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Nicholas Maxwell
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Most scientists would hold that science has not established that the cosmos is physically comprehensible – i.e. such that there is some as-yet undiscovered true physical theory of everything that is unified. This is an empirically untestable, or metaphysical thesis. It thus lies beyond the scope of science. Only when physics has formulated a testable unified theory of everything which has been amply corroborated empirically will science be in a position to declare that it has established that the cosmos is physically comprehensible. But this argument presupposes a widely accepted but untenable conception of science which I shall call standard empiricism. According to standard empiricism, in science theories are accepted solely on the basis of evidence. Choice of theory may be influenced for a time by considerations of simplicity, unity, or explanatory capacity, but not in such a way that the universe itself is permanently assumed to be simple, unified or physically comprehensible. In science, no thesis about the universe can be accepted permanently as a part of scientific knowledge independently of evidence. Granted this view, it is clear that science cannot have established that the universe is physically comprehensible. Standard empiricism is, however, as I have indicated, untenable. Any fundamental physical theory, in order to be accepted as a part of theoretical scientific knowledge, must satisfy two criteria. It must be (1) sufficiently empirically successful, and (2) sufficiently unified. Given any accepted theory of physics, endlessly many empirically more successful disunified rivals can always be concocted – disunified because they assert that different dynamical laws govern the diverse phenomena to which the theory applies. These disunified rivals are not considered for a moment in physics, despite their greater empirical success. This persistent rejection of empirically more successful but disunified rival theories means, I argue, that a big, highly problematic, implicit assumption is made by science about the cosmos, to the effect, at least, that the cosmos is such that all seriously disunified theories are false. Once this point is recognized, it becomes clear, I argue, that we need a new conception of science which makes explicit, and so criticizable and improvable the big, influential, and problematic assumption that is at present implicit in physics in the persistent preference for unified theories. This conception of science, which I call aim-oriented empiricism, represents the assumption of physics in the form of a hierarchy of assumptions. As one goes up the hierarchy, the assumptions become less and less substantial, and more and more nearly such that their truth is required for science, or the pursuit of knowledge, to be possible at all. At each level, that assumption is accepted which (a) best accords with the next one up, and (b) has, associated with it the most empirically progressive research programme in physics, or holds out the greatest hope of leading to such an empirically progressive research programme. In this way a framework of relatively insubstantial, unproblematic, fixed assumptions and associated methods is created, high up in the hierarchy, within which much more substantial and problematic assumptions and associated methods, low down in the hierarchy, can be changed, and indeed improved, as scientific knowledge improves. One assumption in this hierarchy of assumptions, I argue, is that the cosmos is physically comprehensible – that is, such that some yet-to-be-discovered unified theory of everything is true. Hence the conclusion: improve our ideas about the nature of science and it becomes apparent that science has already established that the cosmos is physically comprehensible – in so far as science can ever establish anything theoretical.

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