What's your dangerous idea?


Physicist, Stanford University; Author, The Cosmic Landscape

The “Landscape”

I have been accused of advocating an extremely dangerous idea.

According to some people, the “Landscape” idea will eventually ensure that the forces of intelligent design (and other unscientific religious ideas) will triumph over true science. From one of my most distinguished colleagues:

From a political, cultural point of view, it's not that these arguments are religious but that they denude us from our historical strength in opposing religion.

Others have expressed the fear that my ideas, and those of my friends, will lead to the end of science (methinks they overestimate me). One physicist calls it “millennial madness.”

And from another quarter, Christoph Schönborn, Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna has accused me of “an abdication of human intelligence.”

As you may have guessed the idea in question is the Anthropic Principle: a principle that seeks to explain the laws of physics, and the constants of nature, by saying, “If they (the laws of physics) were different, intelligent life would not exist to ask why laws of nature are what they are.”

On the face of it, the Anthropic Principle is far too silly to be dangerous. It sounds no more sensible than explaining the evolution of the eye by saying that unless the eye evolved, there would be no one to read this page. But the A.P. is really shorthand for a rich set of ideas that are beginning to influence and even dominate the thinking of almost all serious theoretical physicists and cosmologists.

Let me strip the idea down to its essentials. Without all the philosophical baggage, what it says is straightforward: The universe is vastly bigger than the portion that we can see; and, on a very large scale it is as varied as possible. In other words, rather than being a homogeneous, mono-colored blanket, it is a crazy-quilt patchwork of different environments. This is not an idle speculation. There is a growing body of empirical evidence confirming the inflationary theory of cosmology, which underlies the hugeness and hypothetical diversity of the universe.

Meanwhile string theorists, much to the regret of many of them, are discovering that the number of possible environments described by their equations is far beyond millions or billions. This enormous space of possibilities, whose multiplicity may exceed ten to the 500 power, is called the Landscape. If these things prove to be true, then some features of the laws of physics (maybe most) will be local environmental facts rather than written-in-stone laws: laws that could not be otherwise. The explanation of some numerical coincidences will necessarily be that most of the multiverse is uninhabitable, but in some very tiny fraction conditions are fine-tuned enough for intelligent life to form.

That’s the dangerous idea and it is spreading like a cancer.

Why is it that so many physicists find these ideas alarming? Well, they do threaten physicists’ fondest hope, the hope that some extraordinarily beautiful mathematical principle will be discovered: a principle that would completely and uniquely explain every detail of the laws of particle physics (and therefore nuclear, atomic, and chemical physics). The enormous Landscape of Possibilities inherent in our best theory seems to dash that hope.

What further worries many physicists is that the Landscape may be so rich that almost anything can be found: any combination of physical constants, particle masses, etc. This, they fear, would eliminate the predictive power of physics. Environmental facts are nothing more than environmental facts. They worry that if everything is possible, there will be no way to falsify the theory — or, more to the point, no way to confirm it. Is the danger real? We shall see.

Another danger that some of my colleagues perceive, is that if we “senior physicists” allow ourselves to be seduced by the Anthropic Principle, young physicists will give up looking for the “true” reason for things, the beautiful mathematical principle. My guess is that if the young generation of scientists is really that spineless, then science is doomed anyway. But as we know, the ambition of all young scientists is to make fools of their elders.

And why does the Cardinal Archbishop Schönborn find the Landscape and the Multiverse so dangerous. I will let him explain it himself:

Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, faced with scientific claims like neo-Darwinism and the multiverse hypothesis in cosmology invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science, the Catholic Church will again defend human nature by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in nature is real. Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of 'chance and necessity' are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence.

Abdication of human intelligence? No, it’s called science.

I really like what Scott Adams has to say on the whole Evolution vs. Creationism vs. Intelligent design:

Intelligent Design, Part 1

To me, the most fascinating aspect of the debate over Darwinism versus Intelligent Design is that neither side understands the other side’s argument. Better yet, no one seems to understand their own side’s argument. But that doesn’t stop anyone from having a passionate opinion.

I’ve been doing lots of reading on the subject, trying to gather comic fodder. I fully expected to validate my preconceived notion that the Darwinists had a mountain of credible evidence and the Intelligent Design folks were creationist kooks disguising themselves as scientists. That’s the way the media paints it. I had no reason to believe otherwise. The truth is a lot more interesting. Allow me to set you straight. (Note: I’m not a believer in Intelligent Design, Creationism, Darwinism, free will, non-monetary compensation, or anything else I can’t eat if I try hard enough.)

First of all, you’d be hard pressed to find a useful debate about Darwinism and Intelligent Design, of the sort that you could use to form your own opinion. I can’t find one, and I’ve looked. What you have instead is each side misrepresenting the other’s position and then making a good argument for why the misrepresentation is wrong. (If you don’t believe me, just watch the comments I get to this post.)

To make things more complicated, both sides have good and bad arguments lumped into them. If you make a good argument on your side, I respond by attacking your bad argument instead. If it were a debate contest, both sides would lose.

For example, Darwinists often argue that Intelligent Design can’t be true because we know the earth is over 10,000 years old. That would be a great argument, supported by every relevant branch of science, except that it has nothing to do with Intelligent Design.

Intelligent Design accepts an old earth and even accepts the fact that species probably evolved. They only question the “how.â€

Okay. I’ve read the posts. I’ve gone out and taken a walk to ponder them without the distraction of work; walking down Third Avenue, listening to birds chirp in the awnings, the cars roar by, smelling chinese food, and staring at women’s breasts. Now I can respond.

The Landscape theory would seem to be just common sense. The universe is massive, likely infinite, so it stands to reason that the possibilities would be as well - and so would the rules, the supposed laws of physics.

Mankind is so arrogant to think that all of what it knows would apply to things it doesn’t know and hasn’t even seen. We probably wouldn’t be able to recognize life on another planet because it wouldn’t pass our definition, our tests.

This truth may be frustrating and, even, sad to many people but I find it quite exhilarating. How wonderful that, no matter how accomplished we are or how long of a life we’ve lived that, by the time we are at death’s door, there is still so much we haven’t seen or done or, for that matter, know. It is what makes us always hungry, for knowledge and different experiences.

This is funny, he writes:

And then he spends the rest of the essay trying to defend Intelligent Design by poking at Darwinism. He makes it seems as if Creationism and Intelligent Design theory are two absolutely different things while they are closely related, the latter being the polished version of the first.

I think he is the one who doesn’t understand the issue here. Those who believe in Intelligent Design, think that there is a supreme being guiding how life evolves. Darwinists prefer to think that randomness is at play. That’s it, dead simple.

I wonder if Dilbert was designed intelligently by a supreme being guiding his creator.