[Extracted by Lynn C. Rees]
The transition to the Age of Emergence brings to an end the myth of the absolute power of mathematics. This myth is still entrenched in our culture, unfortunately, a fact revealed routinely in the press and popular publications promoting the search for ultimate laws as the only scientific activity worth pursuing, notwithstanding massive and overwhelming experimental evidence that exactly the opposite is the case. We can refute the reductionist myth by demonstrating that rules are correct and then challenging very smart people to predict things with them. Their inability to do so is similar to the difficulty the Wizard of Oz has in returning Dorothy to Kansas. He can do it in principle, but there are a few pesky technical details to be worked out. One must be satisfied in the interim with empty testimonials and exhortations to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. The real problem is that Oz is a different universe from Kansas and that getting from one to the other makes no sense. The myth of collective behavior following from the law is, as a practical matter, exactly backward. Law instead follows from collective behavior, as do things that flow from it. such as logic and mathematics. The reason our minds can anticipate and master what the physical world does is not because we are geniuses but because nature facilitates understanding by organizing itself and generating law.
An important difference between the present age [i.e. the Age of Emergence] and the age just past [i.e the Age of Reductionism] is the awareness that there are evil laws as well as good ones. Good laws, such as rigidity or quantum hydrodynamics, create mathematical predictive power through protection, the insensitivity of certain measured quantities to sample imperfections or computational errors. Were the world a happy place containing only good laws, it would indeed be true that mathematics was always predictive, and that mastering nature would always boil down to acquiring sufficiently large and powerful computers. Protection would heal all errors. But in the world we actually inhabit, dark laws abound, and they destroy predictive power by exacerbating errors and making measured quantities wildly sensitive to uncontrollable external factors. In the Age of Emergence it is essential to be on the lookout for dark laws and artfully steer clear of them, since failure to do so leads one into delusional traps. One such trap is inadvertently crossing a Barrier of Relevance, thereby generating multiple ostensibly logical paths that begin with nearly identical premises and reach wildly different conclusions. When this effect occurs it politicizes the discussion by generating alternative “explanations” for things that cannot be distinguished by experiment. Another trap is the hunt for the Deceitful Turkey, the mirage law that always manages to be just out of focus and just beyond reach, no matter how much the measurement technology is improved. Ambiguities generated by dark law also facilitate fraud, in that they allow a thing to be labeled quantitative and scientific when it is, in fact, so sensitive to the whim of the measurer that it is effectively an opinion.
The Greek pantheon came into being through a series of political compromises in which one tribe or group, prevailing over another in warfare, would exercise its authority not by wiping out the gods of the losers, which was too difficult, but by making those gods subordinate to their own. The ancient Greek myths are thus allegories of actual historical events that took place in the early days of consolidation of Greek civilization. While the “experiment” in that case was war, and the “truth” it revealed was some political reality, the psychological elements for inventing mythological laws were the same as those we use today to identify physical ones. You may feel that both are pathological human behaviors, but I prefer the more physical view that politics, and human society generally, grow out of nature and are really sophisticated high-level versions of primitive physical phenomena. In other words, politics is an allegory of physics, not the reverse. Either way, however, the similarity reminds us that once science becomes political it is indistinguishable from state religion. Under a system of truth by consensus one expects false gods to be systematically enshrined in the pantheon as a matter of expedience, and the cosmogony on occasion to become Fictional, just as occurred in ancient Greece, and for the same reasons.
Greek creation myths satirize many things in modern life, particularly cosmological theories. Exploding things, such as dynamite or the big bang, are unstable. Theories of explosions, including the first picoseconds of the big bang, thus cross Barriers of Relevance and are inherently unfalsiable, notwithstanding widely cited supporting “evidence” such as isotopic abundances at the surfaces of stars and the cosmic microwave background anisotropy. One might as well claim to infer the properties of atoms from the storm damage of a hurricane. Beyond the big bang we have really unfalsifable concepts of budding little baby universes with different properties that must have been created before the infationary epoch, but which are now fundamentally undetectable due to being beyond the light horizon. Beyond even that we have the anthropic principle—the “explanation” that the universe we can see has the properties it does by virtue of our being in it. It is fun to imagine what Voltaire might have done with this material. In the movie Contact the Jodie Foster heroine suggests to her boyfriend that God might have been created by humans to compensate for their feelings of isolation and vulnerability in the vastness of the universe. She would have been more on target had she talked about unfalsifiable theories of the origin of the universe. The political dynamic of such theories and those of the ancient Greeks is one and the same.
The political nature of cosmological theories explains how they could so easily amalgamate with string theory, a body of mathematics with which they actually have very little in common. String theory is the study of an imaginary kind of matter built out of extended objects, strings, rather than point particles, as all known kinds of matter—including hot nuclear matter—have been shown experimentally to be. String theory is immensely fun to think about because so many of its internal relationships are unexpectedly simple and beautiful. It has no practical utility, however, other than to sustain the myth of the ultimate theory. There is no experimental evidence for the existence of strings in nature, nor does the special mathematics of string theory enable known experimental behavior to be calculated or predicted more easily. Moreover, the complex spectroscopic properties of space accessible with today’s mighty accelerators are accountable in string theory only as “low-energy phenomenology”- a pejorative term for transcendent emergent properties of matter impossible to calculate from first principles. String theory is, in fact, a textbook case of a Deceitful Turkey, a beautiful set of ideas that will always remain just barely out of reach. Far from a wonderful technological hope for a greater tomorrow. it is instead the tragic consequence of an obsolete belief system—in which emergence plays no role and dark law does not exist.
The painful echoes of ancient Greece in modern science illustrate why we cannot live with uncertainty in the Age of Emergence. at least for very long. One often hears that we must do so, since the master laws do not matter and the little subsidiary ones are too expensive to ferret out, but this argument is exactly backward. In times of increased subtlety one needs more highly quantitative measurements, not fewer. A measurement that cannot be done accurately, or that cannot be reproduced even if it is accurate, can never be divorced from politics and must therefore generate mythologies. The more such shades of meaning there are, the less scientific the discussion becomes. Accurate measurement in this sense is scientific law and a milieu in which accurate measurement is impossible is lawless.