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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bigbird
bigbird
5 years ago

It sounds like inflation theory is the current Kuhnian paradigm in cosmology, but unfortunately there seems to be little by way of hard evidence behind it. It may be the best explanation out there for the little data we have, but maybe that’s not saying a great deal. But in an era where so much physics in these areas is done in large teams, how can the mavericks make an impact?Report

Heathcliff
Heathcliff
5 years ago

The heading is rather misleading, isn’t it? But no matter. While it’s nice to see a physicist reach out like this for a change, I’m curious as to what he thinks it is they might do that physicists in general and cosmologists in particular might find helpful if suggested by a philosopher, given their general attitude.

Then again, perhaps that’s it. Engaging philosophers, sufficiently familiar with the subject matter, as concept-analytical aids might help cosmologists along and let them see and deal with, say, hidden premisses and assumptions taken for granted, in order to tease out why they seem to find themselves at a standstill. At best it would be an indirect sort of help, akin to coaching: showing them where to look rather than telling them what to see.

That said, I hardly think cosmologists of note would find such a thing very attractive at all.Report

Marcus Arvan
5 years ago

It might be a good idea for philosophers not to ignore wild-sounding new cosmological paradigms that nevertheless just may have some real promise to them (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). Most wild ideas don’t work out, but some do–and we might just be able to get out in front of the physicists, and play a greater part in cosmology, if we took more of them (at least those based on serious epistemic hypotheses) more seriously.Report

Felix
5 years ago

Seems to me that Unger and Smolin’s recent book, The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, is doing exactly what Andersen calls for. Here’s the description from CUP: “Cosmology is in crisis. The more we discover, the more puzzling the universe appears to be. How and why are the laws of nature what they are? A philosopher and a physicist, world-renowned for their radical ideas in their fields, argue for a revolution. To keep cosmology scientific, we must replace the old view in which the universe is governed by immutable laws by a new one in which laws evolve. Then we can hope to explain them. The revolution that Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin propose relies on three central ideas. There is only one universe at a time. Time is real: everything in the structure and regularities of nature changes sooner or later. Mathematics, which has trouble with time, is not the oracle of nature and the prophet of science; it is simply a tool with great power and immense limitations. The argument is readily accessible to non-scientists as well as to the physicists and cosmologists whom it challenges.”Report

Wayne C. Myrvold
Wayne C. Myrvold
5 years ago

If Steinhardt’s wish is that philosophers get involved with cosmology, then his wish is already coming true. Philosophy of Cosmology is a burgeoning subfield of philosophy of physics, one that tends to involve lots of interaction between philosophers and cosmologists. Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics did a special issue on philosophy of cosmology last year (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/13552198/46/part/PA), and there are Philosophy of Cosmology projects based at Rutgers (http://philocosmology.rutgers.edu/) and at Oxford (http://philosophy-of-cosmology.ox.ac.uk/).Report

PeteJ
5 years ago

If we assume that he means ‘philosophers who think like us’ then I don’t see how their further involvement might help. What he needs is an exit from the box, not more reinforcement for the walls.Report

Buck Field
5 years ago

Where would one find someone willing to talk to students interested in interstellar flight about the need for a revolution in physics, from either a physics or philosophical perspective?Report