Mr Massimo Pigliucci likes to be called "a professor of philosophy" and on Friday, he wrote a hit piece against Richard Feynman and his comments about the beauty in physics to Aeon.co:
The second shocking aspect is that Pigliucci only talks about one or two sentences of Feynman's – and he knows nothing whatsoever about the context in which Feynman wrote them or said them. Aside from the "prize, space shuttle, and bongos", Mr Pigliucci really knows nothing about Feynman himself.
It's truly bizarre because – transcending his star status in the world of science – Feynman has become a household name. You know, Hawking's popular book that was published later became a greater bestseller. But the 1985 book "Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman" sold 500,000 copies. Thousands of people have become full-blown fans of Feynman's – and the cult could have grown after his death. These thousands of people are familiar with his books, interviews, and other things.
Why is it that a "philosopher" who dares to write a text about Feynman – and primarily about Feynman – doesn't know even a fraction of the things that each of the thousands of fans of Feynman's knows? Why did Aeon.co publish a text by this self-evidently incompetent author?
Let me tell you what I mean in detail. At the beginning, Pigliucci introduces Feynman and mentions the Nobel prize, the space shuttle, and bongos. The sentiments get sour very quickly and we read:
In the area of philosophy of science, though, ... Feynman didn’t really shine – to put it mildly.Oh, really? Feynman was clearly one of the deepest thinkers about the philosophy of science in his generation – and just to be sure, that generation did manage to understand the philosophy of the laws of Nature at a deeper level than the previous generation.
He hasn't done just some technicalities in physics; he has also articulated the necessary conditions one needs to obey to think scientifically and rationally, necessary conditions for science in the general sense. He has also done a great job in unmasking the pompous fools, as he called them – with their self-confidently presented would-be expertise that doesn't result from the careful scientific research. Many pompous fools didn't like that they – and their pathetic methods – were outed. Nowadays, Mr Massimo Pigliucci doesn't like Feynman's comments on philosophy. Why is it so?
But what has really shocked me were the following sentences proving that Pigliucci knows really nothing about Feynman. The very beginning of Mr Pigliucci's rant says:
The American physicist Richard Feynman is often quoted as saying: ‘You can recognise truth by its beauty and simplicity.’ The phrase appears in the work of the American science writer K C Cole – in her Sympathetic Vibrations: Reflections on Physics as a Way of Life (1985) – although I could not find other records of Feynman writing or saying it.Oh, that's quite amazing. Mr Pigliucci "couldn't find" other records with that sentence about the beauty – aside from a text by an irrelevant science writer. That's pretty bad. Every above-the-average fan knows that the sentence ‘You can recognise truth by its beauty and simplicity’ appears in the 1965 semi-technical book
The Character of Physical Law. Just click at the link and you will see this quote on Page 171. You should also read the rest of the page and, ideally, the rest of the book. An equivalent comment appears on Page 173, too.
Mr Pigliucci clearly hasn't read this actually relevant book by Feynman about the philosophy of science (the book addresses many more key topics of the philosophy of physics besides beauty!) – and he hasn't listened to any related talks where basically equivalent statements also appear (it seems likely that Mr Pigliucci doesn't even know Feynman's Ode to the Beauty of a Flower; perhaps surprisingly, aesthetic/physical comments about flowers appear in three different chapters of his lectures on physics and Feynman's combination of physics and comments about the beauty of flowers is in no way artificial, they fit together; beauty appears 11 times) – but Mr Pigliucci still finds it appropriate to write a hit piece against Feynman as a philosopher of science. Where do you find so much arrogance to write a critical rant against someone and something that you clearly don't have the slightest idea about – and whom you could never compare to, Mr Pigliucci?
And why you haven't at least asked someone who, unlike you, has an idea? If you asked me or anyone else who is a knowledgeable enough fan of Feynman's, you would be immediately told where this quote may be found. And it's not just one dumb quote. Feynman presented a very deep, comprehensive picture of the philosophy of physical sciences as of the mid 1960s – when this book was written down. If you have a big trouble with reading books, Mr Philosopher, why don't you try to listen to seven Messenger Lectures at Cornell which Feynman also titled the Character of Physical Law and which largely overlap with the book?
The very fact that someone calling himself "a philosopher of science" is more familiar with some texts by a journalist named K.C. Cole than with the book by Feynman that is arguably his "most famous book about the philosophy of science" is rather stunning but this is what the contemporary "scholarship" looks like in many other cases, too. Incidentally, given the relationship between the three texts, it seems likely that K.C. Cole – who is just a "professor of journalism" – also knows more about Feynman's philosophy of science than Mr Pigliucci, a "philosopher of science". She probably knows where she found the quote.
This quote isn't the only one where Mr Pigliucci proves his complete ignorance about the subject he is trying to moralize about. Right after the aforementioned hateful sentence about "Feynman who doesn't shine", Mr Pigliucci's tirade says:
He might have said that philosophy of science is as helpful to science as ornithology is to birds (a lot of quotations attributed to him are next to impossible to source).So he doesn't know anything about the context of this quote, either. Fortunately, this one was communicated orally by witnesses – it's not a part of any books. But as I pointed out, it looks likely that he specifically chose ornithology because of his rivalry with Murray Gell-Mann who was a keen birdwatcher.
If we don't insist on the precise wording, however, the sources of morally equivalent comments about ornithology were numerous and well-known to those who know something about Feynman.
Feynman has surely used the example of the "names of the birds" which are intellectually vacuous repeatedly, e.g. in the 1973 NOVA TV program, "Take the World from Another Point of View". He's always right and importantly so: much of ornithology and philosophy is about the words which contain very little of the actual physics (or physics of birds). To study how birds – or Nature as a whole – work, one needs a whole new expertise which is more refined and more mathematical and simply can't be considered a part of "stamp collecting" sciences such as ornithology, let alone (partly) "social sciences" such as philosophy. The terminology and the whole verbal portion of the "knowledge" is just a small part of the tools that one finds helpful while communicating about the sciences (well, sometimes even for one's communication with himself, in his consciousness) – but the research itself is something else (and much deeper, more refined, more precise, and more structured) than communication and it doesn't depend on any terminology.
OK, in the subsequent paragraphs, he uses some "authorities" against Feynman – clearly, none of the "authorities" may be compared even to 1 microfeynman, let alone Feynman. Mr Pigliucci even recommends you to subscribe to a truly pathetic website full of low-brow tirades against science – decent people would only touch those websites and books with at least 1,000 protective rubber layers on their hands (so there is a number!). He barely stopped short of offering Viagra to his readers.
The problem is that it’s difficult to defend the notion that the truth is recognisable by its beauty and simplicity, and it’s an idea that has contributed to getting fundamental physics into its current mess [...]The only problem is that fundamental physics isn't in any mess. The real problem plagues much of the remainder of the society and especially universities – which are filled with self-serving, deluded, and sometimes fanatical ideologues and deceitful activists who hate theoretical physics, physics, science, freedom, the Western values, family, religious traditions, capitalism, men, white race, and other pillars that the good stuff in our world actually stands upon.
Mr Pigliucci is clearly one of them. He finds theoretical physics and the (limited but unavoidably nontrivial) role of beauty in theoretical physics inconvenient. And even 3 decades after his death, Richard Feynman seems like a threat to the likes of Mr Pigliucci because Feynman has given many people a guide how they can avoid becoming victims of manipulation by posers.
And of course, beauty is, notoriously, in the eye of the beholder. What struck Feynman as beautiful might not be beautiful to other physicists or mathematicians.Right, even all observations about Nature are in the eye of the observer, in the quantum mechanical sense, so they are subjective as well, at least in principle. Beauty is "more subjective", indeed, except that every good theoretical physicist has this sense of beauty so he or she may correctly "smell" theories that are more likely to be true because of their simplicity and beauty. Yes, sometimes the correct theories have to be non-minimal, complex, and "ugly", but physicists also know why.
I have met hundreds of the best researchers in theoretical physics – those who do genuine research and who think that their research makes sense, unlike others – and none of them would question that at least in some limited conditions, beauty is a good guide to find the truth in physics or reasonably believed a proposed truth. That's the case despite the differences in the individual physicists' sense of beauty. The conditions where it works include situations such as the "search for Einstein's or Dirac's equations" but those are surely not the only examples in physics. Every one among the hundreds of best theoretical physicists also agrees with the assertion that beauty hasn't been one of the central forces that actually directed the real world physics research – its role in physics is surely overstated in the popular press because such comments about the beauty sound interesting to many laymen.
The apparently obsessed "warriors" against beauty in physics – or against contemporary theoretical physics in general – have nothing to do with the set of folks who are doing honest research in theoretical physics. They believe that "all the research has been vague and aesthetic", which it clearly wasn't, and they also claim that "the aesthetic guides are always illegitimate" and perhaps should be banned. But they're often legitimate and such a "ban" would be a revival of the Inquisition and a profoundly harmful event for science. Real physicists could agree or disagree with particular cases in which beauty (or naturalness etc.) influences physicists' reasoning – but they wouldn't ever speak about all such cases as a matter of principle because they know it's silly. Real physicists know way too many classes example where those considerations have helped.
Given some assumptions, physicists (at least your humble correspondent) may also articulate partial heuristic proofs and other justifications of the thesis that more beautiful or more symmetric theories are more likely to be true. In some cases, the seemingly aesthetic, vague assertions boil down to rather solid Bayesian inference.
The moral of the story is that physicists should leave philosophy of science to the pros, and stick to what they know best.That's what Feynman did – he left the conceptual questions about physics to a professional who knew more than anyone else, namely to himself. It's unquestionable that Feynman knew at least 1,000 times more philosophy of science than Mr Pigliucci does – Pigliucci hasn't even read The Character of Physical Law, let alone contributed a meaningful addition to philosophy of science (according to the physicists).
Physicists cannot leave physics to someone who has no clue about the field – and it is also true for the "somewhat fuzzy, conceptual questions" at the boundary of physics, i.e. questions of the philosophical type. In fact, it's particularly important for these questions to remain under the control of physicists who actually know physics because these vague, philosophical ideas may affect the research of physics most radically. It is especially the big questions where the scientific method has to be respected and where the genuine, not fake experience of the experts has to be taken into account. Physicists aren't and can't be some "assistants" or "human calculators" working for preachers, philosophers, managers, or ideologues – in a setup where the latter end up determining the key conclusions. Instead, physicists are and must be the new bosses when it comes to the understanding of Nature and the best ones primarily decide about the most far-reaching questions. These best senior physicists may guess and sometimes guess promising "sketches" of projects (because they are the most likely ones to be good at it) and they sometimes leave the detailed technical work (which may confirm or refute the "big plan") to their own "assistants" and "human calculators", usually graduate students and postdocs (who are also physicists).
If physicists weren't assertively defending their control over the conceptual aspects of physics, this peripheral portion of physical sciences would be gradually devoured by those who don't have the required expertise, necessary intelligence, and who probably don't have the integrity, either. And these people would devour an increasing fraction of physics and they would ultimately swallow and liquidate all of physics, before the transformed leftover of physics would fall out of the opposite end of the tube. After all, the sentence following the previous one explicitly says:
Better yet: this is an area where fruitful interdisciplinary dialogue is not just a possibility, but arguably a necessity.Clearly, he wants to "invite himself" to physics and affect it – although he doesn't have any credentials, evidence, or ideas considered interesting by some physicists that would justify such an invitation.
Mr Pigliucci mentions some times when physicists such as Einstein respected philosophers. But that wasn't because the philosophers demanded to be influential in this way, like Mr Pigliucci demands it. Instead, those philosophers – especially the positivists – actually found some new ways of thinking that were used in the relativistic and quantum revolutions in 20th century physics. If a philosopher happens to find some "template for new theories" that is as promising as the positivists' operational ideas or as Mach's principle, the situation may change and physicists could think that it's more than a waste of time to pay attention to the self-described contemporary "philosophers of science". But nothing like that has taken place for quite some time – approximately for one century. And even Mach and the positivists were probably just lucky – even a broken calendar that shows the last two digits is correct once a century.
The simple new ideas not dependent on the growing abstraction of theoretical physics (like Mach's principle in the 19th century) have probably been depleted and philosophers lacking the abstraction of the best contemporary theoretical physicists probably cannot make any contribution to physics anymore.
There can't be any meaningful "interdisciplinary dialogue" with an unjustifiably self-confident writer who pretends to be important in "philosophy of science" and in questions such as "beauty in science" but who writes meritocratically indefensible and almost entirely ad hominem hit pieces against Richard Feynman although he hasn't even read the Character of the Physical Law. Science is a meritocratic discipline and people who are just posers without any content cannot participate in it and mustn't participate in it. The separation of wheat and weeds is a cornerstone of science – and any meritocratic activity.
Incidentally, it seems likely that Mr Pigliucci doesn't even know that Feynman has mocked string theory – otherwise he wouldn't present a staggeringly oversimplified picture in which both Feynman and the "messy contemporary theoretical physics" are the foes.
The last paragraph contains an ancient happy end:
Ironically, it was Plato [...] who argued that beauty is a guide to truth (and goodness). [...] But philosophy has made much progress since Plato [...]A simple comparison of Mr Plato and Mr Pigliucci shows that the progress was huge, indeed – but it was huge and negative. Philosophy used to be a field that covered the "emergent physical sciences" or the "precursors to physics". Ancient philosophers should really be called ancient philosophers-physicists. But philosophy and physics have parted ways and these days, "philosophy of science" only keeps the things from the formerly unified discipline that are nothing but a pose, self-promotion, and manipulation of the ignorant readers. If the nearly complete ignorance about the "technical beef" is what distinguishes a "philosopher of science" from a "physicist", then "philosophers of science" clearly shouldn't influence what's going on in physics because such an influence would contradict the defining axioms of the scientific method.
The more our society deteriorates, the more self-confident the likes of Mr Pigliucci will feel. It's already very bad today. Aeon.co thinks that a 6-kilobyte ad hominem rant against a great physicist and an important factor affecting theoretical physics is appropriate for publication – and the university where the author works may probably count this junk as scholarship. Will it get even worse?