In the post on Copernicus earlier this week, I noted that his heliocentric theory, right from its initial publication, was hailed as far more mathematically elegant than the Aristotelian / Ptolemaic system, which was taken as the canonical model of the universe at the time. But while everyone hailed Copernican mathematics, virtually no one accepted its ontology. The idea that the Earth moved around the Sun was simply too radical for most people.
It’s easy to forget today the searing shift in perspective that took place between Copernicus’ publication of his theory in 1543, and Newton’s publication of his theory of gravitation and mechanics in 1687. In that period, we went from being the center of creation, with the universe literally revolving around us, to an insignificant speck in an incomprehensibly vast darkness. It’s probably not an coincidence that the first modern atheists and deists arose in the 17th and 18th centuries.
In retrospect, the mathematical elegance of Copernicanism was a major clue. But as I noted in that post, we have to be careful with generalizing from that. This morning, Aeon highlighted an article by Massimo Pigliucci from earlier this year (which I apparently completely missed at the time), pointing out that Richard Feynman often asserted that truth could be recognized by its beauty and simplicity. Massimo’s thesis is that, given the failure of things like supersymmetry and other related theories, Feynman was wrong.
I think Massimo, along with similar critics such as Sabine Hossenfelder, Peter Woit, and Jim Baggott are right, to an extent. No theory should be accepted purely on the basis of its beauty, simplicity, or elegance, on its aesthetics. But given the Copernican story, it also seems excessively hasty to completely dismiss such theories.
On the one hand, if Copernicus had held to such a philosophy, he might have avoided engaging in what, in his time, amounted to metaphysical speculation. Eventually telescopic observations would have forced the matter, and a new model would have needed to be developed in the 17th century.
On the other hand, Copernicus’ theory arguably spurred decades of discussion, setting up the intellectual atmosphere that inspired figures like Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo. All observation is theory laden. How much longer would science have taken to reach the same conclusions without Copernicus’ theoretical work? There’s probably no way to know.
In addition, we have to admit the fact that no theory, even one with a long history of successfully predicting observations, is ever the only explanation for those observations. There are always alternate models. We can say we use Occam’s razor to select one, but “simplicity” is often just another name for the aesthetic aspects that are really used in that selection.
I think the right middle ground then, is that logical or mathematical elegance are fine for admitting a theory into the candidate for reality category. If it gets falsified, then we can dismiss it. If it’s the simplest theory and racks up predictive success, then we can accept it as the best explanation, until a better one comes along. That appears to be as much certitude as anyone’s going to get.
Unless of course I’m missing something?