It’s a long standing joke that social scientists have Physics Envy. To the extent that it’s not a joke, I’m tentatively hopeful that some recent developments in physics will have a ripple effect in fields like linguistics.
Or perhaps I should say “some recent lack of developments in physics,” since I’m talking about the fact that it looks like Supersymmetry is not getting any support from the experiments conducted at the Large Hadron Collider.
I’ve read in multiple places that one of the marks alleged to provide support for Supersymmetry is (was) its elegance (e.g., the Scientific American article linked above). I’ve also seen elegance trotted out as a desideratum of syntactic theory. For example, the second paragraph on page 5 of Understanding Minimalism begins “As in any other domain of scientific inquiry, proposals in linguistics are evaluated along several dimensions: naturalness, parsimony, simplicity, elegance, explanitoriness, etc.”
I’m in complete agreeance that scientific theory evaluation is multidimensional, though I don’t know why the Minimalism Understanders chose this particular order when listing these evaluative dimensions. The order is certainly not determined by each dimension’s relative epistemological importance. The next sentence in the paragraph makes this clear, but even without that next sentence, a little careful thought suffices to show none other than explanitoriness (or, perhaps more, erm, elegantly, explanatory scope) even have any epistemological importance.
It’s not clear to me what naturalness could even mean here, so it’s hard for me to see how one could make the case for a more natural theory being preferable to a less natural theory.
Putting aside the redundancy of listing both parsimony and simplicity (which seem to me to be used interchangeably when used as theory descriptors), simplicity only has comparative and pragmatic value. That is, while simplicity can be desirable to the extent that it makes a theory easier to work with (i.e., while simplicity can have pragmatic value), it can only help one theory win out over another if both theories are equally satisfactory with respect to epistemologically important desiderata – qualities like explanatory scope.
My problem with elegance is more or less the same as my problem with simplicity, with maybe a dash of my problem with naturalness thrown in for good measure. Even if we can come up with an acceptable definition of elegance (which I’m not at all sure we can, and I don’t think the “I know it when I see it” criterion will work here), I don’t doubt that a more elegant theory is more aesthetically pleasing than a less elegant theory. But I don’t see how elegance can possibly matter when evaluating a theory’s claim to constitute knowledge.
I may be wrong, but it seems to me that more elegant theories don’t have wider explanatory scope, they don’t generate more accurate predictions, they aren’t more consistent with other theories in the same or neighboring domains, they don’t generate a greater number of surprising predictions. Maybe they are more internally consistent, but even if they are, it’s the internal consistency that matters, not the elegance. Pick an epistemologically important criterion on which to evaluate theories; I bet you’ve picked a criterion that has little if anything to do with elegance.
Maybe the structure of the natural world is, in fact, elegant, but it seems just as a priori plausible to me that it’s not. And inelegance seems not just plausible but likely when we’re talking about the products of evolution, which has a persistent and well documented tendency to cobble together kludgy solutions to historical contingencies, many of which (the solutions) have any number of cascading effects on this or that other system in an evolving organism. Whether language developed under pressure from natural selection or not, it’s not clear to me why we should expect linguistic theories to be elegant.
To the extent that physics sets the standard for conducting good science, I hope that the (apparent) failure of the undoubtedly very elegant theory of Supersymmetry will make it more obvious to physicists and non-physicists alike that elegance isn’t scientifically valuable. Give it 10 or 20 years, and maybe this idea will even work its way into the social sciences.