A week and a half ago, I talked about abandoning NOMA as a valid model for science/religion interaction. The week after that the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece on the seemingly dominate force of “beauty” or “symmetry” in much scientific investigation, particularly in physics, and how it might be misguided. I’ve linked to the piece below, but I’d like to just give a few highlights, plus some background to it.
The drive for beauty and symmetry in physics dates back to the Pythagoreans, particularly in their discovery of octaves that are formed through evenly dividing a string. Eventually this led to the elegance of thirds, fifths, and the so-called “golden ratio.” Once Plato and Aristotle reemphasized these points (Plato very likely visited some Pythagoreans at some point), they became entrenched in physics. As the article notes, Copernicus’s theory was accepted not because it was correct based on data, but because it was more beautiful or elegant (though it turned out the universe is not quite as elegant as Copernicus thought). Likewise, Kepler only begrudgingly abandoned his initial view on the orbit of the planet’s once it became clear he would need to move in the direction of “uglier” ellipses.
To move the discussion forward to today. Now that the standard model is all but confirmed (it remains seen whether the Higgs Boson discovered is a “standard model” Higgs or another kind, but it is very likely to be a “standard model” one), much of physics has run up against a wall. The leading unification theories (theories that bring together quantum and field physics) of String Theory and Supersymmetry are accepted because of their “elegance.” As the article notes, they have gone to the point of being unfalsifiable, a claim usually levied against the religious. If what either theory purports to exist is not discovered, then advocates can argue that current equipment is simply insufficient to produce the speed, pressure, and volume or collisions needed to produce the expected particles. Here’s the problem: there is no good reason to accept “elegance” or “symmetry,” as understood in physics, as being somehow normative. In fact, there are numerous instances where it does not hold. The Sun, moon, earth and other such bodies are far from symmetrical spheres, yet the model is used because it is easier to work with and close enough to producing predicted results. In biology, virtually nothing is as symmetrical as once was thought (the article notes, for instance, that though amino acids produced in the lab can be “right handed” or “left handed” nature only produces “left handed” ones).
Then there are the known asymmetries in physics. Neutrinos, the most common particle in the universe, only spin in one direction, while both String Theory and Supersymmetry predict there should be an even number of two opposite spins. Where are the other ones? Although not mentioned in the article, there is the additional absence of “anti-matter” which should exist in high enough quantity (proportionate to matter) that we should be able to observe more of its natural occurrence (as it is, most observed anti-matter has been laboratory produced). All of these are problems with physics as it currently stands.
Why do I bring all of this up? The main reason is this: It demonstrates that scientific investigation is often times more subject to non-empirical concerns (here aesthetic ones) than empirical concerns, and thus incapable of meeting the criteria of NOMA from that end.