By Marcel van der Veer
January 2023

Published in Education

More on Education, Philosophy, Science

{“There are more things in Heaven
  and Earth, Horatio, than are
  dreamt of in your philosophy.”
  Shakespeare, Hamlet.}

I am a scientist, and those around me consider me to be an academic. I love to work where physics, chemistry, mathematics and computer science meet. I am impressed by those giving scientific explanations to once terrifying natural phenomena, finding cures to diseases, bringing us to the Moon and back. However, I cannot agree with students of natural sciences who think that philosophy courses in their curriculum are unnecessary. Also, people are sometimes surprised to learn that I may seek council with the clergy. Therefore I would like to dedicate a post to explain this, well aware that such brief explanation will be oversimplified.

Years ago a priest asked us why we wished our child would receive first communion. The good man was genuinely interested to learn why parents want this ceremony to be part of a child's education. This post is a more elaborated explanation of my answer to this priest.

We all look for answers to the important questions in life. Why are we here, what is the purpose of our existence? How must we reason? What can we know, and how can we learn? Why do we perceive the universe the way we do? How must we act? What constitutes art, which is the only trace we leave behind? This, of course, is a brief summary of what philosophy is about.

Physics helps with a part of above fourth question about metaphysics, but not so much with answering the other ones. At the time our child aspired to become a scientist, likely because of the environment we raised it in. A child needs to learn that there are other compasses to navigate by. Which compass a child chooses when growing up is a personal decision based on own thinking, but we parents should present the alternatives. That was my answer to the priest.

For a similar reason I insist that academic students attend philosophy courses.

Even though physics looks firm, it has its share of loose ends. For instance, mathematics is the lingua franca of physics, but could mathematics be powerful enough to describe all of physical reality? Considering Gödel's incompleteness theorem, I think that is a fair question. To quote Wittgenstein, Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.

Building scientific knowledge starts with observation. Observations may not be objective, but a projection of what exists. All we see may be shadows on the wall of Plato's cave. Hence, can we even know what really exists in creation? There is no consensus regarding this and various other questions. Of course, this is a knockdown argument for those thinking that physics pretends to describe reality. However, ignoring the problem does not make it disappear. But let us forego above concern about objective reality and address further concerns.

Scientists form hypotheses based on observations. Good hypotheses become theories, and theories build science. It should be noted that the transition from hypothesis to theory may be gradual in practice. Formally a theory is a proven hypothesis. Often the term theory is already used for a compounded set of hypotheses that explains an aspect of reality. This post is not devoid of that ambiguity, for which I apologise.

Popper stated that theories must be falsifiable, in order to be scientific. A good theory comes with a way by which it might be disproved. If a theory survives falsification, a corroborated theory results that again needs to be falsifiable. That distinguishes knowledge from conjecture, opinion or dogma.

There are several notions in modern physics that border on the not falsifiable. Dark matter for instance, is elusive because it interacts with nothing except exerting gravity. How could we falsify the idea of dark matter, or dark energy for that matter? Or consider string theory, that has not yet seen an experiment confirming the existence of strings. True, string theory is a consistent quantum mechanical theory that at large distances reproduces (a variant of) general relativity. This makes it an impressive mathematical formalism, but that does not mean strings actually exist. Do not get me wrong, when someone comes forward with a falsifiable theory explaining the large-scale structure of the universe, I will be as excited as the next person.

Scientists as Hossenfelder warn that appealing mathematical ideas evoke speculation on actual existence in reality. The multiverse is one such not falsifiable idea. That such structure is allowed by a mathematical model, does not make it real. Similar reasoning holds for fruitlessly persuing fundamental particles that popped up in a mathematical framework. Proof for supersymmetry remains elusive, and this beautiful notion may still turn out to be false after all. Recently we have seen images of the shadow cast by black holes, an awesome feat of our ingenuity. But what to think of conjectures about their inner workings, a region where we cannot make any observation at all? Another example may be constructor theory, but this is relatively recent work and perhaps it is too soon to judge it on grounds of falsifiability.

I most certainly do not wish to suggest we should not discuss hypothetical consequences of mathematical frameworks. On the contrary, often these frameworks result from painstaking work by the most brilliant minds. In the long run, that work may very well advance science. Just call it what it is - bright ideas, fantastic formalisms or beautiful conjectures.

A recent study reveals that during the last decades less and less groundbreaking scientific discoveries were made. The reason for this is debated, with some eagerly pointing at a funding system that stimulates risk-evading research. On the other hand, a period with long-standing unresolved mysteries may herald unexpected new physics. Only time will tell. In the meantime science marches on, which is good since this brings great things to mankind. For questions that science could not answer we can refer to philosophy and religion. Personally, I take comfort in conversing with both academics and the clergy - sometimes united in one and the same person.

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