I Sympathize with Hossenfelder

How do theoretical particle physicists respond to Sabine Hossenfelder's article "How Popper Killed Particle Physics"? (original Quora question)

Hossenfelder’s argument is complicated to the point of being so convoluted that it misses its own point.

In her attempt to create dramatic cross-currents, she does not settle into the existential clarity needed to assess what is, without a doubt, a very important question — does falsifiability validate theoretical physics?

I sympathize with her. I think she’s on the right track. But she’s clearly too tied up with her own critics to mount a persuasive, non-reactive argument.

The reason critics are so loud about it (and they are) is that the question of core falsifiability extends far higher up than theoretical physics, and no one wants the heavy responsibility for looking at that in the full light of day.

To wit, from my answer to the question "If History is not Science, how did Karl Popper approach scientific literature where past experimental results were documented?"...

The problem is that bringing the validity of scientific historicism (standing on the shoulders of giants reasoning) into question appears to be a slippery slope argument in which all scientific fact ends up being rejected. The logical way to avoid this problem is to treat science and scientific fact as separate.

We do this when we acknowledge that science and its structures are no different than any other human endeavor subject to human foible. No great secret there.

But there is a snag. As science helps enculturate esteem for its self-proclaimed objectivity, its foibles are subject to categorical forgiveness because of the objectivity of the method that underlies it. A cultural tautology that protects scientific authority — not just its factual basis but its network of human foibles as well.

A similar argument, though not about objectivity, can be made about dogma of any kind.

I also draw extensive conclusions about falsifiability in my paper “Notes from the Existential Underground: The Universe as a Complex Emergent System,” Cosmos & History (2016)

Anything that is self-referentially causative without explicit existential context is not falsifiable. This is the case with anything that is not directly observable, regardless of its origin in relation to institutional inquiry. …

Rather than falsifiability, such theories can be confirmed in that they are reasonable, useful, and widely impactful. Woodward makes such a claim concluding let’s not throw the useful science baby out with the bathwater of existentially causative confusion. [Woodward, A Functional Account of Causation, 2014] At the macro level in the sciences, usefulness is and will itself remain a useful standard; at the existential level in physics, deviation from causal usefulness started long ago. To be fair, the situation is not comfortable for anyone involved.

Another area of resistance is a variation on falsifiability. Theoretical physics has allowed mathematical formalizations to become a stand-in for falsifiability. To satisfy those who find the institutional metaphysics too limiting or confused (which they are), theories are invited to play the game of using mathematics to accomplish necessary framing of abstractions at work in the “spaces” created by the inherent formalization of the math itself. One can thus be comfortably constrained by either probability-driven acausal or time-asymmetry-driven causal frameworks. …

Use of mathematics, despite the reassurance offered by its formalized structuring, can hardly claim to add a unique or complete function of justifying unlimited imaginary flights. Inasmuch as mathematical symbols and functions in phase spaces are an insufficient formative language from which to conceive fully of the universe, use of more general language and inquiry grounded in complex emergent systems wisdom is warranted. Such inquiry has the potential to benefit society through better fine-tuning of as well as interdisciplinary capacity in science.

In December 2015, a year prior to that paper's publication, Hossenfelder and an invitation-only group of cosmologists and philosophers gathered for the Why Trust a Theory? conference in Munich. During the same period, the online magazine Nautilus published a glancing article "Is It Time to Embrace Unverified Theories?" laying the groundwork for a sneaky shift. I and many others commented extensively.

Hossenfelder is at least interested in keeping such efforts alive, so I give her big props.

Original publish date Nov 12, 2017