The Scope of Speculative Ideas

1The scope of the following sub-section of discussions considers 6 fundamental concepts that underpin how science has come to interpret the universe around us. However, by their very nature, each discussion is highly speculative in as much as it may appear to contradict established ideas within the current framework of scientific thinking:

It is clear that there are many speculative ideas, which might be said to exist outside the acceptance of mainstream science, which are simply filed under the heading ‘crackpot theories’. However, speculation is a valid process within science, which often precedes the formalisation of a hypothesis, such that it might be sensible to try to qualify the scope and difference between these two processes before actually indulging in any speculation: 

  • Speculation:
    Is not necessarily supported by any experimental data, although it should be seriously questioned if seen to be negated by existing experimental data. In this context, speculation might be seen to depend on only deductive reasoning, which may or may not be provable at the outset and may appear to contradict or seek to replace some aspects of accepted theory.

  • Hypothesis: 
    As a generalisation, hypothesis is normally rooted in some form of verified experimental data, although it may interpret this data towards a different conclusion that is not generally accepted by mainstream science. Within the scope of this definition, a hypothesis might be said to be more reflective of inductive reasoning  and should conceptually be verifiable in some manner, although this verification process may exceed the technology of the day.

So where does the semantics of a ‘theory’ fit into this description?

Within the scientific methodology, it might be said that a ‘fact’ can never be totally proved, only disproved by experimental results. As such, an accepted theory, which rests heavily on verified experimental data, may be as close as science can get to a fact. Therefore, a hypothesis may only be elevated to theory, when supported by sufficient verification. However, in practice, this description is somewhat conceptual as there are examples of very speculative models, resting on little to no empirical verification, which appear to simply assume the status of a theory, e.g. string theory. Therefore, on a more practical note, it might also be worth highlighting that if a hypothesis rests on a verification process that exceeds the ability of science to perform, as was the case with many aspects of quantum mechanics, then the hypothesis may amount to little more than speculation until such times as it can be substantiated to some level by experiment data. However, based on the outline above, it is argued that speculative models are an integral part of the scientific methodology, which encompasses both deductive and inductive reasoning and should not be rejected out-of-hand; although appropriate caution is advisable.

So what  is the scope of speculation?

Despite the apparent contradiction, physics is not an exact science in as much that it does not have all the answers. It might also be accepted that some of the answers, in the form of hypotheses and theories, will turn out to be wrong or, at least, not 100% correct. If you accept this pragmatic position, you will probably intuitively understand the initial scope of speculation in science to explore different approaches, which might eventually prove more successful in describing a given process under research. However, it is also probably fair to say that mainstream science prefers  speculation to remain within the overall framework of an accepted theory and it is in this context that so many speculative theories fall foul of the system of peer review. It is highlighted that some of the speculation to follow will fall into this out-of-box category, but possibly not out-of-tune with the sentiment expressed by Schrodinger some 40 years ago:

"Fifty years ago science seemed on the road to a clear-cut answer to the ancient question which is the title of this article: Our Conception of Matter. It looked as if matter would be reduced at last to its ultimate building blocks - to certain sub microscopic but nevertheless tangible and measurable particles. But it proved to be less simple than that. Today a physicist no longer can distinguish significantly between matter and something else. We no longer contrast matter with forces or fields of force as different entities; we know now that these concepts must be merged...We have to admit that our conception of material reality today is more wavering and uncertain than it has been for a long time...Physics stands at a grave crisis of ideas. In the face of this crisis, many maintain that no objective picture of reality is possible. However, the optimists among us (of whom I consider myself one) look upon this view as a philosophical extravagance born of despair. We hope that the present fluctuations of thinking are only indications of an upheaval of old beliefs which in the end will lead to something better than the mess of formulas that today surrounds our subject."

However, the goal of this first section of discussions is simply to reflect on some of the most basic assumptions of theoretical physics. As previously suggested, it is a facet of many Western noun-orientated languages to name ‘things’ and, in so doing, come to believe that the familiarity of the name reflects some deeper understanding.