So where are these defenders today?
Unfortunately, they are often 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.
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
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 nonentity called “spacetime,” which expands, curves,
attends yoga classes, and may have 26 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
halls of academia 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 pseudoscience.
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.
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
But there is even more at stake than future technology. As
the legacy of Isaac Newton fades and physics continues its
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
California. The Institute promotes Objectivism, the philosophy
of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.
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