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.

Advertisements

156 thoughts on “String theory and post-empiricism

  1. I think Woit is mostly right to argue that string theory is more mathematics (or even “scientia”, to use Massimo’s term) than science insofar as science has reasonably firm controls in place to falsify hypotheses and more generally control and limit wrong inquiry.

    But where I think most of the disconnect and controversy occurs in these discussions is over the subtext that science is the crown jewel of human study, and that pursuits that are not scientific are at best somehow less valuable and/or less true than scientific ones, or at worst “just” bullshit and/or nonsense. If one has internalised this sort of scientismic epistemology, it makes sense to fiercely try and defend string theory as science (even though it’s not), because string theorists rightly are identifying that they are pioneering developments in conceptual space that could very possibly be a prerequisite to actual scientific progress down the road.

    So in this sense, the philosopher has to be the one in the wilderness preparing the way for the scientist, so to speak. He is not the enemy of the scientist — to the contrary, he is indispensible to the scientist. So while string theory should not be considered scientific, it nonetheless remains an important field of inquiry which people devoted to science should respect and encourage.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. In reference to “… new kinds of theory confirmation”, I doubt that such new kinds are necessary for confirming string theory.
    Hypothesis 1: On the basis of overwhelming empirical evidence, Milgrom is the Kepler of contemporary cosmology.
    Hypothesis 2: Milgrom’s non-relativistic MOND is the key to understanding string theory.
    the dark matter crisis

    Like

  3. Hi Peter,

    To what extent do you think that physicists agree with Dawid’s ideas of a “post-empirical” science? I’d have thought that most string theorists and certainly nearly all physicists would reject these ideas (and would instead regard string theory as a mathematical toolkit, but one that cannot be regarded as a proven scientific model without empirical verification). The two “blurbs” from physicists that you quote from Dawid’s book don’t say that they agree with Dawid, only that his ideas are “interesting”. Perhaps (and somewhat rarely for you!) you are in-line with the mainstream on this.

    Like

  4. Dear Peter,

    I might mention that I have a review of Dawid’s book coming out in the American Journal of Physics. The main argument of my review is to take the three criteria that Dawid proposes for non-empirical theory selection (one of which is the no alternatives argument) and show they apply at least as well to loop quantum gravity as they do to string theory. To quote from the review: ” But if Dawid’s criteria can be used equally well to support rival research programs, and to justify the attentions of two competing research communities, his argument must be judged to fail. It fails as advice for scientists. And it fails as philosophy of science, for criteria for theory selection cannot be decisive, either descriptively or prescriptively, when they can be used equally well by both sides of a debate which at most one can win, if science is to progress from rivalry to consensus. The fact that his criteria may describe the reasons for consensus among adherents to one research program means little when the same criteria explain consensus among a competing group of scientists. As Feyerabend argued so eloquently in his book Against Method, competition is healthy for science, but that competition must give way to consensus for a field of science to be recognized to have progressed.

    The problem Dawid is supposed to be solving is how competition and disagreement give way to consensus, such victories being the steps by which science progresses. At best his criteria explain why disagreements harden into groupthink as consensus between rivals fails to be achieved. That is, his is a theory that explains only why science fails to progress in the absence of convincing empirical evidence.”

    The fact is that there are several alternative programs for quantum gravity and unification and there are compelling theoretical arguments for several of them. This is why experiment is necessary for science to progress.

    Lee Smolin

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Coel,
    I think physicists in general are pretty skeptical about all claims of “post-empirical” science, even more so than I am. About as far as they’re willing to go is the version of “no alternatives” I tried to describe in the posting. You’re right that even Gross and Schwarz don’t seem willing to strongly back what Dawid is claiming (although Gross to some extent does so in his talk at Strings 2014). I’m curious what philosophers think of all this.

    Yes,. here I’m probably much more in-line with mainstream physicists than many prominent string theorists, but I don’t think that’s at all unusual these days…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Don’t even get me started about the multiverse…

    Amen to that. The kindest thing one can say about that is that it is chaotic thinking in hot pursuit of prior prejudice, inflated by a singular lack of evidence.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Lee,

    I’m glad to hear about your review, and I agree with the part you quote here.

    Of several things I was thinking of adding to the piece here, but didn’t to keep it reasonably short, one would have been to note that another problem with Dawid’s claims was that there really were alternatives, and you had made that case well. In a different direction I think the discussion about “background independence” that you raised and that was widely debated was a good example of a serious and valuable sort of “post-empirical’ discussion. Yes, experiment trumps others, but there really are worthwhile theory selection criteria other than agreement with experiment.

    Like

  8. Hi labnut,
    As DM noticed, you missed the letters “un” from your second sentence. A much fairer thing to say about multiverse ideas is that they are entirely sensible ideas to consider and are no more outlandish than non-multiverse alternatives.

    Like

  9. DM,
    I’m not sure that’s the kindest thing one could say about it.

    As always, there are some unspoken assumptions and this is a case in point.
    The assumptions are, in this case:
    1) honesty;
    2) rigorous reasoning;
    3) empirically grounded thinking;
    4) freedom from unexamined bias.

    I could make ‘kinder‘ statements but they would violate (1), (2), (3) or (4).
    I leave that kind of thing to the scientismists. 🙂

    Like

  10. As I just said… Also, (1) is unnecessary, seems to me everyone is engaging in honest debate, regardless of differences of opinion. (2) is ideal, but difficult; (3) is the crucial point; (4) is next to humanly impossible.

    Like

  11. Massimo,
    Please, let’s not have that debate again, not so soon…
    OK, OK, I will delay the fun for another occasion. I will roast the second marshmallow at another opportunity. That is called deferred gratification. In any case, I was hoping that someone, anyone, would appreciate a humorous turn of phrase.

    Like

  12. “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 … must come with rigorous protections against all-too-human failings such as wishful thinking and Lee Smolin’s “groupthink,”

    Thank you Peter Woit. On purely philosophical grounds, I’ve had my doubts about the atomic hypothesis (that all matter is ontologically reducible to atomic particles). My reasons for doubt are outlined at http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/10714/

    Perhaps the scientifically literate at Scientia Salon could do readers a favor and publish a review of D. B. Larson’s scientific thesis ‘The Case Against the Nuclear Atom’. I’m curious to know if his arguments would be plausible to a professional physicist. The full text of the book is online at http://www.reciprocalsystem.com/cana/

    Like

  13. Massimo,
    I understand your qualifications, they are realistic. Even so, these are the four points of science’s moral compass and they deserve to be stated and restated. My fear is that some are discarding science’s moral compass in the name of expediency. This goes right to the very heart of the present debate.

    Like

  14. “Expediency” is a morally loaded term, which I think is unjustified here. Again, from where I stand, disagreement seems principled and reasoned, not a result of unethical shortcuts (as implied by your use of the phrase “moral compass”).

    Like

  15. Note to self, never disagree with Massimo, he always has a good answer.
    Massimo, I accept what you have said.

    Like

  16. I wanted to thank Dr. Woit for his nice piece above. I must confess I found the discussion of “post-empirical” science quite alarming. This is very much of a piece with the language used by folks like Behe and Dembski in their efforts to shift “intelligent design” from the Sunday school to the science class; that it is viewed askance by most physicists I take to be a very good thing.

    Like

  17. Hi labnut,

    I think that all physicists would agree with you on the requirement for empirically grounded thinking. That being what science is all about (they also do their best at your 1, 2 and 4). Are there any clear counter examples?

    Dawid doesn’t count, since he is now a philosopher so has done over to the Dark Side where, by self admission, thinking is not always empirically grounded!

    Like

  18. I still maintain that maths is ultimately empirical, with axioms of maths being derived from reality as a distillation of empiricism.

    Are there maths axioms that are not? Well, the Axiom of Choice perhaps, but then that produces Banach–Tarski which more or less proves my point. Anyone who accepts Banach–Tarski certainly has gone over to the Dark Side!

    Like

  19. As noted in the past, I think you are wrong about the ultimate empiricist bases of math, and I’m pretty sure most mathematicians will agree. But it’s irrelevant anyhow, because a lot of current work in math has no connection at all with empiricism, so much of the field has still gone to the dark side, according to your criterion.

    Like

  20. Massimo,
    What’s the point of a discussion forum if everyone agrees with me?

    Be careful here, you won’t get away scot-free(I’m not referring to Duns Scotus). Science’s moral compass is held in alignment by a universal moral field. It is no good quoting Euthyphro and the evidentiary problem of evil at me. I have got them licked, see my forthcoming paper in the Heavenly Annals of Philosophy, issue 2050. It was peer reviewed by St. Thomas of Aquinas, no less. William of Ockham was critical of the length of my paper but he consented to an exception(the guy’s fame has gone to his shaven head).

    Like

  21. Reasoning from empirically derived axioms (which is what mathematicians do and which physicists also do all the time) is not “dark side” in my definition.

    Like

  22. Hi Peter,

    This article was interesting as an overview of some of the issues, but I find it hard to get a good handle on what your answer is to some of these defences of String Theory. It seems the substance of your argument is to be found in your book. As such, it’s hard to find much to say about this particular article which seems a little light on content.

    The “Only Game in Town” argument seems to remain pretty robust to me. In this article, your argument against that position is only really that the Higgs is not a particularly good example of this applying in the past. I’m agnostic on this point, but it hardly settles the question. I would certainly be interested in reading your more detailed response in your book whenever I get around to reading it.

    To me, the point of the “only game in town” argument is not that it must be correct if there is no alternative, but that there is nothing else to work on so we might as well work on this. It may yet produce something useful or interesting, or even prove itself to be false while we’re waiting for something better to come along. It’s not really clear to me whether you are advocating that we should suspend or severely limit string theory research (which I would probably disagree with) or whether you are making the more modest claim that string theory should be taken with a large grain of salt.

    Finally, on the need to be honest outside the law, I agree with this sentiment but I’m not sure that string theorists are being dishonest. I agree that it is a little worrying that they are working without the safety net of empiricism, but that does not mean that they are succumbing to all the pitfalls you mention. You doubt Dawid’s safeguards are enough, but perhaps these and others may do the job after all. For instance, to defeat groupthink, perhaps it is sufficient to foster a culture that values contrarianism (e.g. with prizes for iconoclastic ideas).

    If, as I believe, there is good reason to work on areas like string theory (as the only game in town), and if there is no way to work on these ideas “inside the law”, then we have no choice but to do our best “outside the law”.

    I think string theorists are doing their best. There’s no harm in pointing out the risks, but without suggestions about how to improve matters there’s nothing actionable in what you say.

    Like

  23. Okay, I guess you are going to entirely miss my point. So, let me ask you this: since philosophers also take into account facts about the world in their reasoning, why are they on the dark side, in your classification of good and evil?

    Like

  24. It seems to me that there are two questions here.

    The first is whether or not string theory is worthy of being worked on. It seems unscientific to say that no one who wants to should work on it. We can never know what speculations might lead to progress, and as other people have noted, such work has provided side benefits.

    The second question is whether anything about string theories can yet be considered a “discovery” or whether other theories should be judged by looking to what extent they are consistent with these theories. I think the answer here has to be a solid no. If we can’t point to some aspect of observable reality and say what would be different if these theories are wrong, then considering anything settled about them seems profoundly unscientific.

    Like

  25. I think that there is both good and bad philosophy. Much of it is good, asking valid questions rooted in “facts about the world”, and such people are on the good side.

    I would also group such people along with physicists and mathematicians in what I term broad-definition “science”, or what you term “scientia”.

    There are also philosophers on the Dark Side, theologians being the most obvious example, though there are plenty of others.

    Like

  26. Hi SAP,

    I think string theorists can indeed make discoveries, if only about what certain models entail. The question is whether it is most appropriate to call these ‘scientific discoveries’, ‘theoretical discoveries’ or ‘mathematical discoveries’. This is not a particularly interesting question to me, I must confess!

    Like

  27. Coel,
    There are also philosophers on the Dark Side
    Your idea of the Dark Side would seem to be anyone who disagrees with you.

    Let’s instead use science’s moral compass as a way of deciding who or what is on the dark side. Let me remind you, these are the four points of science’s moral compass:
    1) honesty;
    2) rigorous reasoning;
    3) empirically grounded thinking;
    4) freedom from unexamined bias.

    Philosophy’s moral compass would have the following four points of the compass:
    1) honesty;
    2) rigorous reasoning;
    3) conceptually grounded thinking;
    4) freedom from unexamined bias.

    for the simple reason that science explores the empirical space while philosophy explores the conceptual space (and religion explores the spiritual space).

    So, if you want to throw around Dark Side accusations, please motivate them by appealing to the relevant moral compass and giving good arguments. Anything else is just puffery.

    You may ask why I appeal to the moral compass. The answer is simple, Dark Side accusations are moral judgements.

    Like

  28. Hi labnut,

    for the simple reason that science explores the empirical space while philosophy explores the conceptual space (and religion explores the spiritual space).

    Unfortunately I don’t accept your distinction. In particular science deals with “concepts” as much as anything does, and concepts are unavoidably entwined with empiricism (Duhem–Quine).

    If you like we could make a distinction between concepts that have some relation and relevance to the real world and concepts that don’t, but that distinction doesn’t map neatly to the areas you list.

    Like

  29. You seem to make far too much of Duhem-Quine (which, by the way, are two distinct theses, only the second one being useful for your purposes).

    Like

  30. Hi DM,
    I’ll grant that mathematical and theoretical discoveries are possible. Whether they would amount to “scientific” discoveries is, of course, a matter of definition. I think by the most common definitions and understanding of science, they wouldn’t be scientific discoveries. But I’m sure string theory proponents would say that conceptions of science is too narrow, which I guess is what this debate is about.

    Like

  31. Disagreeable Me,

    I understand that “read my book” is kind of an unsatisfactory thing to tell people, but this is a case of a very complex issue (one that has only gotten more complicated over the past decade). Even to start saying something sensible you’d have to say what you mean by “string theory”, and at this point, that’s too long for a blog post. One can actually make a good argument these days that “string theorists” have abandoned string theory, thereby proving that it’s not the only game in town.

    I was trying to restrict myself to discussing Dawid, and even there, a blog post is too short to do justice to the argument of a book. What struck me when reading his book was that he pretty much ignores what to me are the obvious problems with his argument that have often been raised publicly, and this continues in his interview.

    About dishonesty, I don’t claim that string theorists are saying things they don’t believe. What I’m talking about (and what I think Bob Dylan was singing about) is being honest with yourself, which is not something that comes naturally to human beings. You talk about “Dawid’s safeguards”, but I don’t see what they are, or a good argument that they’re working correctly. Much of his argument is based on the idea that theoretical physicists were successful in the past, which counts as evidence for what they’re doing now. This conflicts though with his argument that things are different now, with different standards needed.

    Like

  32. Perhaps you can point to the talks there which make falsifiable predictions which will count against string theory if they don’t work out. Also worth considering is why the people at Strings 2014 weren’t discussing this, with at least one of the summary talks (from Strominger) quite explicit that he believed there was no hope for testing string theory “predictions” about particle physics.

    Like

  33. Hi Peter,

    I understood that you meant “honesty” in this sense. So did I.

    I haven’t read Dawid’s book either, so I’m only supposing that he makes some effort to propose some ideas to keep string theorists honest. If he doesn’t make even poor suggestions, I agree with you that this is an omission that should be rectified.

    I guess that only leaves me to say that while I remain somewhat sympathetic to theoretical physics beyond empiricism, I don’t think you get very much if anything at all wrong in this particular essay.

    Like

  34. Coel,
    Unfortunately I don’t accept your distinction.

    No, you would not, because you are fundamentally committed to scientism. From that perspective, everything is science and there is nothing else, hence only one space, the empirical space.

    What you need to understand is that this is a metaphysical commitment and not an ordinary fact of the matter.

    You also need to understand that this is very much a minority position which imposes on you a duty to understand why the majority hold the position they do. Have you entertained the possibility that other, different thinking people could just, possibly, be right? No, of course not, there is only one right thinking dogma, scientism,

    Finally you need to understand that your metaphysical commitment flies in the face of well settled knowledge. For example, you have completely and utterly failed to show that science answers moral questions. You have also completely and utterly failed to show that semantics can be derived from syntax. And then there is of course another matter that I promised Massimo I would no longer bring up (until I have earned the second marshmallow). If scientism cannot answer these matters it is an incomplete approach to a description of the world and scientism is a doomed metaphysical commitment.

    Denial is not a good strategy. Massimo has written extensively about the empirical and conceptual spaces and his thinking is broadly accepted, outside the ranks of scientismists. To say that science uses concepts is trivial and irrelevant. My grandson also uses concepts.

    When we use the terms ’empirical space’ and ‘conceptual space’ they are labels that denote two different working methodologies and two different goals. Your trivial use of the word ‘concepts’ entirely ignores this fact.

    Like

  35. increasing significance of “non-empirical theory confirmation.”

    Surely a “non-empirical theory confirmation” would only be a temporary situation? Theories that don’t predict future real-world observations simply aren’t useful.

    Like

  36. I must admit to being a staunch conservative in my view of what constitutes science.

    Science is a methodology built on iteratively combining knowledge gained through reason and sense-data. Logic goes back to the ancient Greeks, but they did not systematically test their conclusions using observation. Observation goes back to pre-humans, but after formal logic, deep thinkers (following Plato) did not trust it as an avenue to deep insight. Science finally arose when Isaac Newton capped off a series of developments by advocating a strict testing of theory by predicting previously unknown observations, then performing the observation. Science was born, and I believe that every scientific field that followed from Newton’s day has utilized this methodology, which defines the field.

    Yet it was not until the 1930 that Karl Popper stated clearly exactly how this worked. I must admit to being a follower of Popper, whom I believe deserves almost as much credit as Newton, Darwin, or Einstein in shaping our understanding of science today.

    So what happens when we give up use of falsifiable experiential predictions as a test of theory? It seems to me we are changing the very basis on which science is defined. We are back to Plato. Is Astrology to be reconsidered as a possible “science.” Perhaps someone would say no, because there are alternatives to astrology in accounting for known observations. But there are ALWAYS alternatives, or potential future alternatives. As eloquently stated by Pirsig in ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, there are always an infinite number of theories that will successfully explain any finite data set.

    While I argue strongly for sticking to a traditional definition for science methodology, I agree that we should not view science as a sole road to truth or understanding. There is much extremely valuable human understanding that originates apart from the methodology of science. Again, I am a good Popperian, opposing positivism.

    I consider all science a branch of philosophy: Natural Philosophy, or “Philosophy of Nature” which I believe was what Newton thought he was pursuing. And I think it is dangerous when scientists stop recognizing that their methodology is a sub-field of a greater seeking after understanding.

    Maybe there WILL arise a post-science methodology which represents an improved route to understanding. One of the better students I’ve ever taught (she’s now a physician) raised this possibility in an undergraduate discussion about 20 years ago. If so, it would be an event whose importance rivals that of the Scientific Revolution. Perhaps one day we will see science as a useful tool, which dominated human philosophy for 300 years and was then replaced by a more advanced formal process. But I am, at present, not willing to bestow the mantle of “science” on a field whose followers have given up on sense-data as a test of their falsifiable theories.

    Like

  37. Interesting piece. I think when you’re dealing with post-empirical mathematics and you find yourself boxed in with “no alternatives”, you do have to turn to speculation a bit in order to find your way out. But there’s a difference between picking your desired outcome and confirming your bias through process of elimination (which is what I think you’re critiquing here, and what I think Steinhardt was pointing out with his invocation of Feynman’s Cargo Cult Science metaphor) and picking a shaky starting point and seeing what evidence it drums up, all the while knowing that you’ve made a starting assumption, and will have to go back to the beginning with the new solid information you’ve churned out of the assumption to start fresh.

    Like

  38. Hi Harry,

    But I am, at present, not willing to bestow the mantle of “science” on a field whose followers have given up on sense-data as a test of their falsifiable theories.

    I agree with you, and I don’t agree with Dawid’s analysis of this. However we also need to be careful not to straw-man, in that I’m not aware of any significant number of scientists in any field who have advocated giving up on empirical verification of theories.

    Like

  39. Hi labnut,

    From that [scientism] perspective, everything is science and there is nothing else, hence only one space, the empirical space.

    Well, everything that is about advancing knowledge is science, yes (there are plenty of human activities that are not about advancing knowledge).

    You also need to understand that this is very much a minority position which imposes on you a duty to understand why the majority hold the position they do.

    Human intuition is just cobbled together by evolution to to a job, and thus is unreliable in many ways. It is pretty hopeless at quantum mechanics and relativity, for example (since these were irrelevant for our evolutionary past). Human intuition is largely dualistic and sees mind and matter as distinct, which may have been a good and useful heuristic over evolutionary time even if actually wrong.

    Have you entertained the possibility that other, different thinking people could just, possibly, be right?

    Why sure, lots of times. I’m always open to good counter-arguments.

    No, of course not, there is only one right thinking dogma, scientism,

    Now, now! Anyhow, scientism is not a dogma, it is a product of scientific enquiry.

    Finally you need to understand that your metaphysical commitment flies in the face of well settled knowledge.

    Really? That is news to me!

    For example, you have completely and utterly failed to show that science answers moral questions.

    You mean that you utterly failed to engage with the answers I was giving you. If you want to pursue this then that’s fine with me, but it would be a good idea if you actually engaged over it.

    You have also completely and utterly failed to show that semantics can be derived from syntax.

    Actually, I gave a decent account of how it is done, which neither you nor anyone refuted. Instead you more or less ignored it (as with my replies re morality). Of course my account might be wrong, but you haven’t shown it.

    And then there is of course another matter that I promised Massimo I would no longer bring up …

    You have this tendency to want to re-hash every past thread. Can I suggest that, if you want to do so, we do it one at a time and with actual engagement?

    When we use the terms ‘empirical space’ and ‘conceptual space’ they are labels that denote two different working methodologies and two different goals.

    Feel free to expound on this. If you think that I’m not understanding what you mean then it is helpful to explain further.

    Like

  40. woit: “he [Dawid] 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.”
    Dawid: “But we have no god-given principles of theory confirmation. … String theory is indirectly based on the empirical data that drove the development of those theories string theory aims to unify.”

    I must agree with Dawid on this ‘post-empirical statement’. In Hilary Putnam’s blog, he showed a Quine’s quote {much good science is untestable}, and I agreed with him with some examples (see, http://putnamphil.blogspot.com/2014/06/a-final-post-for-now-on-whether-quine.html?showComment=1403375810880#c249913231636084948 ).

    woit: “… one would have been to note that another problem with Dawid’s claims was that there really were alternatives, and you had made that case well.”
    Amen! I totally disagree with the “No Alternatives Argument”. Some alternatives were even showed in this blog (Scientia Salon), see https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/06/09/the-evidence-crisis/comment-page-1/#comment-3471 .

    woit: “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.”

    Wow, just relax. Science is after all just a human endeavor. I have showed a Chicken/Duck argument.

    Chicken says: gaga
    Duck says: yaya
    Then, there are two possible outcomes for this chicken/duck argument.
    (1) For every chicken (gaga), there is always a response of duck (yaya). Therefore, Gaga = yaya
    (2) For every chicken (gaga), I always have a duck (yaya). Therefore, your gaga is wrong.

    As long as all their gaga are correct, they can of course courageously deny all the yaya regardless of what they are. After all the M-string theory has many great mathematical gaga.

    Like

  41. Good post, even though I’m not sure it really delves into the issue deeply enough to really get anywhere (understandably so for a blog post). I still retain my position on string theory in that it has failed to produce as a scientific theory but still there is a chance that is due to the predictions/experiments not being practical at the moment. As such, the question is really one of resources, both human and monetary. In other words, I’m personally not willing to say that we ought to spend the majority or even substantial amount of resources on string theory at this point and should start to use those resources for researchers looking to find alternatives, etc. Of course I’m not all familiar what those alternatives would be as I’m not a physicists but it seems to me that is the course of action I would take if a similar situation was happening in my own field (psychology).

    Also, Massimo I wonder if you would consider doing a written dialogue (not debate) on Scientia Salon between two proponents of issues such at this one. It would be interesting to see a dialogue between people like. Dr. Dawid and Dr. Woit, perhaps one that even leads to progress in terms of how to move forward on this issue but first laying out the issues and coming up with some tentative ways to move forward.

    Like

  42. Larson’s Reciprocal System has been considered, but it’s not plausible (though a few people, including Isaac Asimov, did consider it a fascinating thought experiment, though not a serious scientific theory). To start with, the ideas put forth by Larson himself are noticeably non-mathematical. Reading CANA and Larson’s other works, if you’re familiar with how physics papers and proposals are usually written, you immediately notice the startling lack of equations and numeric predictions in them. A lack of mathematical formalism in any Physics text is a tremendous red flag.

    Ron Satz, Larson’s successor, has attempted to remedy this as he’s expanded on Larson’s original idea. The difficulty with Satz’ method is that his equations make incorrect predictions (not to mention that they’re usually very badly formatted and hard to follow). When tested, they’ve been universally (I know of no exceptions, minus Satz claiming his version of Reciprocal Theory predicts new scientific findings, but he never elaborates on how) proven wrong.

    It’s one thing to propose an alternate hypothesis; but when you’re aiming at competition with a model that has almost a century of extremely accurate measurement and high predictive success, you’ll need a model that makes at least as many good predictions. Reciprocal System does not.

    Like

Comments are closed.