The informed reader will know that the title represents an oxymoron. Without its empirical character science would not be science. It is very much what defines the cultural activity that we call “science” to be what it is.
Why then this glaring contradictory notion? It has popped up in the literature related to a recent “publicity stunt” where a simulation of a wormhole in a toy model was blown out of all proportions by being deemed to have created an actual wormhole. The simulation was done on a puny quantum computer incorporating merely 9 qubits.
Although this story has been hyped by various sources (and I am not going to give any links because I don’t want to mislead more people), many people have strongly criticized the story, including John Horgan, Scott Aaronson, Ethan Siegel, and Peter Woit. I can go on to try and clarify, but these posts are doing a much better job than I can.
Of course it is nonsense. A simulation is a numerical calculation of the physical process under study. It is not the real thing. And it does not matter whether the simulation is done with a classical digital computer or with a quantum computer. It is still just a simulation. Moreover, the amount of information that one can extract from 9 qubits is 9 bits, which is barely enough to specify one single ASCII character in a text document. So, no wormholes were created.
Perhaps the result they obtained from their simulation agreed well with what they expected to see, but that does not mean that it qualifies as being an experiment. Simulations and experiments are different things. Usually simulations are used when the direct calculations are too difficult. However, there is almost no limit on what one can simulate. It does not have to be something that can actually exist. If I have a set of equations that describe some weird imagined process that cannot exist in our universe, I can still program those equations into a computer and simulate it. For this reason, the results of a simulation can never take the place of an actual experiment.
What does this have to do with the notion of post-empirical stuff? Well, the problem lies in fundamental physics where it becomes progressively more difficult to perform experiments to learn about how things work. As a result, people are trying to motive that we start to learn about these things without having to do the experiments. That would have been great if it could work. Unfortunately, it has been tried before and found not to work. That was what the philosophers did before the advent of the scientific method. The nonsense they came up with still bounces around in the cultures of the world.
No! the day we cannot perform experiments to learn how this universe works is the day we stop learning more about our universe. A lot of people may go on coming up with stuff, but for sure, that stuff is worth nothing if it cannot be shown to work that way in our universe.
Unfortunately, there is already a lot of this going on, as this hyped wormhole nonsense demonstrates. It is related to several such non-scientific ideas that people work on and call physics, even though they don’t have much or any hope ever to show that it actually works that way through a scientific process.
The annoying thing is that there are prominent people in the physics community that are driving the hype. They’ve been doing this with other similar stories. Apparently, the reason for this hype is to induce funding agencies to give them more funding. Well, I think that if funding agencies can be led by their noses so easily, then the situation is more hopeless than I thought. These prominent people are not prominent for having done any solid scientific work. There are also other ways to become prominent. Well, I’ve ranted enough about people being prominent for the wrong reasons and don’t want to do it again.