Gregg Easterbrook is having a bad month

by Kieran Healy on October 28, 2003

Fresh from that thing about them greedy, violence-lovin’ jews (for which he paid a big price), Gregg Easterbrook posts something about God. We all know that bloggers say posts from people they like are “characteristically insightful.” Here we have Gregg Easterbrook being atypically sophomoric. Again.

bq. Cosmologists talk rather casually of alternate dimensions during the Big Bang or of the “many worlds” hypothesis in which there are billions of parallel universes, perhaps an infinite number, occupying an infinity of different dimensions. … Speculation about other dimensions is interesting, but there isn’t the slightest evidence–not a scintilla, as lawyers say–that other dimensions are genuine. Nor is it clear what, exactly, other dimensions could be like on a physical basis. The whole idea of other dimensions is mushy, to say the least.

Hang on, did you just say the legal department will be arbitrating this issue? And where is this line of thought going, anyway?

bq. But the article left out the really interesting part, which is what the question of other dimensions says about the spiritual debate.

By “the spiritual debate” I believe Gregg means “the question of the existence of the omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God of Christian theology.” Or perhaps he just means the question of the existence of an ineffable immaterial something-or-other that would automatically give our lives meaning and distract our attention from the cold grave that awaits us all. I’m not sure.

bq. At Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and other top schools, researchers discuss ten unobservable dimensions, or an infinite number of imperceptible universes, without batting an eye.

Cosmologists and astrophysicists are indeed known for their ability to come up with quite striking hypotheses of this sort. Though in this case they may have been anticipated by philosophers.

bq. No one considers discussion of other dimensions to be peculiar. Ten unobservable dimensions, an infinite number of invisible parallel universes–hey, why not?

Well, lots of people have considered them very peculiar indeed. But never mind. And then there is the whole thorny issue of the arguments one might offer to support such ideas and the degree to which they help explain facts about the world as we know them and hence make their pecularity bearable, or a bullet worth biting as philosophers just love to say.

bq. Yet if at Yale, Princeton, Stanford, or top schools, you proposed that there exists just one unobservable dimension–the plane of the spirit–and that it is real despite our inability to sense it directly, you’d be laughed out of the room. Or conversation would grind to a halt to avoid offending your irrational religious superstitions.

Now, Gregg probably thinks he has just given his readers an example that supports his argument. See, there goes the God guy, laughed out of the freakin’ room. Shocking. There’s the embarrassed silence after God guy has spoken up, as everyone waits to get back to talking about multiverses and invisible dimensions for which not a shred of evidence exists because that is science. Unbelievable. At the best schools in the country, too. I swear I saw this in a movie once.

Sadly, what has in fact happened is that Gregg just made something up out of thin air in order to shore up his earlier assertion. Discussions about the the “plane of the spirit” (again, I think Gregg is thinking about something much more specific than that phrase suggests) take place all the time at all the top schools. When they take place in the dorm room at 3:20am after a game of beer pong, they sound a lot like Easterbrook does in this post.

bq. To modern thought, one extra spiritual dimension is a preposterous idea, while the notion that there are incredible numbers of extra physical dimensions gives no pause.

Not a single goddamn pause! Dude, that is just so frickin’ ironic. I mean, it’s like, the same thing, man. The very same thing! And they just don’t see it. Write that down. Write that down now. I gotta tell Professor whatsherface about this tomorrow, if I make it to class.

Propelled by the high elasticity of our invented example, our vague generalization accelerates towards the sweeping conclusion which must inevitably follow:

bq. Yet which idea sounds more implausible–one unseen dimension or billions of them?

QED! Slam dunk! Either you are all modernist scientistic fools whose theories are built on sand, or my God exists! Or both! Muahahaha!

Actually, taken together, this post and the one about the Jews show the problems with naive falsificationism as a philosophy of science. I believe, based on previous observation, that Gregg Easterbrook is a smart guy. But here we have two empirical cases that clearly falsify this belief. But do I abandon it? No. Instead, I start coming up with auxiliary hypotheses to protect the main one: Gregg is having a bad week. Gregg is drunk. (But the item was posted at 9:58am!) OK, OK, Gregg hasn’t had any coffee. Whatever it takes. But I’m wondering how much more evidence needs to accumulate before the paradigm shift happens.

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Angry Bear 10.28.03 at 6:31 am

I guess editors are much more important than anyone thought. At least, that was the excuse last time.


Dick Durata 10.28.03 at 6:45 am

This is what happens when an uptight asshole smokes some really good shit.


Aaron (Neglecting the other inanities therein) 10.28.03 at 7:03 am

Easterbrook had a big story in Wired, I think, a while back about religion and physics. As usual, he didn’t have the slightest idea what he was talking about.

For this one, maybe someone should inform him that ‘dimension’ is a technical term, not star trek-speak for some other place or whatnot.


dsquared 10.28.03 at 8:00 am

I do have a sneaking sympathy for his central point though; that someone who believes in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics really has no grounds for getting all hoity and Popperian about whatever anyone else might choose to believe in.


Doug 10.28.03 at 8:28 am

I dunno about that sneaking sympathy. You do the particle experiments a bunch of times, you get data that look similar. You do the quantum equations a bunch of times, you get the same, or at least closely related results. You do the wine and fishes thing a bunch of times, all you get are lots of hungry wedding guests.

With the math and the physics, even if you get results that make you go wtf, you know that it’s checkable, wrong or simplifiable. And you can take comfort in recalling that lots of things that made people go wtf initially (curved space-time, electron tunneling, black holes) now make far fewer people go wtf, and sometimes even have practical applications.

With religion, you can go wtfwjd to your heart’s content, and probably take comfort in it, too.

I’m wondering what ever happened to the honesty of credo quia absurdum est?


mattH 10.28.03 at 9:00 am

I have got to be more careful what I read at two in the morning. I think I just woke everybody up.


dsquared 10.28.03 at 9:02 am

With the math and the physics, even if you get results that make you go wtf, you know that it’s checkable, wrong or simplifiable

But specifically the many-worlds interpretation? There’s no evidence of the type you discuss for that, nor could there be. Just really trying to suggest that there are a number of cases in which physicists in particular indulge themselves in philosophical speculation way beyond the evidence, so they should perhaps cut others a little slack.


Thomas Dent 10.28.03 at 10:05 am

Who mentioned the ‘many-worlds interpretation’? Not Easterbrook, and not the majority of physicists working on models with extra dimensions. ‘Extra dimensions’ is a completely separate thing from ‘many-worlds intepretation’, and both are distinct from ‘parallel Universes’.

Extra dimensions are subject to stringent mathematical consistency conditions (so you can’t just invent as many of them as you like) and have potentially testable consequences. For example they imply extra particles. Indeed there exist dozens (if not hundreds) of papers on what the experimental consequences would be.

Most physicists have regarded the quantum measurement problem, to which ‘many-worlds’ is a proposed solution, as more in the realm of philosophy than physics, since in practice there are no observable consequences.

However, in recent years more attention has been paid to what physically happens when a measurement is made, and people have come up with something called decoherence theory which may give a natural explanation of why wavefunctions seem to collapse and quantum jumps appear to occur. Decoherence does have observable consequences, some of which have been tested on ‘Schroedinger cat’ states (using atoms rather than cats, though).

In short, d-squared, this is an area where even you don’t know the difference between a hawk and a handsaw.


dsquared 10.28.03 at 10:36 am

You’d be surprised what I do and don’t know about. I think you’re straining somewhat in order to be able to show off your own knowledge. “Billions of parallel universes” strongly suggests MWI to me, and the fact that Easterbrook then starts talking about “dimensions” is much more likely to be because he doesn’t understand what he’s talking about than because he is really interested in extra dimensions. It’s called “interpretative charity”


dsquared 10.28.03 at 10:39 am

Sorry, that might have come off as a bit snotty. In fact the reason I know a bit about this is that my father’s a physicist.


Joshua W. Burton 10.28.03 at 1:23 pm

Daniel writes:

“Sorry, that might have come off as a bit snotty. In fact the reason I know a bit about this is that my father’s a physicist.”

As a physicist myself (and a standing-ovation fan of much of dsquared’s economic analysis, cleverly adapted to the meanest understanding, i.e., my own) I’d like to return the favor by seeing if I can turn him around on the whole subject of Everett sum-over-histories.

“Many-worlds” as a word-picture gives an impression (not a very precise one, which is the point) of two roads in the
forest, one going north and one east. The proper picture Everett and his successors mean to convey is more like a road going northeast.

Quantum mechanics is unitary, meaning that single quantum states evolve over time into single quantum states. (No bifurcating roads in a yellow wood.) But it does not follow that a state which commutes with (is lined up with) the macroscopic observable you are interested in measuring evolves into a state which still does so. So if you want to know, “is the electron actually spin-up, or spin-down?” it is likely that the answer will be as awkward as the answer to “does this path go north, or east?”

In most ordinary circumstances, experimental parsimony demands that you take your own status as a classical observer seriously, even though anyone sensible realizes that this is philosophically dodgy. A person in a superposition of “I saw the dial move” and “I saw the dial stand still” feels just like one of two counterfactual people, and he (either he) might as well ignore the part of his wavefunction he will no longer interfere with, and pretend that “wavefunction collapse” is a physical event, rather than a wilful exercise in self-projection onto a classical state.
“It feels that way,” after all.

But there are times when this view is anything but thrifty. If I’m doing quantum cosmology, as I have been known to in print after a few beers, I don’t really have anything in the role of an observer to endow with the ontological gift of collapsing wavefunctions. Similarly, if I’m working with quantum erasers and the like, I’m actually choosing by free will whether or not to have collapsed a wavefunction into a definite classical state at some PRIOR time. Really, it’s much better to let QM have its own way in situations like this. Which is, in essence, what Everett and Bell and Aspect are on about.


Matt McIrvin 10.28.03 at 1:51 pm

Easterbrook’s written stuff like this before, and it’s in an at least decades-long, probably centuries-long tradition of writing about how stuff in modern physics is weirder than [insert some religious or paranormal belief], so it’s silly to pooh-pooh [insert some religious or paranormal belief].

As for Everett, I think every physicist who laughs at the silly many-worlders ought to read Everett’s original paper sometime; it contains important insights even if you don’t believe in that interpretation, especially in sensationalized variants thereof. I don’t know whether it’s worthwhile to call the road-not-taken parts of the wavefunction after a measurement “real”; the wavefunction might not be the be-all and end-all of physical description, and it’s perfectly reasonable to define terms such that the possibilities you can’t detect any more by any means aren’t real. But Everett’s work and that of the decoherence theorists has convinced me that we don’t need to postulate an additional physical process to make them go from real to not real.


Matt McIrvin 10.28.03 at 1:55 pm

Come to think of it, I think I remember Berkeley using a variant of the “X is a lot weirder than Y” argument on Newton. Could be misremembering, though.


Cosma 10.28.03 at 2:09 pm

As a (lapsed) physicist, let me second Joshua Burton’s comments about what “many worlds” really says, and add that some version of it seems nearly universal among people working on decoherence or quantum computation. If David Deutsch is too hoity and Popperian for d^2, he might try David Mermin’s papers on the “Ithaca Interpretation”, or the collection on The Emergence of a Classical World in Quantum Theory.


platosearwax 10.28.03 at 2:11 pm

Why is it that suddenly this last week I have spent a ridiculous amount of time arguing against creationism? Did I miss something big in the news (wouldn’t be the first time)?


dsquared 10.28.03 at 2:19 pm

thanks very much chaps.


Joshua W. Burton 10.28.03 at 2:59 pm

For Bott periodicity and Calabi-Yau manifolds (why superstrings would like to have a number of dimensions divisible by 8 athwart their path, and what sort of tantrum they might throw if they can’t have it, respectively), I commend to the attention of all the writings of John Baez, especially his virtuoso continuing series “This Week’s Finds in Mathematical Physics.” It’s a more abstruse but intrinsically less difficult subject than interpretation of QM.


Aaron 10.28.03 at 3:47 pm

8k + 2, actuallly.

Not that it matters.

Let me just third (fourth?) the statement that the popularizations of the horribly misnamed ‘many world interpretation’ are dreadfully misleading. Reality and what we don’t understand about it is much more confusing.


Doug 10.28.03 at 3:56 pm

Or perhaps this will still be a little relevant after four years, and less prone to make a layperson’s head hurt. At the very least, they gave me a nice illustration.


Joshua W. Burton 10.28.03 at 4:25 pm

Here’s something I wrote a couple of years ago about the multiverse, which may be of interest to some.


Thomas Dent 10.28.03 at 5:38 pm

I apologise to anyone whom I’ve offended by trying too hard to sound knowledgeable or quoting from Hamlet. In future, I will always pretend to be an uninformed layperson, even though I work in theoretical high energy physics.

Physicists do speculate – that’s the _job_ of many theorists – but, I hope, have valid reasons for speculating and do so within a consistent framework. Unmotivated speculation is bad physics (and bad philosophy too). Easterbrook is nowhere near understanding the difference.

WRT ‘many-worlds’, it could be argued that it’s just the simple logical consequence of taking the Schrodinger equation seriously. Quantum mechanics was the biggest speculation of them all…


Abraham Binder 10.28.03 at 8:25 pm

One note from a layperson (in the lab and the glebe): they do in fact talk about “the one unobservable dimension — the plane of the spirit” at “Yale, Princeton, Stanford, or top schools.”

It’s called the Theology Department. Science is different than religion, even when it’s speculative.


John G 10.28.03 at 9:37 pm

Enjoyed your reference to the Christian Cinema movie. I wrote an article delving into Christian movies a while back — one of them, “The End of the Harvest,” was about believers getting laughed out of a campus philosophy club made up of mean athiests.


Peter 10.28.03 at 10:54 pm

I think Easterbrook is more a hose than Kieran does, so I am somewhat more willing to abandon the ‘when smart guy says dumb things’ approach. But that said, if Easterbrook asked the question thusly:

Aren’t there parallels between ‘religious faith’ on the one hand and ‘scientific speculation’ on the other that are either dismissed or denigrated by (mostly secular humanist) scientific folks?

Would that still be problematic? If Adam Smith meant “God” when he made the case for the “invisible hand” of the market, wouldn’t many people find his argument more, well, wing-nutty?

Of course, given the format of Easterblog (no comments, less a forum for discussion than another spout for whatever brain-farts come into the guy’s head), this is being overly generous. But this is at least an interesting debate. It would explain, at least, some of the antipathy academics and other edumacated folks get from normal, reasonable, God-fearing people.


John Kozak 10.29.03 at 12:42 am

Actually, as David Deutsch points out, working quantum computers would validate MW quite nicely, as some of the computations would be being carried out in other MWs. A fortiori, DD (ha!) suggests a particular, feasible-at-some-future-point, computation which would involve more “stuff” than there is (thought to be) in our universe.


Cosma 10.29.03 at 2:07 am

Thus Peter:
> If Adam Smith meant “God” when he
> made the case for the “invisible hand”
> of the market, wouldn’t many people
> find his argument more, well, wing-
> nutty?
But the point of the invisible
hand argument was to give a mechanism
which produced the effect of foresight
without any actual intelligence. If you
then turn around and say “That mindless
mechanism is, of course, Divine
Providence”, you either have really peculiar
theological views (see “Spinoza,
B.”), or you’re covering yourself against
charges of blasphemy (see “Spinoza, B.”).


Aaron 10.29.03 at 4:13 am

Deutsch’s comments speak to just how confusing and misleading the ‘many worlds’ idea is. A quantum computer doesn’t validate or invalidate any interpretation of quantum mechanics. Here’s something I wrote a while ago on MWI and related issues.


Matt McIrvin 10.29.03 at 4:20 am

John: Yeah, the thing about experimental tests of wavefunction collapse, like quantum erasers and (possible future) quantum computers, is that if the collapse fails to appear, you can always push it out to the realm of still more complicated phenomena. Some have already proposed that it only happens when a thermodynamically irreversible measurement happens, which would make it pretty hard to falsify. (But these experiments are worth doing, because if wavefunction collapse is real it could someday be verifiable– and that would be a pretty remarkable result!)


ralphj 10.29.03 at 11:57 am

Kieran wrote:

“Actually, taken together, this post and the one about the Jews show the problems with naive falsificationism as a philosophy of science.”

No philosophy (of science) would, of course, convince religious zealots – they can be easily called enemies of reason. That’s the real problem. No matter how much evidence you throw at them, they’ll stick to their beliefs like a drowning person to a lifebuoy.

(Popper was aware of the problems of pet-theories and said that one of the first requisites of being a (good) scientist is to be willing to abandon theories. That might be naive, but I still think his ideas are relevant and true. Unwillingness of people to being convinced doesn’t “falsify” falsificationism.)


John Kozak 10.29.03 at 12:47 pm

aaron: Deutsch’s point is that a working QC would derail some oft-heard “common sense” objections to MW (like Easterbrook’s “not a scintilla” above). That’s what I meant by “validate”, anyway.


Thomas Dent 10.29.03 at 1:25 pm

Aagh, I’m going to violate my rule of not appearing to know anything almost immediately!

Quantum-mechanical interference between two or more superposed states (so-called Schroedinger cat states) *has* been observed – under rather special experimental conditions.

Here’s a Nature article about QM evolution, superposition and interference.

One can also see how the superposition gradually changes into a “classical” state without observable interference.

The problem with quantum computers is that the conditions under which the interference remains are incompatible with miniaturization and mass-production.


Jon H 10.29.03 at 2:44 pm

Wouldn’t Easterbrook’s spiritual plane also be subject to the many-worlds hypothesis?


Bev D 10.29.03 at 5:00 pm

I wonder if Easterbrook realizes that in his many spiritual dimensioned world, the possibility then exists for multiple gods? Just thought I’d throw that in the mix…


Abraham Binder 10.29.03 at 8:36 pm

If we take Gregg’s assertions to heart, we have to ask what newly spiritual scientists are to do about finding a spiritual plane. What would be the approach?

I can see the Physics Department Chair enter a meeting:

“Folks, drop the laptops. Forget about all the research you’ve ever done. We’re going to start our search for Heaven. I have a Priest, a Rabbi, and an Imam on the way.”

If a spiritual plane is discoverable by science, science will find it (eventually) through its own processes. If not, what’s the point of looking for it?

The bottom line is that Gregg’s vision quest gets us exactly nowhere. Why should the religious beliefs of scientists matter if they are pursuing valid research? Ethics matter, but not theology.

Anybody who seriously suggests that science research religious beliefs should be ‘laughed out of the room.’


Jon H 10.30.03 at 12:34 am

“I wonder if Easterbrook realizes that in his many spiritual dimensioned world, the possibility then exists for multiple gods?”

Pascal’s wager is a little bit different if the real god turns out to be one that exists in the 5th through 7th tiny curled up dimensions of string theory. And boy, is it pissed.

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