Perhaps, as interaction between the several corners of the world makes it seem ever smaller and less mysterious, it increasingly seems an inadequate stage for the breadth of our imaginations and even of our immediate existences. Even the universe entire, for all its vastness, hardly seems, for the most part, a very enticing locale, being, apart from Earth, seemingly largely bereft of the resources needed to support our lives. Whatever the reason, I a strange renaissance in the oft-derided notion of alternative dimensions and universes, with the possibility of near-infinite parallel, and thus familiar, existences to our own. Currently the controvery over string theory has gotten back in the popular press because several physicists are airing their skepticism about the entire project through this medium. As far as I understand it (which is of course very little), string theory does not actually posit the existence of multiple universes, but it does call for numerous extra dimensions and other strange preconditions which cannot be perceived by us in any way. Since these elements are totally inaccessible no real experimentation, even observational, can be performed where they are concerned. A large number of possible models of the universe ensues, simply because of the ambiguities surrounding the elements of the universe’s structure which cannot be observed or experimented on. However, the hope is that the vast majority of these models would describe universes which would not support the very delicate balance of conditions needed to sustain life on our planet, and specifically ours (though presumably there are a lot of other delicate balances in the universe which such a model would have to account for). So if we eliminate all the models which describe alternative universes that do not support human life, hopefully only one possibility, or at least a manageably small number, will be left. Or, contra Dirk Gentley, when you eliminate the impossible, the possible left over must be the true answer.

To my untutored eye this all seems like a very convoluted and overly specific way of saying that a theory of the universe needs to account for everything that it exists and posit nothing that doesn’t, but I fully acknowledge my ignorance in these matters (though the laymen of the world are no doubt cheered by the recent discovery that, in judging the responses to questions about gravitational waves submitted by a sociologist and a gravitational wave specialist, a panel of physicists couldn’t accurately determine who was the professional and who the amateur). The critics of string theory often claim that since it supposes the existence of so many things which cannot be tested or measured, which string theorists don’t seem to dispute, it is not real science but rather mere metaphysical speculation. I find more interesting the seeming motives behind the growth of the theory.  Since so many parts of it seem to be intrinsically untestable, and therefore the theory is apparently unable to be verified, why bother with it? Its defenders seem for the most part to believe that even if it is unproveable as a complete, coherent model of the universe it has nonetheless a certain aesthetic, perhaps even spiritual, value. As long as it’s possible and doesn’t contradict that which we can verify it satisfies. Conventional physics, then, for where our hands and eyes can reach, and strings and curled-up dimensions for where they can’t. Of course, if we substitute “God” for “strings and curled-up dimensions,” intellectual religious people have been trying to do this for years, if not centuries, and how many physicists respect them for that?

Analytical philosophers, almost as bizarrely, have been indulging in speculation about alternate worlds and dimensions as well, at least since the days of Saul Kripke or David K. Lewis. Jerry Fodor pretty thoroughly, yet oddly deferentially, trashes the relevance of Kripke’s contribution. As far as I understand Kripke’s ideas, and Fodor’s critique of him, the basic problem with analytical philosophy is that it it is not an empirical discipline, but rather one predicated on definitions and logic, more like math (many of the first great analytical philosophers, like Bertrand Russell, were mathemticians and logicians).  The problem arises when analytical philosophers try to go beyond statements about the structure of language to making true statements about the world. Since they are not empiricists, they are limited to discovering a priori, or categorical, logically necessary truths. However, some influential critics, like W.V.O. Quine, contended that there aren’t any. Kripke then defused this critique by claiming that by positing a large number of hypothetical alternate realities you could determine what is logically necessary simply by analyzing whether it could be untrue or not exist in any possible world.

However, as far as I can tell, and as Fodor seems to feel, is that this doesn’t actually say anything about the world. Logically necessary truths don’t prove what exists in the world, they just prove the properties of what they describe. For instance, Fodor mentions as an example the fact that a king’s reign must last for some amount of time, because that is implicit in its definition. But that doesn’t prove that any king ever reigned anywhere. And, while everyone would probably agree that a reign must last some amount of time, unlike a mathematical quantity there are many possible definitions of what a reign might be. So the problem seems to be that the kinds of conclusions analytical philosophy produces in this way tend to be true but trivial, since we still rely on empirical knowledge both determine the meanings of words and statements in the first place and then to determine whether those statements are true.  Analytical philosophy, even as Kripke envisions it, doesn’t seem to do much more than ensure we don’t contradict ourselves.  This is the main reason I abandoned philosophy as an academic discipline in the American university. Well, that and the exceedingly annoying form of the syllogisms in analytical philosophy (“Water is the stuff that is in the Thames and comes out of the taps. The stuff that is in the Thames and comes out of the taps undeniably contains impurities (bits that are neither hydrogen nor oxygen nor constituents thereof). So how can water be H2O?”), which after a while becomes barely less grating than literary theory. Basically, both this field theoretical physics seem pretty stagnant, and because they seem to have reached a bit of a dead end relative to their more experimental brethren, they have attracted a lot of very abstract speculative types who in another time would probably spend much of their time banging a drum at a camp somewhere. Or maybe they do now.

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