What We Know

by David Bryan Wallace
Cape Coral, Florida, USA

I have written "What We Know" to make the point that the scientific process requires consideration of alternatives. The person who does nothing but bolster his belief in what he already believes is no scientist at all. Yet, I have noticed that many people will leap to the conclusion that anyone who considers alternative theories as I do must be a crackpot. Such people mistakenly think that by rejecting alternative theories they are championing science. In my essays I present alternative theoretical models not claiming the alternative model is "right" and other models are "wrong." Theories are stories that model reality in our thought but are never the reality itself. I may call attention to some aspects of standard models that arouse my interest in considering alternatives; I do so to arouse the reader's interest in considering alternatives too. In any case, I believe that consideration of alternative theoretical models will enhance the reader's understanding of the physical problems to which both theories refer. Several different theories can be consistent with all the same empirical evidence.

We use what we experience to form our beliefs, and we use what we believe to understand what we experience. Our perceptions are influenced by our beliefs, and the wise person understands that beliefs inflexibly held can blind us. We call our strongly held belief “knowledge.” Be willing to see your knowledge as belief only. Be willing to consider something different and new. Watch TED talk: Kathryn Schulz on being Wrong.

There are current scientific theories that are held in spite of flaws because they are comfortably familiar or we have not yet conceived a better theory. If it is uncomfortable to acknowledge the imperfection of our belief, it is nonetheless better to do so than to deny the imperfection and thereby obstruct progress. Wave-particle duality, for example, is so familiar we may forget that the duality betokens a deficiency in our theory. We alternate between wave theory and particle theory to avoid confronting phenomena that contradict the one or the other. They are two inadequate theories. The practice of using whichever theory best serves the case in hand hardly constitutes a unification of the two theories into one. We need a new theory.

Theories are supposed to meet certain requirements: usefulness, testability, logical self-consistency. These are the appropriate criteria for judging theories, not the criterion of consistency with a standard theory. Regarding testability, a theory is called into question by contrary empirical evidence, not by empirical evidence being not contrary to another theory. Regarding logical self-consistency, it appears that the physics community tolerates some logical inconsistency so long as the theory is useful. It may be due to my mathematical training, but I find a theory's lack of logical self-consistency very difficult to accept.

Some open questions for me may have been settled outside my knowledge. Some answers I offer may not be so new as I suppose. Nonetheless, I hope my essays will stimulate progress, even revolutionary science in the sense employed by Thomas S. Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

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