Monday, December 19, 2005

Distasteful Universe and Rube Goldberg machines

A famous colleague of ours from Stanford has become very popular among the Intelligent Design bloggers. Why is it so? Because he is the unexpected prophet that suddenly revived Intelligent Design - an alternative framework for biology that almost started to disappear. How could he have done so? Well, he offered everyone two options.
  • Either you accept the paradigm shifting answer to Brian Greene's "Elegant Universe" - namely the answer that the Universe is not elegant but, instead, it is very ugly, unpredictable, unnatural, and resembling the Rube Goldberg machines (and you buy the book that says so)
  • Or you accept Intelligent Design.

You may guess which of these two bad options would be picked by your humble correspondent and which of them would be chosen by most Americans. What does it mean? A rather clear victory for Intelligent Design.

The creationist and nuclear physicist David Heddle writes something that makes some sense to me:

  • His book should be subtitled String Theory and the Possible Illusion of Intelligent Design. He has done nothing whatsoever to disprove fine-tuning. Nothing. He has only countered it with a religious speculation in scientific language, a God of the Landscape. Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, he tells us that we should embrace the String Theory landscape, not in spite of its ugliness, but rather because of it. Physics should change its paradigm and sing praises to inelegance. Out with Occam’s razor, in with Rube Goldberg.

This statement is also celebrated by Jonathan Witt, another fan of ID. Tom Magnuson, one more creationist, assures everyone that if the people are given the choice to choose between two theories with the same predictive power - and one of them includes God - be sure that they will pick the religious one. And he may be right. Well, not everyone will make the same choice. Leon Brooks won't ever accept metaphysics and Evolutionblog simply applaudes our famous Stanford colleague for disliking supernatural agents. But millions of people with the same emotions as William Dembski will make a different choice and it is rather hard to find rational arguments that their decision is wrong because this is a religious matter that can't be resolved scientifically at this point. Discussions about the issue took place at Cosmic Variance and Not Even Wrong.

Intelligent design in physics

Several clarifications must be added. Just like the apparent complexity of living forms supports the concept of Intelligent Design in biology (when I saw the beautiful fish today in the New England Aquarium, I had some understanding for the creationists' feelings), the apparent fine-tuning supports a similar idea in physics. A person like me who expects the parameters of the low-energy effective field theory to emerge from a deeper theory - which is not a religious speculation but a straightforward extrapolation of the developments of the 20th century physics - indeed does believe in some sort of "intelligent design". But of course its "intelligence" has nothing to do with human intelligence or the intelligence of God; it is intelligence of the underlying laws extending quantum field theory.

Opposite or equivalent?

The anthropic people and the Intelligent Design people agree with each other that their pictures of the real world are exactly opposite to one another. In my opinion, this viewpoint about their "contradiction" already means a victory for Intelligent Design and irrational thinking in general. The scientific opinion about this question - whether the two approaches are different - is of course diametrically different. According to a scientific kind of thinking, there is no material difference between

  • the theory that God has skillfully engineered our world, or has carefully chosen the place for His creation among very many possibilities
  • and the theory that there are uncontrollably many possibilities and "ours" is where we live simply because most of the other possibilities don't admit life like ours

From a physics perspective, these things are simply equivalent. Both of them imply that the parameters "explained" by either of these two theories are really unexplainable. They are beyond our thinking abilities and it does not matter whether we use the word "God" to describe our ignorance about the actual justification of the parameters.

Both of these two approaches may possibly be improved when we reduce the set of possibilities to make some predictions after all. For example, we can find which vacuum is the correct one. Once we do so, the questions whether some "God" is responsible for having chosen the right vacuum, or whether no "God" is necessary, becomes an unphysical question (or metaphysical question, if you prefer an euphemism). Again, the only way how this question may become physical is that we actually understand some rational selection mechanism - such as the Hartle-Hawking wavefunction paradigm - that will lead to a given conclusion. Or if we observe either God or the other Universes; these two possibilities look comparably unlikely to me.

Without these observations and/or nontrivial quantitative predictions, God and the multiverse are just two different psychological frameworks. In this sense, the creationists are completely correct if they say that the multiverse is so far just another, "naturalistic" religion.

As they like to say, the two pillars of the religion of "naturalism" - Freud and Marx - are dead. And Darwin is not feeling too well, they add - the only thing I disagree with. ;-) Marx and Freud are completely dead, indeed.

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