Theory vs. Reality

Riding the Horns of the Modern Physicist’s Dilemma

Lee Smolin is not happy about the state of modern physics. In his 2006 book “The Trouble with Physics” (Houghton Mifflin) he clearly lays out his dissatisfactions, with string theory, with supersymmetry, and with the very culture of the scientific community itself.

Lee Smolin has good reason for this. Modern physics is a mess, an implausible compendium of mathematical fantasias stretching from the vanishing world of subatomic particle physics to the vastly under-imagined realm of cosmology. And as this book amply illustrates, the guild-like structure of the academic-scientific community is truly mind boggling in its intellectual incestuousness.

On the other hand, Lee Smolin is alright with all of this. In interleaved chapters Smolin ladles on the encomiums for string theorists and their achievements and heaps praise on the scientific community for its Enlightenment values. To say that Lee Smolin is conflicted in these matters does not overstate the case based on what he has written here.

This is a deeply strange yet essential book for anyone interested in the state of the scientific zeitgeist in the early 21st century. In a chapter entitled What is Science? Smolin goes to no small effort to evade that very question. Discussion ranges over the author’s early years as a scientist and the influence on his thinking of the philosopher Paul Feyerabend which, in turn, induces a great deal of vague philosophical musing on the nature and meaning of science.

Particularly notable in this “what is science?” discussion is what is absent. Nowhere is there a direct mention of empiricism. Absent empiricism, there can be no science. Here, however, it is merely alluded to in a section on the philosophical approach to science called logical positivism only to be quickly dismissed. According to Smolin logical positivists “…proposed that assertions become knowledge when they are verified by observations of the world, and …scientific knowledge is the sum of these verified propositions.”

Consider the oddly inverted sequence here of assertion preceding observation; assertions are made then confirmed by observations. This is the type of delusion mathematicians seem inordinately prone to, the assumption that their particular discipline exists somehow a priori to reality itself. Aside from that peculiarity, logical positivism, as described by Smolin, seems like a reasonable approach to the scientific question. But we are talking philosophy here and no reasonable statement about science can be allowed to stand. Especially if it implies that science contains a body of unassailable knowledge which philosophy manifestly does not.

And so it is we are quickly told that there were problems with logical positivism, “one of which was that there is no ironclad correspondence between what is observed and what is stated.”  Really! A well known scientist presents this kind of sloppy, deconstructionist drivel without refuting it for the intellectual fraud it is. Little wonder Smolin perceives a crisis in physics.

It is unclear why any scientist would feel compelled to ask philosophy for a definition of science in the first place. To the best of my knowledge, philosophers don’t go to the Science Department seeking a definition of philosophy. In the end Smolin concludes this inconclusive chapter with a definition borrowed from Richard Feynman: “Science is the organized skepticism in the reliability of expert opinion.” But that is little more than a smug Feynman wisecrack. It is neither satisfying nor contextually meaningful, especially given that scientists routinely claim the mantle of expertise for themselves.

Lee Smolin is right; there is a crisis in physics and in at least some measure that is because well-known and self-identified scientists like himself can’t even formulate a coherent definition of their own discipline, let alone defend it against the sophomoric musings emanating from the Philosophy Department. We are left to wonder whether these people are really scientists or merely mislabeled mathematicians.

The Pit and the Pendulum

In his introduction to The Trouble with Physics Lee Smolin laments the lack of progress made by the physicists of his generation. He tells us that, “Since at least the late eighteenth century significant progress has been made on crucial questions every quarter century.” He lays out that impressive history in brief paragraphs concluding in 1980 with remarks describing the standard model of particle physics that “…told us precisely how protons and neutrons are made up of quarks, which are held together by gluons…” He then concludes by saying, “No one has since done an experiment that was not consistent with this model, or with general relativity.”

The problem with this last statement is that it is simply not true. Experiments to detect quarks were done and they proved fruitless. Similarly, no gluon has ever been directly detected. As to general relativity Smolin himself contradicts this claim, albeit in an oddly backhanded fashion. In Chapter 3, he says of general relativity, “…every time the predictions of the theory are tested in detail, they are beautifully borne out.” At first glance this seems to reaffirm the prior statement, but there is a footnote. That footnote says, in its entirety, “Except, of course, in the case of dark matter and dark energy as we have seen.”  So, we are to understand that the theory is always beautifully borne out except for those inconvenient times when it is not. Whatever you might wish to call these peculiar statements, they cannot be said to be of a scientific nature.

And it is science that is mostly absent in this book. There is wide ranging discussion of various mathematical theories and extensive digressions on the philosophy of science. But mathematics and philosophy are not science. Only science is science. Since as noted previously Smolin cannot seem to settle upon a meaningful definition of science I propose the following working definition for the purpose of further discussion:

Science is the open-ended investigation into the nature of physical reality using the complementary probes of logic and empiricism.

Now it can be said that mathematics is a branch of logic and indeed it is, but neither logic nor mathematics, separately, constitute science as defined here. Without the constraints that empirical rigor places on them logic and mathematics tend to devolve into idle, elaborate, fanciful speculation. Similarly, empiricism without the frameworks provided by logic and mathematics offers nothing but a chaotic, incoherent jumble of disconnected facts.

So here we are in The Trouble with Physics, swinging back and forth between philosophical discussions about science on one hand, and an elaborate exposition of String Theory, a mathematical model that Smolin clearly sees as having no scientific value. Of science itself, however, little is said except for the occasional nod to the alleged successes of the two standard models, cosmology and particle physics. Smolin seems impervious to the idea that these legacy models upon which he and his colleagues are attempting to elaborate are, in fact, as scientifically inert as that deservedly maligned String Theory.

Newton remarked that if he saw far it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants. The problem facing today’s physicists is that they are standing in a hole dug by their predecessors. Unfortunately, gaining admittance into the academy-based physics community requires accepting that pit as being composed of established scientific truths. But those established truths rest on empirically baseless assumptions concocted with an unscientific methodology that places the cart of theory before the horse of observation and experimentation.

No wonder Lee Smolin seems to be flailing about in his attempt to come to terms with the problems he perceives in modern physics. (And he deserves much credit for at least recognizing that there is a problem.) He is equipped by training with a shovel that only digs the pit in which he stands deeper. He and his cohort need to cast down that shovel of failed methodology, grasp the sturdy rope of physical reality and begin hauling themselves out of the pit by constructing entirely new models of cosmology and particle physics that are clearly circumscribed by empirical reality.

The temptation to, instead, bloat reality with evermore fanciful mathematical esoterica, must be firmly and relentlessly resisted. Otherwise, there is no hope that science will regain its bearings and its forward momentum under the aegis of Lee Smolin’s generation.