Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things about Philosophy

The last few years have seen a number of prominent scientists step up to microphones and belittle the value of philosophy. Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, and Neil deGrasse Tyson are well-known examples. To redress the balance a bit, philosopher of physics Wayne Myrvold has asked some physicists to explain why talking to philosophers has actually been useful to them. I was one of the respondents, and you can read my entry at the Rotman Institute blog. I was going to cross-post my response here, but instead let me try to say the same thing in different words.

Roughly speaking, physicists tend to have three different kinds of lazy critiques of philosophy: one that is totally dopey, one that is frustratingly annoying, and one that is deeply depressing.

  • “Philosophy tries to understand the universe by pure thought, without collecting experimental data.”

This is the totally dopey criticism. Yes, most philosophers do not actually go out and collect data (although there are exceptions). But it makes no sense to jump right from there to the accusation that philosophy completely ignores the empirical information we have collected about the world. When science (or common-sense observation) reveals something interesting and important about the world, philosophers obviously take it into account. (Aside: of course there are bad philosophers, who do all sorts of stupid things, just as there are bad practitioners of every field. Let’s concentrate on the good ones, of whom there are plenty.)

Philosophers do, indeed, tend to think a lot. This is not a bad thing. All of scientific practice involves some degree of “pure thought.” Philosophers are, by their nature, more interested in foundational questions where the latest wrinkle in the data is of less importance than it would be to a model-building phenomenologist. But at its best, the practice of philosophy of physics is continuous with the practice of physics itself. Many of the best philosophers of physics were trained as physicists, and eventually realized that the problems they cared most about weren’t valued in physics departments, so they switched to philosophy. But those problems — the basic nature of the ultimate architecture of reality at its deepest levels — are just physics problems, really. And some amount of rigorous thought is necessary to make any progress on them. Shutting up and calculating isn’t good enough.

  • “Philosophy is completely useless to the everyday job of a working physicist.”

Now we have the frustratingly annoying critique. Because: duh. If your criterion for “being interesting or important” comes down to “is useful to me in my work,” you’re going to be leading a fairly intellectually impoverished existence. Nobody denies that the vast majority of physics gets by perfectly well without any input from philosophy at all. (“We need to calculate this loop integral! Quick, get me a philosopher!”) But it also gets by without input from biology, and history, and literature. Philosophy is interesting because of its intrinsic interest, not because it’s a handmaiden to physics. I think that philosophers themselves sometimes get too defensive about this, trying to come up with reasons why philosophy is useful to physics. Who cares?

Nevertheless, there are some physics questions where philosophical input actually is useful. Foundational questions, such as the quantum measurement problem, the arrow of time, the nature of probability, and so on. Again, a huge majority of working physicists don’t ever worry about these problems. But some of us do! And frankly, if more physicists who wrote in these areas would make the effort to talk to philosophers, they would save themselves from making a lot of simple mistakes.

  • “Philosophers care too much about deep-sounding meta-questions, instead of sticking to what can be observed and calculated.”

Finally, the deeply depressing critique. Here we see the unfortunate consequence of a lifetime spent in an academic/educational system that is focused on taking ambitious dreams and crushing them into easily-quantified units of productive work. The idea is apparently that developing a new technique for calculating a certain wave function is an honorable enterprise worthy of support, while trying to understand what wave functions actually are and how they capture reality is a boring waste of time. I suspect that a substantial majority of physicists who use quantum mechanics in their everyday work are uninterested in or downright hostile to attempts to understand the quantum measurement problem.

This makes me sad. I don’t know about all those other folks, but personally I did not fall in love with science as a kid because I was swept up in the romance of finding slightly more efficient calculational techniques. Don’t get me wrong — finding more efficient calculational techniques is crucially important, and I cheerfully do it myself when I think I might have something to contribute. But it’s not the point — it’s a step along the way to the point.

The point, I take it, is to understand how nature works. Part of that is knowing how to do calculations, but another part is asking deep questions about what it all means. That’s what got me interested in science, anyway. And part of that task is understanding the foundational aspects of our physical picture of the world, digging deeply into issues that go well beyond merely being able to calculate things. It’s a shame that so many physicists don’t see how good philosophy of science can contribute to this quest. The universe is much bigger than we are and stranger than we tend to imagine, and I for one welcome all the help we can get in trying to figure it out.

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225 Responses to Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things about Philosophy

  1. Pingback: Physicists And Philosophy | Transterrestrial Musings

  2. Reinaldo Ramos de Carvalho says:

    Thanks Sean for putting in very clear words such an important subject, especially for graduate students. Those who don’t value philosophy of science should read “Representing and Intervening” by Ian Hacking.

  3. Merle Riley says:

    This comment is in memory of an old philosopher friend of mine, Robert Weingard, who passed away too young several years ago. I too am a philosopher (except a PhD in science from “MIT west”). I generally agree with Hawking and Tyson, their points are obvious. I would add that philosophy can find a just location in the areas of physics that lie just beyond the accepted areas of current knowledge. Of course that is vague too, and raw material for further verbosity. Would you rather have a philosopher or physicist answer the question, “Am I worthwhile?”

  4. Dustin Summy says:

    I agree that philosophy has important contributions. I think it’s important to sit down and think through questions like “Does the way we’re talking about X really make sense given Y?” Daniel Dennett has given me a much better appreciation of philosophy’s utility for framing questions. I don’t think people roundly disparaging philosophy realize that philosophy is not just “Am I a brain in a vat?”

    My question for you, because I go back and forth on this all the time: Are the stereotypical, face-palm-inducing questions that these physicists are thinking of when they say these things useful? I mean, are they at least correct about something or are they just philistines through and through? (Or am I being too philosophical? 😛 )

  5. Shmi Nux says:

    As I said in the link to this post on Less Wrong, “philosophy is great at asking interesting questions but lousy at answering them. Typically, an interesting answer to a philosophical question requires first recasting it in a falsifiable form, so that is becomes a natural science question, be it physics, cognitive sciences, AI research or something else… Philosophical questions do not have philosophical answers.”

  6. Shodan says:

    Completely agree with the above. But for posterity, here’s an essay on Philosophy by Stephen Weinberg.

  7. Philosopher says:

    Excellent! I think that those critics dont know too much about contemporary philosophy.
    There are absolutely brilliant philosophers of physics, e.g, John Earman, Jeremy Butterfield, Tim Maudlin; philosophers of science, e.g, Bas Van fraassen, Patrick Suppes, Paul Thagard; and even metaphysicians, e,g, David Lewis, Ted Sider, John Hawthorne, Peter Van Inwagen, etc.

  8. Carl 'SAI' Mitchell says:

    Science is very good at providing models of HOW things work. Physics does that in incredible detail. Science is terrible at providing explanations of WHY things work. Science observes nature, creates predictive mathematical models from the observations, and uses those models to explain the how. It never gets into why the models are the way they are, except when they depend on deeper models (eg statistical mechanics explains why the laws of thermodynamics work as they do).

    We’ll never have scientific proof of the answers to untestable questions, but philosophy can discover the possible answers and allow reasonable choices to be made when the questions are important. It won’t always tend towards an objective truth, but it seems to have done reasonably well so far at illuminating the questions.

  9. Melvin Ely says:

    One of my favorite Teaching Company courses (besides the two which you have done!) is Jeffrey Kasser’s “Philosophy of Science”. This course, for me anyway, brings the two disciplines nicely together.

  10. John Hamill says:

    Is there perhaps a hint of a straw man here? These aren’t the three ‘criticisms’ I’ve heard Krauss et al make, if they can be called criticisms. Specifically, the view of some physicists that seems to have generated controversy is that philosophers don’t find out new things about the world. Philosophers may be very valuable in helping to explain what someone else has found out … but this seems to be a different point to the three described above.

  11. Carl Pham says:

    I think philosophers have become too afraid of the physicists, which leads to either obsequiousness or ignorant hostility. One and even two and three hundred years ago, when physics was upending the naked-eye view of how the world worked, the physicists were much more attentive to the problem of how do you know what you know and what you don’t, and more open to wildly creative (if usually wrong) synthetic concepts. They knew they were swimming against the current in the philosophers’ world. The opposition made them sharp.

    Now, unfortunately, it’s the other way around. The philosophers — including all of us, individually, struggling to set our own philosophy, if we are not mindless hedonists like so many — are swimming in the current of physics. We frame our worldview assuming the crassest implications from cosmology and quantum mechanics, say, are The Final Truth. But it may not be. It has often been the case before that the Final Truth of the natural philosophers has turned out to be less final than initially thought. We should all be pushing a little harder at what physics tell us, or thinks it tells us: how do you know that? What are your confidence limits? Examine your reasoning carefully for hidden unexamined assumptions, cognitive biases, logical leaps. The philosophers should be pushing the physicists to do the same thing, too.

    It concerns me that there seems to be less debate on foundational ideas than there used to be: Boltzmann contended with those who did not believe in atoms. To be sure, they were wrong, but their doubt was intellectually respected, and it forced the atomists to sharpen up. Where are the doubters of today? We all mock Einstein for doubting that God rolls dice, but it bothers me that there isn’t some heir that thinks QM is so much contrivance, a Rube Goldberg way of getting at something that a cleaner theory would point to without one needing to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Even if such people turned out to be wrong, we need them to sharpen up, to continue to make progress.

    What’s Wilson Mizner’s famous quote? “Doubt is what gets you an education.” We need more doubt, and philosophers are the original vendors of doubt.

  12. Ben Goren says:

    First, I would make clear that there are people who call themselves, “philosophers,” who have made and continue to make significant contributions to the body of human knowledge.

    But I would then argue that philosophy as a discipline is as useless and outmoded as alchemy and astrology.

    And the reason for that is that the only meaningful dividing line that can be drawn between the two is that of empiricism. Philosophy itself has no requirement that philosophy is grounded in that which has been or could be observed; science is nothing without objective analysis.

    When we see good work coming out of people who call themselves, “philosophers,” that work is “merely” an analysis or meta-analysis of hard facts gathered by one or many researchers. But, all too often, we also see philosophers completely ungrounded by reality going off on wild flights of fantasy.

    The perfect example is morality, which is supposed to be one of philosophy’s great strengths. When actually scientists (by whatever title) study morality, they do so either with hard research, such as patient outcome surveys, or with solid math, such as game theory. But when philosophers “study” morality, they do so with nonsense such as the Trolley Car Death Fantasies, which anybody who made it through a psychology class for non-majors should instantly realize as nothing more than a watered-down variation on Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment. The philosopher, wearing the lab coat of authority, tells the subject to either kill the ugly fat man or the beautiful woman, and the subjects invariably comply, exactly as Milgram demonstrated they would. In the real world, such scenarios simply don’t arise, and, when they do, either the person at the switch has no business touching critical industrial safety infrastructure in a crisis situation or the person is a trained professional and has drilled in exactly what procedure to follow — and, either way, the fault for the deaths lies with whoever permitted such a dangerous situation to arise in the first place, not the unlucky person who stumbled upon the scene.

    We see similar parallels with all the other fields which philosophy is supposed to dominate: scientists are discovering the true nature of those problems while the philosophers are “not even worng.” Quantum mechanics such as you yourself, Sean, have done far more to determine the ultimate nature of reality than any philosopher, and no philosopher will ever contribute to that question without a solid grounding in all the latest research. The nature of life was settled long ago by scientists. Information theory has turned the nature of knowledge into a settled question. And so on — again, all without any appeal to philosophy whatsoever. Even the philosophy of science is a matter for the empiricists to analyze: which peer review model produces the papers that have the fewest mistrakes and the most utility for others?

    Again, I appreciate that there are people who call themselves philosophers who do good work. But, whatever the labels on their hats say, those hats are scientific hats, not philosophical hats — at least, when they’re actually being productive.



  13. Anon says:

    I think the job of a philosopher is a pointless one in a certain sense. There is nothing that a philosopher can do that a good physicist cannot. However, that assumes that the physicist actually cares and tries to understand what everything means instead of just being an equation manipulator.
    The philosophy of physics (space, time, etc) is the foundation of physics and has very real consequences for how we think about unsolved problems. Any physicist who doesn’t appreciate that fact is simply a fool.

  14. Dwt says:

    Paraphrasing Neils Bohr:
    What is the difference between a [physicist] and a philosopher? An [physicist] is someone who starts out knowing something about some things, goes on to know more and more about less and less, and ends up knowing everything about nothing. Whereas a philosopher is someone who starts out knowing something about some things, goes on to know less and less about more and more, and ends up knowing nothing about everything.”
    Buddhism and Taoism assert that nothing and everything are two sides of the one coin which is Reality. Bohr incorporated the Taoist yin/yang symbol is his self designed coat of arms along with with the motto “CONTRARIA SUNT COMPLEMENTA”
    My conclusion is that physics and philosophy are not mutually exclusive, but mutually dependent in the pursuit of understanding of reality and truth, which are also two sides of one coin.

  15. Lord says:

    Under which does the criticism philosophy seems to be about torturing word definitions fall?

  16. Simon Morley says:

    Your broad minded approach is both very refreshing, and a welcome boost to science. Do you mind if I test it?
    Regarding, for instance, your notion of the Arrow of Time.
    If you don’t know what time is (and knowing is binary – you either know what time is or you don’t, phrases like “we know quite a lot about time” don’t count) how then can you assert that it has a direction? Your notion is based entirely on the empirical evidence of event outcomes. It has nothing to do with time (other than time, the abstract framework, calibrates and indexes these events). You are making an assertion about something you admit to not fully understanding.
    Time is an abstract. We know this because there is no empirical evidence that it exists, none. You can’t see it, hear it, touch it, smell it. It doesn’t make anything, move anything or destroy anything. It’s hence abstract.
    (If space-time is a viable construct of two separate paradigms, they need to be paradigms of compatible nature. So if time is an abstract framework, then for space and time to fuse, the version of space being assimilated into space-time must also be an abstract framework. And the resultant mix, space-time, must hence be an abstract framework).
    The only empirical evidence of “time passing” are events. And events are caused by energy differential (not by time).
    If time is abstract, how can it have a direction?
    Surely the arrow belongs to the outcome of events. Shouldn’t your notion be called “The arrow of event outcomes?” It makes a big difference – else you are implying a property to time that you simply can’t support.

  17. “Philosophy tries to understand the universe by pure thought, without collecting experimental data.”
    I love this criticism because, c’mon, theoretical physics?

    “Philosophy is completely useless to the everyday job of a working physicist.”
    I have a *little* more sympathy for this criticism, because there are other assumptions going into it: that Philosophy of Physics is trying to be useful to understanding the physical world, but is not. Sure, it’s interesting in the same way that a book or a poem is, but not in the way that science is; rather, it’s telling us how our minds interpret the world, not how the world IS. (To be clear: I think this is what the underlying argument is, not that I agree with it.)

    We all have a limited set of intellectual interests; for some people it really is just, “how the physical world can be described”.

    “Philosophers care too much about deep-sounding meta-questions, instead of sticking to what can be observed and calculated.”
    Honestly, your attack on this is way off base. There is clearly a strong empirical tradition that physicists are appealing to in this case. It is very easy to mislead oneself about how the world works when just *thinking* about it (see also: most of human history), and much harder when “getting data”. Disagree with it all you want, but that’s a firm philosophical position.

    tl;dr The broader problem here is that scientists have very strong philosophies, they just don’t realize it or think them through properly. Give them examples that they care about or you’re just saying, “I think this is interesting and you should too.”

  18. Joan Hendricks says:

    Gotta say, Dr. Carroll, I read both of your recent books and learned a lot from them about Higgs and Particle at the End of the Universe. Then, I tried to read Tim Maudlin’s book that you recommended (can’t remember the name of it). I gave up less than halfway through. Philosophy is not my thing I guess.

  19. Steve Jones says:

    I suppose somebody might point out the irony that those who are indulging in a debate about physics and the value of empiricism as the true test of knowledge of the universe are, of course, taking part in a philosophical discussion. You might also argue that mathematics and logic are in the realm of philosophy as they rather stand outside the world of empiricism. Where would physics be without mathematics and logic?

    However, it’s also worth noting that there’s a huge range of stuff that falls under the term philosophy. Some of the traditions of philosophy are wildly different from those that are closely related to physics.

  20. Mina says:

    Thanks for sharing this. But what is the criteria to distinguish between a philosophical question and a scientific question? Why is “the arrow of time” a philosophical question and not a scientific one?

  21. Alan Cooper says:

    Some of the best philosophers have been at least as critical of “philosophy” as the most strident of physicists. And some of the seemingly objectionable quotes from physicists come in response to the loud claims by some (often unemployed) philosophers that we “need” their expertise for some reason or other. Although I enjoy and see value in the study of how our understanding of various “deep” questions has evolved (or not) over time, I do not need the advice of a professionally trained philosopher to help me decide even moral questions – let alone issues of natural philosophy. In my opinion, the discipline of philosophy would be better served by an attitude common among my mathematical physics colleagues – namely pride in the belief that what we do is “useless” from a crudely materialist perspective but still of great aesthetic value to those who appreciate it.

    P.S. I don’t think it was fair to elide “completely useless” into “uninteresting or unimportant”. And the most famous comment re usefulness was in fact (intentionally?) open to a wide range of interpretation since many species of birds would now be extinct but for the interest of ornithologists (even though those birds need neither ornithologists (nor aerodynamicists) in order to actually fly).

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  23. Ben Goren says:

    I suppose somebody might point out the irony that those who are indulging in a debate about physics and the value of empiricism as the true test of knowledge of the universe are, of course, taking part in a philosophical discussion.

    Theologians are also wont to claim all of science as a sub-discipline of theology, as it’s all for the greater glory of whichever gods the theologian worships. I remain underwhelmed by both assertions.

    Regardless, the question is an entirely empirical one. In what ways has knowledge been advanced with empiricism (science, broadly construed) and without (philosophy)? The scorecard is so overwhelmingly in favor of science it’s a wonder we’re even having the discussion.



  24. Pingback: Sean Carroll defends philosophy | SelfAwarePatterns

  25. Fabio Escobar says:

    A rather silly conversation, this one. There is no established common definition of either philosophy or physics, so everyone seems to be talking past one another. There is no rigor in this kind of discussion.

    Now, that is no reason in itself to stop talking, but it should be realized that it is already off on the wrong foot if the aim is to actually learn or discover something.

    There is also a bit of silliness in trying to neatly demarcate disciplines. Epistemological certainty doesn’t give a shit if you call yourself a physicist, philosopher, or Julio Iglesias. Right is right, wrong is wrong.

  26. Groovybaby says:

    I was with you until you gave an example of philosophical worth that was directly infronging on the area of physics and science.

    “The idea is apparently that developing a new technique for calculating a certain wave function is an honorable enterprise worthy of support, while trying to understand what wave functions actually are and how they capture reality is a boring waste of time.”

    Logic and reason simply can’t determine the nature and structure of a wave function. That is a job for physics and the scientific method, not pure thinkers. Philosophy would be impotent in that regard. Certainly there are uses for it, and extremely constructive ones, but to say that it can uncover what things are or how they work (or even why) is ludicrous.

  27. Groovybaby says:

    Infringing, not infronging. Stupid fat fingers…

  28. Pablo says:

    I am neither a physicist nor a philosopher. Could you elaborate a bit more and name one or more examples where “philosophical input is useful” to science, or better yet, physics?
    The reason I ask is because, while a philosopher with knowledge of physics might provide useful thoughts or inspire curiosity to somebody interested in science, it seems to me that no contribution could be made from the field of philosophy without “doing science”. Maybe you can provide an example which demonstrates otherwise.

    I also don’t understand what is meant with “asking deep questions about what it all means”. Is this something other than thinking about new hypotheses? I get that a physicist “just” answers how nature works, but why does it have to mean something? There doesn’t have to be a purpose for nature.

    Maybe, even if the question is completely valid, we shouldn’t “get stuck” asking questions which are too deep for us to answer (like “where do we come from”, many centuries ago), and keep working step by step until we arrive at an answer we know is true (“theory of evolution”, which is fairly complete by now).

    Therefore, as I understand it, “good” philosophers will gather the “correct” scientific answers, and try to give an interpretation. I don’t see what the purpose of an interpretation would be, probably because I can’t imagine what kind of contribution about how the natural world works could stem out of such an interpretation.
    So, for instance, “understanding the foundational aspects of our physical picture of the world, digging deeply into issues that go well beyond merely being able to calculate things” – what would that be? If you can’t produce new knowledge, or validate any new hypothesis, what is there left to contribute?

  29. Jonathan says:

    There are other reasons that philosophy is useful to scientists.

    Science does not answer everything (in a few different ways). Science is a process that takes what we don’t know, discovers it and organizes it into what we do know- through repeatable observation of objective reality and structured analysis. Science is a well-constructed and incredibly useful tool for creating shared understanding of the universe. Scientists are those people who use this tool to best effect. We also call “science” the knowledge we’ve collected through this process. Again, like the process, we know this knowledge isn’t complete, it doesn’t answer all we want to know. If it did, the scientific process would end, with a complete understanding (quite unlikely, ever).

    There has always been and will always be huge tracks of knowledge out beyond what science can deal with and sometimes intermixed into arenas science does explain. These areas of knowledge still have significant effects on our everyday experience. Often times we can characterize quite well what we don’t know, and take the first step in dealing with that area in a scientific way. Over time knowledge in the “explained by science” realm continues to increase (faster and faster!), and the currently unknown realms become organized and understood through the scientific lens.

    We cannot ever prove this science process will completely map all realms of knowledge.

    Even if we could, there is still significant value in exploring realms of knowledge that science has not yet handled. For a wide variety of reasons, many useful realms are not science (at least not yet). First, the system may be too complex to fully explain scientifically (like a full molecular simulation of a human brain), some of the data we would need to get reproducible results are missing or unethical to collect (like much human biological, mental and health data), and still others may be outside out capacity (yet) to make useful observations (cosmic multiverse theories). And yet other realms science just hasn’t gotten to yet, because we don’t even know to investigate there yet. In all these cases, outside science can still be very useful to explore. Many of these examples are not philosophy, but examples of non science knowledge realms still very useful to explore.

    Exploration of realms of knowledge outside the bounds of science process is open to philosophers in ways not typically open to scientists. The science process, especially the western science of the last 500 years, takes a very specific, materialistic view on how to collect data and how to prove new results. This view is not wrong, but it’s also not complete ( ⇇ my opinion, and unable to prove it or disprove it). The real point, as I see it, to make to Sean is this: scientists (and I consider myself one) need to remain humble to the truths that philosophy can find and share as they are most often from realms in which the current science paradigm of data collection and repetition simply doesn’t apply.

  30. Casmilus says:

    Ben Goren said:

    “But when philosophers “study” morality, they do so with nonsense such as the Trolley Car Death Fantasies, which anybody who made it through a psychology class for non-majors should instantly realize as nothing more than a watered-down variation on Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment.”

    Actually it has nothing to do with that, and in any case I think Phillipa Foot first wrote about “trolley cases” before the Milgram Experiment had been first performed. Fail.

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  32. jenny says:

    Science contains philosophy. Any good scientist is obviously thinking about “philosophical questions” in the back of his/her mind.

    But scientists also understand that in order to make any meaningful progress on these questions, they have to be first formulated in scientific terms (i.e. they can be tested). If that cannot be done, it means either that the question itself is not well-defined or the scientific theory is not developed enough to directly answer or even ask the question. In this sense, scientists “temporarily postpone” these philosophical questions until enough scientific progress is made that allows us to revisit them.

    “Pure philosophers”, I’m sorry to say, do not understand this and continue down a meaningless path trying to answer questions without this required scientific understanding or background. In this sense, pure philosophers are useless in furthering scientific understanding. But when scientists ask philosophical questions, it is inherently more useful because it is done in the context of a deep scientific understanding with clear scientific directions (if possible) laid out for further progress.

  33. Thanks Sean. It seems to come down to Physicists asking “How?” vs Philosophers asking “Why?” I find myself much more interested in the why oftentimes, but I understand that the question of how needs to be considered.

  34. colnago80 says:

    Richard Feynman (or maybe Steven Weinberg): Philosophy is as useful to physicists as ornithology is to birds.

  35. Joseph Brisendine says:

    Thanks for bringing up this important issue Sean and I totally agree with you, but also from the comments its clear that a huge part of the problem is that people seem to have wildly varying ideas of what philosophy actually is, and of course philosophers themselves have never come to any kind of agreement on what does and does not count as philosophy. For people whose primary exposure to philosophy appears to come from phil mind and analytic ethics, there appears to be a large bias against philosophy and agreement that its not very useful to science. Given what these people mean by philosophy, they are probably right, but only because they have never been exposed to good philosophers of science. Likewise, people who don’t truly appreciate the methods of physics have all kinds of platitudes to offer about what science “can’t do” and how philosophy fills these gaps (I’ve never liked the how/why distinction. Isn’t thermodynamics essentially about why things happen while mechanics is about how they happen?). In my mind, all of this argues strongly that what is most needed is to move the “third culture” discussion into the public eye so that smart laymen can see what it’s really like when a good philosopher of physics and a good physicist have a conversation.

  36. August Berkshire says:

    Is the question “Is philosophy worthwhile at all?” or “Can philosophy contribute to science (in this case, physics)?”

    You pose the challenge: “trying to understand what wave functions actually are and how they capture reality,” implying this is a philosophical and not a scientific question. But in what way is this a philosophical question? Isn’t the answer only obtainable (if it is obtainable at all) through physics, not philosophy?

    You also state: “there are some physics questions where philosophical input actually is useful. Foundational questions, such as the quantum measurement problem, the arrow of time, the nature of probability, and so on.” But aren’t these all science problems? What extra does philosophy bring to the table?

    Maybe it’s a matter of semantics and I’m putting some things under the category of science that others would put more under the category of philosophy or philosophy of science.

  37. James Gallagher says:

    Sean, sorry, but the philosophers had several thousand years to come up with useful ideas before scientists arrived on the scene, it’s difficult (but not impossible :-)) to argue that philosophy is really making a useful contribution to modern science.

    Even the very reasonable Einstein was not positive about philosophers in the introduction to his 1921 Princeton lectures The Meaning of Relativity: p.2

    The only justifi cation for our concepts and system of concepts is that they serve to represent the complex of our experiences; beyond this they have no legitimacy. I am convinced that the philosophers have had a harmful e ffect upon the progress of scientifi c thinking in removing certain fundamental concepts from the domain of empiricism, where they are under our control, to the intangible heights of the a priori. For even if it should appear that the universe of ideas cannot be deduced from experience by logical means, but is, in a sense, a creation of the human mind, without which no science is possible, nevertheless this universe of ideas is just as little independent of the nature of our experiences as clothes are of the form of the human body. This is particularly true of our concepts of time and space, which physicists have been obliged by the facts to bring down from the Olympus of the a priori in order to adjust them and put them
    in a serviceable condition.

  38. B^2 says:

    I have no training in physics, mathematics or philosophy and I would appreciate it if someone would help me answer some neophyte questions.

    1) Is it possible that a small quantum fluctuation could bring one neutron into existence which would then decay into a proton and an electron?

    2) If the universe is in a maximum state of entropy then is it more likely that there would be a slow accumulation of neutrons, protons and electrons over time rather than one large deviation from the maximum entropy state?

    3) Why is the cosmic microwave background considered the echo of the big bang instead of a constant 2.7K thermal reservoir at maximum entropy?

    4) Does the Boltzmann brain paradox support a steady state theory of the universe?

    5) Does a steady state theory of the universe need a quantum singularity?

    6) If there were no need for a quantum singularity then would we need a unified field theory?

    7) If the universe is far older than we believe then would the universe reach a maximum entropy state with an isotropic temperature of 2.7K?

    8) Does an inflationary big bang violate the postulates of relativity and thermodynamics?


  39. Pingback: A Physicist on Physicists’ Criticisms of Philosophy | Daily Nous

  40. Bayshore121 says:

    The Weinberg article cited above shows how, even when a physicist is reasonably discussing philosophy, he/she often does a poor job of it. Weinberg finds “dazzling successes” in physics and math but only “murky and inconsequential” results in philosophy. He should have just stopped there and said that physicists like himself have an aesthetic that makes philosophy unattractive.

    But he also claims that “a knowledge of philosophy does not seem to be of use to physicists.” Such a claim glosses over the glaring exception of Bohr, whose scientific insights were intricately connected to his philosophical reading. (And the paraphrased Bohr quote by DWT above is almost certain made in jest, as it contradicts Bohr’s own fascination with philosophy).

    Rorty takes down Weinberg in an essay that contributes to this discussion–“Thomas Kuhn, Rocks, and the Laws of Physics.” It’s snide at times but also points out the ways in which physicists have a certain blindness about philosophy and a hubris about their roles as arbiters of useful knowledge.

  41. Random Excess says:

    Kant Weyl get along?

  42. Tom Cantine says:

    The criticism “Philosophy tries to understand the universe by pure thought, without collecting experimental data,” is a little off the mark. It would be a bit more accurate to say that philosophy tries to understand thought, the tool through which we understand the universe. All scientists have to think, and ideally they’re pretty good at it, just as they should be good at statistics, computers, and writing. Yet there are also professionals who specialize in these areas, and whose coaching can be quite valuable. Not everyone needs it, but often those who need it the most are the least likely to recognize that they do.

  43. Jerry Schwarz says:

    (Aside: of course there are bad philosophers, who do all sorts of stupid things, just as there are bad practitioners of every field. Let’s concentrate on the good ones, of whom there are plenty.)

    This is know as Sturgeon’s law. It presumably applies to both philosophy and physics. See

  44. Jennifer says:

    “philosophy of science can contribute to this quest. The universe is much bigger than we are and stranger than we tend to imagine, and I for one welcome all the help we can get in trying to figure it out.”

    Here here to this final comment – we have a long way to go in either getting there, or realizing it is almost upon us.

  45. Russ Abbott says:

    I’m not one to say that philosophy is not worthwhile. But this piece would be more convincing if you would provide some concrete examples.

    You say that “there are some physics questions where philosophical input actually is useful.”

    Would you mind providing some “philosophical input” that you have found useful for understanding. for example, the quantum measurement problem, the arrow of time, the nature of probability?

    Similarly you said “It’s a shame that so many physicists don’t see how good philosophy of science can contribute to this quest.”

    Would you mind describing a specific contribution that philosophers of science have made to this quest?

  46. Pseudonym says:

    Remember the student who asked Euclid what he would get from studying geometry? Euclid told his servant, “give him a coin, since he must make gain out of what he learns.” Nobody would say that of geometry today.

    Philosophy is the primordial soup from which new university departments are formed. What you call “physics” used to be called “natural philosophy”. At some point it graduated and became its own discipline.

    Some of the fields that I have worked in in graduated more recently; logic and linguistics are two good examples, though new logics are still being developed by philosophers today. The most recent example that I’ve worked with is ontology. This is now an engineering discipline, but only a few decades ago that it was still considered abstract and arcane philosophy. And it wouldn’t have become that nearly as quickly if philosophers hadn’t already worked through the problems.

    You can think of this as philosophy shrinking. Certainly, philosophy departments have shrunk (although Chris Hedges has another theory about why that is), but philosophers at the cutting edge have moved on to other things.

    Yes, philosophers do a lot of stuff which is unproductive, but that’s true of all innovators. You try a lot of things and fail at most of them.

    The university’s science department creates results. But the philosophy department makes new university departments. You shouldn’t be surprised that this happens at a slower pace.

  47. James says:

    colnago80 says: Richard Feynman (or maybe Steven Weinberg): Philosophy is as useful to physicists as ornithology is to birds.

    If this is true, then it would be VERY useful. Wouldn’t it be useful for eagles know the various behavioral tendencies of their prey?

  48. T.E. Oakley says:

    Dr. Carroll,
    This particular subject, “physicists and their attitude toward philosophy,” addresses a really serious issue among, especially, “public physicists,” since the anti-philosophical salvos of some of them, have been, it appears now, numerously documented in open science writings, forums, and discussions. Dr. Carroll, you seem to exhibit an exceptional and extremely acute understanding of the function of philosophy as a conceptual discipline vis-à-vis physics; I am gratified that you chose this subject for a special palliative analysis.
    There is only one additional perspective that I think you and Dr. Massimo Pigliucci (see the blog link to his Huffpost: “Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Value of Philosophy”) miss in your otherwise extremely adept defense of philosophy: being academics, you COMPARTMENTALIZE the intellectual disciplines, as it IS necessary in a university structure; but there is a difference between the (academic/ historical “discipline” of philosophy as a subject studied and practiced in the intellectual world, and the “philosophical” mind, as it is found ACROSS the artificial boundaries that research “disciplines” represent—Dr. David Albert of Columbia University, it seems to me, exhibits a virtuosic fusion of BOTH “academic discipline” and “philosophical mind,” as exhibited in the SCIENTIFIC subject of foundational quantum physics.
    The “philosophical mind” is a certain, almost indefinable, mode of critical conceptual “instinct,” or “intelligence,” that you either have or you don’t have; it cannot be created if the potential doesn’t exist, it can only be sharpened under an (academic) instruction, and the GREAT physicists, as GREAT EXPLORERS, will ALWAYS exhibit this “instinct” to some significant degree. EVERY physicist involved in philosophy “bashing” to my knowledge has speculated, in their writings or in public forums, or both, about “the foundational aspects of our physical picture of the world,” to quote you, Dr. Carroll. Additionally, this requires what you referred to as “a kind of rigorous conceptual analysis [which philosophers are] “experts at.” These SAME anti-philosophical physicists, it seems to me, flounder, theoretically, for want of that same philosophical “instinct” when it is MOST NEEDED: this at the very frontiers of their physical discipline, where this “instinct” would QUALITATIVELY IMPROVE their theoretical musings and research conclusions; at that very foundational frontier which these anti-philosophical physicists are, seemingly, compelled to explore, like moths to a dangerous flame.
    Thank you, again, Dr. Carroll for bringing this subject to the general public’s attention.

    T.E. Oakley

    Sent from my iPhone

  49. Well said, Sean! You might love my humorous but thorough talk on exactly this point last Skepticon: Is Philosophy Stupid? (of course, my answer is no). My field is the history of philosophy (Ph.D., Columbia U.), so you may enjoy seeing that perspective added in. But I also publish as a philosopher. So I give it both barrels.