As several other SB’ers have already noted, physicist Brian Greene offers this defense of string theory in today’s New York Times. He concludes:
I have worked on string theory for more than 20 years because I believe it provides the most powerful framework for constructing the long-sought unified theory. Nonetheless, should an inconsistency be found, or should future studies reveal an insuperable barrier to making contact with experimental data, or should new discoveries reveal a superior approach, I’d change my research focus, and I have little doubt that most string theorists would too.
But this hasn’t happened.
String theory continues to offer profound breadth and enormous potential. It has the capacity to complete the Einsteinian revolution and could very well be the concluding chapter in our species’ age-old quest to understand the deepest workings of the cosmos.
Will we ever reach that goal? I don’t know. But that’s both the wonder and the angst of a life in science. Exploring the unknown requires tolerating uncertainty.
Personally, I find people like Greene more convincing than string theory’s detractors. Mathematical consistency is nothing to sneeze at; as Greene notes elsewhere in his essay, lack of such consistency has spelled the demise of many other proposed physcial theories. That string theory has avoided this difficulty is a big point in its favor.
I have to disagree with this bit of snarkiness from Jonah over at The Frontal Cortex. He writes:
Try this fun game. In the following paragraph, clipped from Brian Greene’s elegant defense of string theory in the NY Times, I’ve taken the liberty of substituting a “belief in God” for “string theory”:
To be sure, no one successful experiment would establish that [a belief in God] is right, but neither would the failure of all such experiments prove [a belief in God] wrong. If the accelerator experiments fail to turn up anything, it could be that we need more powerful machines [in order to see God]; if the astronomical observations fail to turn up anything, it could mean the effects [of God] are too small to be seen. The bottom line is that it’s hard to test a [belief in God] that not only taxes the capacity of today’s technology, but is also still very much under development.
As I’ve said before, I don’t know why evangelicals waste their time on Darwin and biology. If I were a true believer, or a shill at the Discovery Institute, I’d spent my time studying avant-garde physics.
I’m afraid this analogy will not do.
Greene’s point here is that while we have some idea of what string theory predicts experimentally, there is also a lot that is unknown. So if our first attempts at experimental validation go wrong, that might mean simply that we need to refine the theory, rather than discard it altogether. He is not saying we should simply ignore apparently contrary data just to preserve the theory, and he is not saying the string theory will forever be immune to experimental refutation.
That is starkly different from the situation with belief in God. Such belief is not a theory that gets modified in the light of new data. People are not conducting experiments meant to refine our conception of God. With God belief the situation is simply that scientists have failed to turn up any evidence of God’s existence, but people go on believing in Him anyway.
In short, string theory has a lot more going for it than theism.