The string and multiverse wars are going strong in fundamental physics! And philosophy of science is very much at the center of the storm. I am no physicist, not even a philosopher of physics, in fact (my specialty is evolutionary biology), so I will not comment on the science itself. I take it that the protagonists of this diatribe are more than competent enough to know what they are talking about. But they keep bringing in Karl Popper and his ideas on the nature of science, as well as invoke — or criticize — Richard Dawid’s concept of non-empirical theory confirmation, so I feel a bit of a modest commentary as a philosopher of science is not entirely out of order.
Let me begin with two caveats: first, there are many people involved in the controversy, including Sean Carroll, Peter Woit, Sabine Hossenfelder, George Ellis, and Joe Silk (not to mention astute commentators such as Lee Smolin and Jim Baggott). Refreshingly, almost all of them have respect for philosophy of science, unlike ignorant (of philosophy) physicists like Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking. So, who knows, some of them may even read the following with some interest. Second, I actually know most of these people, obviously some better than others. I like and respect them all, even though — as we shall see — in this post I will come squarely down on one side rather than the other.
And what are these sides? For this round, I’ll focus on an exchange between Sean Carroll and Peter Woit on the specific issue of multiverse theory, though the two disagree — for the same reasons — also about the status of string theory. I have published an extended commentary on the string wars at Aeon magazine, after having participated to a conference organized by Dawid, where Peter, unfortunately, had not been invited, and which Sean, equally unfortunately, couldn’t attend.
Sean has recently written a post at Preposterous Universe entitled “Beyond falsifiability,” in which he summarizes a paper of his, currently at arxiv.org: Beyond falsifiability: normal science in a multiverse. Here is the abstract of that paper:
“Cosmological models that invoke a multiverse — a collection of unobservable regions of space where conditions are very different from the region around us — are controversial, on the grounds that unobservable phenomena shouldn’t play a crucial role in legitimate scientific theories. I argue that the way we evaluate multiverse models is precisely the same as the way we evaluate any other models, on the basis of abduction, Bayesian inference, and empirical success. There is no scientifically respectable way to do cosmology without taking into account different possibilities for what the universe might be like outside our horizon. Multiverse theories are utterly conventionally scientific, even if evaluating them can be difficult in practice.”
Not so fast, replies Peter at his blog, Not Even Wrong: “Much of the problem with the paper and blog post is that Carroll is arguing against a straw man, while ignoring the serious arguments about the problems with multiverse research. … None of those references [in the paper] contain anything like the naive argument that if we can’t observe something, it ‘simply shouldn’t matter,’ or one should not speculate about it, or it ‘shouldn’t count as science at all.’”
A good part of the discussion hinges on Sean accusing critics of both string theory and the multiverse of “Popperazism,” a neologism coined by him (as far as I can tell), which refers to the alleged misappropriation of the ideas of influential philosopher of science Karl Popper. Indeed, Sean already wrote a short piece for Edge back in 2014 in response to the question: “What scientific theory is ready for retirement?” His answer: falsificationism, the notion, proposed by Popper, that what demarcates science from non-science (and pseudoscience) is the feasibility of falsifying the tenets of a given theory or hypothesis. If a theory is in principle falsifiable, argued Popper, then it is scientific. If there is no way to subject it to the falsifiability criterion, it isn’t science.
Setting aside that falsificationism is not a scientific theory, but rather a notion in philosophy of science (after all, how would you falsify Popper’s account?), Sean admits that he hasn’t gone over the nuances of what Popper actually wrote. That’s unfortunate, because Popper was a bit more of a sophisticated philosopher than he is usually given credit for. Even though his ideas are no longer current in philosophy of science (you know, philosophy does make progress!), if one invokes him to dismiss a scientific theory (as Ellis and Silk do), or, conversely, rejects his insight in order to deflect criticism against one’s favorite theory (as Sean does), it would be good to take a look at what the men actually wrote.
Without going into too much detail (for an in-depth discussion and pertinent quotes see my Aeon article mentioned above), Popper realized that falsification is not a sharp blade capable of neatly cutting off science front non-science. He was also aware of, and discussed at length, the fact that legitimate scientific theories do include ad hoc explanations that are used by scientists as place holders until (and if) they figure out what is wrong with the theory they are working on. Nobody has ever rejected a scientific theory because all its statements were not immediately falsifiable, nor did Popper suggest such a crude practice in the first place.
To be fair to Sean, he says that what he is after is the naive version of Popper that he thinks others are using as a blunt instrument to dismiss string theory and the multiverse as outright unscientific. But, as Peter points out, evidence of such extreme “Popperazism” is hard to come by. Here, for instance, is the above mention George Ellis, in a response to a critique by Daniel Harlow, which Sean quotes approvingly:
“The process of science — exploring cosmology options, including the possible existence or not of a multiverse — is indeed what should happen. The scientific result is that there is no unique observable output predicted in multiverse proposals. This is because, as is often stated by proponents, anything that can happen does happen in most multiverses. Having reached this point, one has to step back and consider the scientific status of claims for their existence. The process of science must include this evaluation as well.”
Peter comments: “The problem with the multiverse is that it’s an empty idea, predicting nothing. It is functioning not as what we would like from science, a testable explanation, but as an untestable excuse for not being able to predict anything. In defense of empty multiverse theorizing, Carroll wants to downplay the role of any conventional testability criterion in our understanding of what is science and what isn’t.”
Does Sean do that? It appears so when he says: “The best reason for classifying the multiverse as a straightforwardly scientific theory is that we don’t have any choice. This is the case for any hypothesis that satisfies two criteria: (i) It might be true; (ii) Whether or not it is true affects how we understand what we observe.”
Those are exceedingly weak criteria indeed. As an extreme example, take the very fuzzy notion of God: it might be true, and whether it’s true or not this would affect how we understand the world. So what? Neither of those two observations — in itself — provides an iota of reason to believe in God. Or the multiverse.
Sean then moves to another target critics of string theory and the multiverse often aim at: Richard Dawid’s notion, mentioned above, of a new science based on what he calls “non-empirical confirmation.” As Sean acknowledges, that term was probably really bad PR on the part of Dawid:
“It sounds like Dawid is saying that we can confirm theories (in the sense of demonstrating that they are true) without using any empirical data, but he’s not saying that at all. Philosophers use ‘confirmation’ in a much weaker sense than that of ordinary language, to refer to any considerations that could increase our credence in a theory. Of course there are some non-empirical ways that our credence in a theory could change; we could suddenly realize that it explains more than we expected, for example. But we can’t simply declare a theory to be ‘correct’ on such grounds, nor was Dawid suggesting that we could.”
Hmm, as a philosopher, I don’t actually subscribe to this notion that we use “confirmation” in a weak sense at all. Still, Sean is right that we may, in the course of exploring the logical entailments of a given theory, discover that it has many more than we at first thought. Indeed, this is precisely what happened during the early history of string theory, and why it has attracted so much attention for so long. As for Dawid’s not suggesting that a theory should be declared correct on just such grounds, this is true. But it is also true that the whole point of Dawid’s Bayesian-informed approach is to make the argument that our belief in a theory should be updated, and even tilted toward provisional acceptance, on the basis of non-empirical entailments. This is controversial to say the least, both among philosophers and among scientists.
Sean continues: “Nobody is trying to change the rules of science; we are just trying to state them accurately. The multiverse is scientific in an utterly boring, conventional way: it makes definite statements about how things are, it has explanatory power for phenomena we do observe empirically, and our credence in it can go up or down on the basis of both observations and improvements in our theoretical understanding. Most importantly, it might be true, even if it might be difficult to ever decide with high confidence whether it is or not.”
There is a lot to unpack in those sentences. Beginning with the end, again, yes, multiverse theory may be true, but if we will never be able to decide that on the basis of empirical observation it simply shouldn’t count as a scientific theory. Nor should it be considered “probably” true, pace Dawid’s Bayesian approach. Indeed, at the moment, at least, the notion of a multiverse should be classed as scientifically-informed metaphysics. Too bad that so many scientists recoil from the “m-word,” though.
In terms of not trying to change the rules of science, I beg to differ. Maybe Sean isn’t, but Dawid definitely is. That’s a major point of his book on the subject. The question is whether such change is warranted or not. (I don’t think so.)
Moreover, there seems to me — as a naive external observer to the debate — to be nothing “boring” or “conventional” about the multiverse. It is, rather, a radical theory that would dramatically revise our whole conception of what a “universe” is in the first place!
Here Woit again makes some sharp comments: “[What] Carroll ignores is that the evaluation problem is not just ‘hard,’ but actually impossible, and if one looks into the reason for this, one finds that it’s because his term ‘the theory’ has no fixed reference. What ‘theory’ is he talking about? One sort of ‘theory’ he discusses are eternal inflation models of a multiverse in which you will have bubble collisions. Some such models predict observable effects in the CMB [cosmic background radiation]. Those are perfectly scientific and easy to evaluate, just wrong (since we see no such thing). Other such models predict no observable effect, those are untestable. ‘Hardness’ has nothing to do with it, the fact that there is some narrow range of models where tests are in principle possible but hard to do is true but irrelevant.”
Here we get pretty close to the edge of my competence, and I am going to leave it to Sean, Peter and the rest to evaluate what actual (novel) predictions multiverse theory makes, and whether and how they might be tested. But the more time passes (and this goes for string theory as well), the more the burden of proof rests on defenders of the theory, while the skeptics are increasingly justified in their impatience regarding the current dearth of such tests.
Sean concludes his post by writing that “understanding how science progresses is an interesting and difficult question, and should not be reduced to brandishing bumper-sticker mottos to attack theoretical approaches to which we are not personally sympathetic.”
That is most certainly true, though again I see little evidence of bumper-sticker brandishing. But it is curious to me that he seems to imply that his critics attack string theory and the multiverse because they are not “personally sympathetic” to those notions — not because they honestly see intellectual problems with them. This comes close to poisoning the well, a type of elementary logical fallacy that Sean is usually too careful a thinker to indulge in. Besides, what makes him so confident that he and other defenders of strings and multiverse aren’t just as much personally invested in those notions, and hence subject to more or less unconscious biases? As Caroll Tavris and Elliot Ar0nson memorably put it, “mistakes were made, but not my me.”
Postscript: the term “Popperazzi” appears to have been used first by Leonard Susskind, at least since his 2006 “The Cosmic Landscape,” p. 192 (with thanks to various commenters on Twitter, especially Jim Baggott).
Also, entirely coincidentally, Sabine Hossenfelder has a (critical) piece on the multiverse at NPR.org.