What existed before the big bang? What is the nature of time? Is our universe one of many? On the big questions science cannot (yet?) answer, a new crop of philosophers are trying to provide answers.
Last May, Stephen Hawking gave a talk at Google's Zeitgeist Conference in which he declared philosophy to be dead. In his book The Grand Design, Hawking went even further. "How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Traditionally these were questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead," Hawking wrote. "Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics."
In December, a group of professors from America's top philosophy departments, including Rutgers,* Columbia, Yale, and NYU, set out to establish the philosophy of cosmology as a new field of study within the philosophy of physics. The group aims to bring a philosophical approach to the basic questions at the heart of physics, including those concerning the nature, age and fate of the universe. This past week, a second group of scholars from Oxford and Cambridge announced their intention to launch a similar project in the United Kingdom.
One of the founding members of the American group, Tim Maudlin, was recently hired by New York University, the top ranked philosophy department in the English-speaking world. Maudlin is a philosopher of physics whose interests range from the foundations of physics, to topics more firmly within the domain of philosophy, like metaphysics and logic.
Yesterday I spoke with Maudlin by phone about cosmology, multiple universes, the nature of time, the odds of extraterrestrial life, and why Stephen Hawking is wrong about philosophy.
Your group has identified the central goal of the philosophy of cosmology to be the pursuit of outstanding conceptual problems at the foundations of cosmology. As you see it, what are the most striking of those problems?
Maudlin: So, I guess I would divide that into two classes. There are foundational problems and interpretational problems in physics, generally—say, in quantum theory, or in space-time theory, or in trying to come up with a quantum theory of gravity—that people will worry about even if they're not doing what you would call the philosophy of cosmology. But sometimes those problems manifest themselves in striking ways when you look at them on a cosmological scale. So some of this is just a different window on what we would think of as foundational problems in physics, generally.
Then there are problems that are fairly specific to cosmology. Standard cosmology, or what was considered standard cosmology twenty years ago, led people to the conclude that the universe that we see around us began in a big bang, or put another way, in some very hot, very dense state. And if you think about the characteristics of that state, in order to explain the evolution of the universe, that state had to be a very low entropy state, and there's a line of thought that says that anything that is very low entropy is in some sense very improbable or unlikely. And if you carry that line of thought forward, you then say "Well gee, you're telling me the universe began in some extremely unlikely or improbable state" and you wonder is there any explanation for that. Is there any principle that you can use to account for the big bang state?
This question of accounting for what we call the "big bang state"—the search for a physical explanation of it—is probably the most important question within the philosophy of cosmology, and there are a couple different lines of thought about it. One that's becoming more and more prevalent in the physics community is the idea that the big bang state itself arose out of some previous condition, and that therefore there might be an explanation of it in terms of the previously existing dynamics by which it came about. There are other ideas, for instance that maybe there might be special sorts of laws, or special sorts of explanatory principles, that would apply uniquely to the initial state of the universe.
One common strategy for thinking about this is to suggest that what we used to call the whole universe is just a small part of everything there is, and that we live in a kind of bubble universe, a small region of something much larger. And the beginning of this region, what we call the big bang, came about by some physical process, from something before it, and that we happen to find ourselves in this region because this is a region that can support life. The idea being that there are lots of these bubble universes, maybe an infinite number of bubble universes, all very different from one another. Part of the explanation of what's called the anthropic principle says, "Well now, if that's the case, we as living beings will certainly find ourselves in one of those bubbles that happens to support living beings." That gives you a kind of account for why the universe we see around us has certain properties.
Is the philosophy of cosmology as a project, a kind of translating then, of existing physics into a more common language of meaning, or into discrete, recognizable concepts? Or do you expect that it will contribute directly to physics, whether that means suggesting new experiments or participating directly in theoretical physics?
Maudlin: I don't think this is a translation project. This is a branch of the philosophy of physics, in which you happen to be treating the entire universe—which is one huge physical object—as a subject of study, rather than say studying just electrons by themselves, or studying only the solar system. There are particular physical problems, problems of explanation, which arise in thinking about the entire universe, which don't arise when you consider only its smaller systems. I see this as trying to articulate what those particular problems are, and what the avenues are for solving them, rather than trying to translate from physics into some other language. This is all within the purview of a scientific attempt to come to grips with the physical world.
There's a story about scientific discovery that we all learn in school, the story of Isaac Newton discovering gravity after being struck by an apple. That story is now thought by some to have been a myth, but suppose that it were true, or that it was a substitute for some similar, or analogous, eureka moment. Do you consider a breakthrough like that, which isn't contingent on any new or specialized observations to be philosophical in nature?
Maudlin: What occurred to Newton was that there was a force of gravity, which of course everybody knew about, it's not like he actually discovered gravity— everybody knew there was such a thing as gravity. But if you go back into antiquity, the way that the celestial objects, the moon, the sun, and the planets, were treated by astronomy had nothing to do with the way things on earth were treated. These were entirely different realms, and what Newton realized was that there had to be a force holding the moon in orbit around the earth. This is not something that Aristotle or his predecessors thought, because they were treating the planets and the moon as though they just naturally went around in circles. Newton realized there had to be some force holding the moon in its orbit around the earth, to keep it from wandering off, and he knew also there was a force that was pulling the apple down to the earth. And so what suddenly struck him was that those could be one and the same thing, the same force.
That was a physical discovery, a physical discovery of momentous importance, as important as anything you could ever imagine because it knit together the terrestrial realm and the celestial realm into one common physical picture. It was also a philosophical discovery in the sense that philosophy is interested in the fundamental natures of things.
Newton would call what he was doing natural philosophy, that's actually the name of his book: "Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy." Philosophy, traditionally, is what everybody thought they were doing. It's what Aristotle thought he was doing when he wrote his book called Physics. So it's not as if there's this big gap between physical inquiry and philosophical inquiry. They're both interested in the world on a very general scale, and people who work in the foundations of physics, that is, the group that works on the foundations of physics, is about equally divided between people who live in philosophy departments, people who live in physics departments, and people who live in mathematics departments.
In May of last year Stephen Hawking gave a talk for Google in which he said that philosophy was dead, and that it was dead because it had failed to keep up with science, and in particular physics. Is he wrong or is he describing a failure of philosophy that your project hopes to address?
Maudlin: Hawking is a brilliant man, but he's not an expert in what's going on in philosophy, evidently. Over the past thirty years the philosophy of physics has become seamlessly integrated with the foundations of physics work done by actual physicists, so the situation is actually the exact opposite of what he describes. I think he just doesn't know what he's talking about. I mean there's no reason why he should. Why should he spend a lot of time reading the philosophy of physics? I'm sure it's very difficult for him to do. But I think he's just . . . uninformed.
Do you think that physics has neglected some of these foundational questions as it has become, increasingly, a kind of engine for the applied sciences, focusing on the manipulation, rather than say, the explanation, of the physical world?
Maudlin: Look, physics has definitely avoided what were traditionally considered to be foundational physical questions, but the reason for that goes back to the foundation of quantum mechanics. The problem is that quantum mechanics was developed as a mathematical tool. Physicists understood how to use it as a tool for making predictions, but without an agreement or understanding about what it was telling us about the physical world. And that's very clear when you look at any of the foundational discussions. This is what Einstein was upset about; this is what Schrodinger was upset about. Quantum mechanics was merely a calculational technique that was not well understood as a physical theory. Bohr and Heisenberg tried to argue that asking for a clear physical theory was something you shouldn't do anymore. That it was something outmoded. And they were wrong, Bohr and Heisenberg were wrong about that. But the effect of it was to shut down perfectly legitimate physics questions within the physics community for about half a century. And now we're coming out of that, fortunately.
And what's driving the renaissance?
Maudlin: Well, the questions never went away. There were always people who were willing to ask them. Probably the greatest physicist in the last half of the twentieth century, who pressed very hard on these questions, was John Stewart Bell. So you can't suppress it forever, it will always bubble up. It came back because people became less and less willing to simply say, "Well, Bohr told us not to ask those questions," which is sort of a ridiculous thing to say.
Are the topics that have scientists completely flustered especially fertile ground for philosophers? For example I've been doing a ton of research for a piece about the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, and none of the astronomers I've talked to seem to have a clue as to how to use it to solve the mystery of dark energy. Is there, or will there be, a philosophy of dark energy in the same way that a body of philosophy seems to have flowered around the mysteries of quantum mechanics?
Maudlin: There will be. There can be a philosophy of anything really, but it's perhaps not as fancy as you're making it out. The basic philosophical question, going back to Plato, is "What is x?" What is virtue? What is justice? What is matter? What is time? You can ask that about dark energy—what is it? And it's a perfectly good question.
There are different ways of thinking about the phenomena which we attribute to dark energy. Some ways of thinking about it say that what you're really doing is adjusting the laws of nature themselves. Some other ways of thinking about it suggest that you've discovered a component or constituent of nature that we need to understand better, and seek the source of. So, the question—What is this thing fundamentally?—is a philosophical question, and is a fundamental physical question, and will lead to interesting avenues of inquiry.
One example of philosophy of cosmology that seems to have trickled out to the layman is the idea of fine tuning—the notion that in the set of all possible physics, the subset that permits the evolution of life is very small, and that from this it is possible to conclude that the universe is either one of a large number of universes, a multiverse, or that perhaps some agent has fine tuned the universe with the expectation that it generate life. Do you expect that idea to have staying power, and if not what are some of the compelling arguments against it?
Maudlin: A lot of attention has been given to the fine tuning argument. Let me just say first of all, that the fine tuning argument as you state it, which is a perfectly correct statement of it, depends upon making judgments about the likelihood, or probability of something. Like, "how likely is it that the mass of the electron would be related to the mass of the proton in a certain way?" Now, one can first be a little puzzled by what you mean by "how likely" or "probable" something like that is. You can ask how likely it is that I'll roll double sixes when I throw dice, but we understand the way you get a handle on the use of probabilities in that instance. It's not as clear how you even make judgments like that about the likelihood of the various constants of nature (an so on) that are usually referred to in the fine tuning argument.
Now let me say one more thing about fine tuning. I talk to physicists a lot, and none of the physicists I talk to want to rely on the fine tuning argument to argue for a cosmology that has lots of bubble universes, or lots of worlds. What they want to argue is that this arises naturally from an analysis of the fundamental physics, that the fundamental physics, quite apart from any cosmological considerations, will give you a mechanism by which these worlds will be produced, and a mechanism by which different worlds will have different constants, or different laws, and so on. If that's true, then if there are enough of these worlds, it will be likely that some of them have the right combination of constants to permit life. But their arguments tend not to be "we have to believe in these many worlds to solve the fine tuning problem," they tend to be "these many worlds are generated by physics we have other reasons for believing in."
If we give up on that, and it turns out there aren't these many worlds, that physics is unable to generate them, then it's not that the only option is that there was some intelligent designer. It would be a terrible mistake to think that those are the only two ways things could go. You would have to again think hard about what you mean by probability, and about what sorts of explanations there might be. Part of the problem is that right now there are just way too many freely adjustable parameters in physics. Everybody agrees about that. There seem to be many things we call constants of nature that you could imagine setting at different values, and most physicists think there shouldn't be that many, that many of them are related to one another. Physicists think that at the end of the day there should be one complete equation to describe all physics, because any two physical systems interact and physics has to tell them what to do. And physicists generally like to have only a few constants, or parameters of nature. This is what Einstein meant when he famously said he wanted to understand what kind of choices God had—using his metaphor— how free his choices were in creating the universe, which is just asking how many freely adjustable parameters there are. Physicists tend to prefer theories that reduce that number, and as you reduce it, the problem of fine tuning tends to go away. But, again, this is just stuff we don't understand well enough yet.
I know that the nature of time is considered to be an especially tricky problem for physics, one that physicists seem prepared, or even eager, to hand over to philosophers. Why is that?
Maudlin: That's a very interesting question, and we could have a long conversation about that. I'm not sure it's accurate to say that physicists want to hand time over to philosophers. Some physicists are very adamant about wanting to say things about it; Sean Carroll for example is very adamant about saying that time is real. You have others saying that time is just an illusion, that there isn't really a direction of time, and so forth. I myself think that all of the reasons that lead people to say things like that have very little merit, and that people have just been misled, largely by mistaking the mathematics they use to describe reality for reality itself. If you think that mathematical objects are not in time, and mathematical objects don't change—which is perfectly true—and then you're always using mathematical objects to describe the world, you could easily fall into the idea that the world itself doesn't change, because your representations of it don't.
There are other, technical reasons that people have thought that you don't need a direction of time, or that physics doesn't postulate a direction of time. My own view is that none of those arguments are very good. To the question as to why a physicist would want to hand time over to philosophers, the answer would be that physicists for almost a hundred years have been dissuaded from trying to think about fundamental questions. I think most physicists would quite rightly say "I don't have the tools to answer a question like 'what is time?' —I have the tools to solve a differential equation." The asking of fundamental physical questions is just not part of the training of a physicist anymore.
I recently came across a paper about Fermi's Paradox and Self-Replicating Probes, and while it had kind of a science fiction tone to it, it occurred to me as I was reading it that philosophers might be uniquely suited to speculating about, or at least evaluating the probabilistic arguments for the existence of life elsewhere in the universe. Do you expect philosophers of cosmology to enter into those debates, or will the discipline confine itself to issues that emerge directly from physics?
Maudlin: This is really a physical question. If you think of life, of intelligent life, it is, among other things, a physical phenomenon—it occurs when the physical conditions are right. And so the question of how likely it is that life will emerge, and how frequently it will emerge, does connect up to physics, and does connect up to cosmology, because when you're asking how likely it is that somewhere there's life, you're talking about the broad scope of the physical universe. And philosophers do tend to be pretty well schooled in certain kinds of probabilistic analysis, and so it may come up. I wouldn't rule it in or rule it out.
I will make one comment about these kinds of arguments which seems to me to somehow have eluded everyone. When people make these probabilistic equations, like the Drake Equation, which you're familiar with—they introduce variables for the frequency of earth-like planets, for the evolution of life on those planets, and so on. The question remains as to how often, after life evolves, you'll have intelligent life capable of making technology. What people haven't seemed to notice is that on earth, of all the billions of species that have evolved, only one has developed intelligence to the level of producing technology. Which means that kind of intelligence is really not very useful. It's not actually, in the general case, of much evolutionary value. We tend to think, because we love to think of ourselves, human beings, as the top of the evolutionary ladder, that the intelligence we have, that makes us human beings, is the thing that all of evolution is striving toward. But what we know is that that's not true. Obviously it doesn't matter that much if you're a beetle, that you be really smart. If it were, evolution would have produced much more intelligent beetles. We have no empirical data to suggest that there's a high probability that evolution on another planet would lead to technological intelligence. There is just too much we don't know.
Images: 1. NASA 2. Ross Anderson. 3. NASA. 4. Cambridge Digital Gallery Newton Collection. 5. NASA. 6. NASA.
*Updated: This piece has been amended to include Rutgers in the list of participating universities.