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Where have you gone, Isaac Newton?

By David Harriman
web posted October 13, 2003

More and more today, we are inundated with foolishness masquerading as science. Psychic hotlines proliferate, politicians consult astrologers, and people reject their doctor's advice in favor of "alternative healing" dispensed by quacks. In the past, defenders of real science could be relied upon to expose and debunk such nonsense. So where are these defenders today?

Unfortunately, they are too busy dreaming up foolishness of their own.

This is not, of course, the first time in history that people have believed their fates could be read in the stars and their diseases could be cured by prayers. Before the scientific revolution in the 17th century, such ideas were the popular rage. Women were convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake. Pigs with unpleasant dispositions and hens with unusual appearances were put on trial, convicted of demonic possession and executed.

Isaac baby, we need you
Isaac baby, we need you

Then came the Age of Reason, when Isaac Newton called for an end to such lunacy. He famously declared that he "framed no hypotheses" -- meaning that he dismissed any idea that was unsupported by observational evidence. After Newton, peddlers of nonsense were banished to the disreputable realm of pseudo-science.

Until recently.

Today, physicists suppose that a particle can travel many different paths simultaneously, or travel backwards in time, or randomly pop into and out of existence from nothingness. They enjoy treating the entire universe as a "fluctuation of the vacuum," or as an insignificant member of an infinite ensemble of universes, or even as a hologram. The fabric of this strange universe is a non-entity called "spacetime," which expands, curves, attends yoga classes, and may have twenty-six dimensions.

In short, the recent literature on physics makes one nostalgic for anything as reasonable as a witch trial.

For the past decade many physicists have been wandering the streets with signs that read: "The End of Physics Is Near." They claim to be developing a final "theory of everything," which will leave future physicists with nothing to do but play computer games. We can dismiss their megalomania, yet still be tempted to agree with their message. The end that seems near, however, is not a climactic rise to omniscience but an embarrassing descent into pseudo-science.

The blushing has already begun. Last year, there was a widely publicized controversy over the research of two physicists in France (the brothers Igor and Grichka Bogdanov). At issue was whether the published work of the Bogdanovs, which consisted of speculations about the universe before the Big Bang, was intended seriously or as a parody of contemporary cosmology. The truth turned out to be more damning than any parody: the Bogdanovs were serious but nobody could tell -- so their colleagues were forced to admit that much research
today is indistinguishable from a joke.

Physicists didn't reach this state of intellectual bankruptcy overnight. Early in the 20th century, Einstein explicitly rejected Newton's scientific method. "We now realize," Einstein wrote, "how much in error are those theorists who believe that theory comes inductively from experience." Instead, he insisted that theories are "free creations of the human mind." The inevitable result of such freedom is the currently fashionable "fantasy physics."

Of course, physicists don't admit that they are engaged in fantasy. They say they are following the "hypothetico-deductive method," which sounds much more scientific. This method, however, allows them to dream up any "theory" that tickles their fancy, provided they can deduce at least one consequence that might be observable sometime, somewhere, by somebody.

Real knowledge is the hard-won reward of a step-by-step process that takes us from observations to abstractions, generalizations and theories. In contrast, daydreaming requires little effort. That explains why theorists have been able to reach the "end of physics" so quickly and easily. Unfortunately, their stories about make-believe worlds are of no value to people living in the actual world.

History teaches us the crucial role of physics in human life. Throughout the Western world, knowledge of physics has raised man from a superstitious savage who cringes before nature to an efficacious thinker who conquers nature. The practical benefits of this transformation are too numerous and too obvious to list.

But there is even more at stake than future technology. As the legacy of Isaac Newton fades and physics continues its neurotic withdrawal from reality, our culture begins to lose sight of the glory of human nature: the faculty of reason. That is a frightening thought -- because if man is not "the rational animal," then he is just an animal.

David Harriman, M.S. in physics, is the editor of Journals of Ayn Rand and a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, California. The Institute promotes Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Copyright © 2003 Ayn Rand® Institute

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