Theoretical physicist Lee Smolin notes, "One question that has bedeviled the [quantum] theory from the beginning is the question of the relationship between reality and the formalism", that is, between the real material world and our ideas about it. Smolin backs materialism against idealism, writing, "It cannot be that reality depends on our existence."
He attacks the idea that it is 'as though the universe had been designed to accommodate us'. The universe has evolved in a way that has produced the conditions that make our lives possible. This does not mean that it was designed, still less that it was designed for us.
Smolin tells the story of how the American physicist Freeman Dyson in 1947 read Einstein's efforts to construct a unified-field theory and decided that they were junk. Unfortunately he didn't have the nerve to tell Einstein this - but he should have done, because it might have helped Einstein to do better.
Currently, string theory is the leading paradigm in physics. But its research programme has found no grounding in experimental results or mathematical formulation. As one of its pioneers, Daniel Friedan, later wrote, "String theory cannot give any definite explanations of existing knowledge of the real world and cannot make any definite predictions. The reliability of string theory cannot be evaluated, much less established. String theory has no credibility as a candidate theory of physics." Smolin writes, "the existence of a population of other universes is a hypothesis that cannot be confirmed by direct observation; hence, it cannot be used in an explanatory fashion."
Fortunately, there are approaches other than string theory, new theoretical and experimental developments, like doubly special relativity, which claims that in the early universe the speed of light was faster.
Smolin argues that there was continual progress in physics between 1780 and 1980, but none since. University physics departments have become dominated by conventional research programmes, threatening both academic freedom and progress. Original minds are dismissed as 'too intellectually independent'.
He argues that physics needs a revolution questioning the basic assumptions of relativity, quantum theory and the foundations of space and time. He ends by urging young people never to let others do their thinking for them.