Archive for the ‘Philosophy of Science’ Category

Taking issue with String Theory

October 7, 2006

With the recent publication of Lee Smolin’s and Peter Woit’s books on the troubles of our theories of everything, every blogger in town seems to be talking about the crisis of modern fundamental physics (a.k.a. string theory and, so to speak, friends). Christine has just posted a list of recent posts on the subject. Like her, i’m reading Smolin’s book, courtesy of the publisher, and a review will eventually follow (once i find something to say about it that has not already been said!). In the meantime, i just wanted to add a few links to articles that i like on this pesky matter:

  • Jim’s Stab at String Theory is a very interesting discussion by Jim Weatherall on why it doesn’t really matters whether string theory is right. There you’ll find also a video interview with Peter Woit, by John Horgan (who is not specially happy with ST, either).
  • Among the free contents of the latest Physics Today issue, Burton Richter takes no prisoners when it comes to describe what’s wrong with all this super stuff.

I find Richter’s stabs, er, criticisms particularly compelling: his writing is clear and to the point, and his arguments are all but crisp and pungent. It’s curious that, by contrast, Smolin’s delicacy has actually augmented my curiosity on string theory (but i’m just halfway reading his book, so let’s better wait until i’m done).

On the other hand, i’m starting to be more and more in agreement with Weatherall’s arguments on the irrelevance of this whole business. At the very least, i’m trying to keep in mind that there’s arguably much more to fundamental physics than this debate. Maybe it’s time for some fresh air.

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David Deutsch

October 1, 2006

DeutschI’ve just spent twenty minutes watching David Deutsch on TED Talks, a funny speech on our place in the universe (and what to do about that), by the author of The Fabric of Reality. I’ve not read his book, but, if his writing is as fresh as his speaking, i definitely should. Enjoy!

(A mostly unrelated but curious piece of trivia about David Deutsch: he’s also a Mac developer!)

Blogs of a feather

August 13, 2006

The baker’s dozen links on my blogroll provide, in my opinion, a good snapshot of the physics blogging landscape where these musings live. I bet you already knew most of them before stumbling upon this site. You know the drill. Most of us have university degrees, discuss fundamental physics with an eye to laymen, are passionate about science, take sides in the never-ending Peter vs. Lubos debate, link regularly to each other and so on and so forth. There’s of course ample room for variance and everyone has her pet areas, strengths and weaknesses, but i think there’s an underlying spirit that encompasses us all.

After all, it is probably because of that common spirit that we like them. I for one would have a (relatively) hard time singling out just one or two blogs from this, so to speak, mainstream physics blogsphere. But, opening the scope a bit, there are a few blogs over there that i find, in some way or another, different.

My first two blogs of a feather are, for sure, hardly a discovery. The absolutely delicious musings of Jennifer Ouellette’s Cocktail Party Physics need no presentation; i’m hooked to her witty and informative posts, and enjoy Jennifer’s writing skills and sense of humour. She is also a good example of someone seeing us from outside, in a very refreshing way. Almost in a draw comes John Horgan (who thinks that science is ending, with a twist) and his Scientific Curmudgeon: his sharp-edged skepticism is always a good antidote against the flights of fancy so common in theoretical physics, or any other scientific branch, for that matter.

John’s readers will probably know about Jim Weatherall‘s blog, which has what’s easily the most original title i’ve ever heard: Wanderings of the Errant Digeratus. Jim wrote a quite interesting thesis (PDF) on the philosophical aspects of effective field theories and their interpretation, but his “interests are a little difficult to describe, but they all (both analytic and creative) revolve around complimentary ways to understand and criticize the scientific world-view and its ramifications”. That shows in his blog, which is very eclectic: philosophy, computers, art, physics… Although he’s not as prolific as one would like and science posts are a bit scarce, i usually enjoy his writings, which give yet another outsider’s view of the world of science, this time that of a philosopher. As an example, Jim’s take on emergence in physics (and live) is the most beautiful essay i’ve read in the last two months. Oh, and the Wanderings also get the prize to the nicest web design.

The list goes on, but let me close (for now) with the last addition to my newsreader collection, also coming from a philosopher and with a funny name too. According to its author, Stop That Crow is “an attempt to totally ground and understand design, purpose and values in a completely naturalistic worldview”. In his endeavour, Jeff touches many areas in an entertaining, very well thought of way, including a series of essays in the epistemology of science which will make as a nice introduction to the subject. As you will see, Jeff is a quite prolific author and so a good option to fill these slow august days. If you haven’t read Dennet’s Freedom evolves and are curious about the funny name, its rationale is detailed here.

These are some of my blogs of a feather: what are yours?

The dimensionality of the world

July 17, 2006

Although Bee has recently written an amazing and thorough article over at Backreaction with virtually everything one needs to know about extra dimensions in physics, let me add a sort of footnote in the form of some naive musings, a couple links and a Hertzian digression in this somewhat iffy post.

Multiple dimensions and the problem of time
As a student, i was in love with Kaluza-Klein theory and its extremely elegant explanation of electromagnetism as the purely geometrical effect of a fourth spatial dimension. The really magic thing is that the electromagnetic energy momentum tensor (in four dimensions) arises as a consequence of an empty five-dimensional space where particles follow geodesics; in other words, photons are purely geometry, just as gravitational forces. The problem, of course, was to explain why we don’t measure that fifth dimension. Kaluza just prescribed that no physical quantity depended on it, while Klein tried a somewhat more satisfactory solution by compactifying it to an unobservable size, and making it periodic, just as the second dimension of a long hose, which becomes one-dimensional when seen from a distance. Unfortunately, this beautiful picture seemed to lead to insurmountable difficulties with chirality or the mass of the electron, unless one goes the string way and adds more compact dimensions to our universe. I thought Kaluza-Klein theories were all but abandoned in their original 5-dimensional form these days, but following some links in the recent review article by Orfeu Bertolami, The Adventures of Spacetime, proved me utterly wrong. There’s been quite a lot of activity in the area during the last decade, leading even to a Space-Time-Matter consortium, a sort of physicists’ club promoting 5-dimensional gravity theories without compactification. The consortium is coordinated by P.S Wessan, and has quite a few members and interesting publications: see for instance this comprehensive review of KK theories of gravity for an introduction to Wessan and friend’s ideas. What i find compelling about their approach (and what, at the same time, of course reveals my prejudices) is that they tackle multidimensional physics from the point of view of general relativity, rather than particle physics. However, i guess that a word of caution is in order: i’ve read very little about these (to me) novel approaches to KK theories, and i’m not yet ready to endorse them; if they were right (and i definitely wish they were), they’d be quite revolutionary: for instance, they explain quantum indeterminacy as a result of particles travelling in higher dimensions… that’d be extremely cool (and actually make real one of my silly ideas of old), but perhaps too cool to be true? Well, i’ll leave it for you to decide (as for me, i think i’m going to read Wessan’s book, Five Dimensional Physics, lest student dreams can really come true!).

Returning to Bertolami’s paper, let me mention that it is part of a forthcoming book entitled Relativity and the Dimensionality of the World, the good news being that the above link points to freely available versions of many of its chapters, written by various authors, including Wessan and G.F.R. Ellis. The latter writes about his rather original ideas on time in General Relativity, and the Block Universe idea, familiar to all relativists, of a world represented as a frozen 4-dimensional whole. Ellis observes that such a representation clearly suggests that time is an illusion: the entire universe just is. The problem is that such a view seems incompatible with irreversible, macroscopic phenomena, as well as with the fundamental indeterminism inherent to quantum mechanics. To take into account these facts of life, Ellis proposes an Evolving Block Universe: time passes; the past is fixed and immutable, and hence has a completely different status than the future, which is still undetermined and open to influence; the kinds of `existence’ they represent are quite different: the future only exists as a potentiality rather than an actuality. The point being that our regular, predictable universe models are based on too simplistic assumptions and oversimplified systems, and that taking into account realistic, emergent ones renders the future under-determined. Although very interesting from a philosophical point of view, Ellis ideas need much fleshing out before becoming a solid theory of anything. But still, he makes many a fine point, and quite a lot of good questions worth thinking about.

A digression: Hertz’s mechanics
Finally, Bertolami’s paper draw my attention to a facet of Heinrich Hertz‘s work i was totally unaware of, namely, his contributions to the interpretation of classical mechanics. After gaining a place in the history of physics with his experimental confirmation of the existence of electromagnetic waves, and before his tragic death when he was only 37, Hertz wrote a book, The Principles of Mechanics Presented in a New Form, where he proposed a formulation of Newtonian physics freed of forces, using instead a variational principle. According to Hertz’s principle, particles move along paths of least curvature, where the (three dimensional) metric is defined by constraints instead of forces. Similar principles were proposed by Gauss and d’Alembert before Hertz, but the latter was notorious (if only ephemerally) for pushing to the forefront a view of space-time defined by matter in a purely relational, Leibnizian fashion: Hertz tries to derive his system of the world from material particles alone. Unfortunately, i’ve found little information on-line on Hertz’s ideas, which seem to be better known to philosophers due to their influence on Wittgenstein (who directly mentions Hertz in his Tractatus). For those of you with a philosophical soft spot, this paper presents a re-interpretation of some of Wittgenstein’s ideas under a Hertzian perspective. As a physicist, i find Hertz’s ideas interesting almost only as a historical curiosity, and don’t know how relevant they really are to modern epistemology: comments welcome! ;)

Starlight

May 28, 2006

Starlight

(from an inspiring little piece over at the Science Musings Blog)

Leibniz space-times

May 27, 2006

More often than not, Lee Smolin’s essays are engaging and thought provoking. I specially appreciate his willingness to tackle conceptual issues, often dismissed as philosophical or uninteresting by a great deal of the physics community (which, in my opinion, should know better). Also of note are his efforts to convey to non-specialists the key ideas and problems faced by modern physics, without unduly over-simplifications or dishonest hype.

A case in point is his recent essay The Case for Background Independence, where the meaning, virtues and drawbacks of relationist theories of quantum gravity are explored in detail. More concretely, Smolin describes the close relationship between three key issues in fundamental physics, to wit:

  • Must a quantum theory of gravity be background independent, or can there can be a sensible and successful background dependent approach?
  • How are the parameters of the standard models of physics and cosmology to be determined?
  • Can a cosmological theory be formulated in the same language we use for descriptions of subsystems of the universe, or does the extension of physics from local to cosmological require new principles or a new formulation of quantum theory?

The article begins with a brief historical review of relationism, as understood by Leibniz and summarized in his principles of sufficient reason (there’s always a rational cause for Nature’s choices) and the identity of the indiscernible (entities with exactly the same properties are to be considered the same) [1]. These principles rule out absolute space-times (like Newton’s) or a fixed Minkowskian background (like perturbative string theory), since they single out a preferred structure ‘without reason’, as do theories posing any number of free parameters (think of the much debated landscape) [2]. As is well known, Newton won the day back in the seventeenth century, until Mach’s sharp criticism marked the resurgence of relationist ideas. Mach rejected Newtonian absolute space-time, favouring a purely relational definition of inertia [3], which ultimately would inspire Einstein in his quest for the general theory of relativity [4].

Smolin’s article continues with a careful definition, in modern terms, of relational space and time, and follows with a discussion of some current theories featuring background independence: general relativity, causal sets, loop quantum gravity, causal dynamical triangulation models and background independent approaches (by Smolin himself) to M-theory. In a nutshell, it is argued that any self-respecting relational theory should comply to three principles:

  • There is no background.
  • The fundamental properties of the elementary entities consist entirely in relationships between those elementary entities.
  • The relationships are not fixed, but evolve according to law. Time is nothing but changes in the relationships, and consists of nothing but their ordering.

None of the theories above passes without problems this litmus test of pure relationsm. Take for instance general relativity. To begin with the dimension, topology and differential structure of space-time are givens, and thus play the role of a background. And, on the other hand, only when we apply GR to a compact universe without boundary can we aspire to a relational view, since otherwise we would have arbitrary boundary conditions (partially) determining the structure of space-time. Once you abide to these preconditions, a proper interpretation of general covariance (in which you identify space-times related by arbitrary coordinate transformations) provides a relational description of space-time (for an in-depth discussion of the subtle interplay between gauge invariance and relationsm, see also this excellent article by Lusanna and Pari, and references therein). As a second example, loop quantum gravity is also background dependent: in this case, the topological space containing the spin-networks of the theory. Other than that, loops are an almost paradigmatic case of a relational description in terms of graphs, with nodes being the entities and edges representing their relationships.

After his review of quantum gravity theories, Smolin takes issue with string theory. His subsequent train of thought heavily relies on the fact that relationism, or, more concretely, Leibniz’s principle of the indiscernible, rules out space-times with global symmetries. For if we cannot distinguish this universe from one moved 10 feet to the left, we must identify the two situations, i.e., deny any meaning or reality to the underlying, symmetric structure. But, as is happens, the M-theory programme consists, broadly speaking, in maximizing the symmetry groups of the theories embodied in the desired unified description. More concretely, in background-dependent theories, the properties of elemental entities are described in terms of representations of symmetries of the background’s vacuum state. Each of the five string theories embodied by M-string (should it exist!) has its own vacuum, related with each other via duality transformations (basically, compactifying spatial dimensions one way or the other one is able to jump from one string theory to the next). Thus, M-theory should be background independent (i.e., encompass different backgrounds), but, on the other hand, one expects that the unique unified theory will have the largest possible symmetry group consistent with the basic principles of physics, such as quantum theory and relativity. Smolin discusses some possible solutions this contradiction (which a lack, er, background to comment intelligently), including some sort of (as yet unknown) dynamical mechanism for spontaneous symmetry breaking (which would result in a Leibniz-compliant explanation for the actual properties–such as masses and coupling constants–that we find in our universe).

After all the fuss, there is disappointingly little to be said about relationist unified theories [5]. Invoking again the principle of the indiscernible, Smolin rules out symmetries that would make (unified) identities undistinguishable (if two entities have the same relationships with the rest, they are the same entity). By the same token, a universe in thermal equilibrium is out of the question. Reassuringly, our universe is not, and the negative specific heat of gravitationally bound systems precludes its evolution to such an state. The case is then made (after casting evolution theory as a relationist one, which is OK by me) for Smolin’s peculiar idea of cosmological natural selection. To my view, it is an overly speculative idea, if only for the fact that it depends on black holes giving rise to new universes when they collapse [6]. If that were the case, and provided that each new universe is created with random values for the free parameters of our theories, one would expect that a process similar to natural selection would lead to universes with its parameters tuned to favour a higher and higher number of black-holes (which seems to be the case in our universe). Nice as the idea is, i think we’re a little far from real physics here.

The article closes with a short section on the cosmological constant problem (with the interesting observation than only casual set theory has predicted so far a realistic value) and relational approaches to (cosmological) quantum theory. Again, the author adheres to non-orthodox ideas. This time, to recent proposals (see here and here) of hidden-variable theories, albeit they have far better grounds than the reproducing universes idea. The possibility of a relational hidden-variable theory is argued for with a simple and somewhat compelling line of thought. In classical physics, the phase space of a system of N particles is described by a 6N variables, while a quantum mechanical state vector would depend on 3N variables. On the other hand, in a purely relational theory one would need to use N^2 variables, as these are the number of possible relations between N particles. These would be the hidden-variables completely (and non-locally) describing our particles, which would need statistical laws when using just 3N parameters.

An amazing journey, by all accounts.


[1] See here for excellent (and free) editions of all relevant Leibniz works, including his Monadology, and here for commented excerpts of the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence.

[2] See also here for an interesting take on Leibniz’s principle under the light of Gödel’s and Turing’s incompleteness theorems as further developed by Gregory Chaitin.

[3] Julian Barbour’s “The Discovery of Dynamics: A Study from a Machian Point of View of the Discovery and the Structure of Dynamical Theories” is the definitive reference to know more about the history of the absolute/relative divide. (Another amazing book by Barbour on these issues is “The End of Time : The Next Revolution in Physics”, thoroughly reviewed by Soshichi Uchii here. Smolin himself has many an interesting thing to say about Barbour’s timeless Platonia.)

[4] Barbour argues in his book that Einstein seems to have misunderstood Mach’s discussions on the concept of inertia, taking it for the dynamical quantity entering Newton’s second law instead of the inertial motion caused by space-time according to Newton’s first law.

[5] I’m also a bit surprised by Smolin’s uncritical acceptance of reductionism, which he simply considers, “to a certain degree”, as common-sense.

[6] Tellingly, the only reference where this theory is developed is Smolin’s popular science book “The Life of the Cosmos”.

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Quantum probability

May 22, 2006

I just stumbled upon John Baez’s page on Bayesian probability and Quantum Mechanics, which nicely summarizes one of the first difficulties i had with the latter: Born’s interpretation of the wave function as a probability. The problem hinged on my naive (frequentist) interpretation of probabilities, and the conclusion that QM describes only ensembles, not individual systems. For to compute the probability of an experiment’s outcome, i reasoned, you need to repeat the experiment a large number of times. Then, counting the number of times your outcome happens and dividing by the total number of repetitions one obtains the sought for probability. Problem is, what is large? Well, nothing short of infinite, it seems. Because, with this frequentist definition of probability, nothing prevents your tossing a coin a hundred times and getting a hundred tails. And such a situation may still be compatible with a half and half probability for heads and tails! My unsettling conclusion was that QM predicts nothing at all about individual systems! Come to think of it, it doesn’t even predict anything about finite ensembles.

One way out of this conundrum is Everett’s many worlds interpretation: since all possible outcomes really happen, frequentist probabilities are well-defined. I still remember being genuinely surprised when i learnt that there existed serious attempts at making sense of such an idea. I still am. John gives an excellent argument to be done with this peculiar interpretation:

Here is a sample conversation between two Everettistas, who have fallen from a plane and are hurtling towards the ground without parachutes:

Mike: What do you think our chances of survival are?

Ron: Don’t worry, they’re really good. In the vast majority of
possible worlds, we didn’t even take this plane trip.

A second way out is revising our definition of probability. We forget (initially) about frequencies, and take a Bayesian stance. In a nutshell, Bayesian probability is not measured from scratch because it is defined as a degree of belief on a given outcome. One starts with an a priori value for such a belief, and revises it (if needed) according to experiment. The gist of it is that Bayes’ theorem lets you calculate the likelihood of future outcomes based solely on your a priori probabilities. So, the tale goes, when a wave function collapses as a result of a measurement, there’s nothing real out there undergoing a physical collapse; it’s only that we have improved our knowledge of the system and must update our a priori likelihood assignments accordingly. This view mixes well, by the way, with the orthodox Copenhagen interpretation of QM, which also denies an objective reality of the wave function.

The so called relational interpretations have, i think, a clear Bayesian substrate. Probably the best known relational theory nowadays is Rovelli‘s, whose recent paper Relation EPR (nicely reviewed in Alejandro’s blog) has been widely discussed elsewhere.

While i have nothing against Bayesian probability for describing our knowledge of any system, considering it as a final interpretation of QM makes me feel uneasy. I’d rather have a theory which describes something out there, some kind of (possibly inter-subjective) reality. Atoms, stars and the whole universe seem to care little about our knowledge of them, and the quantum mechanics rules look a bit too simple to explain, out of the blue, our way of acquiring information about the world. I would rather put my money on some sort of objective, physical reduction of the state vector, maybe along the lines of some non-linear modification of Schrödinger’s equation (and probably not as fancy as Penrose’s objective reduction, but who knows!). Call me a (perhaps non-local) realist.


One last thing. One of the best ways to learn about Bayesian theory is from “Probability Theory : The Logic of Science” (E. T. Jaynes). The good news is that a draft version of it is available online. (See also Matthew Leifer’s comment below recommending Bruno de Finetti‘s work.)

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Cosmic Variance’d

May 3, 2006

To my great surprise and pleasure, Sean has been so kind as to mention physics musings in his last post at Cosmic Variance. First of all, I just wanted to say thanks: i’m sure that in many cases reading Cosmic Variance is one of the reasons one starts thinking of writing a physics blog in the first place. At least it was for me. I’m also happy because i’m fond of Sean’s writings in more than a way. A few months ago, i spent some weeks getting up to speed, again, in General Relativity, and carried home several textbooks. Some from my university days, and others published in the interim. And of all those books, the only one that i finally read (and enjoyed) from cover to cover was Sean’s “Spacetime and Geometry: An Introduction to General Relativity”. I’m sure it needs no presentation or recommendation, but, just in case, you can get a feeling of how good it is by reading the notes it’s based on or visiting the book’s website.

Sean’s post has also enlarged my list of monitored blogs with several interesting new entries. Among them, there’s one i’ve been enjoying specially during the last couple of hours. Lest you miss it in the post’s comments, here’s my recommendation: Alejandro’s Reality Conditions is just excellent. He has a lot to say about quantum gravity and the interpretation of quantum mechanics (two of my favourite areas), but also frequently touches more philosophical themes i find absorbing, like cognitive science and the problem of consciousness. With a dose of humor and many interesting links for a good measure. Highly recommended!

The music of emergence

May 2, 2006

I just stumbled upon a beautiful site, The Music of the Quantum, whose (apparent) main theme is a peculiar composition by Jaz Coleman. It was commissioned by the Institute for Complex Adaptive Matter (ICAM) as a public outreach event, first performed in New York at Columbia University in 2003. The event was performed by the Sporcl quintet from Prague, and narrated by Robert Laughlin and Piers Coleman (yes, it was that 1998 Nobel laureate Laughlin, for his theory of the fractional quantum Hall effect). According to the site,

The piece was written to bring out, musically, some of the themes of the quantum emergent world. The melody of this unique piece is carried between a violin and an accordion, the idea being to capture the duality of quantum mechanics between these two contrasting instruments.

Besides hearing to the (pretty good, to my taste) music, you can see three nicely done video clips of its perfomance, and an interview with Coleman. But that’s not all.

As it happens, the site has a sort of double agenda, and is full of information on what one may call the emergent viewpoint of physics, championed (among many others) by Laughlin, the ICAM and friends. I first read more or less seriously about this viewpoint a few months ago, via Laughlin’s very interesting “A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down”, which was a bit of an eye opener to me. As a theoretical physicist, i’ve had a reductionist upbringing. When i was in high school, a dear maths prof of mine’s used to tell me that i was what Einstein called (in this classic article) a tamed metaphysicist:

I believe that every true theorist is a kind of tamed metaphysicist, no matter how pure a “positivist” he may fancy himself. The metaphysicist believes that the logically simple is also the real. The tamed metaphysicist believes that not all that is logically simple is embodied in experienced reality, but that the totality of all sensory experience can be “comprehended” on the basis of a conceptual system built on premises of great simplicity. The skeptic will say that this is a “miracle creed.”

… and i felt i really was (and probably still am) one of those beasts. From that stance to reductionism there’s just a tiny step: to me, physics was the pursue of ultimate causes, the art of reducing complex systems to its constituents and explaining everything in terms of the interactions between those constituents. A very naive philosophy, if you like, but one that is reinforced by many science books and academic curricula, and which is implicit in much of the research in fundamental physics even these days (for instance, Steven Weinberg’s “Dreams of a Final Theory” is a perfect exponent of this ideology). In my experience, there are still many theoretical physicists that look at colleagues in experimental physics, biology or chemistry over their shoulders, feeling like some sort of priesthood in search of the ultimate truth. But, hopefully, maybe i’m just overreacting, as usual.

Anyway, people like Laughlin have a very different worldview, and are all for explaining natural phenomena in terms of emergent behaviours, that is, properties that appear, as a consequence of organizational principles, when great numbers of, say, atoms are put together. Take, for instance, metals: according to this view, there’s nothing in a gold atom that explains its macroscopic qualities, which appear only when you put many of these little pieces together and let them interact. The laws according to which these swarms of subsystems organize themselves are not to be viewed as a direct consequence of their structure, and in fact the claim is that the behaviours come from organizational laws that are independent of the detailed structure of those constituents (or is, at least, compatible with many different ones). The website contains several (short) clips where these ICAM guys give a far better explanation of these and similar ideas. I find them very refreshing and a good antidote against narrow-mindedness. Which does not mean, by the way, that one has to accept all this emergent worldview uncritically. Laughlin likes to call reductionism an ideology, but, to be fair, reading his book now and then i felt he was close to making emergency an ideology too (in the sense that, according to him, everything seems to be explainable in terms of emergentism)! It must be the reductionist in me.

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Science and religion

May 1, 2006

Last year, the renowned physicist Freeman J. Dyson caused some of a stir in scientific circles with his decision to accept an award from the Templeton Foundation, joining the ranks of Paul J. Davies or (this year) John D. Barrow. We’re talking big money here: the prize is around $1.5–million. The Templeton Foundation is pretty wealthy: so far, it has spent more than $250–million on prizes, academic programs, publications, broadcasts, lectures, conferences, and research on topics such as the neurobiology and genetics of religious belief; the evolutionary origins of altruism; and the medical benefits of prayer, church attendance, and forgiveness. As you can see, the Foundation aims at some sort of reconciliation between science and (Christian) religion, and although it seems to be against such no-brainers as intelligent design theories, some of its affiliated scientists are happy to defend the curative powers of prayer or the reality of Christ’s miracles (as explained in some of the linked articles below). More to the point, John Templeton’s foundation says the above-mentioned prize is intentionally larger than the Nobel Prize “to underscore that research and advances in spiritual discoveries can be quantifiably more significant than disciplines recognized by the Nobels”.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with having beliefs; problem is to try to pass them as scientific, and to pay big sums of money to enroll scientists in your club for doing so. Of course science needs money, but by its very nature, it needs free money. I’m sorry but i don’t buy the alleged neutrality of this foundation (also known, for instance, as a contributor to G.W. Bush (a scaring fundamentalist, if you ask me) presidential campaigns). Obviously, you don’t have to take my word for it: over at Edge you can read a very interesting report by John Horgan, a scientific writer, on his relationship and experiences as a freelance supported by the Templeton Foundation’s money, and a subsequent online debate with the opinions of Daniel C. Dennett, George Johnson, Freeman Dyson, Richard Dawkins, Marc D. Hauser, Dan Sperber, Jerry Coyne, Leonard Susskind, Lee Smolin, and Scott Atran. Most of them are against entering the Templeton Foundation’s game, with the (obvious) exception of Dyson and, to some degree, of Lee Smolin. The latter goes on to explain that he’s so used to go against mainstream that he doesn’t feel threatened by the TF’s influence, and makes an interesting remark:

I have to say that I found a much more open minded, engaged and respectful discussion between people with different views at Templeton meetings than I have, for example, at string theory meetings.

I think that the above observation is fallacious in the same (even if ameliorated) way as the following by Freeman:

Even in the gruesome history of the twentieth century, I see some evidence of progress in religion. The two individuals who epitomized the evils of our century, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, were both avowed atheists.

Come on, this is plain propaganda (and is this close to being an instance of Godwin’s Law). Of course Hitler and Stalin were monsters, and it goes without saying that string theorists are doing a disservice to the physics community and to themselves with their (alleged) ivory-tower attitude. So what? Let’s work in correcting these problems, but acknowledging these issues in no way endorses equally condemnable positions (shall we talk about the abuses perpetrated in the name of god? or about the lobbying exerted by some of the TF’s trustees?).

The scientific community, as any human endeavour, is plagued with problems, and is far from the ideal, undeterred and free exchange of ideas that it should be. All over the place, interests (monetary and otherwise) drive the efforts and careers of scientists, instead of an honest pursue of objective truths. But the solution to these problems needs denouncing and working against them, not endorsing Templeton and the likes. In science, we should strive to attain the ideal status (and avoid the pitfalls) expressed in Jerry Coine‘s critique:

[…] the Templeton Foundation corrupts science. It does this in two ways. First, it involves us in a dialogue that is designed to have a predetermined result: the reconciliation of science and religion. But when doing our own research, we are not committed to a specific outcome. Thus, if you’re one of the many scientists who doesn’t think that such a reconciliation is possible — at least not without mendacity, self-delusion, or cognitive dissonance — then it is unethical to take money from the Foundation. That is like taking money to attend a conference aimed at reconciling evolution with Intelligent Design, even if you do not think that they’re compatible. (IDers think that they are.)

Second, it leads, as George Johnson has noted, to the appearance of a conflict of interest, even if the beneficiary is convinced that none exists. Even if a US Senator is predetermined by his own opinions to vote in favor of, say, drilling for oil in Alaska, it is nevertheless illegal and unethical for him to take personal money from the oil industry, and it looks bad to take campaign money from the oil industry. Scientists should be purer than Senators because it is our business to promulgate the truth, and all we have is our reputations as unsullied truth-seekers.

Right on the spot, in my opinion. Another exponent of what i’m talking about is Sean Carroll, who recently turned down a prize from the TF, as he explains in this post (see also here and here for more debate on the issue at Cosmic Variance).

A final thought. If you think that i’m overstating my points, that organisations like TF are not nearly as bad as i (and all the others) try to make them, and you happen to live in a western/catholic culture, just make the following exercise: what would you think of an organisation exactly like TF but endorsing, say, Hinduism, or Taoism, or Animism? What about The Cult of Cthulhu or Scientology for that matter? (Point being, of course, that this was not a rant against Christianity or any other faith or belief system, but against intermingling science and “spiritual discoveries”, with big money in between.)