Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Death of Supersymmetry/String Theory & Saving the Theoretical Physics Community from a Descent into Nihilism, Timelessness and Meaninglessness

We should try to simply the laws of nature and to attempt to relate the known particles to more basic constituent particles. In this sense, it makes sense to study string theory, supersymmetry and grand unified theories. Our current laws and our current set of basic particles seems a little ad hoc, and it is likely there are ways to simplify the known forces or known particles. So, it makes sense to try to understand and simply the laws of nature. String theory is one such attempt. String theory became an exciting area to work in because a quantum version of gravity came naturally out of string theory. At first, string theory provided a means to possibly simplify the known laws and particles in the universe. But string theory does not appear any longer to simplify physics. Worse, string theory and supersymemtry predict particles for which there is no experimental evidence. For example, there is no evidence of super-particles, and dark matter very likely cannot be the particles predicted by supersymmetry. This is a problem for the theory of supersymemtry, but it's also a problem for string theory because supersymmetry is a component of most of the versions of string theory. But rather than admit that string theory and supersymemtry are incorrect descriptions of reality, some people in the physics community appear to be doubling down on these theories.

In this post, I'll look at how we got to the point in time in which some physicists don't even seem to care that their theories don't have anything to do with the real world. The goals of this post are multiple: (1) to analyze the larger philosophical trends that have led us to the current state of nihilism in the physics community, and (2) to show that string theory and supersymmetry are actually part of a larger descent into nihilism, timelessness, and meaninglessness, which is actually an escape from Francis Bacon's original goal: using science to better society and to grow life. As Francis Bacon put it,  "The task and purpose of human Power is to generate and superinduce on a given body a new nature or new natures."  The New Method (Nova Organon) Book II, Aphorism I.  Further Bacon writes in the General Preface to the Great Instauration, "Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all; that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things; but for the benefit and use of Life; and that they perfect and govern it in charity."

Section#1: The Problem...The goal of science should actually be to help life grow
To begin this section, I'd like to highlight the words of one of the first philosophers to help society break out of dogmatic anti-material philosophies of the Middle Ages.
"The sorry state of current human knowledge is clear from common expressions. It is right to lay down: 'to know is to know by causes.' It is also not bad to distinguish four causes: Material, Formal, Efficient, and Final. But of these the Final is a long way from being useful; in fact it actually distorts the sciences except in the case of human actions." -- Francis Bacon, The New Method (Nova Organon) Book II, Aphorism II
With these words, Francis Bacon attempted to overthrow years of dogmatic insistence on Aristotle's four causes. The ramifications of The New Method were enormous for Western Civilization. It's focus on experimentation and inductive reasoning helped usher in the Scientific Revolution. But by attempting to eliminate a discussion of Final causes (as furthered by David Hume statement that 'ought can't be derived from is'),  Bacon laid the foundations for science's descent into nihilism.  Bacon was rightly upset with the dogmatic way that the Catholic church passed on the 'wisdom of the ancients', such as Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, St. Augustine, and St. Aquinas. But in breaking so firmly with the past, Bacon and others (such as Descartes and Hume) ended up throwing out the baby (ethics) with the bath water (religious dogmatism.) They wanted to break with the dogmatic past so much that they ended up throwing out a lot of the good stuff that Plato and Aristotle had to say regarding purpose and ethics.
The problem is that many physicists today have taken Bacon to the extreme, and have forgotten that Bacon's ultimate goal was to use science to better society and to grow life. The goal of science was to do experiments on the real world, and then to use inductive reasoning to develop laws that fit the data. The goal of the engineer was to use the laws created by the scientists to develop technologies that would help grow society, and in doing so, to also make technology that could help the scientists better study nature. But now, we appear to be living in a time period in which many physicists will only work on problems if there are no applications to the real world. (There are even Ivy League engineering departments who frown on professors who have patents.) To many in academia, the less application to the real world, the better. This is due an underlying anti-technology philosophy (such as Heidegger's philosophy.) In fact, we now live in a time in which the public figures in the physics community are active preaching a philosophy of nihilism: 'focus on the laws themselves and label any attempt to discuss Final Causes or purpose as pseudo-science.' This is not a healthy philosophy of life, and it is affecting growth rates the real world. The effect of this focus on underlying laws and ignoring 'Final Cause' (i.e. a purpose of life) is that many physicists and astrophysicists are not actually trying to better society. They expect more and more public funding for their study of string theory and supersymmetry even though there is no experimental evidence for these theories and there is likely to be no applications from these theories (had they been correct) anytime in the near future. What's worse is that many of the physicists are actively promoting theories (like the multiverse) that cannot even be proven. There appears also to be an underlying attempt in the physics community (notable Sean Carroll, Brian Greene, Laurence Krauss, and Julian Barbour) to argue that human life itself is meaningless. This type of nihilism is likely to provoke a back-reaction by the world community (it is at least provoking a back-reaction in some parts of the physics community and with biologists like Stuart Kaufmann.) Perhaps most people have learned to tune out physicists rather than get angry about their nihilistic statements. And since the study of physics/astrophysics relies on funding (directly or indirectly through taxes) from people who earn positive rates of return on work invested, then a promotion of moral nihilism is likely hurt funding for science in at least two ways: (1) tax payers will be upset with the nihilism coming from the theoretical side of the physics community and elect politicians that will cut back on their funding, and (2) there will be less tax payer funds available if the physics community doesn't help work with engineers to build power plants that grow life.

Section#2: Descent into Nihilism, Timelessness and Meaninglessness
There has been a very slow change in philosophical beliefs by those in the physics community over the last four centuries. For example, before Bacon, Descartes and Newton, the predominate view was the view espoused by Thomas Aquinas (that faith and reason were one in the same.) The study of nature was the study of God, and the use of reason was a means of understanding God. In the century after Bacon, Descartes and Newton, this view changed slightly because the concept of God changed slightly. In the century after the discovery of Newtonian physics and non-relativistic gravity, many physicists believed that God created the world, but then God didn't take part in the evolution of the universe. (This is the philosophy of Deism, and it's somewhat related to Aristotle's view that there is a God, but that God is too perfect to care about what happens in this universe.) Most of the physicists of the 19th century were Deists of one sort of another. After Darwin, though, Deism slowly morphed into a general form of agnosticism, i.e. God didn't create humans and God doesn't affect day-to-day events on Earth, but there's no way for us to know how creation began. In the early-to-mid 20th century, Deism and agnosticism turned into a general agnosticism about how the Big Bang started.  What's interesting is that in the late 20th century and now in the 21th century, agnosticism seems to being replaced by moral nihilism and atheism. Among physicists who write books for the public (such as Sean Carroll, Brian Greene, Laurence Krauss, and Julian Barbour), there has been a recent change from agnosticism to nihilism and atheism...from a world in which meaning is uncertain to a world in which meaning is impossible.
The problem is that this nihilism and atheism are not actually supported by any verified theories that fit all of the data we have collect about the universe.  It's important to note that the physicists above have not proven nihilism or atheism from first principles, and it's important to note that there is no data proving nihilism or atheism. They are engaging in a philosophical debate that's been going on for thousands of years. The debate about meaning, timelessness, flux, and beauty goes back to the days of the ancient Greeks. In many ways, we are just rehashing the arguments made two thousand years ago by Heraclitus, Democritus, Parmenides, Plato and Aristotle. The difference now is that we have much better instruments and much between theories to predict the motion of objects, but the underlying philosophical ideas are quite similar.

Section#3: Why does anything happen?
If you've read The End of Time by Julian Barbour, you might think that Einstein's equations describe an unchanging shape, i.e. an unchanging 3D surface on in 4-D space time. Barbour believes that the universe is likely to be static. And this makes sense if you were only to study Einstein's theory of general relativity and were to ignore the force of nature that is not time reversal symmetric. What I like about Barbour's research is that he is taking his assumptions to their logical ends. If the laws of the universe were all time reversal symmetric and if Einstein's theory of gravitation were valid, then the universe would be static, unchanging, and meaningless. This is just like Parmenides' static universe. But what data could you ever collect that proves that the world is static? What does it mean to collect data, to learn or to discover laws of physics in a static universe? What does language and communication mean in a static universe? Thousands of years ago, Plato argued in the Theaetetus dialogue that the logical conclusion of (a) a world in constant flux (such as believed by Heraclitus...or Hume) or (b) a static universe (such as believed by Parmenides...or Barbour) is that language and communication is impossible because either (a) there is no reference point to ground communication, or (b) language doesn't happen because nothing happens. Ultimately, Plato argued that language is only possible because there is a real, not-time-varying ethic that can ground all communication. My take on this is that the unvarying ethic is related to symmetry and to group theory, and hence that the common reference point that allows for communication is the mathematics of group theory. Growing life is a means of increasing the symmetry group of the universe. This means that we live in a dynamic universe, whose goal is to expand and the means of expanding and becoming more symmetric is to grow life.
Julian Barbour is taking the concept of timelessness to its logical conclusion: meaningless. The problem is, of course, that meaningless does not appear to describe the world we live. If a theory of physics can't describe common phenomena like language, self-replication and irreversible entropy generation, then it doesn't describe our world and should be thrown out or used only where it's valid and applicable. What I like about Julian Barbour's research is that he's not afraid to take his ideas to their logical conclusions. There are many physicists like Sean Carroll who believe in time reversal symmetric laws of the universe and who believe in multi-verses, but are unwilling accept the logical conclusion: that life would be meaningless. What's strange is that Sean Carroll occasionally goes on political rants on his blog. At times, he argues that there's no meaning to life, but yet still wants tax payers to fund basic physics research, and wants to be able to voice his political/religious views. The problem is that he and many other physicists have dug themselves into a hole. If physics is meaningless and does not tell you the purpose of life, then (a) why should we fund physics research?, and (b) why should we listen to the political beliefs of a physicist who doesn't believe that ethics is real?
If the physics community continues down this road of nihilism, they will be unable to effectively communicate with the public. For example, let's take the case of global warming. If (as many physicists believe) there is no meaning to life, then physicists have no means of engaging in a political debate about what to do about it. Sure, physicists can tell us what 'is happening,' but their philosophy of life suggests that it doesn't matter what we do about it because there is no meaning to life. If you eliminate 'ought' from your vocabulary, then you are effectively saying that you are not willing to engage in political debates about what 'ought to happen.' Any rant by scientists against religious groups or fossil fuels is just hot-air because there is no way to tie their words to a meaningful set of actions. Why is religious extremism or fossil fuel combustion bad is there is no such thing as bad?  In other words, if you believe that 'you can't derive ought from is', then you have no means of making a political argument. Physicists like Carroll want to live in a world in which they are happy and well-funded, but they have no means of making an argument on why they should be happy and funded because they have no way of making a moral argument.
Examples of a political argument are the following (not that I argue or disagree with any of the statements below, but at least they are arguments from an assumed premise): (a) the purpose of life is for the individual to be happy in the long-term, therefore we should allow individuals more choice in their actions because they will make better decisions on how they can be happy than can a government;  (b) the purpose of life is to recreate the world like it was before 1800, therefore we should impose strict reproduction laws that limit the number of children allowed and impose laws that encourage contraception and birth control; (c) the purpose of life is for everybody to have the same amount of money, therefore we should tax the rich and give to the poor; and (d) the purpose of life is to grow life, therefore we should encourage those activities that grow life and tax/penalize those activities that harm life. But how would Sean Carroll make a political argument? It would start:  Since we are just particles and there is no meaning to life, (and it would end) therefore we should reduce green house gas emissions or therefore we should fund the next CERN particle accelerator. You can hopefully see the absolute disconnect between the premise and the conclusion. Any political argument must ultimately tie back to an assumption about what is the purpose of life. The particle physics community seems to have dug itself into a hole into which it can't make any meaningful political statements because it refuses to address the question: what is the meaning and purpose of life? 
It's one thing to state to we don't know what is the purpose of life. But with physicists like Carroll and Krauss, we now seem to be entering an era in which physicists think it's okay to openly state that there is no purpose to lifeThe problem with the nihilism of modern particle physics is that it's not correct. The arguments by Carroll, Krauss, and Barbour completely ignores the weak nuclear force and they try their best to ignore the Second Law of Thermodynamics by saying either it's just probabilistic in nature, or that it's due to gravity, or that it's just due to human's coarse-graining. Right now, many people in the physics and astrophysics community are doing pseudo-science when it comes to entropy. Instead of collecting data and making theories that fit the data (i.e. that entropy increase during irreversible processes), they are making up theories and explaining away the data. (i.e. the data is only course grained or only probabilistic or perhaps entropy decreases in other multiverses.) Instead, here's what an empirical scientist in the Baconian tradition might do:
(1) Study the data and notice that entropy generation only occurs when the following are true: (a) there is a gradient in composition, pressure, or temperature, (b) there is flux across this gradient, and (c) there are particles capable of interacting via the weak nuclear force. (Entropy generation does not appear to occur within a group of photons or bosonic electrons in superconductors)
(2) Induce from the data that the weak nuclear force is the ultimate cause of the irreversible generation of entropy.
(3) Propose experiments to test this theory:  such as, creating systems of bosonic particles, measuring the amount of entropy generation, and then switching on a field that changes the bosonic particles into fermi particles, and measuring the entropy production.
(4) Test models that estimate the amount of irreversible entropy generation from first-principles. For example, creating a model that calculates the diffusivity of various gases based on how much they gases are capable of interacting via the weak nuclear force (both between themselves and between a particle and the sea of neutrinos surrounding it.) Then comparing the expected results with actual experimental data on the diffusivity of various gases. If the model does not fit with the data, then the theory is scrapped or modified, and the process is repeated.
(5) Write up the results so that the scientific and engineering community can understand the results of the research.
Ultimately, theory and experiment need to work hand-in-hand, and it's the job of the theorist to explain the laws so that engineers can go out and build technologies that help grow life. Instead, we live in a world in which many theoretical scientists are trying as hard as possible to work on theories with no applications in the real world, and this is generating a closed-off society in the physics community, and this is not healthy for society as a whole. This focus on science that has no application to the real world is really a form of philosophy trying to pass as science. It's an attempt to destroy meaning and purpose in our lives. I can partially understand why some people would want to destroy the meaning of religion in people's lives because the main religions of the West have been fighting themselves and each other for years. But just because the religions of the past were violent and dogmatic, doesn't mean that we should add a philosophy of nihilism into our study of science. I've studied physics, chemistry, biology, and astrophysics for years now, and I've come to a very different conclusion that the one in most modern scientific circles. It appears to me that the universe is trying to expand and that there are digital structures in the universe (lifeforms) that are capable of self-replication. The purpose of the digital structures is ultimately to increase the size and the symmetry of the universe, and they do this via self-replication. Purpose comes from seeing the digital (not analog) aspects of the universe. Increasing the amount of life in the universe is not easy because it requires developing new technologies that increase our capability to capture useful work (such as sunlight, sunlight-derivatives, and stored chemical / nuclear fuels) without harming life on this planet.

It appears that the cause of the descent into nihilism comes in part to the order in which we found the laws of physics (i.e. we didn't learn about CP violation and time asymmetry of the weak nuclear force until after we had discovered the other laws of physics,  and we didn't find the Higgs Boson until after all of the other known particles.)  The descent into nihilism also appears to be a partial over-reaction to the violence and dogmatism associated with prior religious philosophies of life. However, now that we have the advantage of time on our side, we need to learn how to not throw the baby (ethics) out with the bath water (religious dogmatism.) Modern scientists have been so fixed on throwing out religious dogmatism that they have accidentally thrown out absolute ethics. My guess is that the pendulum will start swinging back towards integrating science and ethics now that there are ways of relating the two. So, I'd like conclude with the quote from the beginning of this post by Francis Bacon because I think that it's important for us to remember that the study of science is not a means in itself. The study of science is merely a means to an end.
"Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all; that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things; but for the benefit and use of Life; and that they perfect and govern it in charity." Francis Bacon, General Preface to the Great Instauration


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  2. Note that this post is still in a fairly rough draft. I will be editing it over time to add more links to the actual evidence against super-symmetric particles in the mass range that would make supersymmetry or string theory useful.
    I also want to point out that Brian Greene has been doing a much better job that Sean Carroll in staying out of political debates and digressing into debates about faith and science. And I want to point out that Sean Carroll is a very scientist and a very good lecturer. The problem is that Sean Carroll wants to try to make a moral arguments based on what he thinks is a time-symmetry, meaningless multi-verse.

    The problem is that I don't see astrophysicists or physicists actually making the connection between science and the purpose of life. This is a fairly recent phenomena because most Western scientists have been Deists of one sort or another. Hopefully, we are on the pendulum swing back to where scientists can move openly talk about purpose and science (instead of uncertainty and science, or atheism and science.)