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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Physicist Clumsily Ponders the Big Questions

Leonard Mlodinow is a Cal Tech physicist who co-authored the book The Grand Design, a widely read but unconvincing embrace of a particularly extravagant form of string theory which has no observational support. The book ends by assuring us that the theory the authors favor is the theory that Einstein was looking for. That is a lame appeal to authority, rather like arguing, “If Abraham Lincoln were alive today, he would endorse my economic theory.”

Mlodinow has also co-authored the book War of the Worldviews, in which he debates various deep topics with Deepak Chopra, the widely-read author of numerous books. The format of the book consists of alternate chapters by Mlodinow and Chopra, usually taking opposing standpoints on various big questions.

Early in the book (page 17), Mlodinow bombastically asserts, “Science can answer the seemingly intractable question of how the universe came into being, and there is reason to believe that science will eventually be able to explain the origins of consciousness, too.” But he does nothing to back up these statements. There is actually no reason to think that science ever will be able to answer the question of what caused the universe to come into existence, and quite a few scientists have admitted that fact. Later on (page 181), Mlodinow admits, “We still aren't close to discovering the basis of 'mind' or consciousness as an emergent phenomenon based on interactions among neurons,” a statement that undermines his previous statement that “ there is reason to believe that science will eventually be able to explain the origin of consciousness.”

Compare Mlodinow's swaggering statement to the much earlier but far wiser statement by the great scientist Isaac Newton: “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” That statement – a statement of great humility – is still appropriate today, as we discover more and more that we don't understand.

In a nine-page chapter on “Is There Design in the Universe?” Mlodinow has a chance to use his physics expertise to rebut those who have argued that the physical constants and laws of our universe seem tailor-made for the appearance of intelligent creatures such as us. But he chooses to say nothing about such reasoning, and does not mention any of the many cases of fine-tuning or cosmic coincidences widely mentioned by other physicists in the context of discussions of the anthropic principle. But what is the reason for the order that allowed us to exist? Mlodinow has an answer (page 116): “The gift of life is not, then, the gift of a god, or of a 'universal consciousness'; it is a gift from the sun.”

This is a laughably weak answer for several reasons. The first reason is that the existence of life and stable matter depend on something a lot more than just the sun: a whole series of coincidences and apparent fine-tuning such as the precise equality of the proton charge and the electron charge (to twenty decimal places), the nearly identical masses of the proton and the neutron, the just-right strength of things such as gravitation, the vacuum energy density, the strong nuclear force, and nuclear resonances. The second reason is that while a sun like ours is a very important prerequisite for life, the existence of our sun depends crucially on various favorable physical constants that existed with their current values billions of years before the sun existed. It has been shown that stars like the sun would not exist if several physical constants such as the speed of light, the gravitational constant, or Planck's constant were slightly different. One does not explain such coincidences by mentioning the sun, something that those coincidences helped to make possible. Our sun is one of the fortunate end results of primordial cosmic fine-tuning, not any explanation for such fine-tuning.

Mlodinow goes on to lamely argue for a version of determinism: “The evidence so far supports the view that the physical arrangement of all atoms and molecules, and the laws of nature that govern them, determine our future actions in the same way that they determine the actions of the sun” (page 131). This is a statement similar to the famous statement made by Laplace in the 19th century, that if one could determine exactly the position and motion of all atoms, one could foretell the exact future of the universe. But such an outlook has been completely invalidated by quantum mechanics, which tells us that there is a huge amount of uncertainty baked into everything on the subatomic level. Modern physics does not support the idea that arrangements of atoms and molecules lock in your future decisions. That's a good thing, because the idea that you do not have a free will is a morally poisonous idea which would have disastrous consequences if everyone embraced it. 

When it comes to the possibility of any such thing as a soul, Mlodinow says this: “All science can really say is that if it existed, we think its effects on the material realm would have been noticed, and that, until now, there has never been any credible evidence for it.”

This is the standard story-line of many a physicist, one in which multiple lines of evidence accumulated over many decades are completely disregarded: evidence of ESP that has been carefully accumulated by scientists for well over 70 years (particularly in recent ganzfeld experiments); evidence of thousands of near-death experiences which have been accumulated for more than 40 years; evidence of remote viewing that was funded by the US government for well over a decade; evidence of an abnormal ability of the mind to influence human health; evidence that humans can inexplicably influence random number generators; as well as evidence of apparitions that have been reported throughout human history (a very-old fashioned phenomenon that simply refuses to go away, and needs some kind of explanation that neither physics nor psychiatry has yet provided).

Like many modern physicists, Mlodinow has a kind of double standard. He dismisses all of the extensive evidence suggesting that there may actually be something like a soul or some paranormal human abilities, because it conflicts with his world view based on reductionist materialism. But he embraces a version of string theory not supported by any evidence, even though such a theory (with its gigantic baggage such as multiverse associations and the idea of many hidden dimensions) ends up being far more extravagant than the simple hypothesis of a human soul.

If Mlodinow aspires to work part-time as a“worldview warrior,” he needs to come up with some more convincing answers.