I was reading an interesting essay a few weeks ago about French philosophy and some of the possible reasons for its long global influence and recent decline:
One of the main reasons for this global appeal was the dynamism of French thinking. The sheer inventiveness of Gallic thinkers reflects the key role devolved to imagination, alongside reason, in modern French thought; and a corresponding contempt for empirical knowledge: Rousseau begins his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754) by ‘laying aside all facts’. Hence the tendency for French thinkers to push their ideas to their extreme conclusions, and the primacy given to intellectual creation and cultural innovation.
Sometimes facts are deceiving because with too few of them or of the wrong kind, they may lead a thinker in the wrong direction. Sometimes disregarding the facts we have is the only way to see clearly about the world.
Of course the opposite tendency is also problematic: a wrong theory so beautiful can take a long time to yield to facts. George Ellis and Joe Silk wrote in Nature:
We agree with theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder: post-empirical science is an oxymoron (see go.nature.com/p3upwp and go.nature.com/68rijj). Theories such as quantum mechanics and relativity turned out well because they made predictions that survived testing. Yet numerous historical examples point to how, in the absence of adequate data, elegant and compelling ideas led researchers in the wrong direction, from Ptolemy’s geocentric theories of the cosmos to Lord Kelvin’s ‘vortex theory’ of the atom and Fred Hoyle’s perpetual steady-state Universe.
The consequences of overclaiming the significance of certain theories are profound — the scientific method is at stake (see go.nature.com/hh7mm6). To state that a theory is so good that its existence supplants the need for data and testing in our opinion risks misleading students and the public as to how science should be done and could open the door for pseudoscientists to claim that their ideas meet similar requirements.
What to do about it? Physicists, philosophers and other scientists should hammer out a new narrative for the scientific method that can deal with the scope of modern physics. In our view, the issue boils down to clarifying one question: what potential observational or experimental evidence is there that would persuade you that the theory is wrong and lead you to abandoning it? If there is none, it is not a scientific theory.
Science blogger John Horgan interviewed George Ellis and touched a nerve with this question:
Horgan: Lawrence Krauss, in A Universe from Nothing, claims that physics has basically solved the mystery of why there is something rather than nothing. Do you agree?
Ellis: Certainly not. He is presenting untested speculative theories of how things came into existence out of a pre-existing complex of entities, including variational principles, quantum field theory, specific symmetry groups, a bubbling vacuum, all the components of the standard model of particle physics, and so on. He does not explain in what way these entities could have pre-existed the coming into being of the universe, why they should have existed at all, or why they should have had the form they did. And he gives no experimental or observational process whereby we could test these vivid speculations of the supposed universe-generation mechanism. How indeed can you test what existed before the universe existed? You can’t.
Thus what he is presenting is not tested science. It’s a philosophical speculation, which he apparently believes is so compelling he does not have to give any specification of evidence that would confirm it is true. Well, you can’t get any evidence about what existed before space and time came into being. Above all he believes that these mathematically based speculations solve thousand year old philosophical conundrums, without seriously engaging those philosophical issues. The belief that all of reality can be fully comprehended in terms of physics and the equations of physics is a fantasy. As pointed out so well by Eddington in his Gifford lectures, they are partial and incomplete representations of physical, biological, psychological, and social reality.
And above all Krauss does not address why the laws of physics exist, why they have the form they have, or in what kind of manifestation they existed before the universe existed (which he must believe if he believes they brought the universe into existence). Who or what dreamt up symmetry principles, Lagrangians, specific symmetry groups, gauge theories, and so on? He does not begin to answer these questions.
It’s very ironic when he says philosophy is bunk and then himself engages in this kind of attempt at philosophy. It seems that science education should include some basic modules on Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hume, and the other great philosophers, as well as writings of more recent philosophers such as Tim Maudlin and David Albert.
Abandoning empiricism—the heart of the scientific method—is a dangerous turn. Science is about modeling and theorizing, yes, but it is also about testing, experimenting, and falsifiability. If you cannot conceive of any practical or even theoretical means of falsifying a theory, it may still have value, but it is no longer science and should be clearly labeled as philosophy, religion, or some other non-scientific pursuit.
And I am not implying any one epistemology is superior to another (I may believe it personally, but I am not suggesting it here. If I were in charge, philosophy would be put back near the top of the pile). But keep in mind that you cannot "do science" without "doing philosophy". Ellis:
You cannot do physics or cosmology without an assumed philosophical basis. You can choose not to think about that basis: it will still be there as an unexamined foundation of what you do. The fact you are unwilling to examine the philosophical foundations of what you do does not mean those foundations are not there; it just means they are unexamined.