Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ahistorical Physics

I recently corresponded with a physicist who had posted, on his web site, what he saw as two invalid reasons for accepting a scientific theory (I paraphrase):

1) My theory is more beautiful than the accepted one.
His response? "Take it to an art dealer."
2) My theory is more philosophically sound.
Then you should "Take it to church."

I pointed out to him that these two reasons were, until the work of Kepler, the only two reasons for accepting Copernican astronomy. (See, for instance, The Copernican Revolution by Kuhn (who was a trained physicist) or Against Method by Feyerabend, also trained in physics.) Copernican astronomy was simply no better than Ptolemaic astronomy at making predictions, and significantly worse in terms of agreeing with the main body of contemporary physics.

He finally responded to me that, in evaluating why Copernican astronomy was accepted by early adopters, such as Rheticus, Maestlin, Kepler, and Galileo, I should "look to the physics." By this, of course, he meant the Newtonian physics that explained planets rotating around a central sun. Thus, he claimed that these men became Copernicans due to the conformity of Copernicanism with a physics lying 100 years in their future! In fact, Newtonian physics developed in response to Copernicanism, which made no sense at all in terms of the physics of the time.


  1. Beauty, within the limits of physical soundness, may in some sense be the criteria most physicists use today, even if someone inconsistently. Ockham's Razor is a demand for simplicity in composition, Chatton's anti-razor (seldom formally recognizes, but implicitly so in the discovery of new objects and phenomena) is a demand for completeness and depth of vision, etc, etc.

    It would be a good question to put to the scientist for what other reason besides beauty and coherence should a theory be accepted.

  2. ...even if *somewhat*...

  3. "It would be a good question to put to the scientist for what other reason besides beauty and coherence should a theory be accepted."

    He wants observational confirmation and simplicity, period. Kuhn and Feyerabend pretty much blew up the idea that these are enough. For instance, scientists often must choose between theory X, which is simple in respect A and complex in respect B, and theory Y, which is simple in respect B and complex in Y. In that case, "Choose the simpler theory" isn't going to help much.

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