How Philosophers Can Help Cosmologists

How Philosophers Can Help Cosmologists

Cosmology’s hot streak has stalled. Cosmologists have looked deep into time, almost all the way back to the Big Bang itself, but they don’t know what came before it. They don’t know whether the Big Bang was the beginning, or merely one of many beginnings. Something entirely unimaginable might have preceded it. Cosmologists don’t know if the world we see around us is spatially infinite, or if there are other kinds of worlds beyond our horizon, or in other dimensions. And then the big mystery, the one that keeps the priests and the physicists up at night: no cosmologist has a clue why there is something rather than nothing.

The above is from a very interesting and well-written article by Ross Andersen at Aeon about some of the latest developments in cosmology and the questions they raise (brought to my attention by Daniel Fogal). A central element in the story are findings from BICEP2, a scientific experiment at the South Pole set up to gather data relevant to the theory of inflation, the idea “that our Universe expanded, exponentially, a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang.” But the data—about the existence of “swirls” in the afterglow of the Big Bang–is ambiguous (the swirls might have been caused by the Milky Way’s magnetic fields),  and the theory appears to have other flaws that bother some scientists, such as Paul Steinhardt, the Albert Einstein Professor in Science at Princeton University.

‘The last 30 years is a very unusual period in the history of fundamental physics and cosmology,’ Steinhardt told me. ‘There’s confusion, and maybe even a certain amount of fear. People are wedded to these ideas, because they grew up with them. Scientists don’t like to change ideas unless they’re forced to. They get involved with a theory. They get emotionally attached to it. When an idea is looking shaky, they go into defensive mode. If you’re working on something besides inflation, you find yourself outside the social network, and you don’t get many citations. Only a few brave souls are willing to risk that.’…

He feels overmatched. He told me he has asked for help from outside the field.

‘The outside community isn’t recognising the problem,’ he said. ‘This whole BICEP2 thing has made some people more aware of it. It’s been nice to have that aired out. But most people give us too much respect. They think we know what we’re doing. They take too seriously these voices that say inflation is established theory.’

I asked him who might help. What cavalry was he calling for?

‘I wish the philosophers would get involved,’ he said.

Is there something to this wish, and is there a way to make clear not just to other scientists but to the public the value of philosophy to the scientific endeavor of figuring out the universe?

(image: detail of “Close Bubbles 7” by Jason Tozer)

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