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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Is Big Picture Physics heading assymptotically for a ceiling in understanding? If so, why?, 8 Mar. 2014
This review is from: Farewell to Reality: How Fairytale Physics Betrays the Search for Scientific Truth (Paperback)
A pretty good book overall, the first half being a summary of much of the progress in modern physics, and all written with a decent degree of candour. Baggott discusses the progress toward the standard model of particle physics. Special and General relativity are then summarised. The Lambda CDM cosmological model is briefly explained. Up to this point I found the book clear and succinct, dealing as it is with reasonably widely accepted facts.The usual popular science prohibition on the use of mathematical equations in the text is probably not helpful with issues of this depth. There seems to be a perhaps unavoidable step change in the complexity of verbal analysis as we move further ahead into discussing the shortcomings of the 'authorised version'. Many non-specialists will get lost here I suspect, but that is not necessarily reason to give up, one can skip ahead.

We do not stop with the SM/LCDM problems and plot subsequent developments of thought, and things are a little easier to follow again. Baggott moves on to discuss increasingly bizarre hypotheses claiming to be 'pure' physics but which many might label 'metaphysics'. The difference between what is perhaps mere abstract philosophy rather than hard empirical science is explored from many angles, both philosophically and in terms of examples.

This physics/metaphysics fringe becomes increasingly relevant as recent apparent progress in physics is related. Supersymmetry potentially allows for some neat mathematical solutions to difficult issues in the standard model. However it is neither verified by experiment nor easy to falsify (disprove). Conjecture such as string and M-theory becomes increasingly abstract and void of both substantial mathematical models and real world data. Metaphysical hypotheses such as various forms of the multiverse have been suggested to justify some aspects of these theories. It is the nebulous nature of the realities implied by present efforts to arrive at a Theory of Everything extending beyond the Standard Model which Baggott majors on with obvious concern.

Baggott points out that open-endedly accepting unlikely metaphysics into the big picture also opens the way for religious/spiritual causal frameworks. Here his personal taste seems to creep in just a little, and I counter with mine. He mentions with mild disdain the Templeton Foundation and the Discovery institute, both 'spiritually' driven organisations. I don't really like the name of the Discovery Institute since it clearly has an agenda not revealed by the title. However a metaphysical hypothesis of intelligent design, in addition to answering much else, currently 'explained' only with 'physics fairy tales', would also serve to remind ourselves of the limitations of ourselves as observers and thinkers. To be aware of the possibility of these limitations is surely essential to good science. We humans are working from our own, possibly very parochial, context. We have a starting point .We are blinkered by ourselves; the organism we are. The inherited capabilities we do not control. The information, understandings and mathematics we have acquired. An intelligent agent of creation knows exactly what he did and how. He can also see the parochial boundaries of perception and understanding we created humans are subject to. He knows the limits beyond which we will not successfully penetrate. I am not however suggesting we give up. Just that my metaphysical framework suggests we may soon find with increasing finality that we are not converging to a physics 'holy grail'.
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Initial post: 25 Mar 2015 21:06:13 GMT
Tam Riley says:
A metaphysical "hypothesis of intelligent design" explains nothing at all. It makes no falsifiable predictions, it explains nothing about the nuts and bolts of the universe's provenance, either in a scientific or philosophical sense, and alternative materialist explanations are, without exception, even when empirically empty, inherently simpler and more reasonable.

I disagree with Baggott over the state of theoretical physics - in the absence of decisive, novel experimental results by which they can navigate I don't see what else theorists are meant to do, and the idea that anyone is blithely "accepting" mathematical constructions like M-Theory is a strawman - even string theorists couch their most forceful arguments for its reality in multiple caveats. This seems like strawmandering on a book-length scale. But I can at least respect that he cares about what's true regardless of what that truth turns out to be, which is at the crux of the scientific method.

On the other hand, inserting teleological thinking into the gaps in modern physics, for no reason besides your own discomfort with the scientifically-revealed meaninglessness of the universe, is a neglect of your obvious intellect. The Discovery Institute is not in the slightest bit interested in scientific discovery if that discovery has atheistic, materialistic consequences. It is inimical with the scientific community, and the neutrality of the scientific method, for that reason. The Templeton Foundation is similarly pernicious, although less openly and obnoxiously so.

If theorists are at a dead-end(and the jury is certainly out on that, contrary to Baggott's belief) then the solution will come not from religious dogmatists mangling their scripture to fit nature's cubby holes, or from theologians vaporously waffling about 'the ground of all being' and 'science's gesture to the ineffable' - the solution will come from theory and empirical investigation, just as it has in every single case there has ever been since the beginning of civilisation. That is not an exaggeration. Theology and philosophy, as wonderful as they may be in asking interesting and deep questions, are not going to unify quantum mechanics and general relativity. They have made no discoveries about the real world in their entire history, for the basic epistemic reason that neither of them have a means of objectively arbitrating between two competing hypotheses. It is only the scientific method, and experiment, that can do this, and casuistic wishful thinking about intelligent design won't change this fact.

P.S. - Don't necessarily take this as an attack on you. It is an attack on all those institutions and organisations who want to skew the default position of the scientific community in one direction or another. If you support them, then yes, I am criticising you. If not, then I am not.
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