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« Scientific Regress, Continued | Main | Chomsky Versus Trivers »



Science As Escapism

From Plato onward, critics have argued about whether art must have redeeming social value, help us appreciate how splendid life is, encourage us to be virtuous, blah blah blah. I’ve always been in the amorality camp; artists should be free to do whatever they damn well please, which includes rubbing our faces in the pointlessness of it all.

For the most part, I’ve had the same attitude toward science. I don’t insist that science yield social utility—better cancer treatments, zippier computers, smarter bombs--just truth, or the prospect thereof, even if the truth disturbs. Particle physics and cosmology can’t improve our lives materially in any way, but they satisfy our longing to know. What purpose could be more sublime?

But what if science doesn’t even address reality, as is the case with theories postulating the existence of universes other than our own? Does this science deserve our attention, respect, tax dollars? I think not.

Consider the latest edition of The Edge.org, which the literary agent John Brockman created to showcase the ideas of prominent scientists. I enjoy Edge, and I don’t say that just because I occasionally contribute to it and because Brockman is my agent. On Edge, professional thinkers serve up their worldviews in a fresh, informal fashion. They are free to make fools of themselves, if they so choose, and that keeps things interesting. In an Edge essay titled The Principle of Mediocrity, the cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin of Tufts spells out the implications of the multiple-universe theory:

“A striking consequence of the new picture of the world is that there should be an infinity of regions with histories absolutely identical to ours. That's right, scores of your duplicates are now reading copies of this article. They live on planets exactly like Earth, with all its mountains, cities, trees, and butterflies. There should also be regions where histories are somewhat different from ours, with all possible variations. For example, some readers will be pleased to know that there are infinitely many O-regions where Al Gore is the President of the United States.”

Another example: Two summers ago, I heard the Australian physicist and bestselling author Paul Davies give a talk about another implication of the multiverse. The multiverse must contain countless civilizations even more advanced than ours, Davies suggested, and some of them have no doubt acquired the power to create simulated universes that seem absolutely real to their inhabitants. Since each such civilization could in principle create countless virtual worlds, the odds are that any particular world you find yourself in is simulated, not real. So, like, our world could be some kind of Matrix deal!

Here’s a thought for Davies and Vilenkin. They should go to a Veterans Hospital filled with casualties from Iraq and tell the soldiers that this universe may not be real, so they shouldn’t feel so bad about having no legs. Or maybe there are other universes where they still have legs.

I know, I should lighten up. I liked The Matrix, and I once found sci-fi fantasies like those of Davies and Vilenkin titillating. But given all the problems we face in this very real world, I am appalled that smart, highly trained scientists would waste their time on this trite, adolescent, escapist multiverse crap. It's irresponsible, and an insult to real scientists. It has less than zero redeeming social value.



   
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