April 27, 2006


Science in Wonderland: Getting some perspective (250 million years' worth) on the evolution controversy. (John Wilson, 04/05/2006, Christianity Today)

The contempt that many scientists have expressed for Intelligent Design knows no bounds, but it can be summarized in a single dismissive sentence: "It's not science." Now string theory—that's another matter. String theory generates articles and grants and symposia. String theory has charismatic spokesmen like Brian Greene. (What is string theory? Ah, the universe is … made up of these … strings. Best if you read Greene's book, The Elegant Universe, or watch the accompanying DVD. You still won't understand it, but your ignorance, like mine, will be better informed.)

The man who is sometimes referred to as the father of string theory is Leonard Susskind, who is Felix Bloch Professor of Theoretical Physics at Stanford University and who recently published a book called The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design. You might wonder what a theoretical physicist is doing messing with questions of Intelligent Design. Isn't that a job for biologists?

Well, do you remember talk a few years back about the extreme improbability of all the conditions required for life as we know it evolving just so? The reaction of the science establishment was to huff and puff and hint darkly about stealth creationism. But many cosmologists took the question seriously—so seriously, in fact, that some of them began to argue that our universe is but one of an unimaginable number of universes, say 10500, in which case the features of any one universe (ours, for instance) are unremarkable.

This theory has not met with, shall we say, universal approbation, not least because it can't be empirically tested. You could even say it's not science, and some have said that, but they don't hiss the way they do when they talk about Intelligent Design.

And here is an interesting footnote. At the end of an interview in New Scientist, Leonard Susskind, a very engaging character, is asked—if his theory is ultimately not borne out—"Are we stuck with Intelligent Design?" And Susskind gives a candid answer that no doubt provoked wrath among many of his colleagues:

I doubt that physicists will see it that way. … I am pretty sure that physicists will go on searching for natural explanations of the world. But I have to say that if that happens, as things stand now, we will be in a very awkward position. Without any explanation of nature's fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID critics. One might argue that a hope that a mathematically unique solution will emerge is as faith-based as ID.

Susskind was really very naughty to say that, and you can sense that he knew it.

Just stay in one place and the scientists will come back to you eventually.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 27, 2006 10:43 AM

As a nonreligious sceptic, I've pointed out here before that the scientists' and religionists' explanations are equally fanciful in my eyes. At some point, they're all going to be philosophers/metaphysicists. The argument isn't going to be settled until we die and see for ourselves (or not).

Posted by: Rick T. at April 27, 2006 11:02 AM

except that philosophy/science is self-defeating.

Posted by: oj at April 27, 2006 11:05 AM

10500 is an "unimaginable number" only for those with very small imaginations.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at April 27, 2006 11:11 AM

String theory is testable, or will be once the Large Hadron Collider comes online. However, for Susskind to declare Intelligent Design an illusion from a scientific standpoint is in itself completely unscientific. If Susskind and his fellows are unable to distinguish their own faith from science, how can they expect the general public to do so?

Posted by: BrianOfAtlanta at April 27, 2006 11:14 AM


So unimaginable it can't even be written out on a computer.

Posted by: oj at April 27, 2006 11:16 AM

Brian: "Testability" has nothing to do with deciding whether something is scientifically legitimate.

Posted by: b at April 27, 2006 11:36 AM

There's a reason why physicists and mathematicians are considerably more likely to be religious than biologists. And certainly many mathematicians and physicists scoff at string theory.

Posted by: John Thacker at April 27, 2006 11:40 AM


Posted by: Mike Beversluis at April 27, 2006 12:34 PM

Even 10e500 (aka 10^500) is not "unimaginable". It's just very big, a one followed by 500 zeros. That's not as big as some of the numbers you get when you get into combinatorial problems, for example. In this case, my first reaction to saying there are 10e500 possible universes would be, "why so few?" considering every possible combination of particles in the Universe should be generating a new branch every 10e-41 seconds for the last 1.4e10 years. (I think I got those exponents right)

Which is why those travel between "parallel universe" stories you see on Sci-Fi shows like Star Trek: The Marketing Campaign are as much fantasy as if they had introduced fairies, evil spirits, Roman gods, or functioning Socialist societies.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at April 27, 2006 2:21 PM


We'll wait while you count that high...

Posted by: oj at April 27, 2006 2:37 PM

C'mon, Raoul, I know I have a very vivid imagination up to 10^387, but after that it's system shutdown.

Posted by: Peter B at April 27, 2006 3:01 PM

The article gets in a good cheap shot at string theory, but I think the author might need to include a few more examples before he dismisses it as most scientists would/have done with ID.
What does this article have anything to do with explanations under which ID could be subsumed, such as modern evolutionary theory (Darwinism for lack of a better term)?

Posted by: Jeff at April 28, 2006 12:40 AM

Darwinism is just a variant of ID.

Posted by: oj at April 28, 2006 12:48 AM
« IF JAILBIRDS VOTE THEN WHY CAN'T I? (via Bryan Francoeur): | Main | AND THAT'S HOW THE STEP-CHILD GOT RED HAIR... (via Pepys): »