Science, between fact and theory

Science, between fact and theory November 16, 2019


Sir Fred Hoyle in a mosaic
“Pursuit” (1952), by Boris Anrep, is part of a series of mosaics of the Modern Virtues located in the entrance hall of the National Gallery in London. It depicts the astronomer and physicist Sir Fred Hoyle as a steeplejack climbing up to the stars.
Hoyle (1915-2001), was an atheist but, as his career went on, appeared to have Doubts.


Is it true, as some devotees of scientism who like to denigrate religious faith insist, that science limits itself entirely to rigorous extrapolations from known and objectively verified facts?


I’ll cut directly to the chase:


No.  It’s not.


There are lots and lots of illustrations of this truth, but, for right now in this blog entry, I’ll limit myself to some quotations from Roger Trigg, Beyond Matter: Why Science Needs Metaphysics (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2015), from which, in any case, I need to extract the passages that I’ve marked in it for my collection of notes.  At the time this book was published, Dr. Trigg was professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom and a senior research fellow at the Ian Ramsey Centre of the University of Oxford:


A philosopher of science, Richard David, comments that “the increasing detachment of theory building from empirical confirmation may be taken — and indeed is taken by many — as the dawn of a serious crisis in fundamental physics.”  He notes that even “at the meta-level of theory assessment” there is “a shift of the balance between empirical and theoretical elements.”  Additionally, he states that many scientists “often have a high degree of trust in their theories despite the lack of empirical confirmation.”  He gives string theory and cosmic inflation as prime examples of this.  For instance, testing in standard particle physics cannot substantiate the claim of string theory that extra space-time dimensions exist but are so small that they have to be invisible to humans.  All this touches a vital nerve in science.  It cannot progress unless theory outstrips empirical testing.  We have already mentioned the discovery of the Higgs particle in 2012 as a good example of how a theory that has long been entertained can finally obtain empirical confirmation.  Yet this itself illustrates the problem.  Technology in collider physics cannot keep pace with theoretical predictions and will perhaps always be outstripped by it.  Does that mean we ought not to entertain such theories?  (87-88)


Science without contraints can, and does, result in exciting speculation, but if it is not properly grounded in empirical work, its status as science must be suspect.  (89)



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