On Whether We Should Fund String Theory Research

In my more ignorant days, that is, my early days as an undergraduate student of physics, I would say that string theory doesn’t deserve to be funded.  In fact, I would have said it wasn’t really physics, or at least that nobody have proved that string theory was physics to me.  That has changed.  No, my actual view of string theory vis-à-vis physics has not changed; but what has, is my view of the relationship between all of the human endeavors to understand the world, or, more broadly, “what is the case” —even what might be the case.  This change has come about as a direct result of my studies of philosophy and, really, my understanding of how the human condition, in its healthiest state, is heavily embedded in the process called the “liberal arts.”  The more thoroughly a culture, subculture, or community is actively involved in the liberal arts, the healthier it is.  As a general rule, the come in bunches, too.  A community that is interested in naturalism, observing wildlife and geological features, will often have interests that extend beyond this, perhaps, into fine arts and literature.  There is certainly something to be said about the interconnectedness of the liberal arts and how, when tugged upon one node, the rest of the web of liberal arts begins to follow; but that is beyond the scope of what I want to say here.  What I want to do is express the importance of some very unusual intellectual activity and inquiry, such as string theory, should be nurtured, just to see where it goes.

Given the way I used to think about science, a common sentiment that is, in a way, levied against string theory is that it doesn’t present an imminent technological product.  However, there is an historical moral to this story.  Remember, science, especially in its earliest forms, has not always been the subject of tangible advance of any particular kind —and Kuhnians would say that that has never been the case.  So if it is the fact that you do say, “okay, it’s maybe a science, but vaguely,” don’t be so quick to dismiss.  One the other hand, if you view it as purely mathematics, then, again, mathematics tend to sit in large tomes, being rediscovered later.  In other words, it is worth remembering that mathematics often doesn’t present any kind of immediate result, though many have a romanticized view of mathematics as the engine, fuel, and ignition of physics.  Not so.  To further advance the idea of “who knows what will come of it,” the history of mathematics is a good example: There was no way of telling that Gauss’ idea about the problem of Euclid’s fifth postulate would end up giving us the necessary framework for GPS navigation.

There is a more humanistic bent from which one can argue on behalf of string theory.  All intellectual activity can be viewed as a creative endeavor, an expression of the human spirit and its creativity.  This is the thread that ties science, poetry, mathematics, literature, art, and so on, all together.  Anyone who has worked on any kind of mathematical problem will know that problem solving requires creativity.  In my opinion, the liberal arts as overlapping on this point.  I see no way to distinguish various forms of creativity, in themselves, though I do acknowledge that different varieties of cognition are associated with the actual disciplines; so I think it is fair to say that the liberal arts are outlets for creativity, no matter the distinction.  Then the matter is a normative one, where one is to assess the values of passion oriented in the direction of each outlet.  As far as I am concerned, passion is not to be reconciled or reasoned with; and given that (arguably) the smartest human being on the planet, Edward Witten, has given his life to the study of string theory, I think funding should be sent in that direction.  How much is a different consideration altogether.  What should be clear is that string theory, as art, must be appreciated, and I don’t mean in a way that takes away from the view that it is a science or temporally pre-scientific.

The last point, and the most novel one to make, is that string theory enjoys a very different kind of position than all other mathematics —and this is a philosophical statement about its position in our intellectual world.  Let’s assume that string theory simply can’t be a science as we would like it to be.  That is, suppose string theory’s results will never be testable, we know logically that they cannot be testable, and so on.  The string theory can generate claims about the world, which need interpreting and philosophical analysis.  There is no other statement-about-the-world generator that exists.  That string theory may serve such a purpose is absolutely fascinating, and, if the reader is not similarly fascinated, I can only suppose that the import is not being fully realized.  Allow me to go a bit further.  Imagine a box exists such that you can reach in and draw out slips of paper with moderately obscure (they need interpreting) statements about the world that: 1) you know are likely to, in some way, describe the world, by way of its association to natural science (i.e., string theory is partly based on a combinatorics equation that fits just about perfectly in describing nuclear phenomena); and 2) can stand before philosophical and logical inquiry.  This is a very novel position that string theory could possess, even if it fails to achieve the status of empirical science or theoretical science, as the latter necessarily entails an informing of expectation and explication of phenomena (e.g., GR would likely have come to be regarded as sub- or pseudoscience, if, after 300 years, no indication of its reality were observed).  In a way, though it would be at least somewhat disappointing to physicists working on string theory, it is more exciting to me that philosophers would be left with a sort of “generator” of statements that might be about the world.

For the collection of reasons given above, I do think string theory should be funded.  On top of that, given its uniqueness, I hope to be an active participant in endorsing and raising awareness of the importance of string theory.  In fact, I am so convinced that string theory is going to become more and more important, whether as science or in philosophy, that, if I return to physics to earn a PhD, I would likely specialize in string theory.  In any case, I will be looking for journalistic venues and popular science (and philosophy) outlets through which I might publicize string theory’s merits.

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Filed under Philosophy, Philosophy of Physics, Philosophy of Science, Physics, Popular Science

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