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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A Critique of Carroll's “Big Picture”

We recently saw the publication of the “The Big Picture” by physicist Sean Carroll. In this book Sean paints a portrait of a gloomy, purposeless, godless universe. Along the way he commits a few errors. Below are some that I detected.

On page 154 Sean discusses the work of ESP researcher Joseph Rhine, a professor at Duke University who worked mainly during the 1930's and 1940's, producing dramatic evidence for ESP. Sean creates the impression that Rhine's work was a fluke that was never replicated. Referring to Rhine's results, Sean says “many attempts to replicate them failed,” and does not mention any followup experiments supporting Rhine's results. But Sean misleads his reader on this topic. In general, subsequent experiments on ESP have indeed replicated Rhine's results, providing very powerful evidence for ESP. In particular, the ganzfeld sensory deprivation experiments provided average results of about 32% in trials in which the expected chance result was 25% (this paper looks at a series of ganzfeld studies, and concludes the probability of getting the results was only about 2 chances in 100 million). More recently, tests with autistic children (such as the scientific paper of Dr. Diane Hennacy Powell) have provided ESP results very strongly replicating Rhine's work, as have phone and email tests done by Sheldrake.


Other than a handful of passing references, Sean shows no sign of having studied anything relating to the paranormal or psychic phenomena. But Sean nonetheless dogmatically declares the impossibility of various paranormal claims, on the grounds that they are inconsistent with what he calls “the Core Theory.” On page 158 he says, “And those concepts – the tenets of the Core Theory, and the framework of quantum field theory on which it is based – are enough to tell us that there are no psychic powers.” Later on page 212 he states, “The Core Theory of contemporary physics...leaves no wiggle room for intervention by nonmaterial influences.”


But what exactly is this Core Theory to which he refers? In Appendix A of the book, he tells us: the Core Theory is a physics equation. Sean describes a complicated physics equation, and then says this:


So there you have it: the Core Theory in a nutshell. One equation that tells us the quantum amplitude for the complete set of fields to go from starting configuration (part of a superpostion inside a wave function) to some final configuration. We know that the Core Theory, and therefore this equation, can't be the final story.


Sean is saying that this Core Theory is basically a complicated physics equations. The inputs and outputs of that equation are purely physical things, and none of its inputs or outputs are anything that is the slightest bit biological, mental, spiritual, or psychological. It is therefore absolutely false and ludicrous for Sean to claim that this Core Theory has anything whatsoever to say about psychic phenomena, the possibility of intervention by nonmaterial influences, or anything whatsoever that is mental, spiritual, or psychological. And even if there was such an implication, it would have little force, because Sean has admitted that this Core Theory “can't be the final story.” Sean also says the Core Theory is based on the “framework of quantum field theory,” but (as discussed here) quantum field theory is famous for making what is commonly called the “worst prediction in the history of physics,” that the vacuum of space should be super-dense (as Sean himself discusses on page 304 of his book). The idea that something so problematic can set reliable prohibitions against completely unrelated things such as psychic phenomena or nonmaterial influences is therefore doubly indefensible.


On page 220 of the book, Sean discusses near-death experiences, and claims that “no cases of claimed afterlife experiences have been subject to careful scientific protocols.” This is false. For at least 25 years there have been physicians and scientists who have methodically studied near-death experiences using careful scientific protocols. For many years the Journal of Near Death Studies has been publishing scientific papers on near-death experiences, papers that have followed scientific protocols. The AWARE study published in 2014 is a study of near-death experiences authored by a large group of scientists and physicians, and it followed careful scientific protocols, and also produced some dramatic evidence results suggestive of a human soul that can leave the body.


Sean seems to have taken a look at the AWARE study, for he mentions its failure to verify out-of-body experiences by using a particular technique involving visual stimuli placed above the beds of people near the brink of death. But he fails to mention that the same study reported a dramatic case of someone who reported an out-of-body experience while his heart was stopped, a person who reported various distinctive details of his heart attack resuscitation attempt that were verified. In this regard, Sean is selectively reporting facts about as fairly as someone who might describe the Apollo program only by saying, “The Apollo program tried to reach the moon, but the Apollo 13 mission failed without landing on the moon,” without mentioning that the Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 missions did successfully land on the moon.


On page 220 of his book, Sean states: “Our status as parts of the physical universe implies that there is no overarching purpose to human lives, at least not inherent in the universe beyond ourselves.” This is a complete non-sequitur, saying that one thing implies another when it does no such thing. We're parts of the universe, so there's no purpose to our lives? The first thing in no way implies the second.


In Chapter 36 of his book, Sean discusses evidence from physics that the universe seems to be fine-tuned in a way that allows life to exist. But Sean tries to discourage anyone who might conclude that the universe was designed for life to appear. On page 305 he states, “We don't know very much about whether life would be possible if the numbers in our universe were very different.” This is entirely false. For more than 35 years scientists have been very carefully considering whether life would be possible if the numbers in our universe were very different, and have made many relevant conclusions about the matter. We know that galaxies and sun-like stars would not exist if physical constants such as the gravitational constant and the fine-structure constant were different by a relatively small amount. We know that if there were a very tiny difference between the absolute values of the proton charge and the electron charge, then planets could not hold together (the proton charge is the exact opposite of the electron charge, with the numbers matching to at least 22 decimal places). We know that small changes in the strong nuclear force in one direction would make stable molecules impossible, and that small changes in another direction would have prevented the formation of carbon and oxygen on which life depends. We know that a tiny change in the cosmological constant or vacuum energy density would have prevented a habitable universe. We know that a very small change in the neutron mass or the proton/electron mass ratio would lead to a universe in which stars like our sun could not exist.  See here or here for more information.

Requirements for our existence (discussed here)

To help explain why we live in such a fine-tuned universe (while preserving his atheistic naturalism), Sean suggests the idea of the multiverse, that there are many universes. He says on page 309 that the multiverse is a “simple, robust mechanism under which naturalism can be perfectly compatible with the existence of life.” Another whopper. Postulating a vast collection of other universes is not a simple assumption, but pretty much the flabbiest and most extravagant assumption possible, something that is really the precise opposite of being simple. From the standpoint of Occam's Razor and metaphysical parsimony, imagining some huge collection of other universes is actually far less simple than imaging a single intelligence behind the universe.


Sean also errs in saying, “if we get a multiverse in this way, any worries about fine-tuning and the existence of life evaporate.” The worries he refers to are his kind of atheist worries, but he's wrong in suggesting that such worries would evaporate in the case of such a multiverse. That's because the chance of success of any one random trial is not increased by increasing the number of random trials. So if the habitability of our universe (by a series of blind chance coincidences) was a gazillion-to-one shot before imagining a multiverse, it is still exactly the same gazillion-to-one shot after you assume such a multiverse. By assuming an infinity of universes, you do not increase by even 1 percent the chance that our universe would be habitable.


In this case Sean describes the most ridiculously flabby and extravagant state of affairs as something “simple,” and he gives us the same “black is white” type of talk in describing a parallel universes theory he seems to be infatuated with. Sean describes the Everett “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, the crazy idea that the universe is constantly splitting up into different copies, so that everything possible happens in a vast collection of parallel universes. Sean says on page 167 that there is “a lot to love about the Everett/Many-Worlds approach to quantum mechanics,” and describes it as “lean and mean.” No, pretty much nothing you can imagine could be less lean. The Everett “many worlds” interpretation is pretty much the most extravagant and flabby thing imaginable. All those unnecessary parallel universes are 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 tons of metaphysical fat and flab. Calling such a theory “lean” is like calling a 900-pound man “thin.”


But Sean likes the theory, which he provides no evidence for and no reasons for believing in, other than the laughably false claim that it is “lean.” Since he rejects life-after-death, Sean doesn't want me to believe that my dear departed mother is in some heaven or afterlife realm. But Sean apparently does want me to believe that there are an almost infinite number of quantum copies of my mother strolling around in some vast collection of parallel universes. We have near-death experiences as a form of evidence for post-mortal survival, but zero evidence for parallel universes. Sean apparently thinks it's better to believe in something infinitely flabby and infinitely extravagant and unsupported by evidence than to believe in something vastly simpler that is supported by evidence.