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I read Leonard Susskind’s book about the Anthropic Principle both before and after reading The Beginning of Infinity. In fact, it was one of the driving forces behind my choice of Deutsch’s book. Susskind’s description of the problems associated with an infinite multiverse (Susskind calls it a megaverse instead) was another reason for me to doubt that infinity could exist. Deutsch convinced me, though, that if infinity appears in our best explanations, then it must be real. And the reality of infinity is a big problem for Susskind’s Anthropic idea.

Susskind bases his main argument on four ideas. Two are from theoretical physics, two are from observational cosmology.

1) Eternal inflation demands that the world be a megaverse, with pocket universes that bubble up out of inflating space.

2) String theory defines not just one unique set of universal laws, but rather an enormous 10500 such sets of laws (maybe more). Such a huge landscape virtually ensures that one (or more than one) will have the right set of laws and constants to make our existence possible.

Combine these two and you see that if each of the universes in the megaverse has a randomly-selected set of laws and constants, then one of those pocket universes will be ours.

3) Measurements on the cosmic microwave background indicates that inflation really did happen, making the megaverse much more probable.

4) Most crucially for Susskind’s argument is the discovery of the non-zero cosmological constant (dark energy). According to Susskind, the only “explanation” for this incredibly small yet non-zero quantity is the Anthropic Principle.

I found it all to be a compelling argument before I read Deutsch. I still find it compelling after reading Deutsch, with the caveat (that Susskind himself covers fully in his book) that the measure problem is a big one.

First, there is excellent evidence that inflation actually occurred. The cosmic background radiation is still under active study, but the idea of inflation has survived all the CMB tests so far, when it could easily have failed any one of them. That’s impressive.

Second, no one seems to see a way for cosmic inflation to produce anything but a huge number, in fact an infinite number, of pocket universes.

Third, string theory is pointing toward a reality in which our laws of physics are arbitrary, the result of a contingent accident that happened in our particular pocket universe. In any other pocket universe, the compactification of extra dimensions and the collection of stuff found in those dimensions would almost certainly lead to a very different universe, almost certainly one with laws of physics completely hostile to life.

Fourth, while we don’t yet know what combination of canceling particles leads to such a tiny but non-zero cosmological constant, it seems pretty certain that it is a result of this contingent accident – because the contant is to high precision exactly what it would need to be for us to be here.

The problem is the not just large number, but infinitely large number of universes that seem to come from inflation. With a very large number of universes, we’re still in good shape in applying the Anthropic Principle as a guide. But with an infinite number of universes, probabilities become meaningless. What does it mean to say that our universe is rare if there are an infinite number just like it? And another infinite number just like it except for one tiny difference? And another . . . you get the point.

Susskind gets it, too, and spends some time reflecting on the past. The ultraviolet catastrophe was a case in which theory predicted an infinity. Planck developed the idea of the quantum to get around it. Later, on, quantum electrodynamics was plagued by infinities until Feynman and others developed renormalization techniques that made the infinities go away. So perhaps, Susskind postulates, the idea of infinite numbers of pocket universes will go away, too, with further research.

The other point I recognize from Deutsch is that of course the Anthropic Principle is really just a guide. It might well play a part in the final explanation, but it cannot be the whole explanation. Something makes the cosmological constant so incredibly tiny and yet non-zero. That something, to have so much possible variability, must be enormously complex. It reminds me a little bit of the discovery of the periodic table. The fact that the elements had such diversity should have been a clue that there was structure in there. The discovery that the diversity had patterns seems to be about where we are now in string theory. What do the patterns mean? That comes next.

The most exciting thing about this whole subject is that even the top scientists in the field recognize how utterly far away we are from knowing the answer. And yet, as I learned from Deutsch, the answer is out there. Problems are soluble. I can’t wait to learn more.

I finished The Fountainhead for a second time.  I was spurred to read it by my disappointment at the Beginning of Infinity community. I sense in many of them the sort of libertarian over-indulgence I found in Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead. I wanted to go back and try to understand how and why Rand came off the rails, to see if perhaps I could sense the same failure in the real-life philosophy of the BoI community.

At one point in the book, Catherine shouts out, “I’m not afraid of you, Uncle Ellsworth!” It was tragic, because it was the last truly independent act Catherine would undertake. Hopefully my title won’t lead me to a similar fate.

I really do love parts of The Fountainhead. OK, the rape scene (really!) is an unnecessary vulgarity and a portent of the further vulgarities to come. But other than that, I really do admire Howard Roark’s sense of self-worth and self-satisfaction. Every humanist should read the section on Roark’s Stoddard Temple. This is a place I wish I could visit, and Howard Roark built it.

But now that I’ve read the book a second time, I see Rand’s mistake. The Howard Roark who build the Stoddard Temple never would have worked in secret on the Cortlandt project. The Howard Roark who built the Heller House and the Cord Building and the Enright House would have gone to the committee himself, stated his terms, then walked out when they refused him.

Why doesn’t the Howard Roark (now a much more established architect) of the second part of the book do just this? If he’s interested, he should say so, and say how he would do the work. Maybe (ok, probably) they’d refuse him. But their inability to accept Roark’s conditions are exactly what make Roark’s scheme with Peter Keating untenable. Roark’s experience (we assume the same experience that keeps him from going for Cortlandt in the first place) should have told him that his deal with Keating was doomed to failure.

When Roark saw Cortlandt perverted, he should not have been surprised. Roark’s character fell apart with his secret deal with Peter Keating, not with his illegal dynamiting of a building that wasn’t his. That was Ayn Rand’s mistake. Roark’s dynamiting of Cortlandt was not a necessary consequence of his philosophy. Instead, the whole Cortlandt episode was a failure of Howard Roark to live up to his own ideals.

So there, Ayn Rand. You don’t scare me anymore.

Now back to my regularly scheduled non-fiction.

The Beginning of Infinity is a great book.

Ever since I read it, I’ve been trying to find ways for that book to change the way I live my life. I’ve even become involved in some online communities involving followers of that book. I should have known better.

It seems that the people who take The Beginning of Infinity seriously are, well, rather screwy. Their ideas lead to horrible outcomes, including things like letting people die on the street if they can’t afford health care.

Just for the record, I’m NOT in favor of letting people without health care die. In fact, I think everyone should pay taxes for health care and everyone should have whatever health care they need. Now that I’ve labeled myself as a bleeding heart leftist commie liberal, release the hounds.

The Beginning of Infinity is a great book. But if reasoned, rational logic leads you to such an awful place as the followers of BoI have reached, then either:

1) they’ve all made a mistake

2) there’s something wrong with reasoned, rational logic

I hope it’s 1, because it would be quite inconvenient to live in universe 2.

What does all that have to do with Howard Roark? I feel right now exactly as I did when I finished reading The Fountainhead. For the first half, maybe more, of that book, I felt it was the greatest thing I’d ever read. I thought Howard Roark was the perfect hero, and the only way to be. Then Ayn Rand took Roark to her logical conclusion. And ruined him for me. It’s exactly the same as the BoI followers. If Roark at the end of the book was the only logical result of Roark at the beginning of the book, then there’s something wrong with logic.

(By the way, the BoI community is also a big fan of Ayn Rand. I should have known better.)

In fiction, I have no choice. How can I argue with a fiction author? She can do anything she wants. All I can do is throw the book across the room (which I did).

At least with The Beginning of Infinity I do have a choice. I’ll read it again and try to figure out how its logical message can lead so many people to such a horrible place. I really hope I don’t end up throwing it across the room.

I will remember 2011 as the year I encountered The Beginning of Infinity. It really has changed the way I see everything, and the way
I approach the world.

On the last day of the year I finished Jerry Coyne’s book, Why Evolution is True. At the end he quotes Ian McEwen:

Our secular and scientific culture has not replaced or even challenged
these mutually incompatible, supernatural thought systems. Scientific
method, skepticism, or rationality in general, has yet to find an
overarching narrative of sufficient power, simplicity, and wide appeal
to compete with the old stories that give meaning to people’s lives.
Natural selection is a powerful, elegant, and economic explicator of
life on earth in all its diversity, and perhaps it contains the seeds of a
rival creation myth that would have the added power of being true—but it
awaits its inspired synthesizer, its poet, its Milton. . . . Reason
and  myth remain uneasy bedfellows.

As I listened to these words ( is the greatest invention in the history of mankind), I thought about The Beginning of Infinity and its
overwhelming optimism. I believe Deutsch has begun to tap into a message that might possibly resonate with a non-scientific public.

I’m not sure what the first step is. I’ve begun experimenting and I’ve found that many people are very excited about the ideas in BoI. Many
others are repulsed by what they see as the book’s pro-Western blind spots. I don’t know which parts of BoI are best suited for general
consumption and which are best saved until later. Here are some thoughts:

1) Exposing the fallacy of the Spaceship Earth metaphor. People are tired of the bleakness of the environmental movement. Deutsch gives us a way to be rational environmentalists. One of the most moving ideas in the book is the fact that life on our planet will cease – unless people decide otherwise.

2) Encouraging the idea that science moves from misconception to better misconception. Too many people still see science as arrogant,
while the philosophy espoused by Deutsch is utterly humble. Even our best ideas contain misconceptions. Misconceptions, in fact, are how we  make progress.

3) Defining science as the search for good explanations built on creative guesswork. Down with the schoolbook version of the “scientific
method.” How many have been utterly disenchanted by that formulaic approach? Show that science is fundamentally, not just incidentally, creative.

4) Showing how significant people are. Why does so much modern science writing feel the need to tear down humans (“pond scum” and so on)?
We’re amazing, and it’s through science (not mysticism) that we learn how amazing – and significant – we are.

So what do you think? Can Deutsch’s philosophy become that “overarching narrative” that McEwen longs for? How?

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
January 2012
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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