String theory and post-empiricism

18208_Peter_Woit_HD_Wallpaper_Pic.jpgby Peter Woit

Last month’s conference in Princeton included two remarkable talks by prominent physicists, both of whom invoked philosophy in a manner unprecedented for this kind of scientific gathering. On the first day, Paul Steinhardt attacked the current practice of inflationary cosmology as able to accommodate any experimental result, so, on philosophical grounds, no longer science [2]. He included a video clip of Richard Feynman characterizing this sort of thing as “cargo cult physics.” On the final day, David Gross interpreted Steinhardt’s talk as implicitly applying to string theory, then went on to invoke a philosopher’s new book to defend string theory, arguing that string theorists needed to read the book in order to learn how to defend what they do as science [3].

The book in question was Richard Dawid’s String Theory and the Scientific Method [4], which comes with blurbs from Gross and string theorist John Schwarz on the cover. Dawid is a physicist turned philosopher, and he makes the claim that string theory shows that conventional ideas about theory confirmation need to be revised to accommodate new scientific practice and the increasing significance of “non-empirical theory confirmation.” The issues of this kind raised by string theory are complex, so much so that I once decided to write a whole book on the topic [5]. A decade later I think the arguments of that book still hold up well, with its point of view about string theory now much more widespread among working physicists. One thing I wasn’t aware of back then was the literature in philosophy of science about “progressive” vs. “degenerating” research programs, which now seems to me quite relevant to the question of how to think about evaluating string theory.

I’ve written a bit about the Dawid book and earlier work of his [6], although as for any serious book there’s of course much more to say, even if I lack the time or energy for it. Recently an interview with Dawid appeared, entitled “String theory and post-empiricism,” which summarizes his views and makes some claims about string theory critics which deserve a response, so that will be the topic here. In the interview he says:

I think that those critics make two mistakes. First, they implicitly presume that there is an unchanging conception of theory confirmation that can serve as an eternal criterion for sound scientific reasoning. If this were the case, showing that a certain group violates that criterion would per se refute that group’s line of reasoning. But we have no god-given principles of theory confirmation. The principles we have are themselves a product of the scientific process. They vary from context to context and they change with time based on scientific progress. This means that, in order to criticize a strategy of theory assessment, it’s not enough to point out that the strategy doesn’t agree with a particular more traditional notion.

Second, the fundamental critics of string theory misunderstand the nature of the arguments which support the theory. Those arguments are neither arbitrarily chosen nor uncritical. And they are not decoupled from observation. String theory is indirectly based on the empirical data that drove the development of those theories string theory aims to unify. But more importantly for our discussion, the arguments for the viability of string theory are based on meta-level observations about the research process. As described before, one argument uses the observation that no-one has found a good alternative to string theory. Another one uses the observation that theories without alternatives tended to be viable in the past.

Taking the second part of this first, Dawid seems to be claiming that Smolin and I don’t understand what he calls the “No Alternatives Argument” (discussed in detail in his book, as well as in a paper in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science [8]. In response I’ll point out that one of the concluding chapters of my book was entitled “The Only Game in Town” and was devoted explicitly to this argument. To this day I think that a version of such an argument is the strongest one for string theory, and is what motivates most physicists who continue to work on the theory. The version of this argument that I hear often privately and that has been made publicly by theorists like Edward Witten goes something like:

Ideas about physics that non-trivially extend our best theories (e.g. the Standard Model and general relativity) without hitting obvious inconsistency are rare and deserve a lot of attention. While string theory unification hasn’t worked out as hoped, we have learned a lot of interesting and unexpected things by thinking about string theory. If they see a new idea that looks more promising, string theorists will shift their attention to that.

This is a serious argument, one that I tried to carefully address in the book. Beyond that, more naive versions of it seem to me to have all sorts of obvious problems. Of course, if you really can show that alternatives to a given model are impossible, that is a convincing argument for the model, but this is rarely if ever possible. Working scientists beating their heads against a hard problem are always in the position of having “no alternatives” to some flawed ideas, until the day when someone solves the problem and finds the alternative. The only example I can recall seeing from Dawid of a successful example of the “no alternatives argument” is the discovery of the Higgs, and I find that very hard to take seriously. Pre-2012, the Standard Model was a very precise and exhaustively tested theory, providing a huge amount of indirect evidence for the Higgs. There were plenty of alternatives (technicolor, SUSY, etc.), all much more complicated and with no evidence for them. Making a “no alternatives argument” for a theory with overwhelming experimental evidence behind it is something completely different than trying to do the same thing for a theory with zero experimental evidence.

As for the other mistake that Dawid thinks string theory critics make, that of believing in some unchanging notion of empirical theory confirmation, the first thing to point out is that of course every theorist is well aware that one can can’t just demand experimental predictions and confirmation for ideas, that one spends basically all one’s time working on better understanding ideas that are far from the point where empirical confirmation comes into play. The second thing to point out is that I agree completely with Dawid that as experiments become more difficult, one needs to think about other ways of evaluating ideas to see if they are going anywhere. The last chapter of my book was devoted to exactly this question, arguing that physicists should look carefully at how mathematicians make progress. Mathematics is certainly “post-empirical,” and while logical rigor is a constraint, it is not one that necessarily points mathematicians to fertile new ideas. There is a long history and a deeply-ingrained culture that helps mathematicians figure out the difference between promising and empty speculation, and I believe this is something theoretical physicists could use to make progress.

The epigram from that last chapter though was something that kept going through my head when thinking about this, a line from Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie”:

But to live outside the law, you must be honest.

Yes, theoretical particle physics is in a stage where empirical results are not there to keep people honest, and new and better “post-empirical” ways of evaluating progress are needed. But these must come with rigorous protections against all-too-human failings such as wishful thinking and Lee Smolin’s “groupthink,” and I just don’t see those anywhere in Dawid’s proposal for new kinds of theory confirmation.


I’d like to thank Massimo Pigliucci for the opportunity to write something here at Scientia Salon, and hope it will generate an interesting discussion. Contributions from philosophers to this kind of debate in physics I believe are very much needed, on this issue and others. Don’t even get me started about the multiverse…


Peter Woit is an American theoretical physicist. He is a Senior Lecturer in the Mathematics department at Columbia University. Woit is especially known for his criticism of string theory in his book Not Even Wrong, and also for his widely-read blog of the same name. Peter was one of the first guests on the Rationally Speaking podcast.

[1] Strings 2014 conference.

[2] Paul Steinhardt’s presentation.

[3] David Gross’ presentation.

[4] String Theory and the Scientific Method, by Richard Dawid.

[5] Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law for Unity in Physical Law, by Peter Woit.

[6] Woit on Dawid: here and here.

[7] String theory and post-empiricism, interview with Richard Dawid.

[8] The No Alternatives Argument, by Richard Dawid.

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156 replies

  1. immediatism: “… because it allows one to make dramatic arguments like Peter’s dismissing string theory as “not even wrong”, but no serious and meaningful discussion of this issue can proceed without dealing clearly with this distinction.”

    Peter Woit has answered his part on this issue with his reply above.

    There are two reasons for M-string theory being a failed theory.

    One, it has not made any (any, any,…) contact to the known physics, especially failed on its mission of ‘string-unification’.

    Two, if the ‘string-unification’ is impossible and no one ever succeed on it, then its failure could be forgiven with the ‘no alternative argument’. But, this is not the case; the ‘string-unification’ was demonstrated even in this Webzine (at, ).

    No, Peter Woit did not put down the M-string theory with tongue in cheek.

  2. Where do you think that philosophy came from? Did you ever hear of the Vienna Circle, that collaboration of philosophers, mathematicians and scientists?

    Yes, but it is my understanding that the views of the Vienna Circle are almost entirely rejected by philosophers of the last 40 years or so. Please let me know if I am wrong.

  3. Popper was one of the last philosophers to take physics seriously, even if he did get a few things wrong, such as in Einstein’s point above. I understand that Einstein got the idea for looking at equal and opposite electrons (in the 1935 EPR paper) from a 1934 Popper paper that makes a similar argument.

  4. “QFT is successful because it includes a specific class of theories that have a lot of symmetry, and a very tight mathematical structure. Making a few of the simplest possible choices for theories in this class, you get the SM …” –

    This is clearly inspired by your 2002 paper, p4:

    “Conjecture. The quantum field theory of the standard model may be understood purely in terms of the representation theory of the automorphism group of some geometric structure.” – ( ) which seems to be the result of your 1988 paper “Supersymmetric quantum mechanics, spinors and the standard Model” (Nuclear Physics B303, pp 329-342), :

    “The quantization of the simplest supersymmetric quantum mechanical theory of a free fermion on a riemannian manifold requires the introduction of a complex structure on the tangent space. In 4 dimensions, the subgroup of the group of frame rotations that preserves the complex structure is SU(2) × U(1), and it is argued that this symmetry can be consistently interpreted to be an internal gauge symmetry for the analytically continued theory in Minkowski space. The states of the theory carry the quantum numbers of a generation of leptons in the Wienberg-Salam model. Examination of the geometry of spinors in four dimensions also provides a natural SU(3) symmetry and a very simple construction of a multiplet with the standard model quantum numbers.”

    This is certainly more interesting that string theory, because it simplifies the SM into a product of the geometry of 4 dimensional spacetime, and reduces number of free parameters in the SM. You get SM charges simply by picking out a U(2) symmetry from a SO(4) spin representation on p51 of your 2002 paper using the representation theory on pages 13-17 where a Lie algebra generator contains Clifford algebra elements. I understand that Spin(2n) or SO(2n) has transformations T = exp(2 Pi e_i k) for k = 1, … n, and for e_i values of i = 1, … 2n, which enables you to find the standard model’s electroweak charges. I’m just wondering if you deliberately took a short-cut in your 2002 paper, having already published a lengthier version of the charges derivation for your table on p51 of the 2000 paper version, e.g. how the “exterior algebra” gives the charge results in your table: isospin charge of 1/2 for left handed particles and 0 for right handed particles, hypercharge of 0 for right handed neutrino, -1 for left handed particles and -2 for right handed electrons? I see you simplify and highlight some of the key formulae in e.g. the equation on p28 relating spinors and the complex exterior algebra. But it’s still heavy going, with unfamiliar and obscure mathematics. Is the 1988 paper online anywhere or just behind the Elsevier 36 dollar firewall?

  5. You keep saying things like this, but they are entirely unsubstantiated. As far as I know, not a single philosopher of physics doesn’t take physics seriously.

  6. Examples are T. Kuhn, Feyerabend, and their irrationalist followers. Scientists say that they are pursuing objective truths. Philosophers of science say otherwise. Even today, Dawid writes a book on post-empiricism. David Albert is a physicist-turned-philosopher who rejects quantum mechanics on philosophical grounds. All of these views are antagonistic to modern physics.


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