String Theory, Non-Empirical Theory Assessment, and the Context of Pursuit

Synthese 198:3671–3699 (2021)
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In this paper, I offer an analysis of the radical disagreement over the adequacy of string theory. The prominence of string theory despite its notorious lack of empirical support is sometimes explained as a troubling case of science gone awry, driven largely by sociological mechanisms such as groupthink (e.g. Smolin 2006). Others, such as Dawid (2013), explain the controversy by positing a methodological revolution of sorts, according to which string theorists have quietly turned to nonempirical methods of theory assessment given the technological inability to directly test the theory. The appropriate response, according to Dawid, is to acknowledge this development and widen the canons of acceptable scientific methods. As I’ll argue, however, the current situation in fundamental physics does not require either of these responses. Rather, as I’ll suggest, much of the controversy stems from a failure to properly distinguish the “context of justification” from the “context of pursuit”. Both those who accuse string theorists of betraying the scientific method and those who advocate an enlarged conception of scientific methodology objectionably conflate epistemic justification with judgements of pursuit-worthiness. Once we get clear about this distinction and about the different norms governing the two contexts, the current situation in fundamental physics becomes much less puzzling. After defending this diagnosis of the controversy, I’ll show how the argument patterns that have been posited by Dawid as constituting an emergent methodological revolution in science are better off if reworked as arguments belonging to the context of pursuit.

Author's Profile

Frank Cabrera
University of Wisconsin, Madison (PhD)


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