I have a backlog of fun papers that I haven’t yet talked about on the blog, so I’m going to try to work through them in reverse chronological order. I just came out with a philosophically-oriented paper on the thorny issue of the scientific status of multiverse cosmological models:
Beyond Falsifiability: Normal Science in a Multiverse
Sean M. Carroll
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.
This is well-trodden ground, of course. We’re talking about the cosmological multiverse, not its very different relative the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. It’s not the best name, as the idea is that there is only one “universe,” in the sense of a connected region of space, but of course in an expanding universe there will be a horizon past which it is impossible to see. If conditions in far-away unobservable regions are very different from conditions nearby, we call the collection of all such regions “the multiverse.”
There are legitimate scientific puzzles raised by the multiverse idea, but there are also fake problems. Among the fakes is the idea that “the multiverse isn’t science because it’s unobservable and therefore unfalsifiable.” I’ve written about this before, but shockingly not everyone immediately agreed with everything I have said.
Back in 2014 the Edge Annual Question was “What Scientific Theory Is Ready for Retirement?”, and I answered Falsifiability. The idea of falsifiability, pioneered by philosopher Karl Popper and adopted as a bumper-sticker slogan by some working scientists, is that a theory only counts as “science” if we can envision an experiment that could potentially return an answer that was utterly incompatible with the theory, thereby consigning it to the scientific dustbin. Popper’s idea was to rule out so-called theories that were so fuzzy and ill-defined that they were compatible with literally anything.
As I explained in my short write-up, it’s not so much that falsifiability is completely wrong-headed, it’s just not quite up to the difficult task of precisely demarcating the line between science and non-science. This is well-recognized by philosophers; in my paper I quote Alex Broadbent as saying
It is remarkable and interesting that Popper remains extremely popular among natural scientists, despite almost universal agreement among philosophers that – notwithstanding his ingenuity and philosophical prowess – his central claims are false.
If we care about accurately characterizing the practice and principles of science, we need to do a little better — which philosophers work hard to do, while some physicists can’t be bothered. (I’m not blaming Popper himself here, nor even trying to carefully figure out what precisely he had in mind — the point is that a certain cartoonish version of his views has been elevated to the status of a sacred principle, and that’s a mistake.)
After my short piece came out, George Ellis and Joe Silk wrote an editorial in Nature, arguing that theories like the multiverse served to undermine the integrity of physics, which needs to be defended from attack. They suggested that people like me think that “elegance [as opposed to data] should suffice,” that sufficiently elegant theories “need not be tested experimentally,” and that I wanted to “to weaken the testability requirement for fundamental physics.” All of which is, of course, thoroughly false.
Nobody argues that elegance should suffice — indeed, I explicitly emphasized the importance of empirical testing in my very short piece. And I’m not suggesting that we “weaken” anything at all — I’m suggesting that we physicists treat the philosophy of science with the intellectual care that it deserves. The point is not that falsifiability used to be the right criterion for demarcating science from non-science, and now we want to change it; the point is that it never was, and we should be more honest about how science is practiced.
Another target of Ellis and Silk’s ire was Richard Dawid, a string theorist turned philosopher, who wrote a provocative book called String Theory and the Scientific Method. While I don’t necessarily agree with Dawid about everything, he does make some very sensible points. Unfortunately he coins the term “non-empirical theory confirmation,” which was an extremely bad marketing strategy. 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.
In 2015 Dawid organized a conference on “Why Trust a Theory?” to discuss some of these issues, which I was unfortunately not able to attend. Now he is putting together a volume of essays, both from people who were at the conference and some additional contributors; it’s for that volume that this current essay was written. You can find other interesting contributions on the arxiv, for example from Joe Polchinski, Eva Silverstein, and Carlo Rovelli.
Hopefully with this longer format, the message I am trying to convey will be less amenable to misconstrual. 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. 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.