The Future of NASA
Michael Griffin is gearin...
More Features
Looking to apply for a Discover Credit Card? Members/Subscribers Log In      
My Problem with Big Pharma
Has Newsweek Sold Out to Big Pharma?
Dark Side of Green, Continued
The Dark Side of Green
The Green Bandwagon
Green Book Award: Nominations Wanted
Wilson Wins “Green Book Award”
The End of Total War?
Does the Desire for Peace Cause War?
[ Full Blog Archives ]
[ Who is John Horgan? ]
[ What is Horganism? ]
Mind & Brain
Ancient Life
All Newsletters
Discover Magazine  Blog  Archives

« 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, 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.

Wishful Seeing
Shiny Happy People
20 Things You Didn't Know About... Sleep
Can New Neurons Teach an Old Mouse?
The Woman Who Never Forgets
Why We Get Diseases Other Primates Don't
Vital Signs: Trouble in the Nursery
Natural Selections: The Potential Pandemic You've Never Heard Of
20 Things You Didn't Know About... Death
Natural Selections: The Potential Pandemic You've Never Heard Of
Recently Covered in Discover: The Man Who Finds Planets
Sky Lights: The Dark Side of the Universe
20 Things You Didn't Know About... Meteors
Sky Lights: The Dark Side of the Universe
Islam Hits International Space Station
Neighborhood Watch Goes High Tech
Going Atomic... Again
Jaron's World: The Murder of Mystery
How to Make Anything Look Like a Toy, Round II
Raw Data: The Rigorous Study of the Ancient Mariners
Will We Ever Clone a Caveman?
This Month's Ask Discover
How Life Got a Leg Up
Mammals Stake Their Place in Jurassic Park
You Say "Ook Ook," I Say "Aak Aak"
Guilt-Free Gossip for Greens
A Greener Faith
Whatever Happened To... the Exxon Valdez?
Life After Oil
The Next Katrina
  Full access to all site content requires registration as a magazine subscriber.
© 2005 Discover Media LLC. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
Privacy Policy / Your California Privacy Rights | Terms and Conditions | Educator's Guide | Subscribe Online Today | Online Media Kit
Customer Care | Contact Us