Total Drek

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Monday, September 18, 2006

The (Snakes on a) Plane of the Spirit

Recently one of my commenters, the mysterious Bookmobile, asked me a question. His question, phrased as a comment, read as follows:

Nothing to do with this post, which I hardly understand, but I just [read] this by author Gregg Easterbrook in Slate, and I thought you might be able to chew on it:

"Today if a professor at Princeton claims there are 11 unobservable dimensions about which he can speak with great confidence despite an utter lack of supporting evidence, that professor is praised ....If another person in the same place asserted there exists one unobservable dimension, the plane of the spirit, he would be hooted down as a superstitious crank."

The article in question is discussing a theory or, more appropriately, set of theories known as "string theory." String theory is regarded as a very, very promising new theory of physics that stands a good chance of unifying quantum mechanics with relativity. Why does this matter? Well, because right now we have two very well-regarded theories with substantial predictive power that do not agree with each other. At the very small scale, quantum mechanics provides the most useful description of the world we seem to live in. In fact, many of our microelectronics rely of quantum mechanical effects and, similarly, our grasp of them. Similarly, relativity accounts for phenomena at large scales and high energies and allows us to communicate with our satellites, among other things. In the middle, where you and I live most of the time, we more or less work with relativity again, though in a way that is essentially approximate to Newtonian physics.

The problem is that relativity and quantum mechanics don't interface well. This is, to put it mildly, disturbing as it's highly unlikely that the basic laws of the universe are inconsistent. If that were so, our ability to predict much of anything would be near zero, which is not the case. The problem, then, is not that the universe operates inconsistently, but that our understanding of it is imperfect.

This is where string theory enters the picture. String theory proposes an explanation for these inconsistencies that wraps quantum mechanics and relativity in with particle physics in a way that is exceedingly elegant... or so I'm told by the physicists. The math of string theory is a smidge beyond me and, even if it weren't, I lack the time to check it. Unfortunately, string theory also predicts, or is consistent with, a number of other things, including additional physical dimensions. In short, our universe may not consist of only the three spacial dimensions and one temporal dimension we're all accustomed to, but may really include 15 or more dimensions, most of which we can't readily perceive. More importantly, at the moment not only can WE not perceive these additional dimensions but, to the best of my admittedly limited knowledge, we lack any instrumentation that can do so.

Which is where we come back to the quote supplied by Bookmobile. The author is attempting to draw a parallel between string theory and its unobservable dimensions and spirituality and its unobservable... well... everything. Indeed, the author draws this parallel about as far as he can in the opening paragraph of the article:

The leading universities are dominated by hooded monks who speak in impenetrable mumbo-jumbo; insist on the existence of fantastic mystical forces, yet can produce no evidence of these forces; and enforce a rigid guild structure of beliefs in order to maintain their positions and status. The Middle Ages? No, the current situation in university physics departments. I just invented the part about the hoods.*

But, as Bookmobile asks, is this parallel appropriate? Is string theory essentially a religious position and on an equal footing with religious perspectives? Well, as you can probably guess, my answer is "no," although not to as unqualified an extent as you might expect.

The main issue here is that while many aspects of string theory are not currently testable there's no reason to think that they will be forever, or even for the forseeable future. String theory is attractive mathematically, and it accounts for many observed phenomena, but it remains a theory in its infancy. For the time being, I think the physics community is allowing string theory space to grow in the hopes that it will yield results sooner rather than later. When first proposed, many aspects of relativity were untestable, yet that theory has proven to be incredibly fruitful.

The second issue, summed up elegantly by Jason Rosenhouse, is that while string theory accounts for all the phenomena that more conventional models do, "spirituality" has, thus far, proven to be a rather sterile way of explaining the universe. There are no phyisical processes whose operation requires that we invoke the metaphysical. Despite thousands of years of effort, there are no confirmed cases of ghostly hauntings, of precognition, or of telepathy that lead us in any way to suspect an as-yet unknown metaphysical ether. Thus, to propose a theory that is not presently testable but relies on the principles of physical law seems at least reasonable. To propose the existence of a thing that has never been observed, has no measurable consequences for anything that can be observed, and has repeatedly been found to be unnecessary to explain anything we observe, is simply foolish.

Third, and this is a bit of a niggling point, the quote that Bookmobile supplies is simply in factual error. It does appear that Princeton University has both a Department of Religion and a seminary. This, in combination with the Philosophy Department, makes it very clear that numerous scholars at Princeton are quite free to espouse a belief in a "plane of spirit"** It is not that the metaphysical has no place in the academy, but that it has no place in science. Sadly, the invocation of "spirit" in science usually boils down to a "just because" argument and, thus, is extremely unhelpful.

And that distinction is, ultimately, what separates string theory from spiritualism. String theory will stand or fall in terms of its ability to account for, and predict, the observable world. It will produce for us, or it will be discarded. Spiritualism, on the other hand, is distinguished by the lack of necessity that it explain anything. People believe in it, or not, as they choose to and failure to produce results has, thus far, not proven to be much of a deterrent.

And that makes all the difference in the world.

Is string theory on an equal footing with other scientific theories? Absolutely not. As it stands now it has many attractive properties mathematically but, sadly, many wonderfully elegant theories have proven to be entirely wrong. So long as it remains untestable, string theory will remain little more than an interesting mathematical diversion that might develop into science. Yet, that potential is what keeps us interested, and it is a potential that the plane of spirit is lacks entirely.

And recognizing that difference is what separates the scientists from the superstitious cranks.

* Not so much, actually, since getting a Ph.D. is often referred to as "being hooded," and those loop things on our robes are, technically, referred to as "hoods."

** Whatever the hell that means. If this proposition were any more vague it would lack nouns entirely.

As a side note: This post is, in my view, unusually shitty, but for more on this see Jason's excellent commentary on the same article.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you ever do want to learn a little about string theory, I would recommend Lisa Randall's Warped Passages. It doesn't require lots of prior physics knowledge, does talk about ideas in an interesting and scientific way, and is actually even kind of funny...

Tuesday, September 19, 2006 3:34:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Hazel. I read Brian Greene's "The Elegant Universe" a couple of years ago but, frankly, I think I need to read it again. Maybe I'll try your idea first.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006 9:31:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice work, Drek. Soon as I read that quote, I thought of you, of course. However unfortunate it is that string theory is currently largely untestable, I too think it has promise. If nothing else, it is bringing popular attention to theoretical physics, which is mostly a good thing.

And yes, folks, that's really what I look like. I'm a big green bus.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006 2:17:00 PM  

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