Skip to main content

String Theory Defended (I Told You I'd Get Back to It)

Image result for sheldon cooper

Happy New Year!

On Christmas Eve Day, I mentioned a recent book, Why String Theory? by Joseph Conlon. I said I'd discuss its philosophical significance this week. Here we are, at the start of a new year, and we can start 2017 off with something weighty.

String theory is often presented as a "theory of everything" or ToE. This is both its charm and (in many minds) its downfall. These fundamental strings winding through X dimensions might allow for a geometrical description of all the particles, and the forces, enumerated in modern physics courses. The bestiary of different subatomic particles has become confusing and crowded -- the strong demand of human minds for conceptual order requires some clean-up work there.

As to forces, the "force left out" is always gravity. The other forces -- strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetic, have all made their peace with one another through the magic of quantum mechanics. Gravity remains aloof. One big goal of string theory is to bring gravity in line. This is the answer to the "why" question that serves as Conlon's title.

And yet string theory has become a brick wall against which some of the brightest minds in the world keep hitting their heads, making no dent. The problem is that the "theory" remains frustratingly vague, capable of explaining 'everything' only because it could explain ANYTHING. Thus without falsification, without verification. As one critic says, it is "not even false."

Conlon responds to all this, it seems to me, by abandoning the grand claims for string theory and looking at it NOT as a theory of everything, not even really as a theory at all, but as a source of inspiration -- as a fireworks display, which is aesthetically appealing itself and which can throw unexpected illumination over a lot of different areas.

Thus, he says, what string theory meant in 1970 when it got its start was not what it meant in 1985, and that again not what it meant in 2000 or 2015.

That's good. Lets hope it keeps changing, like the Martians in a Ray Bradbury story, who changed until then couldn't change any longer, and then died.

For in the philosophy of science, I have to stick with the construction Susan Haack calls the "shadow Popper." It is an understanding that can't accurately be traced to Popper himself -- that is in important respects contrary to what the historical Popper argued, but that is often attributed to him in order to have a Big Name behind it., Furthermore, it is an understanding of the world and of scientists' interaction with (the rest of) the world that works fairly well.

The fireworks show is not a sustainable substitute for reliable illumination, and when the right ideas HAVE been inspired (from whatever source) string theory will have become obsolete from the perspective of this defense thereof.


Popular posts from this blog

Great Chain of Being

One of the points that Lovejoy makes in the book of that title I mentioned last week is the importance, in the Neo-Platonist conceptions and in the later development of the "chain of being" metaphor, of what he calls the principle of plenitude. This is the underlying notion that everything that can exist must exist, that creation would not be possible at all were it to leave gaps.

The value of this idea for a certain type of theodicy is clear enough.

This caused theological difficulties when these ideas were absorbed into Christianity.  I'll quote a bit of what Lovejoy has to say about those difficulties:

"For that conception, when taken over into Christianity, had to be accommodated to very different principles, drawn from other sources, which forbade its literal interpretation; to carry it through to what seemed to be its necessary implications was to be sure of falling into one theological pitfall or another."

The big pitfalls were: determinism on the on…

A Story About Coleridge

This is a quote from a memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth, reflecting on a trip she took with two famous poets, her brother, William Wordsworth, and their similarly gifted companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country ... A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. “Yes, sir,” says Coleridge, “it is a majestic wate…