Wisdom is the path to knowledge

As a physicist, I cherish the freedom that comes with the endeavor to uncover new knowledge about our physical world. However, it irks me when people include things in physics that do not qualify.

Physics is a science. As a science, it follows the scientific method. What this means is that, while one can use any conceivable method to come up with ideas for explaining the physical world, only those ideas that work survive to become scientific knowledge. How do we know that it works? We go and look! That means we make observations and perform experiments.

That is the scientific method. It has been like that for more than a few centuries. And it is still the way it is today. All this talk about compromising on the basics of the scientific method is annoying. If we start to compromise, then eventually we’ll end up compromising on our understanding of the physical world. The scientific method works the way it works because that is the only way we can know that our ideas work.

Some people want to go further and put restrictions on how one should come up with these ideas or what kind of ideas should be allowed to have any potential to become scientific knowledge even before it has been tested. There is the idea of falsifiability, as proposed by Karl Popper. It may be a useful idea, but sometimes it is difficult to say in advance whether an idea would be falsifiable. So, I don’t think one should be too exclusive. However, sometimes it is quite obvious that an idea can never be tested.

For example, the interior of a black hole cannot be observed in a way that will give us scientific knowledge about what is going on inside a black hole. Nobody that has entered a black hole can come back with the experimental or observational evidence to tell us that the theory works. So, any theory about the inside of a black hole can never constitute scientific knowledge.

Now there is this issue of the interpretations of quantum mechanics. In a broader sense, it is included under the current studies of the foundations of quantum mechanics. A particular problem that is much talked about within this field, is the so-called measurement problem. The question is: are these scientific topics? Will it ever be possible to test interpretations of quantum mechanics experimentally? Will we be able to study the foundations of quantum mechanics experimentally? Some aspects of it perhaps? What about the measurement problem? Are these topics to be included in physics, or is it perhaps better to just include them under philosophy?

Does philosophy ever lead to knowledge? No, probably not. However, it helps one to find the path to knowledge. If philosophy is considered to embody wisdom (it is the love of wisdom after all), then wisdom must be the path to knowledge. Part of this wisdom is also to know which paths do not lead to knowledge.

It then follows that one should probably not even include the studies of foundations of quantum mechanics under philosophy, because it is not about discovering which paths will lead to knowledge. It tries to achieve knowledge itself, even if it does not always follow the scientific method. Well, we argued that such an approach cannot lead to scientific knowledge. I guess a philosophical viewpoint would then tell us that this is not the path to knowledge after all.

The importance of falsifiability

Many years ago, while I was still a graduate student studying particle physics, my supervisor Bob was very worried about supersymmetry. He was particularly worried that it will become the accepted theory without the need to be properly tested.

In those days, it was almost taken for granted that supersymmetry is the correct theory. Since he came from the technicolour camp, Bob did not particularly like supersymmetry. Unfortunately, at that point, the predictions of the technicolour models did not agree with experimental observations. So it was not a seriously considered as a viable theory. Supersymmetry, on the other hand, had enough free parameters that it could sidestep any detrimental experimental results. This ability to dodge these results and constantly hiding itself made supersymmetry look like a theory that can never be ruled out. Hence my supervisor’s concern.

Today the situation is much different. As the Large Hadron Collider accumulated data, it could systematically rule out progressively larger energy ranges where the supersymmetric particles could hide. Eventually, there was simply no place to hide anymore. At least those versions of supersymmetry that rely on a stable superpartner that must exist at the electroweak scale have been ruled out. For most particle physicists this seems to indicate the supersymmetry as a whole has been ruled out. But of course, there are still those that cling to the idea.

So, in hindsight, supersymmetry was falsifiable after all. For me this whole process exemplify the importance of falsifiability. Imagine that supersymmetry could keep on hiding. How would we know if it is right? The reason why so many physicists believed it must be right is because it is “so beautiful.” Does beauty in this context imply that a theory must be correct? Evidently not. There is now alternative to experimental testing to know if a scientific theory is correct.

This bring me to another theory that is believed to be true simply because it is considered so beautiful that it must be correct. I’m talking of string theory. In this case there is a very serious issue about the falsifiability of the theory. String theory addresses physics at the hypothetical Planck scale. However, there does not exist any conceivable way to test physics at this scale.

Just to avoid any confusion about what I mean by falsifiable: There are those people that claim that string theory is falsifiable. It is just not practically possible to test it. Well, that is missing the point now, isn’t it? The reason for falsifiability is to know if the theory is right. It does not help if it is “in principle” falsifiable, because then we won’t be able to know if it is right. The only useful form of falsifiability is when one can physically test it. Otherwise it is not interesting from a scientific point of view.

Having said that, I do not think one should dictate to people what they are allowed to research. We may agree about whether it is science or not, but if somebody wants to investigate something that we do not currently consider as scientific, then so be it. Who knows, one day that research may somehow lead to research that is falsifiable.

There is of course the whole matter of whether such non-falsifiable research should be allowed to receive research funding. However, the matter of how research should be funded is a whole topic on its own. Perhaps for another day.