The cosmological “multiverse” model talks about regions far beyond the observable portion of our universe (set by the finite light-travel distance given the finite time since the Big Bang). Critics thus complain that it is “unfalsifiable”, and so not science. Indeed, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci states that instead: “… the notion of a multiverse should be classed as scientifically-informed metaphysics”.
Sean Carroll has recently posted an article defending the multiverse as scientific (arXiv paper; blog post). We’re discussing here the cosmological multiverse — the term “multiverse” is also used for concepts arising from string theory and from the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, but the arguments for and against those are rather different. Continue reading →
Prompted by reading about the recent Munich conference on the philosophy of science, I am reminded that many people regard the idea of a multiverse as so wild and wacky that talking about it brings science into disrepute. My argument here is the reverse: that the idea of multiple Big Bangs, and thus of a multiverse, is actually more mundane and prosaic than the suggestion that there has only ever been one Big Bang. I’m calling this a “philosophical” argument since I’m going to argue on very general grounds rather than get into the details of particular cosmological models.
First, let me clarify that several different ideas can be called a “multiverse”, and here I am concerned with only one. That “cosmological multiverse” is the idea that our Big Bang was not unique, but rather is one of many, and that the different “universes” created by each Big Bang are simply separated by vast amounts of space.
Should we regard our Big Bang as a normal, physical event, being the result of physical processes, or was it a one-off event unlike anything else, perhaps the origin of all things? It is tempting to regard it as the latter, but there is no evidence for that idea. The Big Bang might be the furthest back thing we have evidence of, but there will always be a furthest-back thing we have evidence of. That doesn’t mean its occurrence was anything other than a normal physical process.
If you want to regard it as a one-off special event, unlike any other physical event, then ok. But that seems to me a rather outlandish idea. When physics encounters a phenomenon, the normal reaction is to try to understand it in terms of physical processes. Continue reading →
Falsifiability. as famously espoused by Karl Popper, is accepted as a key aspect of science. When a theory is being developed, however, it can be unclear how the theory might be tested, and theoretical science must be given license to pursue ideas that cannot be tested within our current technological capabilities. String theory is an example of this, though ultimately it cannot be accepted as a physical explanation without experimental support.
Further, experimental science is fallible, and thus we do not immediately reject a theory when contradicted by one experimental result, rather the process involves the interplay between experiment and theory. As Arthur Eddington quipped: “No experiment should be believed until it has been confirmed by theory”.
Sean Carroll recently called for the concept of falsifiability to be “retired”, saying that:
The falsifiability criterion gestures toward something true and important about science, but it is a blunt instrument in a situation that calls for subtlety and precision.
Meanwhile, Leonard Susskind has remarked that:
Throughout my long experience as a scientist I have heard un-falsifiability hurled at so many important ideas that I am inclined to think that no idea can have great merit unless it has drawn this criticism.
Continue reading →
This article was first posted in two parts on Scientia Salon.
The multiverse concept is often derided as “unscientific” and an example of physicists indulging in metaphysical speculation of the sort they would usually deplore. For example commenters at Scientia Salon have said that the multiverse is “by definition not verifiable and thus outside the bounds of empirical science”, and that “advocates of multiverses seem to be in need of serious philosophical help”. 
Critics thus claim that the multiverse amounts to a leap of faith akin to a religious belief. Indeed, the religious often accuse atheistic scientists of inventing the multiverse purely to rebut the “fine-tuning” argument that they say points to a creator god (though the fine-tuning argument is readily refuted in several other ways, and anyhow physicists really don’t care enough about theology these days to let that worry them; further, the concepts leading to a multiverse were developed well before theologians started taking note of the issue).
The purpose of this article is to argue that the multiverse is an entirely scientific hypothesis, arrived at for good scientific reasons and arising out of testable and tested cosmological models. To be clear, I am not asserting that the multiverse has been proven true, even on the balance of probability, but I am asserting that it is a serious scientific concept that will eventually be accepted or rejected on scientific grounds.
Several different concepts could be labelled a “multiverse”, but I am advocating one particular multiverse concept, that arising from what cosmologists call the “eternal inflation” version of Big Bang cosmology.  I’ll outline why cosmologists have arrived at this model, which is now a mainstream account of the origin of our universe, and which leads naturally to a multiverse. Continue reading →
As philosophers are fond of pointing out, induction is logically unsound: no track record, however lengthy, of observing that swans are white can validate the conclusion that all swans are certainly white and that no-one will ever encounter a black swan. Yet science uses induction every day, and it works. Our sampling of information is always partial, and yet that partial information tells us enough about the world around us to generate highly successful predictions and to produce engineering and technology that works. One can thus ask on what basis science uses the principle of induction.
Some would argue that induction is an example of a basic assumption of science that cannot be further justified. They might claim that all “ways of knowing” depend on such unverified assumptions, that science is just one example of such a system, and that other assumptions can lead to equally valid domains of understanding, such as theology.
A scientist, though, would argue that tools of science such as induction are not arbitrary, but are themselves justified by science. The scientific method is itself the product of science, deriving from a long historical process of working out what works. Thus, by bootstrapping, science arrives at methods that produce good predictions about the world, and produce engineering and technology that works. Continue reading →
During a recent online discussion I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that there is no general agreement on what the word “exist” means. Everyone has an intuitive understanding of it but when it comes to an explicit definition of the word there is no consensus, and indeed philosophers have written a vast literature on the topic of ontology, or what exists.
Dictionaries don’t really help; for example Oxford Dictionaries gives a nicely circular set of definitions:
Exist: 1. have objective reality or being
Reality: 1. the state of things as they actually exist
Being: 1. existence.
Of course physicists have a perfectly good operational definition: something exists if it is capable of making a detector go ping. Try arguing that, however, and you’re immediately accused of materialism, physicalism, scientism, being blind to possibilities beyond a very narrow world-view, and a host of similar sins (I plead guilty to at least the first three). Continue reading →