Let’s Get Metaphysical

Part of my agenda is being honest about the limits to science. Some parts of the Science-PR machine will defend to their death, that no such limits exist, but in fact such dogmatic defence in itself shows up these limits, is one of the limitations.

I haven’t fully unpicked these recent stories yet, but wanted to capture them as part of the bigger story.

Pop Goes the Universe – A Feb 2017 SciAm article on alternative interpretations of CMB observations.

A Cosmic Controversy – Response to the above signed by 30-odd scientists, defending the empirical scientific nature of existing accepted theories.

33 Physicists Sign Angry Letter – 11th May Gizmodo article about the controversy (hat tip to Sabine Hossenfelder).

What If Cosmic Inflation Is Wrong? – 11th May Forbes piece by Ethan Siegel, also shared and discussed in this FB Thread.

Is Inflationary Cosmology Science? – Sean Carroll’s blog on 10th May asks the question I’m asking; the implied question that drew the defensive response to the original piece.

Big Bang as in something from nothing, and Big Bang in the sense of its particular inflationary explanations are separate questions but are connected by ignored limits to science and self-imposed limits to scientistic thinking. Both these are metaphysical issues, or theological ones if you prefer. Matters of politics rather than science or rationality.

Something from “literally” nothing is not a scientific question and by definition can never be amenable to testable and falsifiable science. Some scientists get angry at that suggestion. The Science-PR machine (eg Dawkins) sticks its head in the sand even though Krauss (author of “Something from Nothing”) is honest enough to back off from the literal, absolute view.

Particular explanations of the progress of universal evolution involve adding fudges (like particular values for the cosmological constant, or the existence of dark matter and energy) to make the equations fit the observations. That’s not wrong in itself. It’s how science often proceeds, with explanations that are ultimately proven wrong, but which allow understanding to evolve as observation and revised theories are developed and justified. It’s a holding pattern.

But part of the holding pattern is to circle the wagons in defence of all suggestions otherwise.

The reason these two issues are connected by a common problem is the fear of a “god of the gaps” being conveniently invoked to explain not only the primary gap (something vs nothing) but some of the other inconvenient gaps in fundamental and near-bleeding-edge science – the “standard” models of both particles and cosmology – where even such everyday things as mass, gravity and rules of causation remain seriously weird, for want of a better word. Nothing important then? Something worth defending?

But dogmatic defence can hide genuine non-scientific issues with the processes of science. The politics of defence is not itself scientific.

I’m an atheist. Science moves in mysterious ways, there is no god of the gaps, in fact no god of supernatural causation and purpose. The natural world is driven entirely by natural processes amenable to natural explanation. But science is not only the sum total of our scientific knowledge of the world it is also the meta-science of how science proceeds as a human endeavour. Science can only ever be the sum of this human product, however carefully we eliminate extraneous subjective influence and use the empirical tests of falsifiability of objective observation.

The thing is we can never entirely remove the human perspective from the whole stack of knowledge and processes. It’s an anthropic effect, not the anthropic principle, simple a perspective. Our observations from our evolved position in our universe, and theories built on them, are anthropocentric. The ultimate subjectivity of science. Our natural rationality is more than the strictly objective, causally reductive science that science would will it to be.

As well as glossing over the necessarily fundamental gap in cosmic knowledge, this anthropic ignorance has also air-brushed out of the picture, in the name of politically defensive warfare, perfectly valid alternative theories for the evolution of the cosmos and its properties. It’s highly probable the 33 scientists rejecting the alternatives suggest by “Pop Goes the Cosmos” misunderstood the suggestions actually being made against the status-quo of science. We’re only human after all, but can we ever learn to compensate for our anthropic perspective?

[Refs to be added. Brandon Carter / Rick Ryals.]


Also published on Medium.

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