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Philosophy and the new Velikovskian Physics

  1. Nov 15, 2007 #1
    Here I comment on a new trend in fundamental physics and ask philosophy folk whether they think that it represents an acceptable shift in the way physics is done (remembering the tautology that physics is that which is done by physicists!).

    Established and traditional aspects of the philosophy of a physicist might include the following prescriptions:

    Observe the workings of nature with an intelligent eye; keep a sharp watch for apparent regularities; probe any newly observed regularities in Nature's behavour with the experimental techniques that are to hand; describe the so explored regularities with the language of mathematics, with its help make predictions of nature's behaviour that can be falsified and, if no such predictions are falsified, provisionally incorporate theories about the observed regularities into the body of accepted wisdom. (Last and by no means least, use this knowledge to stimulate technical progress; be financially rewarded, become famous and be awarded prizes.)

    Velikovsky (see for example http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Velikovsky ) had a different and catastrophist philosophy. He cobbled together observations of Nature's present condition with legends of the past, injected the idea of sensational disasters like planetary collisions into his mix of wild surmise --- and became a successful best-selling author and lecturer. In doing so he became a famous bete noire for the scientific community.

    Yet some aspects of Velikovsky's catastophist philosophy have acquired scientific respectability. For example it is now accepted that the dominant status of our species was made possible by the astronomical catastophe that overtook dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. Attempts to use orbital calculations to trace the genesis of this event back to collisions between asteroids by have recently been reported. And among biologists the idea of punctuated evolution is no longer the anathema it once was. We live and learn.

    It seems to me that in accounting for the face that nature now presents to us we have always to recognise the interplay of two distinct factors. The first is the fundamental regularities and laws that concern physicists, with their Popperian stress on prediction and falsifiability. The second is the generally unknowable sequence of historical chance events that shape the face of nature we now see, that Velikovsky so dramatised and are not part of science.

    I claim that physicists seem recently to be trying to incorporate such unknowable sequences into their own endeavours, and that it gives fundamental physics a new Velikovskian flavour.

    I am here referring to the unknowable sequence of events that led to the choice of "our" vacuum, and "our" laws of physics from the 10^500 or so other vacua postulated by string theory, and to the similarly unknowable events that caused "our" universe to "bang-out" of an unknowable multiverse --- ideas of the "landscape" variety, that is.

    At first sight such ideas seem to me like silly idle speculations rather than physics. But then I remember how venomously Velikovsky's notions were received by the scientific community of his time, how later they turned out to incorporate a grain of truth. Also, so much of what we are must depend on mysteries of the past. For instance, the events that led to a meeting between your great-great grandfather and great-great-grandmother are almost certainly unknown to you. Yet for you they were vitally important! Perhaps the landscape scenario is relevant, after all.

    I then equivocate. What do philosophy folk think about the new Velikovskian physics?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 15, 2007 #2
    Man sounds like a quack. I don't think I would credit him with much. He had a mind for science fiction. So did L. Ron Hubbard. Just because his ideas may resemble in some vague way modern science doesn't mean much in my opinion. He simply took a radical anti-status quo position. The fact that the status quo of the time wasn't entirely correct doesn't make him ahead of his time. If he published today I'm sure people would react the same way they did in the past.
  4. Nov 15, 2007 #3
    Interesting point.

    In both your cases, I suspect scientists do what is commonly called inference to the best explanation, or IBE.

    Given a set of phenomena, what potential explanation, if true, would best explain it? Considerations that come into "best" include whether it explains diverse phenomena, whether its predictions are confirmed, and whether it gains independent support from surprising quarters. If it has been fudged to fit specific evidence, if it can only explain exactly what it was invented to explain, that counts against it.

    This reasoning can lead us to infer specific events and sequences of events as well as laws. I get up one morning and discover the cheese has gone from my fridge, and there are tiny pawprints on the floor, and I can hear a tiny pattering noise. I infer to the best explanation: a mouse stole my cheese. This is an event, not a law. Similarly, I notice the sudden disappearance of the dinosaurs, I notice a thin layer of iridium in the rocks, I notice a big crater...

    Historians have noted that, for example, John Herschel and Charles Darwin worked very much along these lines. Mathematical physics and evolutionary theory can both fit the bill nicely. So can geology and Big Bang theory. Both backward-looking and forward-looking science is covered.

    How about those "unknowable sequences" from before the Big Bang? That's an interesting one. Such a claim is so ambitious that it surely falls into the "very prone to fudging" category. I think this is the problem with such claims - not unfalsifiability per se. But it might be permissible if an idea tailored only to explain one specific feature of our universe turned out to explain the whole lot without any amendment. Personally I would say exactly the same thing about string theory.

    You're right that IBE isn't Popper's idea of science. But Popper doesn't really give us a good reason why his science is the best science. Philosophers have pretty much ripped apart Popperian falsificationism. It lives on only in the form of "falsifiability", a popular methodological slogan. Sure, it's good methodological advice to look for the bad news and avoid confirmation bias - good advice, that is, if you want to get to the best explanation.
    Last edited: Nov 15, 2007
  5. Nov 16, 2007 #4
    Yes, I agree. I hold no brief for Velikovsky; but then I think that string theorists and proponents of landscape ideas make suggestions which, although cloaked in impressive mathematics, are contributing little more than Velikovsky did to the progress of science. Sadly, the present status quo seems to be far from "entirely correct".
  6. Nov 16, 2007 #5
    Yes. This is often the practical way of making progress. What you say about the problem with ambitious speculations is is also well taken. And thanks for enlightening me about philosophers and Popperian falsificationism. It's too simple-minded by half, I agree.
  7. Nov 16, 2007 #6
    My impression from your link is that Velikovsky was simply outside his field and his depth.
    The status quo may indeed be wrong, but at least its in line with a consistent reasoning.

    A healthy skepticism is of course always a good thing.
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