Finding Cinderella: A Metaphor Of the Scientific Method

When quantum theory and the theory of general relativity shook the foundation of physics at the dawn of the 20th century, some of the physicists, most notably Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg, explored and revisited ancient Greek philosophy, for they believed that there might be something wrong with the philosophical foundation that classic physics was built upon. They tried to retrace the steps in the labyrinth and find out where the wrong turn was made, so to speak, in the hope of discovering neglected wisdom and also correcting inveterate errors (i.e., preconceived ideas and unwarranted assumptions which may have been perpetuated).

I think that modern physics has definitely decided in favor of Plato [against the materialism of Democritus]. In fact the smallest units of matter are not physical objects in the ordinary sense; they are forms, ideas which can be expressed unambiguously only in mathematical language.
–Werner Heisenberg

Scientists work within a philosophical framework, though it is not as pronounced as it is with philosophers. A scientific theory is, among other things, an interpretation of empirical data. It is often the case that multiple theories can describe the same sets of data, which one the scientist chooses depends on his/her philosophy. Empirical evidence drives the advance of science by eliminating bad theories, and forcing the scientists to admit their own errors and sometimes take on a completely different perspective and philosophy. This is what is called paradigm shift.

Cinderella by Gustave Doré
To my mind, the fairytale of Cinderella is a good metaphor of the scientific method, which presupposes and demands a correspondence between the abstract theory and the natural phenomena.

To find the real Cinderella with whom he fell in love, the Prince takes the glass slipper that she left behind and visits all the young maidens in the country, matching the slipper to their tender feet, until he finds her. So the scientist, who is in love of truth, constantly tests their theories against observations and experiments, until they can find the theory that explains all phenomena. Our observation of nature, extremely limited and imperfect as it is, is not the whole truth, but rather a footprint, a means for us to identify or reconstruct the original, just as the glass slipper is used to find Cinderella.

The Platonist scientist — I believe Einstein is one — is careful to avoid two mistakes: On the one hand, he pities the materialists, who believe there is nothing more to Cinderella than just her foot, on the other hand, he shuns the sophists who indulge in fantasies about airy maidens that can never be substantiated.

Speaking of fantasies, there is a proposition among some materialists that morality can be established through science. Schrödinger speaks of the difficulty, if not impossibility, of the materialist approach to ethics: because man himself (the observer) has been removed from his picture of the world (the observed), “the scientific worldview consists of itself no ethical values, no aesthetical values, not a word about our own ultimate scope or destination.” Conversely, an argument is often raised, “Everything that occurs in nature is natural and therefore moral”. Aristotle would disagree, and say that, though both disease and health occur in nature, only health is “natural”, because it is what “nature” intends. But the problem is, science knows nothing about intent, it only reports the facts.

In other words, the glass slipper may help the Prince find Cinderella, but it does not and cannot tell whether their union is a good one nor whether they will live happily ever after.


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