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. JimV says:

    I would like to offer a few words in praise of the Inductive Fallacy. As an engineer, I don’t know what I would do without it. Steel, composed of iron and smaller percentages of other elements in certain ranges of variation and heat-treated to certain temperature ranges for certain periods of time has been found to have properties which I need to design turbines. Or rather, this has been the case when tested in multiple experiments in the past, and so far none of the turbines which I have designed assuming those properties have failed due to lacking them. I used Newton’s Laws to calculate vibration frequencies of turbine parts, which Newton checked versus over a thousand astronomical observations of planets, moons, and comets. These laws still seem to give accurate results for my purposes, hundreds of years later. In fact, everything I see around me – furniture, TV, computer, refrigerator, roads, cars, bridges, buildings, etc., depended on that fallacy for the properties and laws assumed in its design and construction.

    I have an inkling that a universe with properties and laws so unstable that induction had no useful reliability is not one in which our kind of life could exist. I’m not sure if that thought is philosophical, scientific, a mixture, or neither, but I am sure I would not have had it without exposure to science.

  2. Roger says:

    Couchloc is the only one trying to give some examples of useful philosophy, and he suggests the Kuhn Paradigm Shift book!

    That book portrays scientists as irrationally jumping from one fad to another because the paradigm shifts have no measurable advantages. It is a gross distortion of science, physicists ought to reject any philosophers who hold that book out as an important book.

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  4. ganv says:

    I am a physicist that loves philosophy. But I do find myself at times very frustrated by conversations I have with philosophers. Sean’s critiques don’t capture my experience. The first problem is rooted in my skepticism of rhetoric. This is related to the objection Sean calls deeply depressing: “Philosophers care too much about deep-sounding meta-questions, instead of sticking to what can be observed and calculated.” But the problem is not that philosophers care too much about abstract questions. I totally agree that those are often the most interesting. The problem is that they are n0t sufficiently skeptical of the language games that humans play to advance their social standing. The reason that observations and calculations need to be involved in attempts to understand the deep meta-questions is that humans seem to have a never ending capability to create commentary on commentary without clarifying which conceptual or quantitative approximations are useful in thinking about a problem. In my experience, the problem is less with physicists declaring philosophy useless than it is with a style of philosophy that can’t communicate with the content of physics. I know more Plato and Lakatos than my philosophy colleagues know of field theory. (Here I think Sean lives in a bit of an abnormal part of the world of philosophy. He may know some trained physicists who became philosophers, but the typical university philosophy department doesn’t seem to me to have very many of those.)

    My other concern is specific to philosophy of science where it seems a person invites distain to even ask the most interesting questions: “What is the epistemological foundation of the amazing success of science in fully understanding the laws underlying the physics of everyday life?” To which the usual philosopher’s response is either “You arrogant physicist who claims to know everything.” or “Modern philosophy of science has shown that science is not a unity and is simply a sociological phenomena jumping from one paradigm to another without understanding how the universe works”. Science is indeed a language game that humans play to advance their social standing. But it also has stumbled on something profoundly ‘true’ (or more precisely, it has developed theories that are approximately true to amazingly good approximations). When philosophers show progress in explaining the success of science, then we will have much more to talk with them about.

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  6. couchloc says:

    I mentioned Kuhn’s book because I believe it is an important book. The book has sold over 1.4 million copies to date and had a huge impact. This does not mean that I agree with his conclusions. Aside from this, you should know that Kuhn’s view was widely rejected and criticized by philosophers themselves as being a caricature of science. You might read a paper on this by Dudley Shapere, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”

    Your comment seems to connect with the previous one somewhat. I would suggest there are some more recent analyses of scientific progress that view science as progressive, and reject the idea that science can be understood entirely in sociological terms. I would recommed reading Larry Laudan’s book, Progress and Its Problems.

  7. nieznany says:

    The point of the “inductive fallacy” is not that all inductive reasoning is inherently fallacious. Not even Hume thought that. The kind of induction JimV is talking about is not fallacious on anyone’s view. But giving a correct account of good vs. bad induction (which requires philosophy) turns out to be tricky.

  8. nieznany says:

    “That book portrays scientists as irrationally jumping from one fad to another because the paradigm shifts have no measurable advantages. It is a gross distortion of science, physicists ought to reject any philosophers who hold that book out as an important book”

    That’s a gross distortion of the argument of the book. The argument is that the shifts occur precisely because of the advantages conferred by the new paradigm, namely that it makes it possible to offer solutions to problems that were intractable under the old paradigm.

  9. Roger says:

    Couchlic, you gave the paradigm book as an example of useful philosophy. Now you seem ready to admit that it is really an example of bad philosophy that influenced millions of people into a wrong idea of science.

    If philosophy is really so great for science, there ought to be some examples of a positive influence.

  10. Chatham says:

    I thought this was a pretty good philosophy of science article:

    Just something I read in the past few days, not necessarily the best example out there. But you’ll see a lot of philosophy being discussed by experts if you hang around places like physics stack exchange.

  11. Roger says:

    Chatham, that is an article about physics by a physicist. The only philosophy is an occasional remark like “We know that Quantum Field Theory cannot contain the entire truth concerning the sub-atomic world”.

    The philosophy being criticized is that being done by philosophy professors.

  12. Cathal Ó Broin says:

    Written by helvio: “Old-fashioned “philosophy of science” is just that: an old fashioned field that uses inappropriate grammar to describe natural phenomena. They can’t go much further than their ancestors did centuries ago.”

    It’s quite clear that the person who wrote this doesn’t even know what philosophy of science is. “old fashioned”? The philosophy of science basically began with Karl Popper, and is less than a hundred years old.

    Why do people criticise something when they don’t even know the very basic ideas that people in the field have?

    When you ask a scientist, “what is science?” or “what is physics?”, how do they answer? They invariably bring in philosophy of science concepts, because that question straddles the border of philosophy and science (sociology would be a relevant scientific discipline for studying aspects of it). Krauss, for example invokes (outdated) arguments by Popper for demarcation, while also dismissing philosophy of science.

  13. Chatham says:

    “Chatham, that is an article about physics by a physicist. The only philosophy is an occasional remark like ‘We know that Quantum Field Theory cannot contain the entire truth concerning the sub-atomic world’.”

    The article is reviewing the axioms that have gone into creating QFT, their implications, and the value judgements involved in such a theory. It was published in The Handbook of the Philosophy of Science. For the introduction of that volume:

    “First, it is obvious that by our lights, there is no sharp line between philosophy of physics and physics itself. So it is no surprise that some of the best work in philosophy of physics is being done by physicists (as witnessed by several contribution in this volume). No surprise: but certainly, to be welcomed. Conversely, to the traditionally trained philosopher, work by philosophers of physics is liable to look more like physics than philosophy. But for us, this blurring of disciplinary boundaries is no cause for concern. On the contrary, it represents an opportunity for philosophy to enrich itself.”

    Of the three general editors of the volume, two have PhD’s in philosophy, a third in logic.

    Sure, you can pull a “no true Scotsman,” but then why bother asking for example of where “philosophy is really so great for science”? If you’ve already decided that any example of philosophy that’s good for science doesn’t count because it isn’t real philosophy (even when clearly presented by such by philosophers) , asking people for example is just a waste of everyone’s time.

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  15. Roger says:

    @Chatham: This post is about Hawking, Krauss, and Tyson badmouthing philosophers. I am pretty sure that those 3 have no quarrel with ‘tHooft writing an article on the axioms for quantum field theory.

    Sean says that those 3 are wrong, so it is reasonable to expect him to provide an example to prove them wrong. As it is, Sean followed this post with one supporting many-worlds as correct. There is some dubious philosophy.

  16. Chatham says:

    Well, if we agree that an article:
    1. about the philosophy of science
    2. published in “The Handbook of the Philosophy of Science”
    3. where the general editors of the publication it was in are philosophers
    has merit, then we’ve reached the point where we agree that philosophy can be beneficial to science, and are now entering a discussion about when it’s beneficial to science.

  17. Roger says:

    @Chatham: I do not agree that it is an article about the philosophy of science. It is a physics article written by a physicist, not a philosopher. It says “The scope of this concise treatise on Quantum Field Theory … We also limited ourselves to applications of Quantum Field Theory in elementary particle physics.” That is a core physics subject, not philosophy.

    The article has 29 references, and every single one of them is a physics book or article. None is a philosophy article. You can easily tell because they all have “physics” in the title of the article or the journal. Not philosophy.

    I guess the philosopher editors wanted to learn some physics, I don’t know. But this is not an example of philosophy being beneficial.

  18. Chatham says:

    “I do not agree that it is an article about the philosophy of science.”

    That’s your choice. The credentialed philosophers that included the article in this particular volume of The Philosophy of Science, as well as the nobel laureate who submitted this article to the Philosophy of Science (an article that explored the axioms of and reasoning behind choices made with regards to quantum field theory), seem to believe it is about the philosophy of science. I’m inclined to agree with them. Again, you’re welcome to pull a “no true Scotsman,” but it doesn’t really give others much incentive to provide you with examples.

  19. John Barrett says:

    I would think philosophy is still good in science. It was used to determine classical mechanics and principals, and conservation laws are still used in sciences today, even though they are classical principals. Although, you should wish Alan Guth luck in proving that energy can be transferred from the force of gravity. This was a really big no-no that hasn’t been done in order to prevent free energy devices from being possible.

  20. Adem says:

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  21. Adem says:

    Merci à tous pour vos nombreux commentaires que je n’arrive meme pas à les lire tous.

  22. Scott Mataga says:

    Practitioners in any area, be it physics, politics, plumbing or selling consumer goods can often operate successfully for their entire careers by the equivalent of “shutting up and calculating”, i.e. applying well-tested techniques without worrying greatly about why they work. Advances are made by those who ask why they work, but it strikes me that those people are almost always practitioners asking very specific questions informed by their practice in the area, not outsider philosophers with very general questions. But it makes sense that someone who asks ‘why’ in his or her day job, is likely to be the kind of person who asks why in other areas of life, and find resonances in the thinking of their counterparts there.

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  24. ChrisB says:

    “When you ask a scientist, “what is science?” or “what is physics?”, how do they answer?”

    They would say that science is a method of observing and testing predictions about reality. As long as reality is involved you’re in the club. “What is physics” is a tricky question, it’s usually whatever the chemists say is too hard.

  25. pov says:

    The fact is that there is no science that exists without Philosophy. The scientific method is itself a philosophy and scientists, like all people, view the world and data through the lenses of their own beliefs and values.