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.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

England as a Raft?

In a lecture delivered in 1880, William James asked rhetorically, "Would England ... be the drifting raft she is now in European affairs if a Frederic the Great had inherited her throne instead of a Victoria, and if Messrs Bentham, Mill, Cobden, and Bright had all been born in Prussia?"

Beneath that, in a collection of such lectures later published under James' direction, was placed the footnote, "The reader will remember when this was written."

The suggestion of the bit about Bentham, Mill, etc. is that the utilitarians as a school helped render England ineffective as a European power, a drifting raft.

The footnote was added in 1897. So either James is suggesting that the baleful influence of Bentham, Mill etc wore off in the meantime or that he had over-estimated it.

Let's unpack this a bit.  What was happening in the period before 1880 that made England seem a drifting raft in European affairs, to a friendly though foreign observer (to the older brother…

Cancer Breakthrough

Hopeful news in recent days about an old and dear desideratum: a cure for cancer. Or at least for a cancer, and a nasty one at that.

The news comes about because investors in GlaxoSmithKline are greedy for profits, and has already inspired a bit of deregulation to boot. 

The FDA has paved the road for a speedy review of a new BCMA drug for multiple myeloma, essentially cancer of the bone marrow. This means that the US govt has removed some of the hurdles that would otherwise (by decision of the same govt) face a company trying to proceed with these trials expeditiously. 

This has been done because the Phase I clinical trial results have been very promising. The report I've seen indicates that details of these results will be shared with the world on Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. 

The European Medicines Agency has also given priority treatment to the drug in question. 

GSK's website identifies the drug at issue as "GSK2857916," althou…

Francesco Orsi

I thought briefly that I had found a contemporary philosopher whose views on ethics and meta-ethics checked all four key boxes. An ally all down the line.

The four, as regular readers of this blog may remember, are: cognitivism, intuitionism, consequentialism, pluralism. These represent the views that, respectively: some ethical judgments constitute knowledge; one important source for this knowledge consists of quasi-sensory non-inferential primary recognitions ("intuitions"); the right is logically dependent upon the good; and there exists an irreducible plurality of good.

Francesco Orsi seemed to believe all of these propositions. Here's his website and a link to one relevant paper:

https://sites.google.com/site/francescoorsi1/

https://jhaponline.org/jhap/article/view/3

What was better: Orsi is a young man. Born in 1980. A damned child! Has no memories of the age of disco!

So I emailed him asking if I was right that he believed all of those things. His answer: three out of …