Vanity thought #1364. Scientific challenges 3

Continuing from yesterday – suggestions proposed by proponents of the string theory on modification of scientific method are revolutionary but it won’t be the first revolution of this kind in science.

To recap – string theory is mathematically solid but impossible to prove experimentally. Earth is too small to sustain the kind of experiments necessary to confirm it the usual way. We’ve never had these constraints before and perhaps it’s a surprise but they have been long coming.

When we look at distant stars, for example, we have to deal with Earth’s atmosphere, the air surrounding our planet will always, always interfere, and that’s why we built Hubble. It’s not the biggest telescope in the world, far from it, but it flies in total vacuum and we simply can’t replicate its results here on Earth.

When some twenty countries came together, raised funds and built LHC at CERN it was clear that we can’t expand capacity of our colliders forever. This is as good as it gets. Incidentally, it also meant that no one else has the capacity to run his own collider experiments independently, it’s all at the mercy of people who run CERN. It wasn’t like that in the 18th and 19th centuries where everybody could do cutting edge science in his own garage.

Inability to do testing is not going to stop scientists, however, and so proponents of the string theory suggested new criteria for validating theories. A couple of years ago a physicist turned philosopher Richard Dawid wrote a book called String Theory and the Scientific Method which described these limitations and ways to solve them in great detail. I have not read it and have no intention of reading it but chapter by chapter synopsis, reviews, and counterarguments are easily available on the internet.

Basically, what he says is that if we do science the usual way and scientific community responds in the usual way, then we can judge theory’s validity even without testing.

In terms of the string theory he argues that since it’s not built in an empty lot but follows methodologies and constraints imposed by quantum field theory then these constraints ensure that string theory won’t stray off course even if it’s impossible to test.

Dawid’s other argument is that, as seen in the context of existing framework, a theory that doesn’t have any alternatives is usually the right one. As I understand, in the context of quantum field theory strings are the only viable outcome. I don’t know if it’s possible to develop quantum field in another direction or, mathematically, strings are unavoidable.

There’s also the argument that, as seen in history, if a theory offers surprising and unexpected explanations to a number of seemingly unrelated phenomena it must be right. This is, perhaps, the strongest side of strings. Its corollaries in holograms and super symmetry are testable and proven. Dawid argues that it’s enough to assume strings are real.

There’s one more argument that string theory, once properly developed and calculated, will be the one theory of all and explain all known empirical data. So far there aren’t any principal obstacles to achieving that goal, it’s just a matter of putting man-hours into mathematics.

String theorists have their work cut out for them both in short and long term perspective. They have to present general relativity and quantum mechanics as instances of strings, for example, which is a big job. ATM they just don’t have enough math to calculate how strings would behave at those levels AND reconcile it with formulas from standard theory.

The best argument for strings being “real” is that scientists believe that they are and they are not going to be dissuaded by some internet atheists who have learned how to parrot scientific method. It’s the case where science sets the norms and philosophy of science follows, and that’s why scientific method has to be adjusted and empirical testing needs to be put aside.

Dawid spent two chapters explaining that this change is not the first one in the history of science. In the 17th and 18th centuries atomists faced the same problem – atoms were to small to observe but otherwise they perfectly explained everything that people knew at that time.

Atoms are still impossible to observe, btw, and not just because they are small. Even if we had a powerful enough microscope it would still be impossible because simply looking at an atom would “break” it. Shining light on atoms changes their structure. When we bombard them with photons, which what light is, these photons knock electrons off their orbits and atoms will never be the same.

Don’t repeat this in public, it’s just a principle, not exactly what happens in reality.

So, when scientists of that era realized that they will never see the atoms in real life they quickly found other ways to justify their theories. We’ve been using these ways ever since without questioning but at the time it was revolutionary. Things must have been seen and perceived by our senses, now all LHC produces is thousand and thousands of pages of sensor readouts. These readouts look absolutely nothing like Higgs Boson but we accept that when properly interpreted they show proof of Higgs existence.

Science moved from direct to indirect evidence and never actually seen any of its discoveries since. We can’t see electricity, we can’t see electrons, we can’t see radio waves, we can’t see wifi around us, and nothing inside our computers suggests it can show us the internet, which we also can’t actually see or touch.

Dawid says that physics came to the point where we have to take the next step and become satisfied not only with indirect but also with non-empirical evidence.

Of course his proposal is far from being universally accepted and he has a lot to prove before that happens. Basically, string theory needs to show that it really complies with everything Dawid proposed, which isn’t that obvious and needs to be looked at by other people first. If and when it’s found that it checks out there would be a discussion whether string theory is just an exception or we really need new rules to push science forward, then these new rules will need to be negotiated by philosophers of science, so it’s a long time, probably decades before any of it becomes real and widely accepted.

In the meantime, science and string theory will keep going regardless of the discussions about it and so we CAN use this example with atheists already. Some form of move from strictly empiric to non-empiric assessment is unavoidable and even those who disagree with Dawid admit that going by empirics alone is implausible.

Is it possible to connect these developments in science with methods we use in self-realization? It’s not that easy and I haven’t figured out how to go about it yet. We do have empiric proof of one’s spiritual advancement but no “proof” of the existence of the spirit soul. This could be compared to the jump to accepting indirect evidence of atoms and everything smaller. I can’t think of an equivalent to “if the method worked before then new claims about some aspect of spirituality must be correct, too” development. If I could it would be a better argument for avoiding demands for empiric proof of God. Maybe it will come to me later.


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