Thursday, December 01, 2005

Techcentralstation on Susskind's book

David G. has kindly pointed out an article on my favorite, libertarian, pro-business, anti-global-warming-madness server (TCS) about string theory in general and the anthropic principle in particular:

Lenny's book about the stringy landscape and Intelligent Design will be released in one or two weeks, and I am sure that he realizes that it will be a highly controversial book. In fact, it is my understanding that the controversy is Lenny's main point. As you can see, the public controversy already started before the book was released.

Kenneth Silber - who has already described Brian Greene's "The Fabric of the Cosmos" at TCS - begins with a nice story how Murray Gell-Mann replied with a laughter when he first heard that particles were "elastic strings, like a rubber band" from Lenny. David Gross has had rather similar comments about the relative importance of the early papers on the subject. Silber says a couple of words about string theory and M-theory but he spends most of his time with the anthropic principle.

Well, Silber obviously has a pretty similar approach to these basic questions as I do. For example, a typical sentence about Lenny's book is

  • A reader may come away from the book thinking that if string theory (as elaborated by Susskind) is wrong, the evidence points to fine-tuning by a supernatural agent. Not really.

That's spot on. Note that the term "supernatural agent" is used for what our anthropic colleagues would otherwise call "eternal inflation" or anything else. It's because their physical role is almost isomorphic: they are meant to give you the unlikely events that are necessary for intelligent life.

No one among us has read Lenny's book, but almost everyone knows what will be in between the covers because we know Lenny and we have seen the cover. The reader will be given a lot of evidence that our Universe is fine-tuned - which is morally the same thing as being intelligently designed - except that Lenny is gonna argue that his favorite solution to the apparent fine-tuning based on the anthropic principle is the "opposite" of the Intelligent Design.

It may be the opposite in the sense that Lenny's God is cold and does not like the people while Jesus Christ and His family literally loves them - but if you try to look at any measurable difference between the two origins of the Intelligent Design and fine-tuning - namely God vs. the anthropic principle - you will find virtually no difference. They share the basic idea that we may afford to believe in extremely unlikely events that do not need a deeper explanation. By these events, I either mean the events described in Genesis or its competitors, or the events of eternal inflation that intelligently choose the right rules of low-energy particle physics that admits life.

I, for one, don't see much difference between these two approaches. Kenneth Silber also assures all of us that if the anthropic principle is the way how the physicists will describe reality, the scientificially-educated public may choose to believe the postmodern "physics critics" instead. I mean the "physics critics" who are not even wrong because they fully follow the example of postmodern "literary critics" - one of these physics critics is mentioned by Silber and you know who he is.

You know, intelligent people outside high-energy physics such as Kenneth Silber may believe us that we are more experienced and better equipped to calculate the properties of physical interactions above 1 TeV of energy. But no one will convince them that they should change their opinion on whether or not we should adopt supernatural principles if things look fine-tuned to us. Of course that the opinion of the people like Silber about these issues are as valuable as the opinion of the physicists. These are questions about the basic attitude towards religion. And physics has no convincing evidence that a dramatic change of the religious opinions should occur today.

There is very little evidence of anything like Intelligent Design or many extremely unlikely events are needed for our Universe to work. Whenever we repeatedly observe something that looks extremely unlikely to us, it just means that we misunderstand something about the natural laws and we should try to do better - instead of inventing philosophical frameworks that imply that we can afford the world to look unlikely to us. This is how science always worked and it is how it will always work as long as it deserves the label "science".

And that's the memo.


  1. Dear Lumos,

    Ah, but you are quoting from the version of Professor Susskind's book in this part of the multiverse! In the editions to be published in many parallel universes, he attacks string theory, so you are misleading us!

    As Professor Leonard Susskind said in the "New Scientist" a few months ago, thw word "reality" should be banned from physics.

    By the way, is the publisher only bringing out the work as paper sheets bound up into a 3 dimensional book, or is there a special 10 dimensional version available for experts, in which the book has been shredded and the bits tied up into a Calabi-Yau manifold?

    Best wishes,

  2. Lumos, is it POSSIBLE that there is a version of you in a parallel universe, on the landscape of those 10^500 possible universes, which is in agreement with Peter Woit's scientific objectivity mentioned in the article, and wants factual evidence before defending strings?


  3. Hello Lubos,

    What happened to the critique of A Maloney's work? Do you have a new perspective you'd like to share with us?


  4. Dear Ohne,

    I decided that it is better to avoid texts that may sound as criticism, and it may be better for all of us to describe one's viewpoint on these considerations without involving anyone else who could potentially prefer to remain invisible on the blogosphere.

    All the best

  5. "I decided that it is better to avoid texts that may sound as criticism"

    While it is true that your original report sounded like something from J. Distler, I think that you are now swinging to the opposite extreme. It is very interesting and useful to hear about the seminars at Harvard. I sincerely hope that you will post another, less critical report about the talk, preferably after reading [and perhaps commenting on] the Maldacena/Maoz paper. You will like that paper, they believe in complexification as much as you do. :-)

  6. It sounds to me like lenny has finally discovered the second law of thermodynamics. Rather, he's figured out that a flat yet expanding universe is the most natural configuration, since the second law of thermodynamics requires that energy dissemination tends toward uniform dissipation which requires dissipative structures... like us.

  7. Lubos Motle, This may be a hopeless comment, but as an educated atheist you might show at least some historical awareness that the word "God" with a capital G is a proper noun not a generic stand-in for the idea of "intelligent" design, whatever that means. Granted, this Hebraic conception of a deity or god (in the generic sense) has no scientific content, which is hardly surprising given its antiquity. Yet from this conception was derived the notion of the unity of nature, which in turn (see Rodney Stark on this) led to the discovery of the existence of universal laws of nature. If the pioneers of science didn't think they might find such laws they would never have looked for them in the first place. Polytheism does not tend in that direction.

    Another point: you may find it laughable and certainly unempirical to believe that the universe "cares" about human beings. Granted, it may be a fairy tale. But even so, from the Hebraic anthropomorphism of this idea – namely, that there is a God who is just and who impartially judges every human being according to a universal standard of justice -- we get our modern ideals of freedom, justice and human equality, which constitute the moral foundations of liberal democracy. The vast majority of our citizens have an evident need to believe in this Hebraic conception of God, not only because it comforts them emotionally, but because it under girds their sense of moral responsibility towards other people. And as Lincoln once observed, any universal feeling, however well- or ill-founded, cannot safely be disregarded.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that you are not only a scientist but also a citizen. For this reason it probably behooves you, along with the rest of the scientific establishment to which you belong, to show a little more appreciation and respect for this proper noun, if only for the sake of the future funding of science.

    Luke Lea