String Theory = Intelligent Design?

(This article was originally posted on blogger.com on Oct 27, 2005)

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think – as Peter Woit seems to be doing – that the scientific status of string theory is in any way comparable to that of the crazy set of ideas called “Intelligent Design”. Basically, Intelligent Design (ID) purports to ‘explain’ the complicated structures seen in life – as the DNA, the structure of a human eye, blood clotting, the immune system etc. by introducing a ‘designer’ (God, aliens, or whatever) clever enough to yield the blueprint of life in all its forms. But in reality, ID does not explain anything at all.

Commenting on Lawrence Krauss’ new book on extra dimensions, Peter Woit says:

The behavior of string theorists that Krauss identifies as most like religion is the argument that “the theory is so beautiful it must be true.” I actually don’t hear many string theorists making this argument these days. If the theory actually were beautiful in the sense of providing some impressive new understanding of physics in terms of some simple, compelling mathematical or physical idea, that actually would be a good reason for believing in it, although not a completely conclusive one. All attempts so far to connect the theory to real physics lead to hideously complicated and ugly constructions.

and,

Some string theorists such as Susskind, argue that one should believe in string theory anyway, and it is this argument which seems to me to be more like religion than science. It’s my impression that Susskind and others are believing something for sociological and psychological reasons, something for which they have no rational, scientific argument. This behavior is not distinguishable from that of many of the intelligent designers, and if it becomes more widespread it ultimately threatens to do real damage to the public perception of science in general and theoretical physics in particular.

Peter’s main argument for comparing string theory with ID is, that

[…] if after a lot of work, there still is no indication that an idea can produce predictions, the continued pursuit of it at some point stops becoming science and starts becoming something more like religion. Susskind and other anthropic landscapeologists have already gone past this point: they have no plausible idea about how to ever get real predictions out of their framework. String theorists who argue that the theory is still too poorly understood, that more work is needed to understand whether there is some way around the radical non-predictivity implied by the landscape, are nominally still doing science.

There are some obvious reasons for which ID is not in any way a scientific theory:

  • it can in principle not be falsified
  • it violates Occam’s razor
  • it is rumored to be supported by a (completely flawed) understanding of the chance of a biological structure like an eye to appear as a result of evolution (typically estimated to be 1 in 10^{150} or less – even though such a ‘calculation’ does not make any sense)
  • it makes no real predictions for any biological systems
  • it is like saying, that science should stop trying to find explanations for things, since supporters of ID argue, that everything which as of yet is not explained by evolution must by explained by an ‘intelligent designer’
  • In comparison, string theory is completely different; some of the reasons are, I think, that in string theory:

  • the appearance of gravity is inevitable
  • all interactions are unified
  • there are no adjustable dimensionless parameters
  • gauge invariance, supersymmetry and higher dimensions comes out in a very natural way (and moreover, the number of dimensions is not something which is assumed, but something which is determined by mathematics)
  • the extra dimensions can be ‘large’ (like in the Randall-Sundrum models) and the existence of those dimensions can be tested, for example at the LHC
  • the Standard Model can be reproduced in a very simple way (for example by intersections of D6-branes wrapping a T^6, or by D3-branes placed at an orbifold singularity – though symmetry breaking remains to be worked out)
  • the ‘hierarchy problem’ can be solved by the existence of extra large dimensions (Randall-Sundrum)
  • the entropy of certain classes of black holes can be accounted for (for example in terms of coincident D1- and D5-branes,  a la Strominger-Vafa), which no other theory of quantum gravity has been able to do so far
  • AdS/CFT can be related to well-established physical theories like QCD (even though the relation is not completely understood yet)
  • the ‘holographic principle’ can naturally be realized, for example in AdS/CFT, which in turn also implies an ‘IR/UV connection’ (two principles, which seem to be pivotal in the search for a quantum theory of gravity)
  • So, when I say, that string theory is intelligent design, I mean, that string theory is the result of years of clever research in trying to find the most fundamental theory of physics and actually – in contrast to ID – is trying to solve a problem, namely that of finding a quantum theory of gravity. In opposition to Lubos Motl, I would call string theory “the Apple of quantum gravity” and not the Microsoft of quantum gravity (but only in the sense, that string theory has proven to be extremely fruitful, both for physics and mathematics, and is built on a tower of innovative new ideas, much like Apple is – and not measured by how popular Microsoft vs. Apple is, where Lubos’ analogy of course is completely correct 😉

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    4 Responses to String Theory = Intelligent Design?

    1. Hi. I wish I could pass along meaningful comments on your observations of the Woit controversy, but my lack of schooling would be quickly exposed. My name is Mark LaFlamme. I’m a crime reporter and columnist in Lewiston, Maine. Clearly, I have no business poking around sites dedicated to quantum physics. However, I’ve been fascinated with the field for several years now and it’s a fascination that’s slow to pass.
      Recently, I’ve been searching for a credible physicist or scholar to take a look at my novel “The Pink Room,” which was published last month. Briefly: the world’s leading physicist attempts to use the science of string theory to bring his daughter back from the dead. Government agents and a bestselling novelist race to find out if he was succesful. The novel is getting great reviews so far, but I wonder how many of my readers have a working grasp of the science. Look me up if you’re interested. mark@marklaflamme.com

    2. TMayim says:

      “it is like saying, that science should stop trying to find explanations for things, since supporters of ID argue, that everything which as of yet is not explained by evolution must by explained by an ‘intelligent designer’”

      Have you really never come across a supporter of ID who also believes that there was a big bang? …who does believe there is a scientific explanation for potentially any aspect of the universe if we reach the intellectual capability to grasp it? …who believes that science should indeed never fail to explore & explain the undiscovered?

      As the ancient proverb says, “It is the glory of mighty ones/G-d to conceal a thing; but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.”

      The search to discover the unknown is part of being an intelligent human. If you have never met any ID supporters who also believe in the big bang and evolution then I ask, in the future, please bear in mind that they do exist before making such sweeping judgments as quoted above.

      It seems a blatant attempt to discredit those in and outside of the scientific community who do believe in the possibility of intelligent design by saying “it is like saying, that science should stop trying to find explanations for things” when their theory actually bears no resemblance to that statement. Your article seems to place all ID supporters into one, very narrow & narrow minded category which certainly isn’t fair, or realistic.

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