I’ve figured out what was bugging me about Dawid’s workshop on non-empirical theory confirmation.
It’s not the concept itself that bothers me. While you might think of science as entirely based on observations of the real world, in practice we can’t test everything. Inevitably, we have to add in other sorts of evidence: judgments based on precedent, philosophical considerations, or sociological factors.
It’s Dawid’s examples that annoy me: string theory, inflation, and the multiverse. Misleading popularizations aside, none of these ideas involve non-empirical confirmation. In particular, string theory doesn’t need non-empirical confirmation, inflation doesn’t want it, and the multiverse, as of yet, doesn’t merit it.
In order for non-empirical confirmation to matter, it needs to affect how people do science. Public statements aren’t very relevant from a philosophy of science perspective; they ebb and flow based on how people promote themselves. Rather, we should care about what scientists assume in the course of their work. If people are basing new work on assumptions that haven’t been established experimentally, then we need to make sure their confidence isn’t misplaced.
String theory hasn’t been established experimentally…but it fails the other side of this test: almost no-one is assuming string theory is true.
I’ve talked before about theorists who study theories that aren’t true. String theory isn’t quite in that category, it’s still quite possible that it describes the real world. Nonetheless, for most string theorists, the distinction is irrelevant: string theory is a way to relate different quantum field theories together, and to formulate novel ones with interesting properties. That sort of research doesn’t rely on string theory being true, often it doesn’t directly involve strings at all. Rather, it relies on string theory’s mathematical abundance, its versatility and power as a lens to look at the world.
There are string theorists who are more directly interested in describing the world with string theory, though they’re a minority. They’re called String Phenomenologists. By itself, “phenomenologist” refers to particle physicists who try to propose theories that can be tested in the real world. “String phenomenology” is actually a bit misleading, since most string phenomenologists aren’t actually in the business of creating new testable theories. Rather, they try to reproduce some of the more common proposals of phenomenologists, like the MSSM, from within the framework of string theory. While string theory can reproduce many possible descriptions of the world (10^500 by some estimates), that doesn’t mean it covers every possible theory; making sure it can cover realistic options is an important, ongoing technical challenge. Beyond that, a minority within a minority of string phenomenologists actually try to make testable predictions, though often these are controversial.
None of these people need non-empirical confirmation. For the majority of string theorists, string theory doesn’t need to be “confirmed” at all. And for the minority who work on string phenomenology, empirical confirmation is still the order of the day, either directly from experiment or indirectly from the particle phenomenologists struggling to describe it.
What about inflation?
Cosmic inflation was proposed to solve an empirical problem, the surprising uniformity of the observed universe. Look through a few papers in the field, and you’ll notice that most are dedicated to finding empirical confirmation: they’re proposing observable effects on the cosmic microwave background, or on the distribution of large-scale structures in the universe. Cosmologists who study inflation aren’t claiming to be certain, and they aren’t rejecting experiment: overall, they don’t actually want non-empirical confirmation.
To be honest, though, I’m being a little unfair to Dawid here. The reason that string theory and inflation are in the name of his workshop aren’t because he thinks they independently use non-empirical confirmation. Rather, it’s because, if you view both as confirmed (and make a few other assumptions), then you’ve got a multiverse.
In this case, it’s again important to compare what people are doing in their actual work to what they’re saying in public. While a lot of people have made public claims about the existence of a multiverse, very few of them actually work on it. In fact, the two sets of people seem to be almost entirely disjoint.
People who make public statements about the multiverse tend to be older prominent physicists, often ones who’ve worked on supersymmetry as a solution to the naturalness problem. For them, the multiverse is essentially an excuse. Naturalness predicted new particles, we didn’t find new particles, so we need an excuse to have an “unnatural” universe, and for many people the multiverse is that excuse. As I’ve argued before, though, this excuse doesn’t have much of an impact on research. These people aren’t discouraged from coming up with new ideas because they believe in the multiverse, rather, they’re talking about the multiverse because they’re currently out of new ideas. Nima Arkani-Hamed is a pretty clear case of someone who has supported the multiverse in pieces like Particle Fever, but who also gets thoroughly excited about new ideas to rescue naturalness.
By contrast, there are many fewer people who actually work on the multiverse itself, and they’re usually less prominent. For the most part, they actually seem concerned with empirical confirmation, trying to hone tricks like anthropic reasoning to the point where they can actually make predictions about future experiments. It’s unclear whether this tiny group of people are on the right track…but what they’re doing definitely doesn’t seem like something that merits non-empirical confirmation, at least at this point.
It’s a shame that Dawid chose the focus he did for his workshop. Non-empirical theory confirmation is an interesting idea (albeit one almost certainly known to philosophy long before Dawid), and there are plenty of places in physics where it could use some examination. We seem to have come to our current interpretation of renormalization non-empirically, and while string theory itself doesn’t rely on non-empirical conformation many of its arguments with loop quantum gravity seem to rely on non-empirical considerations, in particular arguments about what is actually required for a proper theory of quantum gravity. But string theory, inflation, and the multiverse aren’t the examples he’s looking for.