Friday, January 22, 2016

Physicists Do Need Philosophers

Scientific Collaboration

Boundaries: The speculative nature of modern physics departs from the scientific method, which says that theories have to be proven using evidence-based methods. Ideas such as string theory and multiverses, for example, are outside the boundaries of evidence. In other words, there is no current way within science to prove them valid and true. The use of Bayesian statistics moves physics further away from reality.
Image Credit: Tynan DeBold; Icons via Freepik
Source: Quanta

An article, by Natalie Wolchover, in Quanta brings to light the possible future of physics, one marked by collaboration between theoretical physicists and philosophers on some of the thorniest problems in science, including debating the boundaries of science. Contrary to the hubris displayed by physicists today, dating to the recent past (the last four decades), such a collaboration will ultimately prove fruitful.

The way I view it, epistemology, the study of human knowledge, will find a welcome place in physics and thus energize it. What will then follow is an opening of physics to new ways of thinking that will benefit humanity. But first, physicists have to overcome their irrational fears and welcome outsiders. This process has begun. In “A Fight For the Soul of Science” (December 16, 2015), Wolchover writes:
Physicists typically think they “need philosophers and historians of science like birds need ornithologists,” the Nobel laureate David Gross told a roomful of philosophers, historians and physicists last week in Munich, Germany, paraphrasing Richard Feynman.
But desperate times call for desperate measures.
Fundamental physics faces a problem, Gross explained — one dire enough to call for outsiders’ perspectives. “I’m not sure that we don’t need each other at this point in time,” he said.
It was the opening session of a three-day workshop, held in a Romanesque-style lecture hall at Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU Munich) one year after George Ellis and Joe Silk, two white-haired physicists now sitting in the front row, called for such a conference in an incendiary opinion piece in Nature. One hundred attendees had descended on a land with a celebrated tradition in both physics and the philosophy of science to wage what Ellis and Silk declared a “battle for the heart and soul of physics.”
The crisis, as Ellis and Silk tell it, is the wildly speculative nature of modern physics theories, which they say reflects a dangerous departure from the scientific method. Many of today’s theorists — chief among them the proponents of string theory and the multiverse hypothesis — appear convinced of their ideas on the grounds that they are beautiful or logically compelling, despite the impossibility of testing them. Ellis and Silk accused these theorists of “moving the goalposts” of science and blurring the line between physics and pseudoscience. “The imprimatur of science should be awarded only to a theory that is testable,” Ellis and Silk wrote, thereby disqualifying most of the leading theories of the past 40 years. “Only then can we defend science from attack.”
They were reacting, in part, to the controversial ideas of Richard Dawid, an Austrian philosopher whose 2013 book String Theory and the Scientific Method identified three kinds of “non-empirical” evidence that Dawid says can help build trust in scientific theories absent empirical data. Dawid, a researcher at LMU Munich, answered Ellis and Silk’s battle cry and assembled far-flung scholars anchoring all sides of the argument for the high-profile event last week.
At least both sides are talking. Speculation, if it leads to a verifiable theory is both necessary and good and is at the heart of scientific research. But if it not testable, then it remains a theory that has not been verified by the scientific method, the fundamental basis of modern science. Yet, modern science has hit a boundary of sorts when it comes to some of the hard problems in science. This will require a re-thinking of how to approach speculative ideas that are on both ends of the size spectrum: very tiny and very large.

Many argue, with good insight and reason, that physics today has lost its way and is not really discovering anything new, just repackaging old discoveries, or working in the realm of “escapist science.” This is symptomatic of a loss of meaning and purpose, a malaise of the mind.This is where philosophy might help, since it is concerned with asking hard questions that cannot be easily answered. One such question is whether the universe has meaning. (Such a question becomes more pressing in light of so much suffering in the world.) The asking of the question is itself important, as is the pathways to possible answers. Science can ill afford to be walled off from the rest of life.

One can take as an example Albert Einstein, whose search for truth underpinned his scientific work. In a 1916 memorial note for Ernest Mach, Einstein wrote:
How does it happen that a properly endowed natural scientist comes to concern himself with epistemology? Is there no more valuable work in his specialty? I hear many of my colleagues saying, and I sense it from many more, that they feel this way. I cannot share this sentiment. When I think about the ablest students whom I have encountered in my teaching, that is, those who distinguish themselves by their independence of judgment and not merely their quick-wittedness, I can affirm that they had a vigorous interest in epistemology. They happily began discussions about the goals and methods of science, and they showed unequivocally, through their tenacity in defending their views, that the subject seemed important to them. Indeed, one should not be surprised at this. (Einstein 1916, 101)
Yes, indeed.

For more, go to [Quanta]