Somewhere along the line many physicists have come to believe that it must be possible to formulate a theory without observational input, based on pure logic and some sense of aesthetics. They must believe their brains have a mystical connection to the universe and pure power of thought will tell them the laws of nature. But the only logical requirement to choose axioms for a theory is that the axioms not be in conflict with each other. You can thus never arrive at a theory that describes our universe without taking into account observations, period. The attempt to reduce axioms too much just leads to a whole “multiverse” of predictions, most of which don’t describe anything we will ever see….
I cringe every time a string theorist starts talking about beauty and elegance. Whatever made them think that the human sense for beauty has any relevance for the fundamental laws of nature?…
A theory might have other uses than describing nature. It might be pretty, artistic even. It might be thought-provoking. Yes, it might be beautiful and elegant. It might be too good to be true, it might be forever promising. If that’s what you are looking for that’s all fine by me. I am not arguing that these theories should not be pursued. Call them mathematics, art, or philosophy, but if they don’t describe nature don’t call them science.
The foregoing is an excerpt from “Does the Scientific Method Need Revision?“, an essay by Sabine Hossenfelder, assistant professor at the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics with a particular interest in the phenomenology of quantum gravity. In the essay, she raises concerns about physicists being led astray by philosophers (Richard Dawid is mentioned as an alleged culprit; he’s interviewed here) into thinking that observation and testability through experimentation can be dispensed with. According to her, it may be alright for mathematicians and philosophers to pontificate about the structure of the universe without experimentation, but that, she says, is not what scientists should be doing.
Philosophers and historians of science, care to chime in?
(art: detail of Fall by Bridget Riley)