles gravity and quantum mechanics while matching cleanly onto our low-energy world, or a comprehensive model of the early universe that explains our initial conditions. If we actually do develop more than one, science will be faced with an interesting kind of existential dilemma that doesn't have a lot of precedent in history. (Can anyone think of an example?) But I'm not losing sleep over this possibility; and in the meantime, I'll keep trying to develop at least one such idea.

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