Does Philosophy Make You a Better Scientist?

By Sean Carroll | July 6, 2009 9:27 am

Steve Hsu pulls out a provocative quote from philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend:

The withdrawal of philosophy into a “professional” shell of its own has had disastrous consequences. The younger generation of physicists, the Feynmans, the Schwingers, etc., may be very bright; they may be more intelligent than their predecessors, than Bohr, Einstein, Schrodinger, Boltzmann, Mach and so on. But they are uncivilized savages, they lack in philosophical depth — and this is the fault of the very same idea of professionalism which you are now defending.

It’s probably true that the post-WWII generations of leading physicists were less broadly educated than their pre-war counterparts (although there are certainly counterexamples such as Murray Gell-Mann and Steven Weinberg). The simplest explanation for this phenomenon would be that the center of gravity of scientific research switched from Europe to America after the war, and the value of a broad-based education (and philosophy in particular) has always been less in America. Interestingly, Feyerabend seems to be blaming philosophers themselves — “the withdrawal of philosophy into a `professional’ shell” — rather than physicists or any wider geosocial trends.

But aside from whether modern physicists (and maybe scientists in other fields, I don’t know) pay less attention to philosophy these days, and aside from why that might be the case, there is still the question: does it matter? Would knowing more philosophy have made any of the post-WWII giants better physicists? There are certainly historical counterexamples one could conjure up: the acceptance of atomic theory in the German-speaking world in the late nineteenth century was held back considerably by Ernst Mach‘s philosophical arguments. On the other hand, Einstein and Bohr and their contemporaries did manage to do some revolutionary things; relativity and quantum mechanics were more earth-shattering than anything that has come since in physics.

The usual explanation is that the revolutionary breakthroughs simply haven’t been there to be made — that Feynman and Schwinger and friends missed the glory days when quantum mechanics was being invented, so it was left to them to move the existing paradigm forward, not to come up with something revolutionary and new. Maybe, had these folks been more conversant with their Hume and Kant and Wittgenstein, we would have quantum gravity figured out by now.

Probably not. Philosophical presuppositions certainly play an important role in how scientists work, and it’s possible that a slightly more sophisticated set of presuppositions could give the working physicist a helping hand here and there. But based on thinking about the actual history, I don’t see how such sophistication could really have moved things forward. (And please don’t say, “If only scientists were more philosophically sophisticated, they would see that my point of view has been right all along!”) I tend to think that knowing something about philosophy — or for that matter literature or music or history — will make someone a more interesting person, but not necessarily a better physicist.

This might not be right, though. Maybe, had they been more broad and less technical, some of the great physicists of the last few decades would have made dramatic breakthroughs in a field like quantum information or complexity theory, rather than pushing harder at the narrow concerns of particle physics or condensed matter. Easy to speculate, hard to provide much compelling evidence either way.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Philosophy, Science
  • iggy2112

    I find it hard to believe that basic philosophical rigor wouldn’t help theoretical physics. One has to have a feel for whether or not the group of assumptions or presuppositions are logically consistent before building a theory on top of them.

  • Neal J. King

    I wouldn’t blame Mach for holding back atomic theory; but rather the lack of competing philosophers of science at the time.

  • Sam C

    I’m not convinced that Feyerabend meant that reading Hume would help one make breakthroughs in physics. What he’s complaining about is that physicists who only know physics are ‘uncivilized savages’: without the ugly colonial language, they’re stunted human beings who aren’t using a large part of their intelligence. The same is true, I’d say and I think Feyerabend would also say, of philosophers who only know philosophy. There’s more to life than physics. Indeed, there’s more to being a scientist than physics: there’s skeptical curiosity, and imagination, and joy in difficult thought, all of which are developed by doing philosophy.

  • Carolune

    Interesting entry – your first paragraph (after the quote) sounds almost verbatim like this very interesting digression by Lee Smolin for Canada’s CBC’s Ideas series: How to think about Science:
    Episode 23. I can only recommend it for a very interesting in-depth reflection about the importance of broader interests and philosophy in the progress of science. Lee Smolin rawks… :)

  • Chris W.

    The influence of Mach on Einstein is fascinating, not least because it is so full of irony. Mach was unmoved by the analysis of Brownian motion, and had little use for special or general relativity. And yet, Julian Barbour has argued that general relativity is a nearly perfect realization of Mach’s principle in dynamics, or at least, a particular statement of the essential content of Mach’s principle.

    (By the way, Mach was also Wolfgang Pauli’s godfather.)

  • George Musser

    A lot of physicists, especially those working on quantum foundations and non-string-theoretic approaches to quantum gravity, do say they find value in philosophy. And surely you have benefited from Huw Price’s work.

  • gyokusai

    Ha, I also wanted to reference Smolin, but Carolune (#4) beat me to it. In his Trouble With Physics, Smolin makes quite a convincing case I think that, with different ways of thinking, we might indeed have developed different ideas by now and pushed the frontiers instead of having such a long period of consolidating. Plus, more or less, getting stuck. And Smolin quotes Feyerabend too, I remember.

  • Chris W.

    Philosophical presuppositions don’t matter, except when they do.

    Adopting the attitude “shut up and calculate” works, except when it doesn’t.


  • Chris W.

    Also see the discussion in this post and the subsequent comments.

  • Matt Leifer

    As someone who occasionally works on the foundations of quantum theory, I must say that I have found the philosophical literature in this area to be tremendously helpful in promoting clear thinking about things like the measurement problem and Bell’s theorem. It is one of the few areas where there is considerable interation between the scientific and philosophical communities, and where that interaction has definitely led to conceptual progress. Of course, many would argue about whether this is really science, but let’s not get into that right now.

    Lately I have been thinking that a similar degree of interaction between the cosmology/strings community and philosophers could be very fruitful, especially with the whole landscape/anthropic principle/probability measures business. It is not simply a matter of having philosophers criticizing the whole idea of the program (although I am sure that would happen quite a lot), but more usefully they could analyze specific proposals in order to check whether thay are consistent and well-founded. I think it would be a good thing if these ideas were analyzed with the same sort of philosophical rigor that has been applied to Bell’s theorem for example.

  • Tod R. Lauer

    It depends on how you look at this question. A subtle issue is why who works on what, where they get their ideas and inspiration, how they persevere in the face of difficulties, contraindications and so on. In this case, it’s possible that a training in philosophy, as much is it is a discipline that focuses on how one thinks about thinking, may provide utility on an individual or idiosyncratic basis. But then, I’m not sure that I would elevate it above any other source of inspiration, and it’s harder for me to imagine that any specific philosophical ideas, schools or thought, etc. would have any general objective usefulness, certainly not in any literal translation: philosophy -> physics.

    Clearly, Feynman, who disdained philosophy, did just fine without it. He was also very clear about his sources of inspiration, and how he drew on his own talents for deep creative thought. At the same time, just as everyone talks with an accent, whether they think so or not, he clearly had an exceptionally strong philosophy of science that colored how he looked at the world…

  • Aw, Heck!

    As a former student of philosophy, I agree with Sean the study of philosophy can make anyone a more interesting person but not necessarily a better physicist. And the quote from Feyerabend demonstrates it won’t necessarily make you a better person either. I also agree that “professional” philosophy has withdrawn into a shell and alienated the general population, but I think it’s a shell of arrogance and not one of professionalism. Furthermore I find Feyerabend’s characterization of educated non-philosophers as “uncivilized savages” to be indicative of this very arrogance. If philosophy is ever to encourage non-philosophers to explore the field once again, it won’t be with language like this.

  • FUG

    Philosophy is unavoidable in physics. Science is, essentially, the best epistemological method to date (not that I’m biased). I don’t think you’re becoming a “barbarian” if you don’t formally study philosophy (I always cringe whenever I read that term in philosophy), but studying philosophy, like mathematics, will help you become a better physicist because you will become a better thinker. And, hell, thinking is pretty frick-tastically sweet.

  • daisyrose

    I am not sure one should be insulted to be called an *uncivilized savage* especially if one has imagination, a little leisure and an expression of intuition with out denting or shaving off the nose of a truth.

  • steeleweed

    Europeans place more value than we do on wide-spread learning. Used to be that British businesses hired the English or History or Philosophy major, but I suspect that in recent years they have been emulating America and going for the MBA-types. Recall IBM hiring in the 1960s – any degree was acceptable but you needed some degree. It proved you had enough discipline to accomplish something – and they didn’t want someone uneducated to rise high the company and deal with upper-level types only to embarrass himself and IBM by his lack of education.

    The chief sub-discipline of Philosophy that all scientists need is Logic, and it wouldn’t hurt the rest of the human race either. Generally, 5% think, the other 95% believe they think but don’t really have a clue.
    Some schools are beginning to teach ‘life skills’, but I’ve never seen Thinking 101 and we need that even more. Am contemplating writing a book: Thinking for Dummies.

  • RPF

    The profound truth about philosophy is that it is completely and utterly useless. In philosophy you can defend any stance you want and it doesn’t mean anything. It is just a terrible waste of time.

    The few deep and useful insights about reality which can be achieved by reasoning alone you are very likely to develop anyway if you are smart without wasting time on philosophical studies.

    This is why philosophers are so arrogant and alienated – at some point in their career they realize that philosophy is an empty talk, that their investigations are meaningless and that it’s Science not philosophy that allows one to discover fundamental truths about reality, this is also why many resent philosophers resent science.

    What’s more some philosophical ideas can actually have negative impact on physics, one example is the lack of belief in objective reality which can make one naively reject the possibility of gaining further understanding of the system purely on philosophical ground. This is the case with Bohr and his absurd Copenhagen interpretation which have stood in the way of progress ever since it was developed. As a result QM is a mixture of very good ideas and complete nonsense.

    Physicists certainly should have deep insight and understanding but this comes from studying foundations of physics and mathematics not philosophy which is useless.

  • Chris W.

    How very Wittgensteinian, RPF.

    I think that good physicists are generally willing to consider the ideas of anyone who actually cares about the problems that arise in physics, and has taken some trouble to carefully study the background of those problems. A number of scholars specializing in philosophy as a professional discipline over the past couple of centuries have indeed fit that description.

    ( “There are only two kinds of music, good and bad.” — Duke Ellington )

  • Julianne

    RPF — even if one can “defend any stance you want”, the mental discipline involved in actually carrying out the defense is indeed useful training, in much the same way that upper level abstract mathematics is (e.g. I don’t use group theory as an astronomer, but I learned a hell of a lot about how to think from setting up mathematical proofs while learning it.) Likewise for philosophy — in grad school I was friends with a pack of philosophers, and man alive, they were smaaaaart. Deadly rigorous in arguments, with a level of logical power that scientists tend to think that only they have. (They were primarily philosophers of language, which might lend itself more to this kind of thinking — I have no idea if the ‘what is truth” subset of the discipline is similar). Regardless, I don’t find this to be that distinct from theoretical particle physics, which spends 99% of its effort calculating the effects of theories that are not the actual laws of nature. Sure, once in a while you get lucky and predict the neutrino, but most of the models they’re exploring are not accurate representations of the real universe. However, they gain insight and develop new methodologies by carrying out those explorations, making them “useless, but worthwhile”.

  • spyder

    From the perspective of a historian/philosopher of religion and philosophy, i would like to see more scientists (across the disciplines) express themselves and their research to a greater public, and to maximize their efforts they would benefit from philosophy coursework. The impact of science on philosophy has been monumental; philosophical rigor demands that philosophers engage the sciences as sources of objectifiable and verifiable givens. A solid, hermeneutically-whole philosophy requires the integration of physicists latest discoveries and the ongoing efforts of astronomers to understand the universe.

    The profound truth about philosophy is that it is completely and utterly useless. In philosophy you can defend any stance you want and it doesn’t mean anything. It is just a terrible waste of time.

    What a profoundly and staggeringly stupid three sentences…

  • Peter Beattie

    And that from the crackpot who wrote, in Against Method:

    Science is much closer to myth than a scientific philosophy is prepared to admit. It is one of the many forms of thought that have been developed by man, and not necessarily the best. It is conspicuous, noisy, and impudent, but it is inherently superior only for those who have already decided in favor of a certain ideology, or who have accepted it without ever having examined its advantages and its limits. And as the accepting and rejecting of ideologies should be left to the individual it follows that the separation of state and church must be complemented by the separation of state and science, that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution. Such a separation may be our only chance to achieve a humanity we are capable of, but have never fully realized.

    Obviously, philosophy doesn’t even make you a better philosopher.

    As to the “withdrawal” quote. That he trashes Feynman of all people for lacking in philosophical depth only goes to show what this kind of bigoted, condescending hagiography is: complete bullshit. If that’s what you mean by philosophy, then scientists, or indeed anyone, should pay no attention.

    Philosophy teaches how to think well. Read Feynman’s The Meaning of It All, and you will instantly have improved your thinking. That’s applied philosophy for you. And it lasts. People still talk about Feynman everywhere you look. Feyerabend — well, not so much.

  • Cunctator


    thanks for the very gracious and sensible reply to a comment that was all but gracious, honestly close to the dangerously ignorant. Yes, as a ‘philosopher’ (whatever that might be) I do take the issue a bit personally when it comes to statements like ‘we do useful cool stuff, while you are a bunch of wankers’. Our science did not pup out of the earth as a full-formed discipline, but its the product of millennia of intellectual development, big part of which ‘scientists’ did not even exist. The word itself was ‘invented’ by William Wheewell in the mid-1800s. Before that scientists were–guess what RPF–natural philosophers. Not knowing, or worse not even considering relevant this historical evolution, might not make you less competent in what you’ve been trained to do, but certainly will make you a less rigorous, conscious, open-minded and insightful scientist. And i believe these are traits of a great scientist.

    In fact, I slightly resent this post from Sean, since—even if presented in a ‘neutral’ tone—this kind of polemics only end up fueling (as we see clearly from the comments here) this ‘two cultures’/’science wars’ attitude, which is only detrimental: both to philosophers and to scientists. If i may, I’d redirect you to a blogpost of mine, on this issue, written some weeks ago:

  • hackenkaus

    Bohr, Einstein, Schrodinger, Boltzmann and Mach all spoke German. Clearly later generations of physicists have been hobbled by their practice of thinking in English.

    Feyerabend is clearly an idiot. I’ve never even heard of him.

  • citrine

    The training a Philosophy student gets from constructing and presenting a viewpoint within a rigorously defined, consistent framework could be very useful when interpreting the results of calculations. Especially when it comes to describing non-intuitive phenomena, knowing the pitfalls, ambiguities and limitations of language could alert a theorist as to the way the interpretations are expressed.

  • Haelfix

    I took a class in philosophy as an undergraduate. I have yet to utilize any concept or method learned there (other than rudimentary logic, which the greeks knew and every physicist in the world knows) a single time in my career as a physicist.

    I challenge any physicist to lay down an example where his knowledge of some esoteric philosophy actually improved his work as a physicist in a way that wouldn’t be immediately obvious to a specialist without that acumen.

    The only example I can think off, is probably Einstein’s obsession with Mach’s ideas during the formulation of GR. The irony is that it was the least well motivated part of that picture and is now known to be superflous (at least if phrased in the most obvious way).

  • Timon of Athens

    “And yet, Julian Barbour has argued that general relativity is a nearly perfect realization of Mach’s principle in dynamics, or at least, a particular statement of the essential content of Mach’s principle.”

    Yes, he has argued that. And, as usual, he’s wrong.

    Re: Huw Price: he has indeed done excellent work, and has really made a contribution to our understanding of the Arrow of time. His work is a prime example of the kind of things that philosophers can do that would really be useful to physicists. On the other hand, *part* of the reason for his success is simply the fact that, not being a physicist, he is free of all the accumulated strata of quasi-sociological baloney that impede physicists who want to think about this issue. I recall Sean C. reporting on a talk he gave [was it at Santa Cruz? Sorry, I forget] where he was met with opposition that I can only describe as mind-boggling stupidity. It was based not on physics — the physics point being made, such as it was, was trivial — but on sociology-of-physics resentments [“you pointy-headed cosmologists think you know thermodynamics better than us?”]. All that junk could have no influence on somebody like Huw Price, because he would probably find it hard even to imagine. So philosophers might be useful simply because they are immune to all that sort of rubbish. [Of course, they have their own sociological problems….]

  • greg

    “The withdrawal of philosophy into a “professional” shell of its own has had disastrous consequences. The younger generation of physicists, the Feynmans, the Schwingers, etc., may be very bright; they may be more intelligent than their predecessors, than Bohr, Einstein, Schrodinger, Boltzmann, Mach and so on. But they are uncivilized savages, they lack in philosophical depth — and this is the fault of the very same idea of professionalism which you are now defending.”

    Complete rubbish.

    “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” – Richard Feynman

  • George

    “Feyerabend is clearly an idiot”
    Exactly. Thank you.

  • Jacob Russell

    Philosophers in no way ignore or exclude science … check out any number of past discussions here…

  • Thomas

    Even though (and maybe because) Weinberg indeed seems well educated in classical philosophy he makes a persuasive argument (in “Dreams of a Final Theory”) with regard to the unreasonable uselessness of philosophy in physics.

  • onymous

    It’s funny how people point to non-string approaches in quantum gravity as a community heavily influenced by philosophy, and see this as a positive thing. Those approaches are so far universally dead ends, telling us nothing about the real world or about consistent toy theories that demonstrably reduce to general relativity in flat space. String theory, on the other hand, at least gives us the latter. And it’s been, as far as I can see, relatively free of philosophizing. Even a somewhat philosophical idea like holography was dreamed up by ‘t Hooft and Susskind for technical reasons, and only very concrete realizations of it like Strominger and Vafa’s entropy counting or, most spectacularly, AdS/CFT have really made it a concrete part of our understanding of theoretical physics. People can get inspiration for big-picture, hand-wavy ideas wherever they want, and philosophy might be useful for that, but at the end of the day it’s nearly always calculation, hard work, slow accumulation of technical knowledge, and relatively conservative approaches that lead to progress in science.

  • diotimajsh

    Haelfix, in response to
    “I challenge any physicist to lay down an example where his knowledge of some esoteric philosophy actually improved his work as a physicist in a way that wouldn’t be immediately obvious to a specialist without that acumen”

    I offer another Albert Einstein example: he explicitly said that studying David Hume helped give him a mindset that was capable of forming so radical a theory as relativity. Something about Hume’s thorough, skeptical attitude toward everything helped Einstein to so profoundly challenge the dominant theories in physics, I believe.

    (Einstein also studied Kant’s *Critique of Pure Reason* at a fairly young age, although to my knowledge he doesn’t mention it as an influence. Of course, Kant thought that Newton had everything right, and that the basics of physics could be derived a priori; but Kant also offered some other surprising challenges to the conventional thought of his own time.)

  • Haelfix

    Hmm, and what mindset is that exactly? To be skeptical and not take an authorities word for a result and instead to check things for yourself?

    Hardly what I would call a novel or penetrating philosophy, even (perhaps especially) in Einstein’s time. Its also pretty much drilled into every scientists brain since childbirth.

    Mach’s idea of relational space is more what I had in mind. Thats very much a well thought out idea that could in principle have had distinct physical consequences. It turns out that nature doesnt work that way (modulo definition quibbles) but it wasn’t a bad idea to try.

  • Bee

    Well, I’m not a big philosopher – by and large I find it to be too many words – but I think it is always useful to learn different perspectives on our work. What some people have mentioned above, ‘clear thinking,’ ‘rigor,’ ‘consistency’ etc, I frankly found more of that in the maths than in the philosophy department. In fact, I found mathematicians to be the better philosophers, but maybe that’s just me.

    To be honest, a lot of the discussion about philosophy strikes me as a redirection of “questions you’re not supposed to ask” if you’re a physics student. And you’re not supposed to ask them because your prof won’t be able to answer them. Or if he does, he’ll tell you to go to the philosophy department, that being meant in a condescending way and as a discouragement. Some physics students actually go to the philosophy department. But in my experience few find what they were looking for. (Howard Burton tells a little story about that in his book). Thus, I don’t think philosophy makes you a better scientists. But openmindedness and not getting discouraged when searching for answers does.

  • Simon Kiss

    Isn’t this thread missing an obvious point: namely, the relationship between physics and ethics? While physics may not be as plagued with ethical debates as biology or medical research has, it has not in been absent! (Atomic weapons anyone?). Nor is this a thing of the past. Physicists are working on all sorts of rocketry and satellite technology that may be put to questionable purposes. Doesn’t a familiarity with ethics (a substantial sub-discipline of philosophy) make physicists better prepared to navigate the murky ethical questions that arise when mixing technology, science, and the state?

  • commenter

    “The simplest explanation for this phenomenon would be that the center of gravity of scientific research switched from Europe to America after the war, and the value of a broad-based education (and philosophy in particular) has always been less in America.”

    I would have to question this. It seems to me that American scientists are often more aware and appreciative of broader intellectual developments outside their own field than their European counterparts. You yourself, Sean, are an example, with posts like this and numerous others. By contrast, scientists I know from other countries are often oblivious to everything outside their own narrow subdiscipline, and sometimes seem puzzled as to why anyone would ever want to study anything else. And never mind philosophy and the humanities; I know one Cambridge-educated mathematician who had never heard of either Steven Weinberg or Richard Dawkins!

    When you think about it, this makes some sense in light of the way the respective educational systems work. In Europe, so I understand, the “two cultures” are separated from each other at a very young age, and one basically studies nothing but one’s specialty; whereas in the U.S., people usually have to study broadly even at the university level.

  • Socrates

    I am sure, that being narrow-minded physicist is the worst thing in the world. But the problem is, that most of the contemporary guys in physics are really ignorant to many different areas of the human knowledge-and if some lunatic says something weird-another brilliant theory(I agree, that most of the time these so called theories are not even wrong:)), most of the physicists will say, that he/she is the usual I-know-everything-better-than-you-stupid-guys kind of scientist, not appreciated by the wide public..But what if, one day, somebody says something really different-something strange, and it turns to be right?? Then what… we will ignore him/her, only because he/she has got his insipartion from an ancient greek philosopher?

  • Bee

    Socrates: In my experience the vast majority of physicists don’t care where you get your inspiration from. They tend to find it somewhat suspicious though when people make a big deal about it. Doesn’t matter what it is, whether it’s your believe in God, surfing, or philosophy. Where you got the idea might make for a nice story in your memoires but is completely irrelevant for the question whether it will work. Most of the ‘really different /something strange’ people aren’t ignored because they got their inspiration from weird sources, but because they fail to establish the necessary contact to the prevailing knowledge and thus to show their ideas are not in conflict with evidence.

  • Román

    Erwin Schrodinger: “We have inherited from our forefathers the keen longing for unified, all-embracing knowledge. The very name given to the highest institutions of learning reminds us, that from antiquity to and throughout many centuries the universal aspect has been the only one to be given full credit. But the spread, both in and width and depth, of the multifarious ranches of knowledge by during the last hundred odd years has confronted us with a queer dilemma. We feel clearly that we are only now beginning to acquire reliable material for welding together the sum total of all that is known into a whole; but, on the other hand, it has become next to impossible for a single mind fully to command more than a small specialized portion of it.”

    Jorge Luis Borges: “There is no exercise of the intellect which is not, in the final analysis, useless. A philosophical doctrine begins as a plausible description of the universe; with the passage of the years it becomes a mere chapter—if not a paragraph or a name—in the history of philosophy.”

    The last quote by Borges is completely applicable to science. We have lost the capability of linking our different ranches of knowledge, and this is fairly wrong. This semi-religious discurse of science, like “science is the only way of knowledge” i don’t know where it comes from but it is not different from any catholic dogma. This arrogance is heading us to the wrong way.

  • Bee Cee

    A couple things: First, I think philosophy has made a fair dent in psychology–especially cognitive science–and linguistics. I frequently see a number of philosophers cited in research articles in those fields. Philosophers of physics do seem to have made something of an impression in foundational research on quantum mechanics and on the arrow of time. I think, however, they tend to be a lot more interested in Bohmian mechanics and GRW than are most physicists.

    Second: I think we need to make a rough-and-ready distinction between analytic and continental philosophers. Analytic philosophers tend to be extremely naturalistic and to consider themselves intellectually aligned with math and science. Many of the great analytic philosophers doubled as mathematicians or logicians –Frege, Russell, Tarski, Putnam, Kripke, Quine etc., and many philosophers, myself included, studied math as undergraduates. Continental philosophers, like Feyerabend, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Sartre, etc., tend to be much more humanities oriented: literary, historical, and frequently just obscure. I think it’s unfortunately the latter that most non-philosophers associate with philosophy. This could be why so many scientists think philosophers are hostile to and ignorant of what they do.

  • Raymond

    I personally think that any help a scientist can get would be useful, especially considering how bad scientists are at making strong arguments. Take Dawkins for example when it comes to his book “The God Delusion.” The man makes wonderful points and focuses on a good deal of “evidence,” but when it comes down to constructing a solid argument about his view or even against the view of others, he is no better at it than a college student in an introductory level philosophy class. Not to mention, modern scientists in particular seem to be blinded by their own models of the universe as well as absolutely convinced that “their” way is the path we should all be on. Perhaps by studying up on what some of the so-called “philosophers” have to say would do them well in learning a bit of humility when it comes to dishing out their “answers” as well. On that same note, perhaps if the scientists who were working on developing technology for nuclear weapons had actually done a little thinking outside of their scientific padded cells, they would have realized that their invention and work would be used to commit mass murder. In that case, as well as many others (working for government agencies, military contracts, matters of “national security,” etc.), a consideration of scientific ethics via philosophy would have served them well.

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  • Landru

    Re: Cunctator at 21 above

    Thanks for the pointer to your Hypertiling blog. I read through about half a dozen posts there, and I have to say that you seem to spend a lot of your time being annoyed by critics and commentators that you think are under-informed or ignorant (e.g. Lawrence Krauss, Adam Frank, etc.) and comparatively little time explaining what it is that your own field actually achieves. This may be fine for a readership that already appreciates academic philosophy, but since you seem interested in engaging a wider audience (as evidenced by your posting here) I would urge you to seize the educational opportunity and explain to non-expert CV readers what it is that you do all day.

    Here’s a simple, sharp version of this question: Why should anyone believe that physics is different from nonsense? Simple: your GPS works. Done. There is a great deal in the modern world that a non-expert can see, read and touch to confirm that science is not just made-up nonsense (or at least that it’s not _all_ made-up nonsense) but has some purchase in reality. If your taste tends toward the lower tech than GPS, you can also check this classic post from Julianne on the physics of chocolate:

    It’s worth reading all the way to the last few sentences.

    So the corresponding, simple question for you is: why should anyone (such as RPF at 16) believe that academic philosophy is other than nonsense? What can a non-expert see, read or touch in the world to confirm that philosophy is not just a made-up game? If you can answer this question in a calm, lucid, readable manner then you might go a long way to answering the question posed by Sean in the original post here, and educate a few people as well.

    [One possible answer to “How do we know philosophy is not nonsense?” might be “Because I know some smart people who think it’s not,” similar to the sentiment by Julianne at 18 above. This is certainly a non-zero answer, and I would guess would be the answer given most frequently by non-experts. But I think it’s a bit weak, and hope/trust that you can do better by explaining actual content and not just citing authority.]

  • Raymond

    For Landru: The question of how to “confirm” that philosophy is not “nonsense” is almost a perfect example of how scientists tend to see the world as containing “truths” that can be confirmed only by experiment, evidence, etc. Unfortunately for science, though, there is no direct answer or evidence that can support a question like, “Why should I not kill another person?” A question like this must be approached in a different way and instead has to be reasoned out to a point where an individual is forced with a series of choices. You cannot just say, “Well, killing somebody is bad,” or “Killing somebody is condemned by [insert religious text here],” because while these responses might be satisfactory up front, they are very poor arguments in general. At some point the individual must make a choice, a choice that is based upon a number of reasons that they have also chosen or observed or what not. So for example, I choose not to kill somebody else because I know that by doing so I would be terminating their life and thus denying them of a chance to grow. I have no care for the “law” or for the idea that killing other people is “bad,” but instead direct my focus to my own personal philosophy of a love ethic, which I chose to pursue some time ago. If I were to kill another person, though, I would be violating that choice of a love ethic, thus negating my original choice. In any case, while the internal consistency of science and scientific principles may be wonderfully confirmed by things such as a GPS working, the very ideas of confirmation, answers, nonsensical information, etc. are not necessarily applicable (at least not in the same way) to philosophy. Any philosopher who tries to convince you that philosophy is not nonsense, though, is missing the point that philosophy does not strive for confirmation but for strong internal consistency via argument, reason, etc. And every philosophy is based on choices by an individual to continue with an idea or reason as well as how it is applied in their every day life.

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  • Cunctator


    thanks for spending time reading my ramblings, and thanks even more for the provacative but polite comment. I will try to give you a half-decent answer.

    First of all, some things must be made clearer: 1) I do not in any way deny the effectiveness of science. I am a user of technology, and deeply interested in several scientific fields, I read scientific publications and I do not ever secretly think that it’s ‘actually really rubbish’. I remember ‘The Physics of Chocolate’ and I actually wanted to try it myself :) Yet, if I am interested in understanding and evaluating critiques to science and technology is because I generally like not to take anything for granted, and always ask some extra question, even in the face of ‘it works!’ (yes, this is part of a philosophical training, the annoying ‘but why?’ question. 2) Philosophy is a much broader category than science, if nothing else for the reason that 2 scientists, no matter how different in interests, will always find common ground in a set of methodological assumptions. Philosophers don’t, since (one of) their job(s) is to question and rebuild the ontological and epistemological theories that underlie any kind of methodological assumption. Specifically, as someone already observed in a comment above, much care should be given in drawing a line between analytic and continental philosophy. I do not want to get into this controversy here, especially when it comes to judging their merit with the only criterion of ‘how much impact does it have on actual real life’ (both could be criticized and defended in this regard, but let me just say that the more ‘naturalistic/logical/mathematical’ approach of analytic philosophy does not in any way transparently correspond to a more direct efficaciousness and ‘real-life’ relevance…), but it is simply important to keep in mind that in their methods and–mainly–aims the two are often miles apart. 3) I am not the best exemplar of ‘philosopher’ to answer this question of yours, since my ideas are particular and many, many ‘philosophers’ would disagree with me.

    I am aware of the often polemic tone of my posts, but this is caused by one main point, the same point which constitutes: I do not want to proselytize, I do not want to convince anyone that MY ideas are good. I simply want to indicate that different kinds of training allow for different kinds of expertise. (For example, yes, I am irritated when i see a physicist discussing about international politics on a major newspaper, because his being a VIP physicist [the reason why he’s got access to such a newspaper] does not in any way make him an expert). Similarly, and this is my main point, I do not see why one should *start* from the assumption that philosophy is a bunch of crap. I understand the intuitive appeal of the phenomenic evidence of something which just ‘works’ that science can give (i.e. your GPS example) but the lack of this specific kind of ‘in your face’ evidence should not be enough to trash the whole of philosophy. You cannot ask: so if philosophy works, show me some new philosophy based PC, or some new philosophy based fridge. The two disciplines are different. Feyerabend was a quite eccentric guy, and many of his ideas and statements are considered extreme even in the philosophical community, he was an exceptional thinker in his own way, but let’s not make a paradigmatic example out of him (Fritz Zwicky was kind of an ass too, but we tend to respect his scientific intuitions nonetheless).

    Once again, philosophy is hard to define, but as an intellectual quest has indirectly produced major historical revolutions, the scientific one included. Philosophy does not offer a finite product, but redefines the limits of what we as human beings think and therefore produce. Another example: Ted Nelson was trained as a philosopher and as a sociologist, and yet, his theoretical work deeply influenced his technical one, both of which contributed to our own understanding of the Net. The circle that goes from theoretical thinking and material effect is continuous and constant throughout history, which is why separation is a negative stance.

    Philosophy, as I see it, is a meta-tool, one used to help other disciplines (other tools of human understanding of the world) to either clarify (or eventually criticize) their aims or to evaluate (or eventually criticize) their results. Useful, but a tool nonetheless. Philosophers as scientists are highly trained individuals, but none should be morally, intellectually or institutionally prioritized. That is what I criticized this kind of ‘two cultures’ wars. Let’s keep hostilities aside, and let’s try to study a bit of each other’s discipline, for the results can only be better. I do not want to claim the intellectual superiority of ‘philosophers’, just as much as I fight against any other kind of undeserved prestige that is often attributed to different ‘intellectuals’, scientists included. My own view being: yes to study philosophy can (if not necessarily *will*) make you a better scientist (and be careful here, since ‘scientist’ is a name that encompasses people from the physicist to the maritime biologist), just as studying ‘science’ (again, all of them) can make you a better philosopher.

    I have been too prolix as it often happens. I hope this reply is somewhat useful to you. If we keep cordial tones, I’d be very happy to keep discussing this issue further.

    Best regards

  • Giotis

    The two fields are related and complement one another.

    With philosophy we talk to ourselves about nature but with science we talk to nature directly, or at least we try to.

  • Jonathan Vos Post

    Notwithstanding #11 and #26, “Feynmans, the Schwingers” is an interesting pairing, precisely because Dirac was able to unify their major results at the foundations of Field Theory, and taught that unification in his famous course on Relativistic QM and field theory, recently available in a new edition on arXiv.

    I didn’t know Schwinger, but I consider it an oversimplification to say that Feynman rejected Philosophy. He may have intentionally rejected a lot of Philosophy, just as he rejected a lot of univerwsity protocol (i.e. he wouldn’t serve on committees), because so much seemed to be, to a pragmatic theory-builder and problem solver and teacher, a waste of time.

    Clearly, Feynman was acutely aware of some philosophical conerns, such as Epistemology (he was very good as a teacher in showing exactly how we know what we know).

    The attacks from outside the sciences, on Darwin and Einstein, whatever the psychological causation, seem to me more about their philosophical claims than their scientific claims.

    The converse question is more acute. Why have so many Philosophers failed to educate themselves on the breakthroughs in Mathematics, Physics, Biology, and observational Cosmology, which seem, even to the general public, to bear on ancient central problems of Philosophy?

  • Kevin

    First, someone asked for discrete examples of philosophy’s usefulness, a la GPS for engineering/physics. Somewhat off topic of the post, but a legitimate question that is (all too often disdainfully) brought up by scientists, and should be addressed. A direct analogy may or may not be possible (saying a GPS “works” and saying a legal system “works” are two different statements, and a comment section isn’t the forum to define and expound upon this), but examples of philosophical ideas influencing and changing the nature of human society abound. A short list of examples: empiricism and the underpinnings of the modern scientific method, political philosophy and the shift from monarchy to democratic government in many countries, abolition/civil rights/feminism and the progress towards equal rights for all people, legal philosophy and jurisprudence. Does trial by judge/jury “work” in the same way a GPS does? No; but I think we can convince ourselves they are more just, fair, and efficient than burning all of the accused and assuming Satan will protect the guilty.

    As to the discussion about whether it helps physicists, this discussion might be broadened even further: Does breadth of education/personal interest help people who work on deep, highly specialized topics? I argue that it often does, but not necessarily, or always directly; and the benefits can come (not an exclusive list) from a useful skill, useful knowledge applied to a new situation, or simply a different interpretation of things. I’ve heard it often stated, and agree, that it is useful for an experimentalist to deeply understand the theory behind their investigations, and that a good handle on an experiment can help a theorist interpret a new result. So, is it useful to go further than understanding the “other side” of physics, into becoming, not an expert, but a facile amateur, in another field? I think so. For example, drawing diagrams is often incredibly useful when discussing an experiment; well-drawn, detailed diagrams are generally even more useful, and I think many physicists would indirectly benefit from a short course in drawing or drafting. Certainly some meetings I’ve been to where someone draws the same thing multiple times or constantly changes it until it is right would go a little quicker :). Math learned in pretty much any context tends to have a broad range of applications. Philosophy may not directly help a physicist deal with some specialized physical system, but the logical methods available from philosophy may often indirectly help (skepticism, an understanding of logic and fallacy, ability to argue a point rigorously).

    Hope that added to the discussion somewhat.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    The argument, it would seem, is that the value of philosophy to science is to help scientists learn how to think rigorously. Apparently, without a strong philosophical foundations, scientists are bereft of this ability.

    Nothing that I have observed corroborates this supposition. If one lacked the ability to think before, defending ones work against the bracing critique of scientific peers hones those skills very quickly, or the scientist simply fails. There is the extra benefit in science that an argument, no matter how logically sound, fails if experiment cannot validate it. Having to meet that standard appears to hone the mind rather effectively as well.

  • Chris W.

    There is the extra benefit in science that an argument, no matter how logically sound, fails if experiment cannot validate it.

    Experiment doesn’t validate or refute the argument. It validates (provisionally) or refutes the premises of the argument, assuming the argument is sound. That’s why scientists need to learn how reason rigorously, and elucidate their premises. That said, they’re better off if they learn this from their peers, in the context of studying scientific problems. However, if sloppy reasoning and reliance on implicit premises becomes endemic, then other people—eg, philosophers, mathematicians—certainly have the right to butt in and point it out.

    There are other habits (and skills) that ought to be discussed here—the formulation of problems and questions, and the critical analysis of problem formulations.

  • Ponder Stibbons

    If one lacked the ability to think before, defending ones work against the bracing critique of scientific peers hones those skills very quickly, or the scientist simply fails.

    This ignores the sociological pressures, which a few others above have eluded to, that often cause scientists to unquestioningly accept certain patterns of thought. One’s peers aren’t going to launch critiques that don’t even cross their minds.

    There is the extra benefit in science that an argument, no matter how logically sound, fails if experiment cannot validate it

    I don’t know what you mean by ‘fails’ but the history of science is replete with examples where theories were known to conflict with experimental evidence but were not rejected. (For examples, see for example Lakatos’ The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes.) Pretty much no one working in the history/philosophy of science accepts naive falsificationism anymore, because it just does not mesh with the history of science — the process of evaluating theories is much, much more complicated than that.

  • Ponder Stibbons

    I also note that although Matt Leifer at #10 and Sean himself have admitted the value of philosophers’ work to their own research, many in this thread are still questioning if any philosophical work at all is useful to physics. Should we then conclude that Matt and Sean are not doing physics? Or that they are unable to judge what is useful to them?

  • Chris W.

    [I just missed the comment editing timeout, hence the re-post.]

    There is the extra benefit in science that an argument, no matter how logically sound, fails if experiment cannot validate it.

    Experiment doesn’t validate or refute the argument. It validates (provisionally) or refutes the premises of the argument, assuming the argument is sound. That’s why scientists need to learn how reason rigorously, and elucidate their premises. That said, they’re better off if they learn this from their peers, in the context of studying scientific problems. However, if sloppy reasoning and reliance on implicit premises becomes endemic, then other people—eg, philosophers, mathematicians—certainly have the right to butt in and point it out.

    There are other habits (and skills) that ought to be discussed here—the formulation of problems and questions, and the critical analysis of problem formulations. In his conversations with Einstein while at the Institute for Advanced Study, Shiing-Shen Chern was struck by how much time and effort Einstein spent in considering problem formulations, which for him was a comparatively minor issue in mathematical work; clear problem formulations were generally available, and one struggled primarily with finding a path to a solution.

    (See the Einstein centenary volume edited by Harry Woolf, 1981.)

  • Ponder Stibbons

    To be honest, a lot of the discussion about philosophy strikes me as a redirection of “questions you’re not supposed to ask” if you’re a physics student. And you’re not supposed to ask them because your prof won’t be able to answer them.

    Yes. There is definitely much more space to ask ‘forbidden questions’ in the philosophy of physics community, than there is in the professional physics community. Many people working in the philosophy of physics now are lapsed physics students who became frustrated with the tunnel vision of much of the physics community, and jumped ship.

  • Lee Smolin

    This post and the discussion around it brings out very clearly the importance of a diversity of approaches to scientific problems. Let us just look at the facts, without taking sides. It happens to be the case that some physicists find philosophy and history of science important sources of ideas, inspiration and critical thinking. Others do not find them important.

    It also happens to have been the case that from the beginnings of physics till the 1940s the leading physicists were those familiar with the philosophical tradition-Einstein, Poincare, Boltzmann, Mach, Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, Schroedinger, etc. And before them, Newton, Leibniz, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo…

    To answer the challenge in 24 -as to whether any physicist has gotten something valuable from philosophy-just read the introductions to the books by these great physicists. What one sees there is that what these great scientists got from their intimate knowledge of the philosophical tradition was not primarily the sharpening of their thinking: instead they understood the problems they attacked-such as the natures of space, time and motion, the properties of matter, the nature and role of forces, the existence or not of atoms, casuality, etc-as having arise and been defined within the philosophical tradition. And they saw themselves as contributing to the continuation of the history of inquiry into these basic questions.

    After world war II there was a switch in style and methodology of physics, and the dominant theorists were people such as Fermi and Feynman who did not find philosophy and history useful. And the proof that it was not useful, is that it was them and not their more philosophically minded colleagues who solved the key problems of their era.

    I would conclude from this that at different periods different kinds of styles are needed to succeed in the problems physicists face at the time, and so people who have the required style dominate in any period. To invent relativity and quantum theory, let alone calculus or classical mechanics, a more philosophically informed style was needed, while to develop QED and applications of existing theories such as condensed matter physics and nuclear physics, a less philosophical style is needed.

    I think the evidence shows that people who invent theories tend often-but not universally-to find inspiration in the history of thinking about basic questions like space and time, whereas those who develop existing theories do not need that particular kind of inspiration. Feynman didn’t find philosophy useful, but, for all his greatness, was more a developer than an inventor. (He once expressed to me his disappointment at having never actually invented a theory from scratch-apart from his theory of the V-A current, which he said he regarded as a limited success because he missed the gauge bosons.) David Finkelstein, who certainly is an inventor, and, as a byproduct, discovered the meaning of black hole horizons, topological conservation laws in field theory and quantum groups, used to say that he liked to study history and philosophy of science because knowing the history of a question gave him a running start.

    The fact is that some of us feel that way, and some of us don’t.

    If we can agree about this we can avoid unresolvable arguments for and against the usefulness of philosophy and history of science. Is it too much to ask that those who don’t feel the need for philosophy accept as colleagues deserving of respect those of us who do? At the very least, I hope you have enough respect for the history of our subject to take seriously how the greatest physicists-such as Newton, Boltzmann, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schroedinger etc thought about the importance of philosophy. At the same time, those of us who feel the need to situate our work in the light of the philosophical tradition should respect the fact that such great physicists as Fermi and Feynman felt no such necessity-and neither do many of our contemporaries.

    The only interesting question is then which style is needed to make progress on the problems that face us now. I have argued that a more philosophical style is needed to solve the great problems of quantum gravity and unification and, while I have detailed reasons for this, I think we can all agree that the proof will be in who makes the breakthroughs that resolve the big problems before us.

    Feyerabend, whose quote started this off, is certainly a problematic figure. What he was not, as suggested in 39 above by BeeCee, was a continental philosopher. He was trained in physics and philosophy in Vienna, by descendents of logical positivists, and then got a PhD in London under Popper. Any attempt to parse a quote of his might take into account the fact that he often deliberately played the provocateur. Having discussed with him several times I can report that his detailed knowledge of theoretical physics was way above that of analytic philosophers I had met in graduate school, such as Nelson Goodman and Hilary Putman. The first time I met him, he asked me some technical questions about the interplay of renormalizability and symmetry breaking in the Weinberg-Salam model.

    What Feyerabend did do was to puncture claims of Popper and others to explain how science works-how it is that scientific knowledge increases over time. His book, Against Method, and other writings, attacked the claims by Popper and others that the answer was reliance on a particular method. The impression I went away with from our conversations was that he deeply admired the successes of science, but cared that we not rely on false claims about why science was so successful. Feyerabend’s contribution was thus mainly negative-he left us with the problem of how, if there is no consistent scientific method, it is that science does progress. This, if I may say so, was the problem I tried to address in my own recent book, which is why the key Chapter 17 features Feyerabend.

    What was certainly true was that he saw himself, with reason, as someone more deeply educated in both science and philosophy than most of our generation, and he found our work consequently lacked depth. And he was no kinder to philosophers than to physicists-as evidenced by the title of an essay he wrote about contemporary philosophy: “From Incompetent Professionalism to Professionalized Incompetence—the Rise of a New Breed of Intellectuals.”

    So my hope would be that whether we agree or disagree with Feyerabend-we can all agree that science as a whole is stronger and will progress faster if we can tolerate a diversity of approaches to key questions including the one under discussion here-of the importance of philosophy for physics.

  • Kevin

    Reiterating my previous point, an understanding of philosophy will not necessarily, directly help every physicist, but it can help some, and honestly, how could it hurt? And all of that aside, it’s pretty interesting stuff. The history of science is undeniably related to philosophical developments, and the history and reasoning behind scientists adopting empiricism over a priori logic and revealed knowledge is quite interesting.

    These days, most every scientist accepts and is trained in empiricism, a distinctly philosophical theory of knowledge. Whether or not it is taught directly, or placed into its historical and philosophical context during instruction, this philosophy underpins all of modern science, and it is a shame that so many scientists will disdainfully dismiss, often from ignorance (not directed at any author/commenter personally), an entire field of study that has occupied people for thousands of years and forms the foundation of science. Many would rather sit comfortably in their worldview that empiricism is “obviously” correct, rather than spend the time to understand the historical debates and reasoning of many highly intelligent people that led to empiricism’s adoption into the scientific method. Too many arrogantly assume that they would have thought that way anyway, even if it wasn’t drilled into them in every science class taken in their lifetime, and implicitly assuming themselves to be somehow better than many brilliant people throughout history who struggled with the relations and hierarchy between different kinds of knowledge. But how many of us can justify the scientific method with arguments as to why experimental evidence is better than a priori reasoning or revelation, without resorting to “Well clearly, …”, “Obviously, …”, or the classic move of quoting the achievements of science while downplaying or denigrating real and relevant achievements of other fields of study? Studying some philosophers – Aristotle, Hume, Locke, among many – would help us to be able to form these arguments more convincingly. Whether that leads to better scientific results is not easily answered, but that doesn’t necessarily imply uselessness.

    At the very least, being able to discuss philosophy on the level of an informed amateur makes us more well-rounded and more interesting conversationalists. That’s good enough for me.

  • FSN

    In some sense, modern physicists are also philosophers, since they always discuss things like interpretation of quantum mechanics, origin of the universe, the nature of time, among other things. In many of these discussions no equations are involved, just arguments. I guess that the forthcoming book by Sean will contain a lot of philosophy inside. When we want to talk about the nature of time, we will necessarily end up doing philosophy, even if the motivation comes from highly technical equations. So, I think that at the end of the day, much of the modern physics discussed today make physicists better philosophers and, as a feedback effect, better physicists.

  • Cunctator

    @Lee Smolin

    The tone and content of your comment finds me in complete agreement: to quote you ‘Is it too much to ask that those who don’t feel the need for philosophy accept as colleagues deserving of respect those of us who do?’ I think we should all ask ourselves this question.


    I was actually thinking about Sean’s book, and now that you mention it I can’t help but ask some questions about that. !) As you said, it is a book about the nature of time, it’s got to have philosophy inside. Now, note this: de we make this assumption by assuming that time is not a material substance reducible to components, i.e. is not a possible object of pure scientific inquiry, but in need of purely logico/metaphysical analysis (hence the philosophy) OR do we make such assumption because, whatever the nature of time might be and whether or not we can give a naturalistic explanation of it, it STILL has repercussions for our own existential experience (hence the philosophy)? 2) (and connected to 1) how far does a physicist go in including philosophical speculations about Time in a physics book about time? And what kind of philosophy? Here the divide between the ‘two philosophies’ is large: if the analytic school, specifically in philosophy of science, has dealt at length with the problem of time, of flow of time, duration, eternity etc (in a characteristic logical way), continental philosophers have been equally fascinated with the topic–including Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, Derrida and Levinas–, if in a characteristically ‘existential’ way.
    Assuming that we can make this distinction (I am not completely sure we can) between 1) a purely physical/reductionist account of time, 2) a logico/metaphysical account of time and 3) an existential account of time, what motivates the implementation of one approach into a book based onto another one? Is there to gain to fuse the different ones? If you ask me, yes there is. A somewhat paltry example: were Einstein’s intuitions about the observer-relativity of time physical, logical or existential? Or all of them?

    My point being: doesn’t this example of a ‘frontier question’ such as the nature of time give us a clear view onto the necessity of a multidisciplinary approach to problems concerning nature? Doesn’t the collaboration of physics and philosophy help in this inquiry? What we seem to forget is that ANY scientific problem was once a ‘frontier question’, and that often some degree of philosophical speculation helped towards a clear picture of that problem.

  • Aurelius

    I think formal–in particural Bayesian–epistemology and confirmation theory could be of use to physicists, or at least of interest to them. Bayesian philosophers often try to give, say, a formal characterization and measure of how E confirms H, and I think they’ve at least made some progress on Hume’s (old) problem of induction. Physicists might also be interested in Goodman’s New Riddle of Induction, which, imho, is way cooler than Hume’s. For those interestest in the latter, check out the section the the Grue paradox:

  • Chris W.

    From Cunctator:

    … [do] we make this assumption by assuming that time is not a material substance reducible to components, i.e. is not a possible object of pure scientific inquiry, but in need of purely logico/metaphysical analysis (hence the philosophy)

    I don’t want to start an extended debate here, but the implied identification of “material substance reducible to components” with “possible object of pure scientific inquiry” strikes me as clearly untenable. It is especially evident in quantum field theory, not to mention general relativity, that older notions of the “material” have been largely transcended in 20th century physics. Even the alleged reliance on reductionism obscures a much more nuanced reality. Both physicists and engineers are of necessity engaged in synthesis as well as analysis, and the discovery and understanding of novelty that arises in complex “composed” systems, whether as actually constructed artifacts or as theoretical constructs. This novelty may often be cause for dismay, but complexity isn’t obliged to stay within the bounds intended by its supposed designers. (This has been a perennial preoccupation of thoughtful software designers and developers, as well as academic computer scientists.)

    In this connection, I strongly recommend that everyone read this wonderful essay by particle physicist Chris Quigg, “Nature’s Greatest Puzzles” (arxiv:hep-ph/0502070).

    [PS: Regarding the content of his book, Sean Carroll is certainly an example of a physicist who is both interested and well-informed in the literature and longstanding concerns of philosophy.]

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I don’t think anyone should be forbidden the methods that help them, but Feyerabend would apparently argue that a firm grounding in philosophy is essential. This is the most important, and most controversial, point in question. Some people find coffee and cigarettes very helpful, but that doesn’t mean they need such augmentation to function, or even that it’s very good for them overall.

    I don’t operate in the rarified world of particle and cosmological theory, so obviously the problems I and my peers routinely encounter are very different. Nor have I personally known an active particle theorist (he left academia for a govt. administrator job), only active solid-staters. At any rate, none of them know any more philosophy than I do, and I’d find it difficult to assert their ignorance has had any discernible impact on their ability to be successful and productive. But then again, all the scientists I know are operating on a firm theoretical foundation, and concern themselves with generating and interpreting experimental data, which is always in ready and ample supply. Not so for the theorist attempting to unify the forces of nature, or elucidate the universe’s origins. Perhaps these days, for that, you really do need philosphy. But like coffee and cigarettes, will the crutch ultimately kill you? That I do wonder about a great deal when I see yet another iteration of this debate.

  • Cunctator


    I agree completely, my generalization was only a rather blunt one in order to define a ‘criterion of difference’ between science and philosophy. On the other hand if things in 20th century science became really more nuanced than reductionist classical mechanics (as indeed they are) it is only a reason more to propose a collaboration between science and philosophy.
    Thanks for the article, I’ll certainly read it.

  • Craig Callender

    I’m a philosopher of science especially interested in physics, and I think this is a very interesting question. Obviously I’d hope that the answer is Yes, but I must say that the evidence is mixed. The most I’d argue for is that it certainly can help in isolated instances. The training philosophers receive in logic, but also certain norms in the field (‘unflinchingly following the argument where it leads’ and such), certainly can clear up confusion and help isolate otherwise hidden assumptions.

    The historical fact F refers to seems right. Reading Gerald Holton’s “Do Scientists Need a Philosophy?”, he points out that Einstein, Bohr, Planck, Heisenberg, Minkowski, Boltzmann, and so on had a fairly common philosophical upbringing and later continued interest in reading Plato, Hume, Poincaré, Mach, Duhem, Russell, etc. They also read the philosophical physicists such as Ampere, Helmholtz, Hertz, Eddington, Jeans, and more. By contrast, Holton points out that Sheldon Glashow was asked what he and his cohort read outside of science and he named sci fi, Velikovski, and L. Ron Hubbard!

    Of course, back then, the philosophers were more connected to the science: Carnap, Neurath, Frank, Bridgman, Reichenbach (one of his supervisors was Einstein). Yet it’s not clear that knowing or following the precepts of the logical positivists helped science. Cases that seem clearer where philosophy has helped might be (it’s been argued) that Einstein’s reading of Hume and Poincaré opened the door to questioning absolute simultaneity, the influence of Bacon’s philosophy on early modern science, and (M. Friedman argues) philosopher’s discussions of infinitesimals on Newton.

    Physicists in Feynman and Glashow’s generations turned away from philosophy, but one thing that hasn’t been said is that philosophy turned away from physics too in Glashow’s formative years. The ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy would look pretty stale and barren to an outsider (and many insiders); that kind of philosophy would hardly be a likely source of inspiration for physics.

    Fortunately, philosophy is now recovering from the linguistic turn and many of us are learning physics and interacting with physicists. Exchanges with physicists on the measurement problem, the problem of time in quantum gravity, the direction of time, and the meaning of gauge freedom, have all recently been very productive. This has resulted in many joint physics-philosophy books, conferences, comments, visiting scholars, and so on. And I think/hope that many of the physicists involved would think these exchanges have been worthwhile. Just don’t read Feyerabend…

  • Paul Stankus

    To all, and particularly Kevin at 57. above,

    One of the points made in Lee Smolin’s excellent book (it makes a great gift, btw, for scientists and non-scientists alike) is that (i) when the history of ideas are taught in physics classes, the “true” thread is highlighted while all the “blind alleys” are ignored and airbrushed out; and (ii) this is regrettable, because day-to-day, working physicists would be able to do a better job if they did have a knowledge of alternative ideas in history. I see the suggestion of Kevin at 57. as kind of a larger-scale version of this idea, that physicists would be well-advised to understand/appreciate empiricism and the scientific method as part of a broader pageant of intellectual history.

    Phrased this way it sounds appealing; but honestly I’m not yet convinced. As a analogy, I have reliable access to clean drinking water as a result of the work, some of it brilliant, by many people over several centuries. But while it might be fair for me to offer a silent prayer of thanks to John Snow and Louis Pasteur every time I turn the tap to get a drink, it works just the same if I don’t. Similarly, I can use the philosophical stance of empiricism that I absorbed as a student (just as Kevin says) to accomplish science, even without knowing the intellectual history that led up to it. Would I be a better scientist if I knew more history and philosophy? Maybe so; but one important clue is that the people who trained me, and the people who pay me, to do science didn’t/don’t seem to think so.

    Perhaps, as several people have mentioned above, the more interesting question is the reverse: not whether scientists can do better by knowing philosophy, but rather why scientists who are ignorant of philosophy and history can do a reasonable job at all. Ideas?

  • Chris W.

    Paul, let me pick up your analogy to reliance on reliable access* to clean drinking water.

    Suppose certain people in positions of influence embarked on an effort—motivated by malice, ideology, incompetence, or cynical self-interest—to dismantle or neglect the infrastructure and regulatory systems that ensure reliable access to clean drinking water, and used every social, political, and economic means at their disposal to undermine even the expectation that we should have it. Wouldn’t the knowledge of how we came to have it in the first place become more relevant? And wouldn’t the complacent acceptance that we have it, without much understanding of what it took to achieve that, prove useful in undermining that expectation?

    One thing to keep in mind is that the founders of empiricism were of necessity philosophers, and conscious of the fact, because they were engaged in formulating and promulgating a philosophy, and doing so often in the face of concerted opposition by people who were every bit as smart as they were.

    In my opinion, the greatest scandal of philosophy is that, while all around us the world of nature perishes—and not the world of nature alone—philosophers continue to talk, sometimes cleverly sometimes not, about the question of whether the world exists…. We all have our philosophies, whether or not we are aware of this fact, and our philosophies are not worth very much. But the impact of our philosophies upon our actions and our lives is often devastating. This makes it necessary to try to improve our philosophies [and science] by criticism. This is the only apology for the continued existence of philosophy which I am able to offer.    — Karl R. Popper

    (* About 16 months ago I spent a few nights in a very nice hotel in a large Asian city. Other members of the group I was with, who had spent much time in that city, advised me to avoid even so much as moistening or rinsing my toothbrush with the hotel’s tap water, and to use bottled water instead. I took their word that I could trust the latter.)

  • Arjen Dijksman

    “Only when they must choose between competing theories do scientists behave like philosophers.” ~ Thomas Kuhn.

    When we have to choose for example between competing interpretations of quantum mechanics that give the same predictions, it is quite useful to put forward philosophical arguments.

  • Neal J. King

    Physics, as well as other aspects of natural science, is thinking about nature.

    Philosophy is thinking about thinking.

    Physicists need to be able to do enough thinking about their thinking to recognize when their thinking about nature is not working properly. This is particularly important when the foundations on which they build are being shaken, as during the development (and pre-development) of quantum theory, and the house has to be built “from the top down“.

    Analogously, a bicyclist on a long trip needs to be able to tell when he has a flat tire, and how to fix it; maybe he needs to know a little bit about how glue responds to temperature. He does not need to know details about the manufacturing of rubber tires.

    Feynman, Glashow, et al. have lived and worked during a period that would be described, in Kuhn’s framework, as “normal science”: We have been able to depend on quantum mechanics and relativity the whole time. There have been occasional proposals to turn everything over, but they haven’t really been needed.

    By contrast, when quantum theory was being developed, everybody knew that big changes were badly needed, but it wasn’t clear in which direction. Physicists grasped onto what philosophical guidance they could get for hints as to how to proceed. For example, one idea that several of the leading lights seized upon was to “drop concepts that don’t actually appear in the phenomena”, like the concept of a trajectory. This is such a vague idea that it’s hard to see how it could inspire anything, but it got Heisenberg to thinking about the Fourier components of the dynamical variables p and q, instead of thinking about momentum and position directly; and this led him to matrix mechanics.

    I think this explains why contemporary physicists have not been that interested in philosophy – excepting those who are specifically interested in understanding QM more deeply, rather than in using it as the basis upon which to explain more phenomena. QM seems to be working fine, so there’s no need to pull out the patch kit.

  • Chris

    Philosophy is science. Empirical study and reason are the modes of science that began with the Lovers of Knowledge who were the first philosophers, and thus, the question, “would they be better physicists with philosophy,” is incoherant. They cannot be physicists without being philosophers. It is a necessary condition. It just so happens that the modern academic conception of philosophy tends to deal with the history of thought, or with ethics — like, biomedical morality — and thus draws closer to social sciences in practice due to the emphasis on literature, but the very act of formulating and testing a hypothesis remains a philosophical endeavor by definition. It is a shame, and a sham, that philosophy has been pigeonholed and removed from modern scientific practices which are direct derivations of the first science. And it seems that in this process, scientists have lost their connection to the tradition of rational inquiry which began with philosophy, and have degraded science from an exploration where the journey is the value, to a results based practice, where the ability to think is second to the ability to produce.

    Does that mean that you will be a better scientist if you read Descartes? Not directly because the specific quanta contained in the work of a long dead Frenchmen will not likely be relevant to your modern inquiry, but the modes of thought and the inquiry into what can be known, is at the core of all the sciences, and if you think like Descartes did — again, not in the specific but in the general sense — you will be better. It is no surprise that the best philosophers — Descartes work in optics serves this point well — were also darn good scientists.

    Nothing disheartens me more to hear someone studying science say something like, “I don’t like philosophy.” It shows that in their studies, they are not learning to think but learning to regurgitate. Certainly they may be able to conduct the experiments which will provide them a career, but because they do not examine the reasons or the core of their pursuit — the motivation, i.e. the unanswerable — many become little more than uncreative automatons. I think that the best scientists — “wait, what if it was a double helix?” :) — are always creative.

  • Claire C Smith

    In very different types of physics, an example, electromagnetism/engineering and then in contrast, cosmology, both appear to benefit from good thinking, regardless of what subject set they are from, but the first here, is perhaps more hands on, less theoretical. The thinking used in philosophy may apply more to cosmology but the use of applied logic, which is essentially a field of maths – formal logic, more to engineering. Both inductive and deductive thinking, be it whether the use of equations are used or not express these methods, seem to act as a way forward. These methods then, combined with theoretical physics thinking, critical thinking, all the way up to the thinking used in meta physics, seem all to be very beneficial to physics. A few pictures/diagrams wouldn’t go amiss.


  • lucy

    Sorry to be commenting on this a bit late, but this post really interested me – i’m a maths/physics student who’s found philosophy of physics to be consistently interesting and useful – not just in a vague ‘improving your thinking skills way’, but for specific questions in physics.

    For example:

    – Newtonian mechanics does not always have to be deterministic – this is surprisingly little known, see e.g. Norton’s dome example . Or see Earman’s Primer on Determinism for wider discussion on the compatibility of determinism with general relativity and quantum physics.

    – Interpretations of QM. Lots to choose from, but for example dealing with the problem of probabilities in the many-worlds interpretation, or the discussion of the assumptions and results of Bell’s theorem, and whether it only poses a problem for hidden variable theories. Chapter 8 of Huw Price’s book is very good at discussing these two.

    OK, these may not exactly be at the practical end of physics, but they still look like proper physics to me.

  • Peter Shor

    I have two things to say.

    First: was Feynman really anti-philosophy? There’s his famous quote about not asking “but how can it be like that?” But this quote was directed at students, for which it was actually very good advice; he later disregarded his own advice. When I was at Caltech, around 1980, he gave a lecture about how maybe negative probabilities could solve the EPR paradox and get around Bell’s inequality. It obviously didn’t work, since he didn’t publish this result, but I think the fact that he was thinking about it means he wasn’t really anti-philosophy at heart. He may not have said anything positive about the philosophers of physics who were his contemporaries, but I’m not sure I can really fault him in this.

    Second: Does philosophy help? Maybe in some circumstances it hurts. Bohr was certainly well grounded in philosophy, and it (logical positivism in particular) seems to have played a role in his development of the Copenhagen Interpretation. When I think about the question of “why wasn’t quantum information theory discovered earlier,” I think some part of the answer has to do with the degradation of the Copenhagen Interpretation into what Mermin labeled the “shut and and calculate” interpretation. Of course, this may be because later generations of physicists didn’t have any background in philosophy (and later generations of philosophers didn’t have any background in physics).

  • Des Greene

    The rate of change of scientific theory has been so fast in the last century that it has perforce left the world of philosophers in ignorant darkness. They hear of the outline of theory but can find deeper understanding too difficult given its complexity and the limited time they can afford to study it.

    Both science and philosophy are losing out in this!

    Philosophy is still (largely) in a Newtonian world. Traditional logic may be a thing of the past. Quantum logic may be the more general paradigm.

    Scientists, for their part, are too busy keeping up with developments to consider the broader aspects of their theories. Clearly there is great need for a middle ground – maybe accademic programs need altering.

  • Paul Stankus

    Feynman authored what must be one of the most sweeping philosophical syntheses ever seen (this is from one of the latter-day essay collections, and I’m paraphrasing very approximately): “Human history has two fundamental pivots. The first is the invention of writing, which allows you to learn someone else’s ideas without that person being physically present and alive; the second is the invention of science, which allows you to [reliably, systematically, objectively] sort out the valid ideas from the faulty ones.” One can quibble with the details, but it’s certainly a grand vision.

    The latter-day Feynman himself keeps the sentiment up from beyond the grave here:

  • Chris W.

    This anecdote probably has something to do with Feynman’s attitude towards professional (academic) philosophers and the humanities generally. Also see this Amazon reader review.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    It’s not clear to me why having a fundamentally agnostic, one might call it “instrumentalist”, attitude towards quantum mechanics precludes the development of quantum information theory. It seems to me one could ignore ontological matters related to superpositions entirely and still regard its mathematical description as the most accurate representation of subatomic reality so far contrived. From that mathematical description other things could naturally follow, couldn’t they? Why must one ponder what it all “means” to make use of qubits and invent quantum computational algorithms? I could see how it might help in certain circumstances, but I don’t see the necessity.

  • AM19

    So based on the comments the verdict seems to be if you are logically challenged or afraid to question the authority then you should probably learn a bit of philosophy, of course not just any philosophy especially not anything modern, preferentially things that Einstein or other physicists enjoyed. If you don’t have such problems then you might give it a try in your free time, who knows maybe you will benefit somehow.

    I think the problem here is that yes, learning philosophy might improve your thinking, but so can learning math, engineering, chemistry, and a lot of other stuff. Such answers do not take into account that our time for learning is limited.

    The question should be posed differently, you are a physicist and you have limited time to study, would it be a good idea to skip a semester of physics and learn philosophy instead? Will it make you a better physicist? Based on the comments above the answer to this question seems to be no.

  • Sam Meyerson

    It’s hard to see how some philosophical training would be harmful to us as scientists. Still on the whole I agree with the thoughtful remarks by Weinberg (in “Dreams of a Final Theory”), wherein he concludes that professional philosophy has “been of no help” in the development of modern physics.

    Pace Lee Smolin (#56), I suspect that the reason why the great physicists of yore, through the first third of the 20th century, were better educated in philosophy than we are today is simply because now there is so much more physics – and science in general – to learn. Given the choice of learning group theory, organic chemistry, or Kripke semantics, it’s pretty clear which is least likely to impact our research careers. Indeed, I would suggest that a physicist studying QCD phenomenology, a biologist working on bacterial evolution, or a chemist working on peptide synthesis will virtually never in their entire careers find it necessary to consult what philosophers have to say about epistemology, modal logic, or even philosophy of science. When we do import ideas from outside our chosen field, it is usually from other fields of science or mathematics. One can easily find citations to the biology, chemistry, and mathematics literature in physics articles, but very rarely to anything in philosophy journals.

    In recent years there has been (in my opinion) a positive trend whereby philosophers are first receiving high level (e.g. PhD) training in science before moving into philosophy, or independently make a serious effort to learn the relevant science. Professor Callender (#64) is an example of an academic philosopher who is admirably well-versed in physics and mathematics. (Another who comes to mind is John Earman.) Such philosophers are in a good position to seriously engage with the scientific literature, and I am hopeful that there will be increasing opportunities for exchange between our communities.

    We scientists already reason “philosophically”, and, we like to think, abductively (i.e. inference to the best explanation). We even employ modal logic, reflecting on necessity and possibility, and have been doing so since before Kripke. The formalistic approach to logic employed by many modern philosophers may be stimulating but I suspect it is rather barren in terms of its potential for physics. And just look at the sort of nonsense that passes for rigorous philosophy of religion today: . (To their credit, many philosophers view philosophy of religion as an unwanted stepchild.)

    Ultimately, I would endorse the view Einstein articularted shortly after he broke with the verificationists, that scientific theories are “free creations of the human spirit” (see I’m an instrumentalist at heart — I believe that the test for any theory is how well it explains and predicts observations. If a given theory is astonishingly predictive but metaphysically troubling, I would say that our metaphysics is in need of a tune-up. Our prephilosophical notions are, very plausibly, a partial product of our evolutionary path. Is there, to this very day, a philosophically tidy and uncontested interpretation of quantum mechanics?

    Getting back to Einstein, I agree with him that the creative act — the “spark of genius” — defies any philosophical description or categorization. It seems quite possible that, for a variety of reasons, a crucial scientific advance might result from a blunder, or from not following the philosopher’s rules of inference. Our philosophizing about science may help us better contextualize our work, but it rarely if ever is responsible for essential *scientific* insights.

  • Sam Meyerson


  • Paul

    [quote] “One of the points made in Lee Smolin’s excellent book (it makes a great gift, btw, for scientists and non-scientists alike) is that (i) when the history of ideas are taught in physics classes, the “true” thread is highlighted while all the “blind alleys” are ignored and airbrushed out; and (ii) this is regrettable, because day-to-day, working physicists would be able to do a better job if they did have a knowledge of alternative ideas in history. [/quote]

    This may be regrettable in some circumstances by usually it is not, most don’t want to spend time learning failed theories, there are too many working ones to learn.

    However I believe today we have tools to get around this problem – internet.

    I hope that eventually we can develop a database of free scientific knowledge maintained by scientists themselves, a tree of human knowledge. Such a database should contain not only theories considered current but also other possible alternatives and reasons why they were discarded. All theories should be ranked by their plausibility but still every one should be accessible and documented with links to publications preferably.

    This would allow people to see what is wrong with each approach and save them from reinventing the square wheel. This would also allow easy resurrection of abandoned theories when new data changes the picture.

    Now if such a database were also accompanied by (properly organized) forums it would make a great place for exchange and discussion of scientific ideas greatly facilitating collaboration between scientists. I think such a development is inevitable eventually but the sooner the better.

  • Enrique

    The problem with the lack of a philosophical culture (or personality) in the post-war physicists is that one’s always adopting a philosophical position regardless of our phi. culture or consciousness about it. This then translates as: “Scientist from the post-war era are really following philosophical positions from someone else, maybe unconsciously, and produce their work inside this philosophies that remain unquestioned for the time being”. I think physics is a product of the thought just as philosophy and with many obvious and not so obvious intersections.
    So I believe the quotation is pertinent because it denounces not a lack of studies but a lack of critical conscience about the philosophies implicit in the work of the physicist and, as a consecuence, a descent in the quality of the physics produced in the areas in which you need to change your paradigm to get solutions to long-time unsolved problems like the marriage between QFT and GR.

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  • Dr. Who

    I once had a subordinate tell me that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. It was humbling, foremost, because I respected this individual more than all others under my direction (hello GN). It’s easy to get so absorbed in work, that you lose track of the bigger picture. Philosophy is essential to some, and not at all to others. Does it have a place in physics. Absolutely, for some, and absolutely not, for others. However, expanding one’s horizons will always be beneficial, not just because it will make you more interesting on a personal level. But, because personal levels always spill over into work. Does this mean you should take a class in Philosophy? Absolutely not! If you’re interested, there are plenty of books to self-study. Who will be the next Einstein or Bohr? It won’t be someone who’s so focused that he/she can’t see the forest for the trees.

  • uncle sam

    Better use of philosophy might at least keep scientists from indulging in fallacious explanatory/pseudoexplanatory schemes like the idea that decoherence can resolve the collapse problem in quantum mechanics. Decoherence is a false path IMHO to understanding why our world isn’t found to be composed of superpositions. IOW, decoherence can’t even come close to explaining (away) the collapse of the wave function (from extended superposed states into a localized state representing only one of the original combination.) Interested readers can delve into the discussion at Tyrannogenius (Dish on MWH and decoherence. I think that the deco-con is a circular argument and has other flaws. It indulges several fallacies in the form it is often touted. I accept that decoherence can affect the patterns or information status etc. of hits and the interaction of waves. It has a role. And yes, I know proponents say deco doesn’t really/finally “explain collapse” anyway, and that entanglement is part of the issue and I don’t deal with that here. But I’m saying it can’t tell us even a little about why and how the waves don’t just stay all mixed up together in an extended state. Below are some of my rebuttals.

    One decoherence argument looks at e.g. randomly-varying, relative phase shifts between different instances of a run of shots of single photons into a Mach-Zehnder interferometer. Their case goes, the varying phases cause the output to be random from either A or B channel instead of any guaranteed output (into e.g. A channel), that is otherwise dictated by interference – in the normal case where phase is strictly controlled. They tend to argue, such behavior has become “classical.” Somehow we are thus supposedly moved away from even worrying about what happened to the original superpositions that evolution of the WE says typically come out of both channels at the same time – until they get “zapped” by interaction with a detector.

    Well, that argument is fallacious for many reasons. First and foremost is the very idea of using what may or may not happen in preceding or subsequent events of an experiment, to argue the status of any given event. I mean, if the phase between the split WFs happened to be 70°, then the output amplitude in channel A = 0.819…, and the output amplitude in channel B = 0.573576… . In another case, with a different relative phase, the amplitudes would be different, umm – so what? There is still a superposition of waves, and the total WF exists in both channels until “detection” works its magic. That’s what the basic equation for evolution of the WFs say. They don’t have a post-modernist escape clause that if things change around the next time and the next time you run the experiment, then any one case gets to participate in some weird “socialized wave function” (?!)

    And, what about the case where we don’t have messed up phases but a consistent e.g. 70° phase delta across instances – then what? So there really isn’t or shouldn’t be a collapse then, but waves remaining in both output channels? That isn’t what happens, you know. Chad said, the other WF doesn’t have to go away (like to “another world”), they just don’t interfere anymore. But that isn’t really the issue: the issue is that the calculation says there’s amplitude in both channels – and then how the photon ends up condensed at one spot.

    The use of the density matrix doesn’t really solve or illuminate any of this either. One trouble with the DM is, it’s a sort of two-stage mechanism (in effect.) First, you start with the “classical” probabilities of various WFs being present. OK, that makes sense for actual description because we don’t always know what WFs are “really there.” But then there’s mishandling of two types. First, the actual detection probabilities are usually compiled out of the WF interactions (squared combined amplitudes.) But that takes a “collapse” mechanism for granted and can’t be used later in an argument attempting to “explain” it. If we just have Schrödinger evolution, the DM would just tabulate the likelihood of having various combinations of amplitudes, and that’s all! Without the supervention of a special collapse process, the DM has to be just a tabulation of the chances of having various amplitudes, not of the “probabilities” that only collapse can create IMHO. There wouldn’t be any “hits” to even be trying to “explain.”

    Briefly, roughly: the decoherence argument is largely an attempt to force an implicit ensemble interpretation on everyone, despite the clear conflict of the EI v. any acceptance of a “real” wave function each instance, that evolves according to e.g. a Schrödinger equation. Yeah, how can they “collapse”; well who knows, and cheating isn’t the right way to deal with it.

    Better an honest mystery than a dishonest “solution.”

  • Glenn Borchardt

    This is all well and good, but we must remember that it is impossible to teach someone anything that his job requires him not to know. If physicists and cosmologists really understood the philosophy behind quantum mechanics, relativity, and the Big Bang Theory, they would have to look elsewhere for employment.

  • Glenn Borchardt

    My analysis was based on the fact that the strange goings on in modern physics are solidly based on the philosophy of idealism, which is inherent in the works of all the philosophers cited in the discussion. There was hardly a hint that there might be a problem with that approach. In particular, there was no discussion of how and when to drop the ideality and replace it with materialism. Previously, I have been reluctant to criticize idealism because it definitely has its place in science. I use mathematical idealism and ideal models in my professional work all the time. These idealizations, however, should be slaves to science, not the other way around as in modern physics. For instance, we can invent more than three dimensions, but that does not give existence to more than x, y, z dimensions. We need to be able to distinguish clearly between the real and the ideal.

    The discussion so far has lacked a recognition of the importance of the philosophical struggle that has taken place in science in relation to the one in the greater society. In “The Ten Assumptions of Science” and “The Scientific Worldview” I framed that struggle, not as a battle between materialism and idealism, but as the opposition between determinism and indeterminism. I did this to establish a modern determinism (univironmental determinism) as the philosophical goal for scientists as well as for those interested in the scientific worldview. We can discard indeterminism altogether, but we can never discard idealism. We just need to put it in its proper place.

  • Sam Meyerson

    As a rule I don’t read books if the author feels compelled to add his degree after his name on the cover.

  • Eric Perlmutter

    In defense of the late Ernst Mach: his work on the principle of inertia and related topics remains at the center of contemporary discussions, not only on the philosophy of general relativity, but on its fundamental interpretation as it relates to the physical structure of spacetime. This latter issue must be embedded in our theory of quantum gravity, if not taken as a guiding principle — the loop quantum sector has certainly taken these issues seriously — so perhaps Mach comes out even.

    In general, I find physics to be the closest science to philosophy; I think we sell ourselves short to say that the one cannot inform the other.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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