|Mesosaurus fossil. Probably dating back |
to the early Permian Period, roughly
300 million years ago. [Image source]
Or is it? Imagine planet Earth began its existence a mere 10,000 years ago, with all fossil records in place and carbon-14 well into decaying. From there on, however, evolution proceeded as scientists tell us. How’d you prove this story wrong?
I know it hurts. But hang on there, band aid follows below.
You can’t prove this story wrong because of the way our current theories work. These theories need two ingredients: 1) A configuration at any one moment in time, called the “initial condition,” and 2) A hypothesis for how this initial configuration changes with time, called the “evolution law.”
You can reverse the evolution law to figure out from the present configuration what happened back in time. But there’s no way you can tell whether an earlier configuration actually existed or whether they are just convenient stories. In theories of this type – and that includes all theories in physics – you can therefore never rule out that at some earlier time the universe evolved by an entirely different law – maybe because God or The Programmer assembled it – and was then suddenly switched on to reproduce our observations.
I often hear people argue such creation-stories are wrong because they can’t be falsified, but this makes about as much sense as organic salt. No, they are not wrong, but they are useless.
Last week, I gave a talk at the department of History and Philosophy at the University of Toronto. My talk was followed by a “response” from a graduate student who evidently spent quite some time digging through this blog’s archives to classify my philosophy of science. I didn’t know I have one, but you never stop learning.
I learned that I am sometimes an anti-realist, meaning I don’t believe in the existence of an external reality. But I’d say I am neither a realist nor an anti-realist; I am agnostic about whether or not reality exists or what that even means. I don’t like to say science unveils “truths” about “reality” because this just brings on endless discussions about what is true and what is real. To me, science is about finding useful descriptions of the world, where by “useful” I mean they allow us to make predictions or explain already existing observations. The simpler an explanation, the more useful it is.
That scientific theories greatly simplify the stories we tell about the world is extremely important and embodies what we even mean by doing science. Forget all about Popperism and falsification, just ask what’s the most useful explanation. Saying that the world was created 10,000 years ago with all fossils in place is useless in terms of explaining the fossils. If you, on the other hand, extrapolate the evolution law back in time 4 billion years, you can start with a much simpler initial condition. That’s why it’s a better explanation. You get more out of less.
So there’s your band aid: Saying that the world was created 10,000 years ago with everything in place is unfalsifiable but also useless. It is quantifiably not simple: you need to put a lot of data into the initial condition. A much simpler, and thus scientifically better, explanation, is that planet Earth is ages old and Darwinian evolution did its task.
I’m not telling you this because I’ve suddenly developed an interest in Creationism. I am telling you this because I frequently encounter similar confusions surrounding the creation of the universe. This usually comes up in reaction to me pointing out that there is nothing whatsoever wrong with finetuned initial conditions if you do not have a probability distribution to quantify why the conditions are supposedly unlikely.
People often tell me that a finetuned initial condition doesn’t explain anything and thus isn’t scientific. Or, even weirder, that if you’d accept finetuned initial conditions this would turn science itself ad absurdum.
But this is just wrong. Finetuned initial conditions are equally good or bad explanations than not-finetuned ones. What is decisive isn’t whether the initial condition is finetuned, but whether it’s simple. According to current nomenclature, that is not the same thing. Absent a probability distribution, for example, an initial value of 1.0000000 for the curvature density parameter is scientifically equally good as an initial value of 0.0000001… because both are equally simple. Current thinking among cosmologists, in contrast, has it that the latter is much worse than the former.
This confusion about what it means for a scientific theory to be useful sits deep and has caused a lot of cosmologists to cook up stories about the early universe based on highly questionable extrapolations into the past.
Take, for example, inflation, the idea that the early universe underwent a phase of rapid expansion. Inflation conjectures that before a certain moment in our universe’s history there was a different evolution law, assigned to a newly invented scalar field called the “inflaton.” But this conjecture is scientifically problematic because it construes up an evolution law in the past where we have no way of testing it. It’s not so different from saying that if you’d roll back time more than 10,000 years, you wouldn’t find planet Earth but god waving a magic wand or what have you.
A bold conjecture like inflation can only be justified if it leads to an actually simpler story, but on that the jury is out. Inflation was meant to solve several finetuning problems, but this doesn’t bring a simplification, it’s merely a beautification. The price to pay for this prettier theory, though, is that you now have at least one, if not several, new fields and their potentials, and some way to get rid of them again, which is arguably a complication of the story.
I wrote in a recent post that inflation seems justifiable after all because it provides a simple explanation for certain observed correlations in the cosmic microwave background (CMB). Well, that’s what I wrote some weeks ago, but now I am not so sure it is correct, thanks in no small part to a somewhat disturbing conversation I had with Niayesh Afshordi at Perimeter Institute.
The problem is that in cosmology there really aren’t a lot of data. There are but a few numbers. It’s a simple story already without inflation. And so, the current status is that I just don’t know whether or not inflation is a good theory. (But check back next month.)
Let me emphasize that the concordance model (aka ΛCDM) does not suffer from this problem. Indeed, it makes a good example for a scientifically successful theory. Here’s why.
For the concordance model, we seek the combination of dark matter, normal matter, and cosmological constant (as well as a handful other parameters) that best fit current observations. But what do we mean by best fit? We could use any combinations of parameters to get the dynamical law, and then use it to evolve the present day observations back in time. And regardless of what the law, there is always an initial state that will evolve into the present one.
In general, however, the initial state will be a mess, for example because the fluctuations of the cosmic microwave background (radiation) are not related in any obvious way to the structures we observe (matter). Whereas, if you pick the parameters correctly, these two types of structures belong together (higher density of matter corresponding to hotter spots in the cosmic microwave background). This match is a great simplification of the story – it explains something.
But the more you try to turn back time in the early universe, the harder it becomes to obey the scientific credo of storytelling, that you should seek only simpler explanations, not more complicated ones. The problem is the story we presently have is already very simple. This really is my biggest issue with eternal inflation and the multiverse or cyclic cosmologies, bounces, and so on and so forth. They are stories, all right, but they aren’t simplifying anything. They just add clutter, like the programmer that set up our universe so that it looks the way it looks.
On some days I hope something scientific will eventually come out of these stories. But today I am just afraid we have overstepped the limits of science.