False Frame

I came across an article [Link] entitled “Richard Feynman was wrong about beauty and truth in science” written by an academic philosopher (is that redundant? are there industrial or governmental philosophers?) named Massimo Pigliucci. He argues that Feynman was wrong that we can recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity. The author quotes this but offers no primary source so I am going to be unacademical since that is basically the thing to be advanced.

Professor Pigliucci’s argument is good except for one thing, at least to me. He and Feynman are using different meanings for “truth.”

Back when I was an undergraduate at the Campus of the Black Warrior, I took a philosophy track. The courses were a two semester survey of philosophy, sort of a historical thing that started with the atomists and continued into the Twentieth Century. As is common with such courses, we ran out of term in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. The professor was a defrocked Baptist minister who had a great relish for science, in my estimation from testability envy since philosophy has no real way of establishing accuracy.

This is the crux of the “truth” problem. Philosophers are rather keen on truth although with rather more depth than either religionists or justicers, both of whom seem to think truth being some self-evident quality of Nature. The problem is that science isn’t about truth; it’s about accuracy and understanding. 

These days, scientists, especially physicists, are dropping the use of the term “truth.” At least the ones who aren’t overly occupied with what is contemporarily called “outreach,” which is trying to teach science to the “general public.” Example in case is Neil deGrasse Tyson who says “truth” a lot and elicits lots of groans and cringes from scientists who don’t like to use the word. 

This is a relatively new thing. Back when I went through school, scientists were talking about “truth” while meaning accuracy and understanding. But religiosity was rather more tolerated in those days despite widespread persecution. But in those days, there were no beheadings. 

In my mind, the argument offered by Professor Pigliucci, while a good one, is essentially void since what he means by “truth” and what Feynman meant by “truth” are two different things. I hate that Pigluicci wasted his time on this because he has good ideas. But just as philosophers think scientists are horrible at philosophy, it may also be that philosophers are horrible at science?