Massimo Pigliucci is wrong about Richard Feynman on beauty and truth in science

Do philosophers ever think before they write?

Massimo Pigliucci claims that Feynman is “often quoted” as saying: ‘You can recognise truth by its beauty and simplicity,’ and then uses this claim as the basis for an attack on Feynman’s understanding of what it was that he himself was really doing. Now I have no idea whether the claim that Feynman is “often quoted” that way is true – many people are inaccurately quoted, and the more famous they are the more likely they are to be falsely identified with whatever catchy phrase someone wants to promote, so it may well be true that Feynman is often quoted that way. But one would think that a professional philosopher would be above using the fact that someone is “often quoted” as having an opinion to infer that they actually did so – especially since in this case the only supporting evidence comes from one journalist and Pigliucci “could not find other records of Feynman writing or saying it”.

No matter though.  For a philosopher apparently if someone can’t be found to have actually expressed an opinion, then it is sufficient evidence of  having had it that the accused may seen to have admired someone else who did have it – and apparently “we do know” that Feynman admired Paul Dirac who did want theories to be, in some sense, beautiful (and, despite Pigliucci’s complete lack of any attempt to support either of those claims, they are both indeed true). However Dirac’s well-attested reluctance to work on what he considered ugly does not necessarily translate into a conviction that the ugly theory could not actually be true, and despite occasional lapses (as in being initially doubtful of experimental results which  contradicted his and Gell-Mann’s weak interaction theory), Feynman’s ultimate position was exactly the opposite of what Pigliucci claims. His most famous and well-documented position on truth and beauty is in fact as follows:

It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.

Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and to a properly appreciative eye the property of most simply encompassing the largest known range of data is itself the criterion that we identify as beauty in a physical theory. Perhaps this is related to what the poet John Keats meant when he concluded his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by expressing the identity in both directions.

Source: Richard Feynman was wrong about beauty and truth in science | Aeon Ideas

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