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Lee Smolin wants to ditch the multiverse?

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Gosh, and that won’t cost much. What must we pay to divorce something that doesn’t exist?

That Lee Smolin? The one who said black holes might produce new physics, new laws, and, by the way, there is no scientific method.

(Actually, if you sign on to naturalism, there does not need to be a scientific method. There just needs to be enforcement against people who stray outside naturalism. Inside, it can be a non-rational hubbub. Always remember, our brains are shaped for fitness, not for truth, and truth is not always adaptive.)

This could in part be fallout from Ellis and Silk laying the key issues out in Nature recently:

This year, debates in physics circles took a worrying turn. Faced with difficulties in applying fundamental theories to the observed Universe, some researchers called for a change in how theoretical physics is done. They began to argue — explicitly — that if a theory is sufficiently elegant and explanatory, it need not be tested experimentally, breaking with centuries of philosophical tradition of defining scientific knowledge as empirical. We disagree. As the philosopher of science Karl Popper argued: a theory must be falsifiable to be scientific.

So do you want the multiverse or science? Anyway, as Bryan Appleyard tells it:

The multiverse has, in fact, been used three times to plug a gap – in the inflationary theory of the universe, in quantum theory and in string theory. Each time it is an attempt to explain why our universe just happens to be the way it is. But, surely, this is cheating. If, say Unger and Smolin, our theories don’t work, then we should ditch the theories, not invent imaginary and forever undetectable worlds.

Bizarrely, these worlds are invented by people who are forced to admit that their theories can’t actually work and full accounts of the universe. The conditions at the heart of a ‘singularity’ – in the Big Bang or in black holes – are said to lie beyond the laws of physics, so, in other words, the supposedly unchanging laws of physics only work by encompassing their own limitations.

So we do magic to make it all work?

From Appleyard:

Does any of this matter to you? All of it does. The rise of physics to the throne of ultimate science since the early twentieth century has, inevitably, affected ordinary life with its assumptions and not just in sci-fi. For example, contemporary determinism – the idea that everything that happens is inevitable and that our free will is an illusion – springs from twentieth century physics and has, most recently, infected neuroscience.

Perhaps more damagingly, the idea that the human mind, unaided except by mathematics, can encompass the universe has downgraded nature and deluded us into thinking we can do anything. We can’t. Nature – human or otherwise – is the only standard by which we or our ideas can be tested. The rest is just chalk on a blackboard.

But is this issue being put fairly here? Should we give up on mathematics or naturalism?

See also: The Science Fictions series at your fingertips (cosmology).

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contemporary determinism – the idea that everything that happens is inevitable and that our free will is an illusion
This quote by Appleyard is backwards. The biggest surprise of 20th century physics is that nature appears to be fundamentally indeterministic. Some things (like radioactive decay) happen at particular moments in time for no reason at all; they are fundamentally probabilistic. If a guy has such an axe to grind that he gets this backwards, we better be careful about the rest of what he says. Lou Jost

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