When I enrolled at Rice University, I thought I would dual-major in math and physics en route to a Ph.D. in physics, a university professorship, and a career relishing the life of the mind in the esoteric realms of the subatomic. No, I had known that I would do that since sometime in middle school.
Within a semester, I had doubts that my career path lay in academic physics. By the end of my freshman year, I knew pure physics was not for me; I was considering biophysics, physical chemistry, and other, physics-adjacent disciplines. By the end of my third semester, no majors involving the name “physics” were even on my radar. I ended up, after some soul-searching and a year of exploration and reflection, settling on majors in math and religious studies, the latter with a concentration in Judaism.
Why? It wasn’t that I had lost my interest in physics as a subject; I still haven’t. It wasn’t my grades. It wasn’t even that I was unhappy with the work I was doing.
What really drove me off was this: I found that the kind of physics I wanted to do—the cutting-edge, theoretical stuff—was disturbingly full of hand-waving. That is, the really tough problems were either ignored entirely or roundly dismissed as inconsequential, even if they had potentially huge significance for the entire field. These were problems in which no one was doing any serious investigation—indeed, serious investigation might not even be possible under the current state of the art—but “we” supposedly “knew” something was true. Nine times out of ten, statements of this sort were literally accompanied by hand-waving by the professor or teacher’s assistant making the statement. In at least one incident, I witnessed a Nobel laureate brush off a series of hard-hitting questions in precisely this manner.
This is not to say that no one ever attempted to explain such things. Usually, the explanation was a deus ex machina based on the “standard model” or an appeal to authority. The thinking seemed to be this: If you don’t know the answer, just refer vaguely to the standard model, Einstein, Heisenberg, or Feynman, and the troublesome freshman/sophomore/high-schooler will get the idea that he or she is out of his or her depth and leave you alone. Even if the question was perfectly reasonable. There’s no grant money for investigating pesky “side effects” that show up in 200-level labs but that we can’t explain. “No grant money” means “forget about it.”
With all of the latest buzz about the so-called “multiverse” and, relatedly, parallel universes, at least a few of my beefs with academic physics have gone mainstream. In particular, Rod Dreher has posted an excellent piece about the faith of the physics academy. Some key quotes:
Physicists have a nerve. I know one (I’ll call him Mark) who berates every religious person he meets, yet honestly thinks there exist parallel universes, exactly like our own, in which we all have two noses. He refuses to give any credit to Old Testament creation myths and of course sneers at the idea of transubstantiation. But, without any sense of shame, he insists in the same breath that humans are made from the fallout of exploded stars; that it is theoretically possible for a person to decompose on one side of a black hole and recompose on the other, and that there are diamonds in the sky the size of the moon.
. . . .
I have never quite understood why the “many-universes” theory is considered science, not religion. How could you ever falsify the thesis?
. . . . We assume that the Scientist must know what he’s talking about no matter what he says, because he has studied his field, and is committed to a rigorous methodology and epistemology that rules out what cannot be known empirically. If a Scientist says it, it must be true, because it has either been proven experimentally, or can be.
. . . .
. . . . [C]ertainty in the sense of probability is not the same thing as necessary being: If I toss a coin, it is certain that I will get heads or tails, but that outcome depends on my tossing the coin, which I may not necessarily do. Likewise, any particular universe may follow from the existence of a multiverse, but the existence of the multiverse remains to be explained. In particular, the universe-generating process assumed by some multiverse theories is itself contingent because it depends on the action of laws assumed by the theory. The latter might be called meta-laws, since they form the basis for the origin of the individual universes, each with its own individual set of laws. So what determines the meta-laws? Either we must introduce meta-meta-laws, and so on in infinite regression, or we must hold that the meta-laws themselves are necessary — and so we have in effect just changed our understanding of what the fundamental universe is to one that contains many universes. In that case, we are still left without ultimate explanations as to why that universe exists or has the characteristics it does.
When it comes to such metaphysical questions, science and scientific speculation may offer much in fleshing out details, but they have so far failed to offer any explanations that are fundamentally novel to philosophy — much less have they supplanted it entirely.