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.

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  3. Merle Riley says:

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  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? :-P )

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  12. Ben Goren says:

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  13. Anon says:

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  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.

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  15. Lord says:

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  16. Simon Morley says:

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  17. Ryan Morlok says:

    This reminds me of an SMBC Comic

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  18. “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.”

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  19. 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.

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  20. 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.

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  21. 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?

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  22. 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. Pingback: alQpr » Blog Archive » Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things about Philosophy | Sean Carroll

  24. Ben Goren says:

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  25. Pingback: Sean Carroll defends philosophy | SelfAwarePatterns

  26. 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.

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  27. 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.

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  28. Groovybaby says:

    Infringing, not infronging. Stupid fat fingers…

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  29. 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?

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  30. 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.

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  31. 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. Pingback: Not All Physicists » Pharyngula

  33. 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.

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  34. 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.

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  35. colnago80 says:

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

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  36. 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.

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  37. 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.

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  38. 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.

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  39. 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?


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

  41. 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.

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  42. Random Excess says:

    Kant Weyl get along?

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  43. 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.

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  44. 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

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  45. 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.

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  46. 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?

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  47. 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.

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  48. 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?

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  49. 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

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  50. 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.

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  51. Ad Nausica says:

    Sean, you should know better than this. It is a poorly written article.

    Are you stating that, as a scientist, all you do is computation and defining new techniques; that you never actually do rigorous thought? Every scientist I know, including myself, does deep thought experiments very often. Everything you said that a philosopher adds value here are things that scientists actually do, particularly theoretical physicists.

    It seems to me you’ve also mistaken what the criticisms actually are. If you listen to them, particularly when the very people you refer to clarify what they mean, they are claiming that the field of philosophy has not generated any new discoveries. Can you give a practical example, in the last 100 years or so, of some new discovery or understanding of the nature of our universe generated by philosophers? If not, then you are agreeing with these critics. Sure, you might suggest that philosophers have added value in some other area, but then the critics never said they didn’t. (Are you sure you’re not committing a strawman argument here?)

    You seem to be repeating the mistakes you made before regarding this topic, particularly with respect to David Albert’s poor criticism of Krauss.

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  52. Ed says:

    Sad, not a single cite or quote of a prominent popular physicist (or any physicist) deliberately belittling philosophy, and yet the entire post is a counter-argument.

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  53. Dan U says:

    The auto redirect to some sponsor’s site is incredibly frustrating. I was going to read your article until I was rudely redirected. When I clicked back to return to your page, every 10 seconds it redirected to an invalid page. I know you need sponsors but no one will come to the site if it behaves like that.

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  54. BobC says:

    Arrgh. Two points:

    1. PhD = Doctor of Philosophy. Deal with it. Be philosophical about it.

    2. Philosophy often isn’t so much about what to think, or what to think about, but *how*to think, and *how* to think about things, especially as they relate to other things.

    My favorite philosophers make what I call “neutral arguments”: They advocate for a position while simultaneously doing their best to negate it or dilute its context or relevance. I have to work hard just to agree with them!

    My favorite result from reading the works of philosophers (no mater if they call themselves one or not) is that I gain perspective, often multiple perspectives, that lubricate my own thoughts in my own work.

    There is one task in science that seems to breed philosophers: Writing a truly great survey paper. I have a collection of favorite survey papers, each a masterful colloquium that ranges from “just the facts” (which is where ordinary survey papers stop) to a summary and critique of the methodologies involved (both experimental and analytical, which is where the better survey papers stop), to bridging and sometimes unifying the interconnected conceptual heights (where the insightful philosophers stop).

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  55. helvio says:

    There is a better criticism to the modern philosophy of science: it’s useless (or at best outdated) because of the very fact that modern science exists. Physics was once called natural philosophy because it is a way of thinking about the natural world. It evolved and it uses math as its basic grammar, but physics is no less a field of philosophy than it once was. It still is philosophy, but a very well polished one, and the natural way to think about natural phenomena. 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.

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  56. Chithrabhanu says:

    Biggest problem with philosophy is that its nature depend upon the half emotional, half logical stands or biasness of receiver. For example, one who believes in some sort of supreme power and all will tend to interpret quantum mechanics with consciousness and other metaphysical ideas. Beauty of science is nothing but the non subjective nature of it.

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  57. JimV says:

    Most of my experiences with philosophers have been negative. Bill Buckley on “Firing Line” once interviewed (approvingly) a “famous philospher” (whose name I did not know then and have forgotten now) who had written a book proving that monotheism was correct. Another one speculated on a PBS show that the Sun might have a consciousness. Then there’s Elliot Sober and his “design argument”, and Alvin Plantinga who thinks that naturalism is a “complete mistake”. (I don’t think either of these was the one I saw on “Firing Line”, who was an old man in the 1970’s.)

    One difference between science and philosophy which such examples illustrate to me is that in philosophy there does not seem to be any way to get rid of bad ideas, since there is always some set of unprovable (or disprovable) assumptions which could justify them (e.g., Bishop Berkeley’s immaterialism). It seems to me that science evolved from philosophy as a way of deciding between competing ideas, by the preponderance of evidence.

    Long ago I was told this story, which may or may not be true: one of the questions on the final exam for a philosophy course was “Why?” One student gave the correct answer and got an A: “Because.” (I might have tried “Why not?”)

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  58. Jeremy Fraser says:

    I was greatly disappointed when I read Hawkins statement regarding the death of Philosophy, but it is indicative of the age we live in, where Science is taken from being an important method of explaining how and has been transferred into the popular psyche as a new religion. The likes of Dawkins is just as bad, his attempts at Theology are embarrassing and illustrate the fact that while they have the right to an opinion just because they are well known doesn’t mean what they say is either right, or warrants being in the public domain.

    As a Theologian / Philosophy student I would never even try to comment on particle, or any other type of physics as it is a topic well beyond my understanding, I only wish that they would have the honesty to also say that this is something that they, evidently don’t understand, and keep their opinion to themselves! Hear endith my rant!

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  59. kashyap vasavada says:

    We human beings are classical objects. Therefore our languages (not regarding mathematics as a kind of language) are classical. Experimental physicists have to do experiments with classical objects. At some point everyone has a question about meaning of the equations of modern physics. So whether theoretical physicists like it or not, philosophy at some level is always a necessary part of the description of the universe.

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  60. Some of the physicists I know hate philosopher because (1) every second person can try to pretend to be a philosopher (2) philosophical thoughts cannot objectively evaluated

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  62. Phil H says:

    I say let them have at it. It’s maybe worth pondering for a moment why this collision between physics and philosophy is happening right now. There doesn’t seem to be a similar fight with chemists; and the biologists are fighting the religious nuts, not the philosophers. Why physics?

    I think there are two reasons:
    1) Physics is now claiming to be getting pretty close to explaining all fundamental stuff. That’s a real threat to philosophy, which previously had a monopoly on that sort of thing. (The one place we do see philosophers fighting with biologists is in neuroscience, where a similar thing is happening.)
    2) Physics has big meaning-shaped holes at the edge of it, which philosophy is just itching to fill in. Philosophers would love to think that they can contribute to the interpretation of quantum mechanics (we do interpretation all day! you don’t have to do maths to interpret!), so they step into the fray, sometimes a little uncautiously.

    I actually disagree with Prof Carroll’s “let’s all be friends” approach. I think there are real conflicts here, and the abuse (from both sides) helps us to trace the faultlines between the different modes of enquiry. I’m more for taking the Godzilla approach: “Let them fight.” These vigorous debates have sparked a lot of good discussion, at least on the philosophy side. I’m not competent to know if the physics arguments that have followed have been enlightening, but I have seen physicists at least seeming to engage fruitfully with the questions.

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  63. Steve Weiss says:

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  64. Thanks for posting this! I graduated with a degree in philosophy a while back and am always saddened and annoyed when scientists (or anyone from another discipline, really) attacks philosophy, especially for being useless. Especially when it’s clear, from their arguments against it, that they have not studied it (at least not in depth, and not with an open mind). Especially when I know it has taught me so much about reasoning, how to frame and evaluate an argument, and how to get to the real heart of any particular problem quickly. I always find it very difficult, though, to express how useful and important it is — especially to people who know nothing about it. So again, thanks!

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  65. Good thoughts.


    — the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.

    — the study of the theoretical basis of a particular branch of knowledge or experience.

    Philosophies in physics involve perspectives concerning the meanings of words and their organization to describe nature. Many theorists, physicists, astronomers, etc do not realize that theories have within them perspectives of reality that are separate from the facts and interpretations of observations. The meanings of the words such as time, space, matter, energy, for instance, involve philosophical concepts and interpretations.

    In my opinion if someone denigrates philosophy it simply means they don’t understand or realize how different philosophies involving different perspectives of the same thing can result in different understandings of reality, even if the facts remain the same.

    I’m glad Sean has exposed the related misunderstandings and ignorance of many physicists, astronomers, and theorists, concerning philosophy.

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  66. Bravo, Sean, as a physicist who has spent much time reading (and studying) philosophy, I am very frustrated by physicists—even very good ones—who fail to see, often with a brutish arrogance, the great value of much philosophy. My thoughts on this very much agree with yours.

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  67. August Berkshire says:

    Alexandra Carbone wrote, “[philosophy] has taught me so much about reasoning, how to frame and evaluate an argument, and how to get to the real heart of any particular problem quickly.” And these certainly seem like beneficial activities that could fall in the realm of philosophy.

    But must the scientific method be called a philosophy? Can’t we say we figured out from trial, error, and observation that it’s what works best? And it would work independently of whether or not anyone’s philosophy says it would work.

    And if philosophy and science might pose the same question about the nature of the universe, isn’t it only science that can actually answer it (if it is answerable)? And if that’s the case, then what extra does philosophy bring to the table?

    For the pro-philosophical-science side to convince the philosophy-adds-nothing-to-science side, we would need an example of science that could not be done without philosophy. And hopefully the definition of philosophy would not be made to be overly broad (enveloping areas that could just as legitimately be called science) in order to accomplish this.

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  68. Imp says:

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  69. Paul Matthews says:

    Maybe philosophers should stop saying silly things about physics.

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  70. Graham ASH-PORTER says:

    Nice one Sean.
    However, what do you say about philosophy of Religion? As a subject it totally annoyed me. A bit like Deepak Chopra…

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  71. Tania Valeonti says:

    Very well written, thank you Sean.

    First of all, it seems funny that many people do not realize the origin of science; Science came from philosophy. Essentially, it is a branch of philosophy, the empirical, applied branch of it.

    For hundreds of years, philosophy and science were almost indistinguishable. When Democritus thought of the “Atom”, he didn’t have experimental data; he used a logical argument. The two disciplines only recently grew apart. When industrialism exploded, science become far more focused on being “productive” and scientists were pushed away from the philosophical implications of science during their education. Philosophers, on the other hand, set out on wilder and wilder paths of thinking that actually ignored scientific facts. Just look at the example of postmodernism, probably the most ridiculous “philosophy” that has ever existed, essentially negating itself, by attempting to negate logic. Thus scientists started dismissing philosophy and philosophers started dismissing science. Both sides had valid points, both sides made mistakes.

    The result is that the stereotype of a scientist is that they’re robots only interested in getting things done, while the stereotype of a philosopher is that they sit around doing nothing other than indulging themselves in wild speculation.

    Needless to say, it doesn’t have to be this way. Philosophy and science go hand in hand. A scientist needs to understand basic philosophy and a philosopher needs to understand basic science. Where the relationship is uneven, though, is that philosophical ideas that come in opposition to scientific facts have to accept defeat.

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  72. Peter M says:

    On June 23, 2014 at 7:59 pm, JAYANTI PRASAD said:

    “Some of the physicists I know hate philosopher because (1) every second person can try to pretend to be a philosopher (2) philosophical thoughts cannot objectively evaluated”

    It seems to me that some of the physicists you know must be very irrational. Why would one hate philosophers because one meets a lot of people who ‘pretend’ to be philosophers (and who therefore aren’t philosophers)?

    Also, what makes you think that philosophical thoughts cannot be objectively evaluated? I can ‘objectively’ determine how often one person’s expression of a particular idea (thought) is repeated by others and compare that with results for other thoughts. That may not be an evaluation of the truth of any propositions expressed within the thoughts, but it is an evaluation of the thoughts themselves.

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  73. The first criticism is bunk because it could be describing mathematics. The second is not a criticism at all. The third is the only one with some merit.

    I enjoy reading philosophy and thinking about the questions it raises. So yes, it has value to me. But so does pure fiction. If a novelist or poet said “The guys at CERN should pay more attention to us, and waste a little less money on their cold emotionless hadrons!” we’d probably think it absurd. But there are philosophers who do say such things and are feted as great thinkers (at least by some other philosophers).

    So I wonder if the sniping from physicists is not so much an unprovoked attack, more a response to a demanding neighbour. Working physicists and mathematicians have all experienced the “letter from a crank”, a retired engineer who thinks he (invariably male) has squared the circle, “disproven Einstein”, etc. Interjections from philosophers must often have the same flavour as such letters. Hence the contemptuous tone of the dismissal.

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  74. Asmat Islam says:

    I agree with Sean. I want to add one more aspect about Philosophy of Science. Philosophy tries to figure out the nature of scientific inventions by the very concepts of paradigm shift, likewise features. For instance, the Copernican revolution which was later far developed by Newton. Finding out such features about scientific discoveries and/or inventions is significant which we can’t shun to have more insightful understanding of nature.

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  75. Hal Swyers says:

    Have to agree with the general point of the article. If people actually read what von Neumann was saying, axiomatic systems must ultimately really on some level of subjectivity. The point being we know that there are certain things we know are true even if they are not provable in the set of axioms. The idea of an axiom is purely rooted in philosophy, so our axiomatic approach to many physics theory are very closely tied to our philosophical prejudices. The point is that with a very small set of axioms, the world can be explained with quantum mechanics. The scientific part comes in when we try to test the strength of the axiomatic statements. To date there is no experimental evidence to show the axioms are wrong, that is why the theory is so powerful.

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  76. allan J says:

    This may be of interest. Peter Unger is a Professor of Philosophy at New York University. The link is to an interview he has done about his book “Empty Ideas: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy”. Peter Unger interview .


    From the interview: “What philosophers are in search of — and they don’t realize this — is generalizations that aren’t open to any conceivable possible counterexample, however far-fetched. These counter-instances don’t have to be at all realistic. So they put forth these offerings. Almost always, these offerings fail, and colleagues come up with counter-instances. When they don’t fail, they turn out to be trivial. Virtually all of them are analytically correct, though philosophers don’t realize it.

    Generally, though, they’re mostly incorrect offerings, with counterexamples, and it keeps changing and keeps changing, until everyone becomes bored with the topic, and then they go on to something else.”.

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  77. RJD says:

    A number of comments above: “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.”

    – You sound very secure in your beliefs there. But even 30 seconds on its wikipedia entry will start to educate you as to what philosophy of science actually is. Hint: it bears little relation to what you think it is. Good luck.

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  78. Kapitano says:

    It bears repeating: Anyone who says they have no philosophy is in the grip of an unacknowledged philosophy.

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  80. Pingback: 'Why Study Philosophy' - Page 12 - US Message Board - Political Discussion Forum

  81. Gerg says:

    “…trying to understand what wave functions actually are and how they capture reality is a boring waste of time…”

    It’s not a boring waste of time. Physicists and mathematicians simply don’t need philosophers to achieve that goal.

    Here is what a wave function is:

    Sorry, no amount of existentialism or analytic philosophy or other bullshit will get you any further to an answer to “what a wave function is” than simply reading a textbook or wikipedia entry written by a physicist or mathematician.

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  82. Ben Goren,

    Your comment above couldn’t be a better example of people who don’t actually understand philosophy or know anything about it trying to criticize it. I could go through the entire comment pointing these out, but for the most part this part should provide more than enough evidence of that:

    “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. ”

    I wrote on my blog once saying that the litmus test for being able to talk about modern morality was to know what Trolley Cases were. I was willing to give you the benefit of at least meeting this criteria on my first skimming, but after reading this in detail it’s clear that you know nothing about them. Here’s what you’re missing:

    1) Trolley Cases, to be interesting, are two parts, not just one.

    2) They never involve a choice of one person versus another, or only causing harm to a specific person (a la Milgram). Both parts involve a case where the person has to choose between allowing 1 person to die or allowing 5 people to die.

    3) There is no beautiful woman involved, unless the person running the experiment happens to be one.

    4) The presenter offers the choice in both cases, and never implies what the right answer would be, as the whole point of the experiment is to see what people think is the right choice. If they at all imply what the right choice would be, then the presentation is wrong and the results invalid.

    5) Even in Milgram’s experiment, less scientific backgrounds and presentations weakened the results, and these are often given in philosophy classes, which is pretty unscientific.

    6) Why these cases are interesting is that the two give opposite results: in one, most people choose to sacrifice 1 to save 5, while in the other they refuse to sacrifice 1 to save 5.

    7) And, most damningly, most people WON’T kill the fat person to save the other 5 people, which is what makes the cases so incredibly interesting as no one expected that. (The fat person does not appear in the scenario where they DO sacrifice one to save five).

    Why this is interesting is that the first case — simply flip the switch and divert the train onto the other track where only one person is standing — reflects clear Utilitarian thinking — maximize the most good for the most people — and so supported that notion that our moral intuitions were broadly Utilitarian. The second case — push one person in front of the train to stop it and save five people — seems to provide pretty much the same choice, but the intuitions tend to reflect the opposite thinking. Why this is, and which is right, is of great interest to morality and a question that any reasonable moral system ought to be able to answer.

    Which leads to this (apologies for the length):

    “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.”

    Let’s take this as a given, and not consider cases of unforeseen failures or the like that could lead to this situation. Imagine that someone has done something wrong and it leads to this situation. Do you think that a person stumbling across this situation has no moral responsibility in such a case? If someone pushes someone into a river, and you could save them, do you think that you and could have no moral obligation to do so because the real fault is with the person who pushed them in?

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  83. Ryder Dain says:

    Sweet Jesus H. Christ on a bicycle, the people are right when they tell you “don’t read the comments.” Depressing isn’t half of it.

    Thank you Sean, for a thoughtful and important response to what has been growing into an increasingly stressful problem in both academia and at home. However, I might add to your response that the problem is not just a matter of physicists in their own fields judging from ‘above’ as it were, but a pervasive self-image issue most philosophers and students (like myself) have been having in the current era of STEM studies as the all-important measure of personal worth.

    Rant Commences
    I take issue with anyone, and everyone here questioning the value of philosophy on its usefulness. There’s a good reason that philosophy is historically wedded to the Humanities, and that is because Philosophy (with a big ‘p’) is an art. We have our own schools, our own traditions, our own techniques, and our own luminaries who have nothing to do with any ‘natural science’ for a very good reason. Many people (even plenty of philosophers) may not see this, but we don’t practice philosophy for the utility it offers in understanding, or to increase the sum of human knowledge, any more than the purpose of Impressionism via Monet or Cubism via Picasso were experiments designed to generate evidence about visual perception. Like painting, or literature, or film, or sculpture, or any other artistic method, the goal has never been to provide utility in the form of either power, facts, or cash. Whether it’s “useful” or not is a statement masquerading as a question, about what one believes is valuable or not, and is neither a fair nor correct challenge to bring. Claiming that philosophy fails to provide answers demonstrates a categorical mistake in understanding why it has any value at all.

    Philosophy is an art, and its form is the art of constructing questions. It’s only difference from other forms of art is in what it pursues: rather than try to draw out or play with our visual experiences as painting does, or our personal experiences as good literature does, philosophy’s paintbrush is the argument, and works best when it draws out and clarifies our concepts. That’s all. It offers no new knowledge in itself, and doesn’t need to; it can offer insights into why and how people come to think the things they do, but only when you’re willing to study their concepts, from their perspective. If you wonder what use there is in trying to understand foreign concepts, or those of someone who disagrees with you, even when, especially when that person is disastrously wrong, then you’ve completely lost the point. We are not physicists, we are not politicians, we are not here to join a debate for the thrill of ‘winning’. We are only here to understand– what it is we think, why it is we think, and (when it’s thrilling) what there still is to think about.

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  84. cranston says:

    It is not an ‘anti-philosophical salvo’ to point out that a philosopher doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

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  85. George Purcell says:

    What I find immensely frustrating is the incredible claim that, because of experimental results in quantum physics (Bell Test) somehow that means there is no underlying reality on a macro level. If physicists were better trained in philosophy they’d realize why this is nonsensical position to take (because they confuse the description of fundamental particle physics with the fundamental nature of reality).

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  86. Sigh says:

    Studying philosophy academically teaches and then requires you to hone a set of skills that are extremely useful both in everyday life and in most other academic subjects. You learn critical thinking skills like how to break down, analyse and evaluate arguments, you learn about logic and you learn how to do rigorous conceptual analysis among other things.

    Perhaps one of the reasons some people think that philosophers just exchange opinions or speculate is because they have not learned the skill sets philosophers use, or are supposed to use. If you’ve never learned the skill set of how to break down and evaluate arguments, you’re not really going to understand how its done, are you? If all you know how to do is speculate and exchange opinions when it comes to engaging with particular kinds of material, you might just assume that’s all anyone can do with regard to that material. What if there is a method of approaching this material that is highly useful that you are unaware of because you have never learned it?
    This phenomenon is similar to when people who have never studied the scientific method assume that scientists must be doing something similar to what they do when they try to determine how the physical world operates and criticize science on that basis. How common is it for creationists to exclaim that evolution is not scientific because we couldn’t personally observe it happening? That is an example of someone criticizing something because they don’t understand how the discipline actually works.

    Compounding on this problem is the fact that people seem to think that conceptual analysis and critical thinking skills are just innate abilities that don’t require training or learning anything, that is not the case. You can be knowledgeable in these areas and you can gain a significant amount of expertise. Of course, for you to really understand why, you would have to go and start learning the skill set.
    To draw an analogy to science again, people have an certain capacity to learn about the physical world without any training, but compare that to formally studying the scientific method. Imagine if people simply assumed that based on the fact that they have a certain level of untrained ability to figure some things out about the natural world that therefore no one needs to study science and that the views of highly trained scientists are not valuable and that science is not something you can have expertise in.

    Then there are people who want to claim everything good about philosophy as science. Of course if you simply call every part of a training in academic philosophy that you like science, then you aren’t going to like what you’ve left over to be deemed philosophy.

    Then there are people who judge philosophy based on poor philosophy. Imagine if I were to look at a bunch of scientific studies that were done poorly and to exclaim that because these studies were done poorly that science is bad. That would be ridiculous. Similarly, if you read some philosophy paper and you disagree with the arguments given, it might well be because they are simply bad arguments, that doesn’t mean philosophy as a whole is bad.

    Is it really the case, that none of you who question the usefulness of something like moral philosophy, have ever had your views changed due to the strength of an argument that skillfully used logic and conceptual analysis? If you have had your views on abortion, or gay marriage changed, for example, what persuaded you to change your views? Do you really think your views changed based purely on learning a new fact about the natural world or was it because someone formed a strong logical argument based on that fact that demonstrated to you that your current views were logically inconsistent, or were based on poor conceptual analysis and that your values actually logically entail that you should support a different ethical position than you did before?

    Suppose you want to devise a way to scientifically measure intelligence. How are you going to do that without first usefully analytically breaking down what people generally mean by intelligence? How do you go about that ‘breaking down’ process? Do you learn how to do that well in science? Doing that involves conceptual analysis and that is the kind of thing philosophical training would make you better at.

    If more scientists had more training in conceptual analysis and critical thinking, they would be better at science. For a start, they would be better at determining what conclusions they can draw based on the data available to them.

    A great example is the free will issue. Lots of scientists, e.g. neuroscientists and physicists, have written books proclaiming proudly that they have proven free will exists. Unfortunately the vast majority of them have completely wasted their time because they completely failed at the level of conceptual analysis. They misunderstood the nature of the problem they were trying to address, or what the term free will actually means, or they incorrectly determined the implications of their findings and so on.

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  87. stevenjohnson says:

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  91. Jim says:

    Jenny – Do you think that the Continuum Hypothesis or the existence of inaccessible ordinals is formulated in “testable scientific terms”?

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  92. Dave says:

    “First, philosophy does not adhere to a notion of truth as propositions that correspond to reality. An unsound argument, no matter how absurd, is acceptable so long as it appears to be logically valid.”

    Not even wrong.

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  93. Jim says:

    It is trivial to give examples of apparently quite meaningful statements that don’t appear to be falsifiable. The Continuum Hypothesis or the existence of inacccessible ordinals are examples. On a more elementary level consider the statement that an infinite number of prime pairs exist. That’s not obviously falsifiable. Or consider the statement that the digit sequence “378854699231” appears somewhere in the decimal expansion of pi. That seems meaningful but it is not obviously falsifiable.

    Contemporary science teaches that the universe has only existed for a finite amount of time. It seems a meaningful question as to whether it will cease to exist at some future time. But how would one falsify the statement that the future existence of the universe is finite? For that matter how would one falsify the statement that it’s future existence is infinite.

    Personally I will never be able to falsify the proposition that I an immortal. But I think that that proposition is both meaningful and false.

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  94. Val says:

    I’m curious: who said those three quotes?

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  95. stevenjohnson.

    Let me try to address your criticisms based on what philosophy in general actually says about those topics:

    “Antirealist perspectives on science, which seem to me to be the majority position among philosophers, commonly give us scientists who would vigorously deny that science can prove anything, dismissing propositions like “There is no magic,” as nonsense. ”

    SOME postmodern philosophy — not all — would deny that science can prove anything, but that’s mostly because they essentially deny that you can prove ANYTHING. Analytic philosophy in general will accept that science can prove an awful lot about the world, and most philosophers are empiricists at least in the sense that they think that if you’re going to try and find out things like “What’s the acceleration due to gravity?” doing science is the way to do that. There are some concerns, even among naturalistic philosophers, about how you can justify claiming that you have objective truth while relying your sense experiences — which are provably subjective — but for the most part philosophers are in fact realists: we think there’s a real world out there and that our senses give us at least some way of getting at it if anything can. Even Kant said that empirical science was the way to study the world of appearances, which is what we get from our sense experiences; he just questioned if we could know if that was how reality really was unmoderated by our basic concepts and sensory organs.

    Also check out naturalizing philosophy, where many philosophers have spent a lot of time trying to see if philosophy would work better if it adopted the methods of science. Philosophers don’t generally dismiss science or a scientific method because they dislike it, but because it doesn’t seem to actually help in answering the questions they want answered.

    As for magic, what you’d get from philosophy from that statement is “How do you know that? And please, no inductive fallacy.”

    “First, philosophy does not adhere to a notion of truth as propositions that correspond to reality. ”

    Um, actually one of the main and likely most popular definitions of truth in philosophy is that it corresponds to reality, or to the way things really are. Figuring out how to link those two is the problem. Or, at least, I’d posit that that’s the analytic presumption of truth, at least, and philosophers who’ve rejected that have done so because of the problems of figuring out what reality actually is so that you can know if you have a true statement or not. And if you want to claim that this is just obvious or that science obviously links to that or that our senses obviously link to reality or that we don’t have any choice but to presume that, you’re repeating work done in philosophy as far back as Hume that say “Yeah, we do, but it would be really nice to actually have a stronger justification for that”. That philosophy is indeed trying to see if we can indeed have that stronger justification is to its credit, not detriment, and having that justification is not something that science needs to worry about until philosophy manages to find it, if it ever does.

    “An unsound argument, no matter how absurd, is acceptable so long as it appears to be logically valid. ”

    This is semi-true, in the sense that if you come up with a logically valid argument philosophy will consider it. That does not mean, however, that it will be considered RIGHT or even REASONABLE, or that further justification is not required. And if the argument is provably unsound — meaning that at least one of the premises is false — philosophy will indeed reject the argument. So, clearly no to the unsound part, and no to the if valid part if it means that philosophy accepts it as correct. One of the more reasonable criticisms of philosophy is that nothing is ever considered right in it, but that doesn’t mean that things aren’t considered wrong.

    “The way the scientific community discovers and confirms propositions as knowledge do not rest on the absurdities from imagining a single mind somehow recapitulating the experience of humanity. ”

    Huh? The closest I can come to relating this to anything in philosophy is armchair philosophy, strawmanned as one person sitting in a chair and pondering. This is a misconception, as even academic philosophy is indeed collaborative and builds very much on the work of many people who have come before. In fact, philosophy can be rightly criticized for reworking old ideas and not coming up with enough new ones. And in my experience philosophy is the field that relies on data from other fields the most; in doing philosophy, I touched on psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, computer science, and a host of other fields. No other field is wiling to take so much data from so many other sources, under the notion of “Any data we might have might be the key to solving our problems.”

    “(And near as I can tell, philosophy tends to imagine the mind as some kind of disembodied spirit!)”

    That would be dualism, and most philosophers are not dualists (speaking as one of the few who IS a dualist, to some extent).

    “Third, philosophy misconceives science as some sort of logical exercise (compounding the individualist limitation.) ”

    Vanishingly few philosophers would think that science is rationalistic, in that you build logical structures and that determines what reality is. MOST would think that science must include logical analysis in forming its theories; scientific theories must not entail logical contradictions. But that seems reasonable, so again I don’t know what you mean here.

    “Perhaps defenders of philosophy could be helpful in showing us a simple example of how formal logic (widely accepted as a branch of philosophy) is helpful to physics?”

    Try doing science without having logically valid theories and see how far you get. Then notice that symbolic logic and formal logical analysis will tell you if your theories are logically valid or not. Yes, you still need to determine if your premises are true, but doing that is useless if your premises could all be true and your conclusion still false.

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  96. MR says:

    Excellent post. The basic reason philosophy can’t be ignored in science, is because there is no philosophy free science. Embedded in science are philosophical presuppositions underlied by the particular approach a scientist takes as described by various philosophical approaches going by the name of realism, pragmatism, positivism, etc. Of course each has pros and cons, and rabid supporters and little resolution on which is best. Conscious or unconscious, you find working scientists committed to these or other overarching philosophical stances when doing science. In some ways dissing philosophy is making a categorical mistake, philosophy is not trying to replace science, it has a different role.

    Another thing that hasn’t been brought up, and may be controversial, is that in a way some philosophy works as a vehicle to translate science to ordinary everyday human reality. A lot of the new Cosmos series was devoted to taking arcane or mathematical scientific concepts and putting stories together to aid in understanding them. Of course this has limits. For example, I think Dan Dennett as one example, uses philosophy very deftly to translate more modern scientific approaches to consciousness and free will in terms of ordinary ideas, to flesh out the implications of counterintuitive discoveries in ordinary language to make them more understandable. I’m not at all saying that is all philosophy does, but it is an important and vital contribution, as long as we remain humans. I can imagine some future cyber creature who could grasp mathematical concepts in physics, who could dispense with storytelling, and perhaps would find humans grappling with physical laws quite amusing. But as long as we are human, we seem to need the best theories and evidence supporting these theories, but additionally the back story that goes along with it, even if on some level it may be irrelevant.

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  97. Ben Goren says:

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  98. MR says:

    One other thing, there are a few areas where science and philosophy play complementary roles in reasoning. Morality is a prime example. Science can study morality, its adaptive and maladaptive features, etc., but unless you take the position of say Sam Harris, I don’t think science can go all the way in determining which moral systems are superior to others by gathering more data. As data and though experiments have shown, there are different consequences to alternative metaethics and no standard but another metaethics to judge these consequences. Ultimately a value is posited or a metaethical approach is used and then science can use data to evaluate the utility of a particular moral approach, or how it affects human nervous systems to promote happiness or decrease pain. I don’t however see science being able to determine what these values should be or what metaethics is ‘objective.’ We can all agree that the Taliban is barbaric, but that is far from an ‘objective’ morality.

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  99. Tam Hunt says:

    Excellent piece, Prof. Carroll. I’ve tangled a bit with Krauss on this issue and am happy to see a physicist of your stature push back a bit. Here’s an interview I did with Krauss:

    And my essay defending the value of philosophy in science:

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  100. Kirk says:

    You can easily identify the philosophers on this thread by just looking for the long ranty gibberish comments, trying to justify their existence :-)

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  101. S.F. says:

    Many of these comments really are extremely depressing, because they show a total ignorance of what academic philosophy really is, as many others have pointed out. I’ve been a professor of philosophy for over a decade, and many of the sweeping claims about philosophy being made here aren’t true of any professional philosopher I personally know. I suspect the problem may largely be the following: anyone can claim to be a philosopher, and there are a lot of crackpots out there. Every few weeks I get an email from some layman “philosopher” who has some crazy ideas unhinged from reality. Of course, I dismiss them as crackpots. But I imagine that many physicists, who get the same emails but don’t have firsthand knowledge of what academic philosophy is, instead take them at face value and so instead dismiss them as “philosophers”.

    Ironically, these critics of philosophy don’t seem to be applying the scientific method to this issue. If you’re going to make public claims about the nature and value of philosophy, how about first doing a little research into what professional philosophers do instead of forming hasty judgments on the basis of anecdotal experience? And if you’re too busy to inform yourself properly (as I can totally understand), then how about holding your tongue, like I do about physics?

    Sadly, the people with the loudest mouths (in philosophy, in physics, and elsewhere) are usually those with the least informed opinions.

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  102. Ben Goren,

    “I indicated the deep and profound problems with the Trolly Problems, none of which you addressed. All you did was indicate what you think the Trolly Problems are supposed to tell you, but ignored that the intentions of the philosophers are irrelevant.”

    These claims are more credible if you spend most of your discussion on them, as opposed to a few simple sentences at the end after going on for a bit longer about the other, and inaccurate, problems. Remember, you spent a lot of time linking it to Milgram, when they’re nothing alike, and your description of what it said was palpably false. Don’t post a completely inaccurate description of something and then get upset when someone points out that your description was completely inaccurate.

    “The scenarios never actually arise in the real world, only in the perverted fantasies of philosophers.”

    Objects in the real world almost never fall in a vacuum, and for the most part we never encounter the scenarios in psychology labs in the real world (which psychology admits in introductory classes). Does that make those fields or experiments utterly invalid or useless, too? Or can we discover interesting things from more controlled experiments that allow us to focus on one area of interest?

    And this is a rather odd point to use Trolley Cases to demonstrate, since Trolley Cases actually work really well as psychological experiments — ie what do people think about such considerations and about sacrificing one person for five people — and less well as philosophical experiments since the intuitions we’d get out of that would prove that people THINK in a Utilitarian way, but not that they OUGHT to do that, which is the philosophical question. So you’re actually attacking psychology more than philosophy. Congratulations.

    “In similar real-world situations, the actions proposed by the philosophers are horrifically immoral and highly illegal.

    The philosophers insist that their subjects must perform one of those immoral and illegal acts, and refuse to let their subjects do the right thing.”

    First, they don’t insist on that, as they offer the choice: do nothing, or flip the switch. I presume you consider the “flip the switch” option to be immoral and illegal, and are advocating for doing nothing. This just again highlights that you don’t seem to actually know what the Trolley Cases actually say.

    As for flipping the switch: illegal perhaps, but we all know what the law can be at times. Immoral? Even if untrained, if you happen to know that flipping that switch will switch the track and save the lives of five people at the cost of one, do you really think that the more moral option is “Well, do nothing, because I’m not authorized to touch this stuff so I’ll let the five people die despite the fact that I KNOW I can save them”? Take the other person out of the picture. Put yourself on the train. You’re bearing down on five people, and you were told earlier in the day where the brakes are. No one else can reach them in time. Are you saying that the more moral option would be to say “I’m not the engineer, so I won’t even TRY to stop the train to save their lives” instead of “Heck, I’d better try something, even if it may not work”. To return to the drowning person example, do you really think it reasonable to say “Well, no one else is around and I could go save them, but I’m not a lifeguard so I won’t, because trying to save them would be immoral”?

    Now, maybe you do. But if you do, even you should agree that you need more justification than simply saying “It’s immoral and illegal!”. So you’d need something, and I don’t see how you can get that from anything that is more scientific EDIT: than philosophical, but, hey, that might be a useful test case for you to demonstrate that science can actually solve moral problems, so go to it.

    “I’d be astonished if you could get the Trolley Problem past the ethics review board of any psychology department I’m aware of, yet it’s hailed as the pinnacle of philosophical research into morality.”

    Simply asking the questions would get past all ethics review boards, and no one actually asks anyone to actually DO the experiment in real life. It’s also not the pinnacle of philosophical research into morality, or discussions; it’s an interesting problem about out intuitions, but it doesn’t actually prove anything. Anyone who is a Utilitarian has to be able to answer this problem, but doing that won’t settle the philosophical question. It’s popular, but not intellectually overwhelming, as anyone who studies moral philosophy will tell you.

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  103. August Berkshire says:

    Sigh, you make some good points, but I think you are wrong in your final statement:

    “A great example is the free will issue. Lots of scientists, e.g. neuroscientists and physicists, have written books proclaiming proudly that they have proven free will exists. Unfortunately the vast majority of them have completely wasted their time because they completely failed at the level of conceptual analysis. They misunderstood the nature of the problem they were trying to address, or what the term free will actually means, or they incorrectly determined the implications of their findings and so on.”

    There seems to be two definitions of free will. One is the scientific definition: Can determinism or indeterminism allow us to have a will that is uncaused and that we can control? The hard incompatibilist answer is no. Neuroscience may actually prove this. This is a legitimate definition of free will that is too often dismissed by philosophers. It is not a “waste of time” because there are some people who think that indeterminism or randomness could give us the ability to have this type of free will. Also, there are philosophical implications that follow from this scientific definition and investigation of free will, which are also not a “waste of time.”

    Then there is the philosophical definition of free will: As long as someone else is not controlling your brain or body, then you are free (free from coercion) to enact your will. So philosophical free will is compatible with scientific determinism because free will has been defined to accept determinism and to mean something different.

    But to my mind this is freedom, not free will. In other words: Once the laws of physics have determined what your will is, are there any obstacles in the way of your ability to exercise it? This is certainly a good question, but I view it as separate from the scientific investigation of free will.

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  104. C Shreve says:

    Well I think that Cosmology may feel a bit ‘under the gun’ to produce something of substantial benefit for mankind and in duress, resort to belittling some other field of thought to make itself feel better.

    After all Philosophy has merely produced mathematics, logic and the entire (and tautological) basis for all Computer Science. In this regard, Cosmology has a lot of catching up to do.

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  105. Dave says:

    This is the point: yes, nobody really knows what professional philosophers do because their work has no impact whatsoever on science. If what you did was useful, you wouldn’t have to come on here to try and explain what you do.

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  106. Ben Goren says:

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  109. T.E. Oakley says:

    Re: “Perhaps defenders of philosophy could be helpful in showing us a simple example of how formal logic (widely accepted as a branch of philosophy) is helpful to physics?” —Steven Johnson.

    From “The Isaac Asimov 2013 Memorial Debate: ‘The Existence of Nothing'” at the American Museum of Natural History (YouTube video, 1:54:00).
    At a moment one hour and 20 minutes into this 14th Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate entitled “The Existence of Nothing,” hosted by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, a noteworthy exchange takes place between Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss (theoretical physicist: cosmology, Arizona State University) and Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson (astrophysicist: physical cosmology, science communication specialist; Director of the Hayden Planetarium, New York City)—
    Dr. Krauss:
    “I don’t see why people have any problems with it [the concept of ‘absolute nothing’]’… each of these lights in this room emits a photon …the photon wasn’t there before was emitted… it wasn’t in the electron, it wasn’t in the atom…it was created from ‘[absolute] nothing’ [1:20:56] and people don’t have a problem with that…”
    Dr. deGrasse Tyson…interrupting [1:20:58]:
    “No… Lawrence…it was created from energy…and energy is not ‘nothing’…so I won’t accept your photon [conjecture]…back up and say something else…”
    Dr. Krauss:
    “…well… sorry…a zero energy photon… a zero energy photon… our universe could be like a zero energy photon, a zero energy total universe and, again, as I say, if you imagine that process…and that’s what the properties of such a universe would be…it would look like ours [our universe]….”
    *** *** ***
    A “zero energy photon?” Our universe could be like a zero energy photon? A photon created from ‘absolute nothing’? This issue was never further pursued by Dr. deGrasse Tyson, never challenged by any of the other physicists or journalists participating in this debate including Dr. Eva Silverstein, Professor of Physics at Stanford University. A “zero energy photon,” that is, something with zero energy and zero mass, LITERALLY DOESN’T EXIST! Dr. Krauss seems to have “explained” something WITHOUT EXPLAINING ANYTHING. Dr. Eva Silverstein later declares (1:30:48 ) “there is no experimental evidence of [absolute] nothing…” and Dr. Krauss replies. “…because we live in empty space.” Dr. Krauss doesn’t explicitly say that the concept of “absolute nothing” is, itself, NON-EMPIRICAL and, therefore, EXTRA-SCIENTIFIC; Dr. Krauss doesn’t explicitly say that his conjecture of “something from absolute nothing” requires, additionally, the violation of some (rather) fundamental physical concepts such as: energy conservation, time reversal invariance, information conservation, and time-translation invariance.
    In conclusion, one doesn’t even need “formal” logic to understand the need, in this example, for just plain LOGIC applied in a “rigorous conceptual analysis,” and I think that this is the basic point of Dr. Carroll’s opinion piece.
    Sent from my iPhone

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  110. stevenjohnson says:

    Dave and S.F. seem to forget brains in vats, philosophical zombies, simulated universes, Chinese rooms, trolley problems, Objectivism, Robert Nozick and libertarian political philosophers (check out the Bleeding Heart Libertarian website for a gruesome introduction to the philosophers’ cray-cray!) I don’t think we’re getting a correct rebuttal here. As for active harm wrought to the brain, crackpot Mont Pelerin philosopher Sir Karl Popper’s incorrect theory of falsificationism has wrought terrible damage to many minds, including those who fancy themselves being scientific.

    Verbose Stoic: I say “There is no magic.” You respond: “How do you know that? And please, no inductive fallacy?” Magic does not correspond to reality. Every occasion claimed to demonstrate the action of magic has vastly more probable causes. The very notion of magic is vastly more probable to be a wish fulfilment fantasy. And lastly we have an enormous body of verified knowledge incompatible with the existence of magic and a thoroughly tested set of principles (aka natural laws) which rule out magic.

    The only way to deceive yourself into thinking there is an induction fallacy is by adhering, consciously or not, to the three principles I criticized philosophy for. Induction has to be justified by some sort of logical postulates, which is conceiving science, knowledge, as some sort of logical exercise. The argument only an individual’s sensory input, which denies the collective nature of science. But most of all, philosophy assumes that this is a valid objection, even though no one has ever provided the simplest sketch of how things could be otherwise. There is no Lucretius of skepticism.
    The argument against induction is unsound, yet you yourself, even as you blithely claim philosophy rejects unsound arguments, make one yourself!

    And that is what’s wrong with philosophy!

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  111. Will Nelson says:

    Although I agree with you that thinking about philosophical questions is fun and interesting, and has provided motivation for some of history’s best physicists, nevertheless I think you are too dismissive of the physicsts’ “lazy” critiques. Your post would be much more convincing if you had provided at least one example of a case where philosophical thought preceded physical thought in some useful way, rather than lagging behind. Philosophers’ efforts to “better understand” various aspects of physics have not led, as far as I can tell, to materially improved understanding of any significant topic, and their assertions about their own enterprise strike me sometimes as exceedingly arrogant.

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  113. S.F. says:

    stevenjohnson: Of course it’s easy to cite examples of bad and dangerous philosophy. It’s easy to cite examples of bad and dangerous (just about) anything. If you’re a scientist, you should know that that proves nothing.

    But your post illustrates my point. To pick cases I know something about, virtually everything that philosophy’s critics have said here about trolley cases and brains in vats show a complete misunderstanding of the relevant philosophical work. Trolley cases are designed to get at data about people’s moral intuitions, not to make people choose one way or another. No philosopher I know has argued that we are brains in vats. The point is to raise a serious question about how it is that we know we aren’t, when we can’t subjectively distinguish our experiences from what they would be if we were in a vat. I don’t myself know enough about the zombies and Chinese room cases to speak to them here, so I’ll practice what I’m preaching and pass over those in silence.

    Objectivism illustrates my point about confusing pseudo-philosophy with academic philosophy. Ayn Rand avoided contact with academic philosophers because she couldn’t stand any intellectual scrutiny of her ideas, and most philosophers think she’s nothing but a hack.

    Like you I dislike Nozick, but I don’t see physics offering any refutations of his libertarian political theories.

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  114. Sturgeon's Law says:

    Ben Goren:

    the only meaningful dividing line that can be drawn between the two is that of empiricism

    Philosophy isn’t merely about creating accurate descriptions of the world. It’s also about learning how to think, and about producing ideas that are not objective at all, like those concerning moral standpoints, (among other things.) Science is about describing the world- nothing more. There is obviously some overlap between the two, but even if we were to take all the empirical areas of philosophy, like logic and metaphysics (assuming metaphysics must have a standard of evidence the same as that for any particular scientific experiment, and thus goals that conform to those as well,) philosophy would still exist as a discipline with a wide range of objects of study. One is not reducible to the other or neatly mapped onto the other.

    The nature of life was settled long ago by scientists. Information theory has turned the nature of knowledge into a settled question.

    I think you’ll find that the majority of researchers in biology or information systems would disagree with you here. There is no consensus on such foundational issues.

    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.

    They might, though I haven’t heard any theologians do such a thing, but that is irrelevant, and this is a straw man. No one argued that science was reducible to or falls under philosophy, but rather that the discussion about the value of empiricism and about the scientific method is a philosophical question, which, historically and sociologically, it was and still currently is. Correct me if I’m wrong, but scientists aren’t publishing papers on minutia in epistemology or falsifiability criterion. The only way to avoid that is by rigging the definition of science in a way that divorces it from said historical and sociological facts.

    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.

    That’s not an entirely empirical question though, is it? It’s a value-laden one, and hence has an inescapable philosophical dimension. It’s also not entirely a relevant question, since, as stated earlier, philosophy’s goal isn’t simply to produce knowledge the way science does, and so it cannot be fairly measured against science by that criteria.

    And if you’re questioning the contributions of philosophy in general, then I’d respond that democracy, the idea of freedom, the idea of rights, the ideal of clear and rigorous thinking, and the theoretical and methodological foundations of empirical work are all valuable and indispensable contributions to human achivement.

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  115. Brayden Willenborg says:

    There are comments on this thread that are hidden because too many people disliked them. They’re not spam, they’re perfectly logical and well-written arguments. Ignorance is one of the criticisms of Philosophy. Any argument is valuable, even if it is not yours.

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  116. allan J says:

    @T.E. Oakley “his conjecture of “something from absolute nothing” requires, additionally, the violation of some (rather) fundamental physical concepts such as: energy conservation, time reversal invariance, information conservation, and time-translation invariance.”
    I can’t see why the violation of fundamental physical concepts is a philosophical problem. It may just be that the concepts hold in some domains but don’t hold in others. As Krauss has said :- “The universe is the way it is , whether we like it or not.”

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  117. James says:

    Those in the comments who continue to run the “philosophy isn’t worth anything/isn’t objective/isn’t [insert some positive and important trait here]: I await your non-philosophical account of why. Nearly every comment here has done philosophy, with varying degrees of ability. To offer a normative account of why philosophy isn’t worth doing is self-defeating. To say “We don’t need philosophy because X is a theory that explains reality better” is to take yourself to know what a theory is, what reality is, what explanation is, what better is, and that something is only worth doing if it “explains” “reality” “better.” If you’d can clarify what you mean by those terms without doing any philosophy, I will be very impressed.

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  118. Ben Goren says:

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  119. Ben Goren,

    You clearly still don’t get what the actual Trolley Case thought experiment is, let alone what it is aimed at, so let me try to address part of your concern so that maybe you can evaluate it reasonably:

    “Or, if you do know, then you’re a qualified professional and you’ve drilled on exactly what procedures to follow in a crisis situation …”

    So, let’s assume this, then, since it removes the whole nitpicky “How do you really KNOW?!?” line from it. Imagine that there are a set of procedures that either implicitly or explicitly answer what to do in these cases, and presume that we want them to be MORAL procedures. What would they say in these cases:

    1) An out of control train is barreling down the track, heading for five people who will not get out of the way in time. You are standing by the switch, and can shift it to a sidetrack. This, we can presume, is what the procedures would say is the normal approach in these cases. However, you notice that there is a person on the side track, and if you do that THEY will not get out of the way in time. Is it moral to switch the train to that side track? Is it moral not to? If the procedures are moral, what will they recommend/dictate?

    2) An out of control train is barreling down the track, heading for five people who will not get out of the way in time. You are standing by someone, and you know — since you are an expert — that their weight would be enough to trigger the “derail risk” sensor for hitting too large a bump, but that yours will not. Is it moral for you to push them in front of train? Is it moral not to? If the procedures are moral, what will they recommend/dictate?

    Unless you want to argue that we don’t care if those procedures are moral, you should be able to answer this question in some way, or else you have nothing to say on morality (because you wouldn’t seem to have any kind of method for determining what is or isn’t moral).

    “And, in either situation, if you’re the one who’s stumbled on the scene, you’re most emphatically not responsible for the horror that’s about to unfold, regardless of what you do or don’t do to try to remedy the situation …”

    And yet you continually refuse to address the drowning person example. You are responsible for what actions you take or do not take, and if that action or inaction would involve more deaths than doing the opposite most people would say that you do bear some responsibility for the choice you made to act or to not act. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how you “You don’t know” example could be considered immoral unless you are holding them responsible for actions they take — flip the switch — and so unless you want to argue that you are never morally responsible for the outcomes that follow from inaction you don’t really have a case here. And I don’t recommend trying to argue that you are immune from responsibility if you choose not to act.

    “…there’s a serious case of criminal negligence that you’ve just uncovered, and your real most important task is to assist in the investigation to both bring to justice those responsible as well as to help figure out how to prevent reoccurrences.

    But are philosophers even remotely interested in anything like that?”

    They are, in general, but the answer seems obvious and, it turns out, most people really will answer that the same way. It’s kinda like holding physicists up for criticism because they aren’t measuring the falling speed of objects intensely; that’s already been settled, and while important it’s not really something that will lead to new knowledge.

    Trolley cases might. Why? Because people don’t answer them consistently. Most people answer “Sacrifice 1 to save 5″ in the first case but “Don’t sacrifice 1 to save 5″ in the second, despite there not being an obvious difference between the cases. That’s interesting and novel.

    “No. It’s all about you heroically throwing the 400-pound fat man (my, what strength you have!) in front of the ten-ton train to derail it (yeah, right) so you’ll save the cute kitten (you’d do it for a schoolbus full of kids, so why not a kitten?), kill everybody on board the train (you know it’s empty…how?), and impress the beautiful woman watching you make important philosophical decisions.”

    Back to misrepresenting it, I see. What you miss is that in the fat man case, most people say DON’T push him in front of the train, because that would be immoral. And it’s THAT answer that’s interesting and what has given Trolley Cases their importance to modern moral philosophy.

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  120. William Branch says:

    Re: Will Nelson

    Einstein found the philosophical analysis of Avenarius and Mach to be useful … they criticized Newtonianism … in developing his physical intuition of physical phenomenon at high speeds … Einstein in fact claimed that he hadn’t read about the Michelson-Morley experiments … but was influenced by Lorentz. But once his own ideas had been quantified and developed, with the conceptual and mathematical assistance of Minkowski, Hilbert and his old school friend … he felt that he no longer need pay heed to Mach.

    It is perhaps common, for successful scientists and mathematicians, to proudly show you the finished front of the tapestry of their work, but they don’t want you to know too much about the process by which it was produced, and they don’t want you to examine the back side of the tapestry too closely ;-)

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  121. Ben Goren says:

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  122. stevenjohnson,

    Let me address your examples:

    brain in a vat: Another in a long line of examples meant to address the issue where since all of our information about the outside world comes from our senses, and since we know that those senses can and often do misrepresent the world, how can we know that there is a world out there at all only relying on our senses? The brain in a vat asks how to tell the difference between us being a brain in a vat with appropriate neural stimulation or in fact being in a world at all. If you’re a materialist, you have to accept that this is possible, and if it is then there does seem to be a problem here. It may not be a problem that we care about in general, but as I said earlier it would be nice to have a better justification than “Well, I kinda have to trust it …”

    Philosophical zombies: Attempt by David Chalmers to prove that consciousness wasn’t or wasn’t just the physical and neural correlates. Raises interesting questions, but was also pounded on by philosophers, and I think the general consensus is that it actually doesn’t prove what it set out to prove.

    Chinese Room: Attempt by John Searle to demonstrate that a system doing pure symbolic manipulation could never understand. Answered by philosophers who claim the system can do it even if the individual can’t. Again, I think the general consensus is that it doesn’t prove what it set out to prove.

    I’ve talked about trolley cases enough already [grin].

    Objectivism: Not very popular in philosophy, at least not anymore. Neither is libertarianism.

    I’m not going to talk about falsificationism here.

    Onto what’s directed at me, the Inductive Fallacy is literally saying that you can’t make a universal claim on the basis that you haven’t seen anything else so far. So, the classic “There are no black swans” or “There are only white swans” cases are clear examples of the inductive fallacy; the argument was that they’d only seen white swans, so that had to be all there were, but that argument is invalid. Note that science wouldn’t normally proceed that way, as if it really wanted to demonstrate and come to know that there were only white swans it would look at how pigment is produced in swan feathers and argue that because of that mechanism it could only produce swans with white feathers. That’s not an inductive fallacy because that argument is valid, if potentially unsound (if the premises about how pigment is produced don’t work out).

    When you say “There is no such thing as magic”, and defend that with “We’ve tried it and it hasn’t worked”, you commit the inductive fallacy. You can try to make an argument for it, but it has to be valid or else you don’t have an argument that works. It’s possible to make one, but likely not for magic in general without building a specifically naturalistic argument that ends up assuming its conclusion.

    Now, you can say that it’s more reasonable to BELIEVE that any claimed instance of magic is wishful thinking, but that would hardly be any kind of proof that would rise to the level of knowledge.

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  123. Great post.

    For those who think philosophy is worthless particularly to a physicists consider the following.

    What does it mean when I put my son’s first grade painting next to the periodic table in my office (as I do physics)? It is important to me and helps guide my thoughts, among other things.

    What does it mean when I consider where to place engineering controls to protect against electrical, chemical, laser and radiological hazards in the lab. None of these are paid for by grants, none of these things are published in articles, none of these things make it to textbooks, none of these things win Nobel prizes. It is part of physics—the demonstration of health and ethical standards applied to the workplace. That does not come from physics.

    What does it mean when I try to develop moral, political, or economic restrictions on what can be done with products of physics research? This is not part of physics, this is something else.

    Today, philosophy has justifiably changed and it can gather up all that we do that is not physics and call it its own. There is awful lot that no one is willing call physics and is part of physics. What are we to call it? Just thinking about stuff?? Or hypothesizing about stuff??

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  124. Jesse Miksic says:

    Ben Goren’s confusion about the trolley problem is profound and baffling. The procedure of making models — both hypothetical, and laboratory-controlled — is not alien to science. In science as philosophy, you invoke certain everyday entities (i.e. trolley cars, cats & boxes), and reduce out a bunch of contextual information (i.e. emergency services, the difficulty of making a quantum switch), and in both cases, it’s a necessary method of clarifying and organizing our premises and assumptions, for the sake of testing, describing, and applying them.

    For some reason, Mr. Goren is viciously attacking one of the notable conceptual techniques that science actually shares with philosophy! … One that philosophy arguably helped pioneer, and which science adapted to be useful to productivity, knowledge-accumulation, and testing of reality.

    (It’s funny that Ben Goren calls hypothetical philosophical models “ethically inexcusable,” when animal experiments present one of the genuine ethical dilemmas of the real world, and scientists doing wartime experiments have been complicit in some of the great atrocities of the modern age. This doesn’t indict the whole scientific enterprise, mind you, but it sure makes philosophy’s “unethical” hypotheticals look benign).

    NOW — I know that conversation is derailing to this discussion, so I’ll circle back to the larger argument, just enough to put in my vote (to be counted in case anybody else argues from consensus):

    For the record, add me to the roster of people who take this general position in the debate: 1) No, philosophy is not a hard science, nor does it somehow “contain” science, nor has it some kind of de facto authority over the validity of science. 2) Philosophy’s application to the scientific and technological project is currently limited, though it’s historically significant. 3) Nonetheless, there are human activities that are valuable, even without being physically and/or economically productive, or productive of new verifiable knowledge. 4) Philosophy, in its engagement with politics, ethics, behavior, art, language, truth, and belief, is extremely valuable, both in the logical tools it’s refined, and also in its (sometimes esoteric) conceptual products.

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  125. colnago80 says:

    Re James

    Actually, I believe I got the quotation wrong. Now that it recall, it is stated as follows: Philosophers are as useful to physicists as ornithologists are to birds.

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  126. Ben Goren says:

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  127. stevenjohnson says:

    S.F.: Nozick and the Bleeding Heart Libertarians weren’t mentioned for their relevance to physics. They were (what I hoped would be) obvious examples of how academic philosophy doesn’t separate the wheat from the chaff in the way you hope. Ayn Rand may be dismissed as a hack by most philosophers, but there are professionals who do take her seriously. Immanuel Velikovsky is also a crank but there isn’t even a minority of scientists who will take him seriously. And certainly Popper is still in good standing as an academic philosopher, by whatever standards philosophers use. I think perfectly acceptable academic philosophy is harmful because it is founded on false principles that I partly listed.

    I specifically disagree that brains in vats raises serious questions. My reasons were posted above, in the part directed to Verbose Stoic. I don’t think skepticism a la Hume was ever really intended to guide thinking about real questions of science, or any other kind of reasoning. If anything it was aimed at its current version of academic philosophy (Cartesian etc.) and at theology. Like Schroedinger’s cat was meant to show that complementarity wasn’t explanatory, Hume’s refutation of induction was meant to blow up introspective rationalism, rule it out tout court. Frankly, I think it succeeded.

    Will Nelson: Your post was directed at the OP but might I offer theses examples?
    Leucippus’ and Democritus’ notion of atoms; Leibniz’ and Berkeley’s criticism of Newton’s concept of absolute space; Bacon’s analysis of sources of scientific errors, what he called “idols”; Kant’s nebular hypothesis.

    Most of the time examples of philosophers’ contributions either come from a time when philosophy and what we now call science were not separate, as in the days of Leucippus and Democritus. They may even have been amateur philosophers, like Bacon. I think the examples fail to establish the value of modern philosophy as practiced in the academy. Many of the purported examples such as Mach were more scientists and many were amateur philosophers, at least in the sense that they were not trained in a modern graduate school program of philosophy. And as the example of Mach, one of the most determined opponents of atoms (!) and relativity (!!) shows, we shouldn’t simply assume that their contributions are so wholly positive.

    Sturgeon’s Law: It’s not at all obvious academic philosophy produces moral standpoints or even esthetic judgments. People without philosophy yet somehow have them. Since that is the case, your apparent belief that having values or whatever is automatically philosophy is in error. You also seem to believe that academic philosophy is a kind of science of abstract reason. This implies that is can correct the thinking of scientists and every other kind of lay person. I’m afraid that’s not at all obvious.

    I recently read some posts by scientists concerned about incorrect use of statistical significance in drawing conclusions from studies. To me, that seems a clear cut example of what academic philosophy calls epistemology. But it doesn’t seem that academic philosophy emphasis on abstraction from context and content and semantic meaning contributes to more effective reasoning. It seems to me that notion creates an abstraction, Reason, that is very little more than an unconscious pseudonym for the Mind of God.

    James: You are claiming that pretty much any kind of generalized or abstract reasoning concerning pretty much anything other than empirical data is philosophical. I actually think that academic philosophy does not concern itself very much with such things outside specialized fields called “philosophy of…” where the practitioners tend to be scientifically trained as well as philosophically trained. I’m not sure what these people have contributed over all.

    But for the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that this is philosophy. Does academic philosophy contribute to the solution of these problems? I don’t think there’s much of a case. Was Mach’s philosophical rigor about atoms helpful? Does Popper’s falsifiability criterion, which rules out historical sciences like geology, evolutionary biology and cosmology improve science? Does Bohr’s rigorous insistence that there’s only the experimental setup that determines which observables can be compared to theoretical prediction help us understand how the universe evolved from a quantum state to what we see today?

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  128. Sturgeon's Law says:

    In fact, we have only one such method for that task: science. In every discipline…

    Is science a method or a discipline? You seem to want it to be both. Regardless, you continue to use the term “science” as if it was coextensive with “empiricism” and as if any achievement made using an empirical method is by definition science. That is itself a non-empirical claim.

    Computer scientists and information theorists know far more about logic and the nature of knowledge than any philosopher.

    If this were true, then it wouldn’t be the case that the top logic departments in the country were divided, and not unequally, between philosophers, mathematicians, and computer scientists. See Berkeley’s program, considered the top in the country by most official rankings, for an example.

    Ethicists and game theorists and evolutionary ethologists know far more about the nature of morality than any philosopher.

    This might be your most ridiculous claim in this thread yet. Ethicists are philosophers. The Director of NYU Langone’s Bioethics program, for example, is a PhD in the philosophy of science, and no, he did no “empirical work” for that degree. The Director of UPenn’s Bioethics program has a PhD in Political Philosophy. Etc. Every Bioethics program has philosophers in its faculty.

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  129. Sturgeon's Law says:

    It’s not at all obvious academic philosophy produces moral standpoints or even esthetic judgments. People without philosophy yet somehow have them. Since that is the case, your apparent belief that having values or whatever is automatically philosophy is in error. You also seem to believe that academic philosophy is a kind of science of abstract reason. This implies that is can correct the thinking of scientists and every other kind of lay person. I’m afraid that’s not at all obvious.

    Anyone can produce moral standpoints or aesthetic judgments. But academic philosophy can both produce and challenge more rigorous ones than the layperson’s view. One of the claims of most philosophers is that philosophy is indissociable from those issues. To put it differently- most people can learn to cook a few things, but that doesn’t make professional chefs irrelevant.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “science of abstract reason.” Can you elaborate?

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  130. David Mathers says:

    Ben Goren’s comments simply must be a spoof, designed to irritate. Nobody could actually be that stupid and yet want to read a blog like this one. I advise people not to bother wasting time responding, since they’re probably just being laughed at.

    On a more serious note, as someone who is in philosophy (grad student) but takes the idea that i might be wasting my time pretty seriously, one thing I think would help in this discussion was if people paid attention to the distinction between the level of evidence they have for the claim that philosophy doesn’t produce knowledge and the level of evidence for their particular beliefs about WHY this is so. If the evidence for the former is supposed to just be ‘well show us some philosophical progress then’, then I think this is a fair request and its not clear whether philosophers have an especially good answer. (Though I will also say that if you want to look for work by philosophers widely cited in the sciences, look for work cited by psychologists and linguists, not worked cited by phycisists. Here are a handful of examples:,5&hl=en,5&hl=en,5&hl=en,5&hl=en,5&hl=en,5&hl=en ) But this doesn’t tell us anything about WHY philosophy doesn’t make progress. I mean, it doesn’t (usually) do experiments sure, but then neither does pure maths and it clearly makes far more progress than philosophy. Plus its not really a very full explanation. Furthermore, a lot of the people here, clearly no little about what philosophers actually do. They may well (this is not sarcasm) still be correct in regarding philosophy as a waste of time, because it doesn’t settle questions very well, but to know WHY it doesn’t settle those questions you would really need to know something about philosophy, rather than just relying on the absence of famous philosophical ‘discoveries’.

    I’ll end with a pessimistic thought. Scientists are often sure that philosophy is a waste of time because ot its lack of progress, whilst philosophers often respond to this by saying that actually, everyone makes philosophical assumptions in their thinking all the time, including but not limited to, scientists critiquing philosophy. But of course, these two claims aren’t inconsistent. It could be the case both that philosophical assumptions are usually bullshit and that everyone, not just philosophers, constantly makes and relies on them in intellectual life.

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  131. Chris says:

    Here’s something Paul Grice discovered in his discussion of conversation and conventional implicature: the maxim of quality. It says that our conversations are governed by an expectation of quality, meaning that your conversational partners expect you to only say things you think are true, and things that you have evidence for. While Grice didn’t think this was a moral norm at all, it is supposed to describe how we generally communicate and the norms that govern actual conversation.

    I propose a revision: conversation is governed by a maxim of quality except when it comes to discussing the value of philosophy, in which case evidence or even a philosophy-101 understanding of what philosophy is is not required or expected.

    (philosophers you may commence groaning about how I butchered this in an attempt to make a bad joke)

    By the way, I think Sean Carroll’s comments are quite interesting and accurate, yet you don’t see any of the commenters actually engaging with them, just ignoring them. I frankly would just like it if physicists would leave us alone, since I know they’re going to convince bright students who like and enjoy philosophy to not study it because public intellectuals who don’t really know what they’re talking about when it comes to philosophy think it’s dumb. And that, frankly, strikes me as the greatest harm of all here. We’ll survive just fine (though cutting our paltry funding might happen, thanks guys, we’d love it if you made it even harder to get jobs teaching philosophy), but scaring students away from something they find interesting and intellectually stimulating is a seriously bad thing.

    Also, logic classes don’t teach themselves.

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  132. Ben Goren,

    “I’m sure the rail industry has put similar effort into disaster preparedness. Yet you, and philosophers in general, are not only unaware of that, you’re convinced that you know better than they how to ensure railway safety. And you have the nerve to do so in the name of “morality”!”

    Wait … what? NO ONE is trying to tell the rail industry here how to prepare for a disaster. That’s not the point of the thought experiments at all. The best comparison to them is to Schrodinger’s Cat, and nobody thinks that the take away from that is that we should put cats into boxes with poison gas. The point here is to try to get at the underpinnings of morality by asking if the criteria for a moral action is the most happiness for the most people. If you think that, then in both examples — switch and fat person — you should always choose to sacrifice the life of one for the life of five. When we test that, we discover that the moral intuitions of most people align with that for the first case and not the second, which raises a problem for Utilitarian views. That’s it. Obviously all philosophers would rather such a case never happened and strongly support whatever measures the rail industry wants to put in place to avoid it, but that’s not the point here, anymore than the point of Schrodinger’s Cat is to see if cats will survive it.

    How in the world did you get to the conclusion that philosophers were saying ANYTHING to the rail industry with that example, as opposed to simply finding a novel way to ask people if you should sacrifice 1 for 5 in a way that also gets at their intuitions instead of at their conditioned/reasoned responses? Heck, it’s not even the case that either solution should be considered RIGHT philosophically: Utilitarians will think that both cases should choose to sacrifice the 1, but Kantians, at least, will likely argue that at least the second case shouldn’t, if not the first case.

    “How do you know that there isn’t some other alternative? What makes you think that there isn’t already something in place to prevent such disasters from happening, and that your proposed solution would even be an option should all the safety fallbacks simultaneously fail?”

    Since we were presuming — assuming that you read the post — that this person was indeed an expert, you can’t retreat to the “How do you know that this is even available?” argument. We can presume they know. And if you want to try to argue that in our modern society it isn’t possible for this to occur, we can easily go back to a time where it WAS, indeed, possible for it to happen and ask the question, which is just as valid as asking “If you were in a society where slavery was legal and considered proper, would it be morally correct for you to buy a slave?”, which is a valid moral question and one that we should be able to answer.

    “I’ve been trying to be gentle. If you knew anything at all about water safety, you’d know that untrained personnel attempting a rescue from in the water are almost certainly going to drown with the victim they’re trying to help. Yet you still, somehow, think that your completely uninformed philosophical perspective is somehow relevant!”

    Because it’s obviously too much to think that maybe you have a life preserver handy that you can throw to them. Or a life jacket. Or you’re wearing a life jacket yourself. Or the drowning victim is a child and is unlikely to drag you under. Or you’ve had some training in how to do that but aren’t at lifeguard level (I did swimming lessons for a number of years and did learn how to safely rescue someone in the water, even without a floatation device, but never hit lifeguard level). Or any one of a number of things that you can have to make it so that you know that you are very likely to be able to successfully rescue that person.

    No one is saying that if you can’t rescue the person you should morally jump in and try anyway. But the way you nitpick the examples, I strongly suspect that the reason that you refuse to answer is because you CAN’T, and have no idea how to answer the question.

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  133. Pseudonym says:

    It concerns me that Einstein may have encouraged reckless physics students to operate locomotives past their recommended operating speed with the windows blacked out. There is no evidence that Einstein held a certification in train operations or safe working, or even any knowledge of basic signalling.

    And don’t get me started on James Clerk Maxwell encouraging the evocation of malevolent spirits…

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  134. Ben Goren says:

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  135. Ben Goren says:

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  136. In a critique of inflationary cosmology, A. Penzias wrote that:

    “As scientists, what we really seem to do is engage in a form of art criticism: ‘my theory is prettier than yours.’. . . I don’t think that’s something to be ashamed of. My personal view is that our esthetic sense is the only reliable guide we have.”

    This comment connects to the relationship between physicists and philosophers, I think, in that philosophers tend more toward the esthetic sense, to point out where a theory or body of evidence may be particularly strong, or weak, crooked or strained, and to frame the physics into as coherent a picture as possible.

    In his book on the Higgs particle, Carroll has suggested that, “When it comes to understanding the architecture of reality, the low-hanging fruit has been picked.” In the above post, Carroll suggests that “calculation isn’t good enough” to understand ” the ultimate architecture of reality at its deepest levels.” As a physicist, Carroll implicitly agrees that even the combination of calculation plus “thinking deeply” ultimately doesn’t cut it. Empirical evidence obtained directly from Nature is the ultimate arbiter.

    Playing the role of philosopher, then, I would point out that, with respect to our understanding of gravity, a very low-hanging fruit remains conspicuously unpicked. In 1632 Galileo wondered what would happen “if the terrestrial globe were pierced by a hole which passed through its center, [and] a cannon ball [were] dropped through [it].” This experiment could be done using smaller bodies in an orbiting satellite or Earth-based laboratory.

    Almost 400 years have passed since Galileo proposed the experiment. My esthetic sense tells me that, once becoming aware that we in fact have a large hole in our empirical knowledge of gravity, the correct course of action is to fill it. Our picture of gravity may seem complete from the surface upward, but we do not really know how test objects move through the centers of larger bodies because the experiment has never been done. How do the physicists respond to this suggestion: To pretend that the result of the experiment is already known even without evidence? Or to abide by the ideals of science and actively seek to do the experiment?

    For more information about Galileo’s experiment, see

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  137. Ryder Dain says:

    Ben Goren:

    arrogantly proclaiming themselves supreme experts of fields they’re not even remotely qualified to participate in, again as perfectly exemplified by the Trolley Problem

    Sir, your words are so blazingly provocative, so clearly aimed at emotional responses instead of real challenges and so wholly oblivious to their own self-referential irony and devoid of real evidence that I am led to believe, in the parlance, “LOL WUT.” You’re trolling, and it’s increasingly obvious with every further post.

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  138. Girish Sastry says:

    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.

    Can you (or some other commenter) give some examples of simple mistakes physicists would make without doing philosophy?

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  139. Sturgeon's Law says:

    Science is the apportioning of belief in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of empirical observation.

    No, it’s not. You are describing an omnipresent process of reasoning that can be ascribed even to chimpanzees. A lab ape solving puzzles is no scientist- unless that’s how little respect you have for the sciences. This is an anti-empirical, subjective definition of science with no regard whatsoever to the history or the sociology of any particular science.

    Congratulations! You’ve just nullified the marriages of everybody who has an undergraduate degree. Oh — and you’ve also solved the Italian financial crisis, too; it’s the United States of Amerigo Vespucci Land, after all, so his dependents own the whole country. And the rest of the New World, too.

    Those sorts of puerile games may be impressive in philosophical circles, but they’re offensive and the sure sign of the sophistry of somebody desperate who knows the argument is already over.

    So proving that Bioethics as an interdisciplinary field is heavily reliant on philosophy by citing evidence that several of the top 5 bioethics programs in the country are run by academic philosophers is a “puerile game?” And this from you, a commenter who not only appears to have no sociological information about the scientific fields about which you make broad claims, but also provide no evidence for those claims whatsoever. Why exactly should we accept your definition of science, since there is no empirical consensus or reasoning behind it?

    Regardless, ethics is not a science, as we all know. So if you are suggesting that the philosophers running these Bioethics programs are not really philosophers at all, and not doing philosophy, then I must ask what you think they’re doing.

    Even if that claim is true, either he relied heavily on the empirical work of others, such as patient release surveys and morbidity studies, or he’s a fraud. Sean, I would suspect, himself did no empirical work for his degree, yet his degree would not have been possible without unbelievable mountains of such work — and he’ll be the first to tell you that.

    So relying on empirical work is now the acceptable criteria for a science? Does this mean that an artist can be a scientist, so long as they take a look at empirical work and create some meta-theoretical statement about them in an artistic form? If so, then surely there is nothing that can’t be a science, since the subjectivity of the actual discipline appears not to matter as long as it involves “the apportioning of belief in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of empirical observation.”

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  140. couchloc says:

    Here is Einstein’s comment on the relevance of philosophy at one point. He clearly sees some value in it.

    “I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today—and even professional scientists—seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is—in my opinion—the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.”

    –Einstein to Thornton, 7 December 1944

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  141. Kalam says:

    ‘But those problems — the basic nature of the ultimate architecture of reality at its deepest levels — are just physics problems, really.’ This is a philosophical statement about reality that Sean is making, and it is a problematic one; see
    Nevertheless Sean does much better than Hawking and Krauss by acknowledging the importance of philosophy.

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  142. Something I wrote as a FB comment to Levi Bryant, a philosopher (blog: Larval Subjects), who had been addressing this same issue. Why I’ve love both you, and Levi–for so openly bringing your respective disciplines into a larger conversation.
    >Interesting that Sean is a blog veteran, with the old Cosmic Variance, this extraordinary conversation between those tops in their field(s) … emphasis on the cross boundry conversions, and aware that there were those who were deeply interested in what particle physicists were doing, but impatient and distrustful with the media translators, who oversimplified, often with an agenda. Here was a way to read those who were tops in their respective fields, without condescension–with the trust that there’s a place where we can converse and contribute–from very different fields of knowledge and reference.
    I’m aware, as an artist and poet–of how, historically, the intersection of these fields, when the boundaries have been most permeable, have been most fecund–without question, for the arts, and though less often recognized… this has gone both ways. So to feel a part of what I sense to be the most interesting and mind fizzing stuff in both science and philosophy–with blogs like Cosmic Variance (and many more), and Larval Subjects… make me very happy to have lived long enough to experience this.

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  143. Two quick thoughts:

    1) Despite thousands of years of philosophy, I have yet to hear a philosopher offer a convincing refutation of nihilism. This suggests to me that philosophy isn’t making much progress, and isn’t about “progress” in the sense that science is.

    2) It may be more appropriate to compare philosophy to poetry or mysticism — it’s an interesting way to explore language, occupy our minds and deconstruct ideas, but not one that’s getting us any closer to “objective truth” (whatever that is).

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  144. adel sadeq (@AdelQsa) says:

    “There exists a passion for comprehension, just as there exists a passion for music. That passion is rather common in children, but gets lost in most people later on. Without this passion, there would be neither mathematics nor natural science. Time and again the passion for understanding has led to the illusion that man is able to comprehend the objective world rationally, by pure thought, without any empirical foundations—in short, by metaphysics.
    I believe that every true theorist is a kind of tamed metaphysicist, no matter how pure a ‘positivist’ he may fancy himself.
    The metaphysicist believes that the logically simple is also the real. The tamed metaphysicist believes that not all that is logically simple is embodied in experienced reality, but that the totality of all sensory experience can be ‘comprehended’ on the basis of a conceptual system built on premises of great simplicity. The skeptic will say that this is a ‘miracle creed.’ Admittedly so, but it is a miracle creed which has been borne out to an amazing extent by the development of science.”

    —Einstein, “On the Generalized Theory of Gravitation”, 1950, reprinted in Einstein,
    Ideas and Opinions, 1954.

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  145. jeremy says:

    Advice to philosophers: Instead of ranting on comment threads trying to convince people that you are relevant and needed by the scientific community, just produce results that has some meaningful impact on science a we know it today.

    Yes, philosophy was once the foundation for science and mathematics. No one is disputing this. All that was useful about philosophy has been incorporated into the scientific process a long time ago. The criticism is that what is left and being done in philosophy departments today is largely useless and of no relevance to science.

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  146. Sigh says:

    “There seems to be two definitions of free will. One is the scientific definition: Can determinism or indeterminism allow us to have a will that is uncaused and that we can control?” “This is a legitimate definition of free will that is too often dismissed by philosophers. It is not a “waste of time” because there are some people who think that indeterminism or randomness could give us the ability to have this type of free will.”

    Okay, first, there are much more than two definitions. Second, that isn’t the ‘scientific definition of free will’, you are mistaken if you think that kind of definition of free will isn’t thoroughly explored in academic philosophy. That kind of definition is probably one of the oldest definitions of free will. Third, if you want to argue that our actions are uncaused and that we can therefore control them, you better make sure you give a good argument, which involves being good at using logic and conceptual analysis and the problem is most of them are not very good at either. They will state some facts about how the brain operates, which is all fine and good, but then they will make non-sequitor leaps from those premises to unjustified conclusions. Sometimes its just because their logic is bad. Often its because of poor conceptual analysis, for example, they will conclude that we can ‘control’ our actions, or that they are ‘uncaused’, without ever really thinking about what they, or people in general, even really mean by words like ‘control’ or ‘uncaused, or ‘choose’ in this context. They generally end up saying something insignificant that doesn’t really have any impact on anything people generally care about when discussing the free will question. Anyone can make up a definition of free will and prove it exists, but what is the point unless its a definition that corresponds to what people care about when they worry if we have free will? You have to ask yourself, which definition most accurately captures what people actually care about when they question whether they have free will and does, for example, proving indeterminism actually give that kind of free will or does it give us something else you’ve simply decided to call free will that doesn’t have much at all to do with it?
    It’s true that most experts in the area today don’t think the determinism vs indeterminism debate is that relevant to the free will question anymore, but that is for good reasons that the scientists who publish books like that probably would have benefited from reading up on before writing their books.

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  147. Sigh says:

    “1) Despite thousands of years of philosophy, I have yet to hear a philosopher offer a convincing refutation of nihilism. This suggests to me that philosophy isn’t making much progress, and isn’t about “progress” in the sense that science is.”

    You say “despite thousands of years of philosophy” as if you have actually been reading it all. Do you read all of the modern philosophy being produced?
    I see your kind of argument a lot, Sean should add it to his list. “Oh well I’m not personally aware of ‘x’ so it doesn’t exist, even though I haven’t really tried hard to see whether its there”. It’s common to hear creationists dismiss evolution based on the fact that no one has ever been able to ‘prove’ it’s true to them. They will say things like “I’ve never seen any evidence evolution is true”. That is because they haven’t really looked for it. It’s sad when people don’t bother to put in the hard work to learn about something and instead decide that unless someone else does the work for them and comes to them and convinces them, then they must be right.

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  148. adel sadeq (@AdelQsa) says:

    jeremy- in the post above yours I tried to clarify that we are not saying that the philosopher should solve physics problems but to solve important issues the PHYSICIST will incorporated some philosophy that he originates with the help of many sources. Including current understanding, the history of science, other philosophers takes and so on.

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  149. Rick J says:

    Ben Goren:

    I’ve read your posts for years over at Why Evolution is True, and I’ve found your insight both insightful and valuable to me. I can’t even think of a time I’ve really disagreed with something you’ve wrote, and I always appreciated your tone and civility.

    Your posts on this thread are markedly different than anything I’ve read from you before. Your errors have been thoroughly corrected and rebutted, very kindly I might add, by several posters multiple times. Your rhetoric is inflammatory and uncivil. If you are actually trolling, you’d be doing us all a favor by stopping.

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  151. Reasonable Robinson says:

    Natural science is predicated on philosophical assumptions.Correspondence theories of truth, positivist epistemology and and realist ontology. For natural scientists to tilt at philosophy is ludicrous because it pervades the things they do. See Sayer (2010) – everything is theory laden. Furthermore philosophical issues are germane because of ethics too. Typically scientists use abductive as much as analytically inductive thinking. They draw from both objective (the conventional image they wish to portray) discourse and subjective discourse to explain their practice – see Potter and Wetherill. Critical Realism is probably a more appropriate ontological philosophical position for most because of the idea of unseen ‘generative mechanisms’ viz super string theory.

    Scientists could not commence empirical study without philosophically engaging in setting out ‘the problem’. The fact that they don’t see their assumptions doesn’t mean they don’t exist. :)

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  152. William says:

    I’d like Neil deGrasse Tysen to explain what a law of nature IS. The moment he tries, he will have become a philosopher of science.

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  153. Sigh says:

    Baron Ludwig von Nichts, first I would have to ask what kind of Nihilism you are talking about? Also, why do you think that Nihilism has to be refuted in order for Philosophy to be able to progress or to be valid, or useful and so on?
    Some forms of nihilism just hold that there isn’t any ‘universal objective moral truth’, (the idea there are moral truths that exist externally in the universe somehow that are not mind or value dependent) other kinds of nihilism just hold that your life doesn’t have any ‘objective meaning’, basically meaning that you just have to choose what meaning your life has for yourself. Other kinds of nihilism hold that we cannot have absolute certainty with regard to specific kinds of claims or areas of inquiry.
    Most of the academic philosophers I know today work, in my opinion, constructively and usefully, within the assumption that many of these kinds of nihilism are true and don’t really see them being true as causing a big problem.

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  154. Amateur says:

    Philosophy is much more fragmented than what this debate makes it to be. There are many philosophers who might side with Hawking, Krauss, et al. Not their tone, not all their points, but the main ones. Many philosophers have tried to kill philosophy. Specially the ambitious, metaphysical kind. Others want to restrict philosophy to explorations of our common sense conceptual scheme, something that may share a boundary with anthropology, psychology or sociology, but not with physics. That does not deny that some work in philosophy can be useful for science, but it seems to me that such work could also be done outside a philosophy department and can be safely decoupled from purely philosophical questions. That would not mean that philosophy is a wast of time. It is just a waste of time for physicists that are not interested in philosophy.

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  155. If value of philosophy can no longer be determined by it’s direct contribution to science and technology (just guessing), then it’s probably more about one’s subjective feelings. I personally find the philosophy of physics extremely boring, while allowing the possibility that someone else might find it interesting and fulfilling.

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  156. Blah says:

    So many comments, but almost no real/specific examples of useful philosophy are given.

    But it is quite easy, to point to bad philosophy: (Nagel: Mind and Cosmos: why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false.). Derrida, Foucolt, Lacan,…

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  157. Ryder Dain says:

    You’ve missed the point entirely. Here, let me grab that bit where you didn’t RTFA. I’ve even italicized the helpful part.

    “Philosophy is completely useless to the everyday job of a working physicist.”
    Now we have the frustratingly annoying critique. Because: duh. […] Philosophy is interesting because of its intrinsic interest, not because it’s a handmaiden to physics.

    I’d like to know what you think “bad philosophy” is, because just accusing a handful of people for doing the work they do, as doing it badly over the course of a lifetime’s career presumes you can identify what “good philosophy” is and where it’s gone wrong.

    Even if we accept that these are “bad philosophers” (John Searle would probably agree with you on Derrida), finding a few isn’t much of a critique of the field– it’s not like “science”, taken broadly, has been wholly devoid of its own quacks or charlatans. (See: Amit Goswani, Joseph Nicolosi, or Andrew Wakefield). Yes, often anyone who’s too ridiculous or dangerous or unethical gets quashed, but sometimes their professional chops are strong enough that we ignore their little social peccadilloes or any weird speculations they might spout. See, for instance, Francis Crick’s panspermia theory, or Watson’s opinions on racial and sexual equality– just to get you started.

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  158. Jim says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  159. Jim says:

    Miroslav Hundek – The question as to what is the difference between objectivity and subjectivity is itself a very interesting philosophical question.

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  160. Jim says:

    Amateur – It is pretty much a tautology to say that philosophy is a waste of time for physicists who are not interested in it. Cosmology or studying the Higgs Boson is a waste of time for people who are not interested in these topics which is probably most of humanity.

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  161. couchloc says:

    Blah says: “So many comments, but almost no real/specific examples of useful philosophy are given.”

    While I don’t think that to be useful philosophy has to contribute specifically to science (as Carroll’s original post says), there are several examples one could give I think.

    Philip Kitcher, Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature, 1985. (Detailed critique of sociobiology; Coyne says saved him from several mistakes)

    Philip Kitcher, Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism, 1982. (Early attack on creationism and intelligent design)

    David Albert, Quantum Mechanics and Experience, 1994. (Physicist who left for philosophy; Carroll has referenced this already)

    Thomas Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. 1996. (Physicist who left for philosophy)

    Michael Ruse, E. O. Wilson, “Moral Philosophy as Applied Science” 1985. (Biologist and philosopher whove co-written several pieces together on biological ethics)

    Alex Rosenberg, Daneil McShea, Philosophy of Biology, 2008. (Duke biologist and philosopher co-authored book on philosophical issues in biology)

    John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, 1997. (Widely read by sociologists on social theorizing)

    Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 1996. (Widely read by scientists on Darwin)

    Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, 2007. (NYT’s best seller on science and religion)

    Again, these are books related to science, but not all philosophy is orientied this way nor should it be in my view.

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  162. Houet says:

    “You see, to me it seems as though the artists, the scientists, the philosophers were grinding lenses. It’s all a grand preparation for something that never comes off. Someday the lens is going to be perfect and then we’re all going to see clearly, see what a staggering, wonderful, beautiful world it is…”
    Henry Miller

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  163. Ben Goren says:

    Rick J, everything I’ve posted in this thread I’ve repeatedly posted over on Jerry’s site. And I’m far from the only person over there who sees no utility in philosophy. (And, again again, there are many who call themselves “philosophers” who do solid scientific work — just as Francis Collins and Ken Miller do outstanding biology despite their religious beliefs.)

    I’ll also note that only two other posts have received more up-votes than I have on this thread. To all those who think I’m merely trolling, take that as empirical evidence that, though those of us who dismiss philosophy may well be a minority, it’s not the radical fringe minority all y’all’re making us out to be. Maybe we’re crazy. But, if not, that’s at least a very strong indication that philosophy has failed to justify its academic credentials the way the sciences and the (non-PoMo-infested) humanities have.



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  164. Ben Goren,

    “And yet you yourself, in this very thread, have insisted that safety procedures for the rail industry should be informed by people’s responses to the Trolley Problem.”

    Only to get around your utterly inane insistence that only experts on trains could judge what a specific action might do, coupled with a claim that those experts would follow the procedures. And even then I only asked about the MORALITY of the procedures. Surely you are not so naive as to think that only the rail industry could possibly be qualified to judge the morality of their own procedures? And surely you’d agree that even a layman should be able to judge in many cases whether the procedure — assuming all the technical details are worked out — is moral or not. For example, if a rail safety procedure said that if a train came across a car stalled on the tracks that had people still inside, the engineer was not to apply the brakes as emergency stops wore down the brakes and increased maintenance costs, I don’t think you’d need ANY knowledge about trains to say that that would be an immoral policy. Now, no rail company would ever put that in, but you can see the point: railway engineers have special knowledge with regards to railway technology, but not with respect to morality.

    Which, then, leads to a reasonable question that hopefully you will not dodge, which is that if you think that the moral intuitions of most people are not at all relevant or useful to consider in determining the morality of a policy or procedure, what WILL you use to determine that? Since railway engineers are not necessarily moral experts — even as they are rail experts — they are not more qualified to consider or understand the specifically moral factors than anyone else. Taking into account your other comments, we can assume that you might claim that “Ethicists” would be required to determine this. But from where would they get their training and expertise? As it has already been pointed out, most of them get that from moral philosophy, which you want to denigrate. But if that’s the case, then we’d want some kind of objective determination of what is and isn’t moral in such cases. How would we explore that? You don’t want to appeal to psychology because we know that humans can indeed often have cognitive structures that promote actions that we think horrible, so we can’t just rely on those to determine what is or isn’t moral. So what we’d want to explore it through various cases to determine what our intuitions are, at least, and then determine why those intuitions are what they are and resolve any apparent conflicts.

    Which is exactly what Trolley Cases aim at: trying to explore if our moral intuitions always choose in favour of saving the most lives — even if we have to take an action that costs a life to do it — and if there is a conflict — as there is in the Trolley Cases — trying to figrue out what it is. It boggles my mind that your prime example of the failings of moral philosophy is precisely the case where it actually tries to be more empirical and indeed run a psychological experiment to get at what people think it is, as opposed to, say, running a thought experiment like “Would it be moral to kill one person and harvest their organs to save five others?” where there pretty much is an answer and that’s the whole point of the thought experiment.

    And this, then, gets us down to brass tacks: for someone who insists that we don’t need philosophy to answer moral questions and claims that we have better, more scientific examples, your entire contribution to the discussion of morality in at least the thread with me has been to misrepresent Trolley Cases and invent more and more excuses for not ever giving any answer to any question that asks you if an action is moral or not. CAN you even answer the case of whether it would be morally right or morally wrong to not save that drowning person if you knew that you were likely to succeed?

    “Philosophy in a nutshell, and everything that’s worng with it.

    Drop the presumptions in favor of observations, and the reality-based community will welcome you with open arms.”

    First, that was me taking YOUR presumption, that the rail expert would be the only one to know what the conditions were really like, and which you have now dropped because it rather inconveniently removes your excuse for not answering the question.

    Second, Trolley Cases ARE actually observing, observing what people’s intuitions actually say. You are dismissing one of the most empirical examples in moral philosophy, and doing so without advancing even a shred of an alternative approach.

    Third, if you want to continue this line, I suggest you read my essay on morality on my blog called “Fearlessly Amoral”. It was written for a graduate level course on empirically-minded moral philosophy and did quite well. It is a valid philosophical essay. If you want to claim that there’s too much presumption and not enough observation, put your money where your mouth is and tell me what’s wrong with that essay (there, please, since that would be a bit off-topic for here).

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  165. T.E. Oakley says:

    Re, allan J:
    “I can’t see why the violation of fundamental physical concepts is a philosophical problem. It may just be that the concepts hold in some domains but don’t hold in others. As Krauss has said : ‘The universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not.'”

    Thank you for your response to my second post in this lengthy comment stream on the topic of philosophy vis-à-vis physics. I would agree that the violation of physical laws/ principles is not necessarily a “philosophical” problem, but it IS a PROBLEM; a procedural problem; a methodological problem, but still a PROBLEM. How much of the established foundation of contemporary physics does one want to ignore in pursuing what Ryder Dane in his morning post (June 25, 2014 at 8:13AM) refers to as “weird speculations?”
    The central idea of the “nothing theorists” i.e., cosmic genesis from from the state of “absolute nothingness,” is, it seems to me, not a SCIENTIFIC conjecture, but rather a METAPHYSICAL conjecture, “an a priori decision which has no empirical basis,” to quote Dr. Krauss himself in the context of those claiming cosmic genesis from “something”; this entire “nothing” argument devolving, additionally, into a semantic dispute about the meaning of “absolute nothing.” If I am correct here, this theoretical situation. according to Dr. Krauss’s OWN stated criteria, renders his “nothing” conjecture IRRELEVANT to science! (see the Tam Hunt “comment” June 24, 2014, 1:46 PM and the contained link to his interview with Dr. Krauss on August 1, 2013).
    Yes, we can always speculate about the randomness of physical laws vis-à-vis different PHYSICAL domains, but this is my point:
    1). Physical laws are information.
    2). Information is contained in a PHYSICAL system, expressed in bits or qubits (see: Seth Lloyd MIT).
    3). Information is PHYSICAL (see: Rolf Landauer “The physical nature of information,” Physics Letters A 217, 9 May 1996 188-193).
    4). Therefore, the laws of physics can only exist and operate in a PHYSICAL system.
    5). “Absolute nothing” is NOT a physical system BY DEFINITION.
    6). THEREFORE: “Absolute nothing” cannot “transition,” according to any quantum mechanical laws, into ANYTHING, including our cosmos.
    The idea of “absolute clarity of description” and “rigorous conceptual analysis,” as Dr. Carroll characterizes the best philosophical thinking, and, I might also add, the best of physical scientific theorizing, seems to me ironically missing in the speculations of the philosophy “bashing” Dr. Krauss; the danger is that one may wander, in this conceptual jungle, in the theoretical justification of an idea, from science into science fiction.
    T.E. Oakley

    Sent from my iPhone

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  166. VicP says:

    I thought Tyson’s underlying point of why he criticized philosophy is if you have a very talented young person, they are better off going into physics or any basic science first because the philsophical problems can be studied later. Cases in point are of course yourself Sean and Massimo Piglucci who took the science route first.

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  167. Pingback: Assorted links

  168. Jesse Miksic says:


    Yes, I think this was a large part of Tyson’s assertion. He generally disparaged philosophy practitioners for being obsessed with non-problems, for being so distracted they might wander into traffic, and for refusing to join the scramble for artifacts and codified knowledge that governs the contemporary first-world experience.

    In this, he is in lock-step with the technocrat-capitalist’s frame of mind: that all human activity should be valued solely for its contributions to material productivity and knowledge-accumulation, that there is no value except what is measurable. This is one of the root problems, I find, with certain conceptual frameworks that are so active in this conversation.

    This frame denies the value of centuries of human culture, whose value generally eludes quantification.

    It denies the variety of individual experience, i.e. that a person can be extremely intelligent, but not have the aptitude or instrumental attitude required for scientific work.

    It sort of reduces folks to their processing power, and assumes that the only worthy application of this power is to the project of scientific productivity.

    Philosophy is an imaginative and speculative endeavor, like art or literature. For some of us, it’s a tool-set… for others, it’s intrinsically compelling. It often tries to engage with science, and occasionally fails. Whatever its issues, it doesn’t deserve Tyson’s ire, which seems to be the potent by-product of his limited frame of reference.

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  170. Jon says:

    The hostility goes both ways (deservedly or not). In fact try to think of any two (sub)fields that don’t constantly butt heads.

    The main issue I have with this blogpost is the notion that foundational issues, such as the nature of wavefunctions etc., are somehow an exclusively philosophical enterprise. What makes it any more a philosophical question than a scientific one? What is ADDED?

    As an aside, I constantly see comments like: “Physics is but Natural Philosophy”, “everything emerged from Philosophy therefore every question is a Philosophical one”. Can we agree to just stop this non-sense? It’s quite irritating…. every instance of thought/thinking isn’t owed to Philosophy.

    OPINION: My problem with *some* aspects of Philosophy (primarily Metaphysics) is that it comes off as “speculations without bound/ direction”… a dangerously wasteful pursuit. Foundational questions which are *guided* by Science seems to me a more tractable/ fruitful endeavour.

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  171. Karsten says:

    Does philosophy help predict of “future” observations better than not including philosophy? -If it does make better predictions/models, there is no problem using philosophy in physics, if not it can and maybe should be excluded using the famous Occam’s razor (OR is philosophical argument, not necessarily based on predicting future observations)
    The same can be argued about fairies, and demons , as they often are part of physics thought examples (e. g. Maxwell’s demon), if they help make better prediction of observations, include them as a predictive factor, if they don’t help predict observations they do not need to be included. I guess that would the way to prove the existence of fairies and demons in physics.
    Personally, I enjoy pondering good philosophical puzzles, such as the measurement problem, and the arrow of time, but to me *observations* are the final arbitrators, independent of how interesting the philosophy is.

    To paraphrase Wittgenstein
    Anything not yet discovered is not the case

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  172. Let’s not forget that philosophers (good ones) can also facilitate scientific discussion and discovery in other ways aside from big-picture thinking. Critical thinking, formal and informal logic, conceptual clarity, and historical connections all play important roles in furthering our understanding of cause and effect relationships of the natural world.

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  173. JimV says:

    Re: colnago80/Feynman’s quote on ornithology.

    The way I recall it was: “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” That’s also what I get via Google. It makes more sense to me that way – more of a parallel comparison.

    (New topic:)

    Some have claimed here, or come close to claiming, that everyone who thinks is doing philosophy. Personally, I think everyone who thinks is doing math, including philosophers. But no one does math correctly at all times, including philosophers.

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  174. Robert A Dorrough says:

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  175. Douglas B. Rodrigues says:

    Physics is a branch/application of philosophy: physics = { ontology ∩ mathematics ∩ empiricism } .

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  176. Sam Keays says:

    The irony I suppose is that the underlying principles of both are powered from the same mainspring.

    I’ve studied, at undergrad and postgrad level, to varying degrees, physics, computer science, history and philosophy. The underlying motivation for them all is of course the search for (but not necessarily the absolute acquisition of) truth. But not just this – truth by skepticism, by asking questions that can and will conflict with societies expectation and the established truths of authority and conventional wisdom. Good philosophers, whose use of the deductive method to take apart the concepts that stem from such sources and subject them to doubt have an important social role to play in ensuring that many fundamental assumptions are not taken for granted, or not left unquestioned. Just as the historian who deconstructs the myths of the past that we live for has the important task of disabusing us from such myth-making (and look at human history can show you their power and capacity for misery). And of course the physcist, whilst having an important technical role in the furthering of the understanding of the laws of nature for technological purposes, also has a philosophic role as chief skeptic, calling into question our assumptions and understandings of nature and the use of natural processes – which now include the beginning of the universe and causality – for the purpose of superstition.

    It’s no coincidence that the two great moments of western intellectual history, mythologised as they have been, are Socrates death for the ‘corruption of youth’ – for asking questions that conventional society did not wish to be answered – and Galileo’s fate at the hand of the inquisition. Both were acts of courage for the defense of that great intellectual goal of skepticism and hard-won truth.

    Part of the problem I guess is two-fold – the nature of philosophy prior to the 20th century, many of whose adherents did, given the state of science at the time, make statements that now seem arrogantly presumptuous. I’m thinking of Kant’s embedding of Euclidean geometry into the intuition of space (something Einstein picked up on). And it’s true that these invalidate many of the details, if not necessarily the method or the whole argument. Secondly the nonsense that often gets spewed out by continental philosophers with their echo-chamber references and purposefully obscure arguments with little semantic meaning when deconstructed. The Sokal affair details this. But it is kind of unfortunate that this stereotype has allowed the overshadowing of the great conceptual clarification undertaken by philosophers in the form of modern analytical philosophy and especially the great skepticism towards the slipperiness of words themselves as expressed by Wittgenstein. It strikes me in this sense, done properly, philosophy should no more be a “rival” to physics than mathematics. Both aim at a clarification and the drawing out of the consequence of some raw material – maths, the logical structures and operations of quantative reasoning – philosophy of concepts and logical ideas when put against the flames of logic.

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  177. David Wild says:

    There are so many ludicrous posts in this discussion it has been genuinely entertaining to read. I just cannot understand what all the fuss is about. Philosophy is an incredibly broad subject – for starters, there are four classical areas of inquiry. But the idea that science is somehow going to do without conceptual clarification and the rigour of argumentation is just silly. This is what good philosophy does. Before I take my leave just a question for Benny Goren: how do you make sense of experience?

    Clue – it is through the production of categories/concepts that the multiplicity of sense-perceptions are given consistency and objectivity. Philosophy is very interested in this process and the adequacy of the concepts we employ to make determinations about what is. It is for this reason that philosophy still has a small role to play in the unfolding of scientific knowledge.

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  178. Chatham says:

    If one ignore philosophy and theory, how does one decide, say, when there is enough evidence to consider something a scientific theory? I’ve heard physicists talk about why they dislike the de Broglie-Bohm interpretation of quantum physics, and it usually comes down to subjective reasons. Is it bad if we have to assume pilot waves but OK if we have to assume a stochastic universe? What if we have to make up extra dimensions for a theory to work? When individuals assume the Copenhagen interpretation, why are they doing so? Is there even a reason to choose an interpretation when we don’t know if it’s correct? And when this criticism is coming from public physicists who are often guilty of perpetuating “lies to children”, how about giving some thought to what is and isn’t acceptable to tell the public, and what the ultimate goal of a pop physicist should be?

    Everyone makes certain philosophical choices. However, some ignore what choices they have made and aren’t able to understand the bedrock behind what they believe (from what I’ve seen, physicists have a similar difficulty with math).

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  179. NumbersMan says:

    Top rung, celebrity scientists are quite arrogant. They live in an intellectual vacuum, thinking that the intellectual world revolves around them. They are loathe to acknowledge any debt to early scientists who were motivated in their quest by the Christian religious idea that there was a pattern or design in the universe that could be discovered and understood. Why should anyone expect these same scientists to acknowledge any debt to the people that have supplied many of the tools of language and reason scientists use everyday? Only they have discovered any truth worth knowing. They alone are the high priest purveyors of the great holy, scientific mysteries.

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  181. mark says:

    Looks like the crackpots have finally descended onto this thread ;-)

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  182. Malu Ribeiro says:

    This is a very nice article! Precisely what I have been debating on. Why do people think things have to be black and white, this or that. Without Philosophical postulation we cannot let free our imagination out of human experience. We’re only going to find out and explain the origin of the universe, life, God, etc if we think outside the human perceptional spectrum, we can only do that with creative critical thought!

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  183. Karsten says:

    Re: Chatham
    If one ignore philosophy and theory, how does one decide, say, when there is enough evidence to consider something a scientific theory?

    Interesting question — The standard to consider something a scientific theory is that the theory (or model or whatever) in combination with past observations predicts future observations.

    The theories that pass that “test” can be ranked on how accurate they predict observations, how useful they are, complexity, and how general they are.
    For example one can argue that GR mechanics is more accurate and more general than Newtonian mechanics, but most practitioners would argue that Newtonian mechanics is less complex and more useful for everyday predictions than GR.

    Both the GR and NM theories are examples of great scientific theories and they both pass the test. But there is a twist GR has a very interesting feature from a philosophical perspective it opens up for predictions of of the reality that cannot be directly observed, at least not for the same observer, e.g. events inside the event horizon of a black hole, parallel realities, closed time-like loops (what is the distinction between past and a future observations?).

    Above standard definition of science does not specify which observer, for an observer inside the event horizon GR may be completely scientific, observers outside the event horizon can either subscribe to realism, the reality is independent of our observations, or argue that we cannot make observations the predictions of any reality beyond the observable part of the reality, and hence such predictions are useless and is the analog of predicting what is north of the north pole.

    That part of GR may, or may not, be considered a scientific theory depending on how strict you are on the observation part. For the applications in which observations for the same observer is not possible it probably does not make a difference if the theory is called “scientific” or not, it is still the same theory. If the theory is valid in the observable domain it can be logically extrapolated, or continued, to the non-observable domain, not scientifically, but logically. To me this is mostly semantics if you want to call a theory that make prediction in the non-observable domain scientific, philosophical, realistic, …

    And now over to the many worlds formulations of QM. The theory makes perfectly good predictions of future observations and there could be the end of the story. MWF allows for (or assumes) parallel realities to extrapolate to the non-observable domains. This lead to similar questions such if the extrapolation to parallel realities is scientific, or which formulations carries unnecessary assumptions, which formulation is more or less complex, which is more or less useful, etc.

    Personally I think it unlikely that we will have observations that will reject the formulation of QM and philosophizing about it will likely not yield any useful findings either.

    Philosophy may be able to put together an interesting fiction, i. e. a story based upon rational arguments, assumptions, and the relative beauty of your favorite QM formulation or how to fill the non-observable holes in the model.

    The subject we are discussing in this forum is about if there is anything useful for scientists in the fiction of philosophers. Not so much if the philosophical fiction is useful at all, which is a philosophical question, which answer might be found in science.

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  184. Houet provided the marvelously provocative, yet ambiguous quote from Henry Miller:

    “You see, to me it seems as though the artists, the scientists, the philosophers were grinding lenses. It’s all a grand preparation for something that never comes off. Someday the lens is going to be perfect and then we’re all going to see clearly, see what a staggering, wonderful, beautiful world it is…”

    It is in some ways appropriate that artists, scientists and philosophers are lumped together by this metaphor. Yet for the lens to become “perfect” some nearly miraculous convergence of modes of perception would seemingly have to occur. Does this “never come off?” Or is “the lens going to be perfect and then we’re all going to see clearly?”

    If it is ever to come off, then those spots that have been missed in the grinding process will have to be taken care of. For example, collisionless radial falling due to gravity, which physicists only pretend to see, because they have no empirical evidence from near the center of the source mass. Galileo, who first put the telescope to such good use, also suggested probing gravitational motion to the centers of massive bodies. In this physical regime, physicists are sadly satisfied with a big blur.

    To bring that zone into focus, what we need is a Small Low-Energy Non-Collider.

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  185. “Philosophers do, indeed, tend to think a lot.”
    And the rest of us don’t.

    1- “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 …But those problems… are just physics problems, really.”

    2-“Philosophy is interesting because of its intrinsic interest”

    Physics problems or of intrinsic interest? And “intrinsic” to what?
    Are physics problems also “intrinsically” interesting? If curiosity is intrinsic to humanity is poetry like physics?

    “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 deep, but as Timothy Williamson says, “impatience with the long haul of technical reflection is a form of shallowness, often thinly disguised by histrionic advocacy of depth.”

    My earlier questions about “meaning” concerned grammar. What do you mean?

    On to other questions:
    The Trolley Problem is foundational to military logic: the men who order others to their deaths and the men they send to die are not allowed to fraternize; utilitarianism and friendship are incompatible, so utilitarianism and democracy are incompatible. Why do cops and mobsters both hate snitches? Because you need to trust the man who’s got your back more than you need to trust anyone else. Psychologists and anthropologists understand these things, and if philosophers were as interested in the world as they are in their formal games they’d have noticed. But philosophers are like economists who don’t have to worry about ever being embarrassed by a crash. And their recent invention “experimental philosophy” is poaching by people desperate for relevance. It’s experimental psychology for logicians.

    The problem with the ideal of technical specialization is that it models curiosity only in terms of expertise. Philosophical thinking in the broader sense is not technical, because it’s second-order curiosity. A mathematician might ask himself why he loves numbers, but except for the most hard-core determinists, it’s not a questions mathematics can answer. The geek model of intellectualism as simple enthusiasm is intellectualism without without irony. That’s why the post above and most of the responses are equally useless.

    Philosophical thinking is necessary for adults, because the ability to laugh at yourself is necessary. There’s no such thing as value-free science. The world is meaningless and void, but we manage to fill it up, regardless, that the post above is as confused as it is is proof enough of that. Too many assumptions and not enough questions.

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  186. steelkilt says:

    Thank you Prof. Carroll! Well, and bravely, said. I would just add that is that it’s truly astonishing how utterly and appallingly ignorant philosophy-bashing physicists can be about philosophy, especially those you’ve listed. They’re bashing a non-existent phlogiston-like entity they call “philosophy” which they seem to view — absurdly — as akin to theology — an embarrassing and cringing schoolboy error. In short, they have no idea what philosophy even is but are prepared to mouth off about it in a dangerously and recklessly ignorant way. If a physics-bashing philosopher were as ignorant about contemporary physics as philosophy-bashing physicists are about philosophy, he would think contemporary physics was about Aristotelian entelechies and Ptolemaic epicycles. But of course philosophers are not ignorant of physics. On the contrary, a central sub-field in philosophy of science is the philosophy of physics. And as you rightly point out, most, perhaps even all, philosophers of physics are trained physicists, with at least a BSc in physics and in many cases a PhD in physics. Some even publish in physics journals. How many physicists have any training in philosophy? Although it seems, remarkably, unknown to the philosophy-bashing physicists, this has been the case for a century. Almost all of the logical empiricists (who founded the sub-discipline of philosophy of science) — Carnap, Hempel, Reichenbach, Schlick, Feigl, et. al. — held PhDs in physics and many were friends with Einstein (Schlick trained under Planck). And what is arguably the single greatest influence on contemporary analytical philosophy? Logical empiricism. So this whole recent business is particularly galling for philosophers because philosophers do know what physics is and try their best to keep abreast of the latest developments in physics. Indeed, it’s safe to say that the orthodoxy in Anglophone analytical philosophy is to hold physics in extremely high regard, probably higher regard even than mathematics (and logic, for that matter). And they teach their students to have a high regard for physics. The high esteem in which physics is held by mainstream philosophy is obvious to any sophomore philosophy student and is further apparent by the increasingly vocal minority of philosophers (and publications) who accuse mainstream philosophy of an unhealthy physics worship. For an example (although admittedly an extreme one) of the virtually ubiquitous pro-physics attitude in philosophy see the philosopher Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. In short, what we have is a philosophy-ignorant deriding of philosophy by (some) physicists and a physics-knowledgeable admiration of physics by (almost all) philosophers. Given this, I think many philosophers feel deeply betrayed by (prominent parts of) the physics community. Philosophers reading your post will take a lot of comfort in it, I think. I certainly I did. So thanks again!

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  188. paul kramarchyk says:

    Dear Philosophers,
    If possible, please point me to a work of philosophy that, 1) does not overstate the obvious (usually in tortured language that only the philosophical priesthood has patience for), and 2) sheds light on some area of science where previous to the work dark and fog prevailed. In other words, the discovery of some kind of truth or technique that moves the ball down field.

    I’m with Hawking, Krauss, Tyson, and Feynman. As an outsider, I see philosophy as more subjective semantics than science (w/vanishingly small S/N ratio). And as it becomes more incestuous it also becomes less relevant.

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  189. Wezlee Bear says:

    I disagree with this article. I made some points here:

    I know my blog isn’t too well written, so I’ll take whatever critiques readers have to offer.

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  191. couchloc says:

    Dear paul kramarchyk,

    I have offered a list of books written by philosophers that are well known and address science issues. Look a little ways up this list under “couchloc” at (June 25, 6:08). Some of these are co-authored by scientists and none are fairly characterized as semantics.

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  192. Chatham says:

    “Personally I think it unlikely that we will have observations that will reject the formulation of QM and philosophizing about it will likely not yield any useful findings either.”

    I think one of the big misperception here is that many people think that in order for philosophy to be useful to science, it has to produce the same results as science. Of course part of the problems is that some philosophers buy into this as well (see junk like the Chinese box and the hard problem of consciousness).

    Philosophy is for aspects where empiricism is lacking. What subjective decisions are you making, why are you making them, and what’s the greater framework that will give you some consistency?

    And it makes a difference. Which assumptions people use when making theories, which theories get support, when and how one should develop a particular hypothesis. What’s funny about individuals quoting Feynman is that one of his books I’m reading now, which is supposed to be a survey of physics, often goes off into philosophy and theory (what are we actually talking about when we say that Newtonian mechanics are right or wrong, or how should we react to new observations that are inconsistent with our past observations).

    You actually see a lot of philosophy come into play when physicists at the frontiers argue. “Why should X be accepted and not Y, if they both come to the same conclusions?” “If X theory is consistent with all observations, why doesn’t everyone accept it?” “Is it reasonable to create Y unsubstantiated assumption just to make your theory work?” If you say “screw philosophy and theory, I’ll just go with my gut” then you dramatically increase the risk that your work is going to reflect a personal whim whether than a well-defined framework. It’s better to let people know what criteria you have then pretending them away.

    Of course, this doesn’t mean that someone who is trained in philosophy with little to no scientific background is the best person to approach these issues. They may be good at setting a general framework, but in my experience the best philosophy/theory comes from people in the field.

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  193. It seems to me there are only a few philosophers who take the empirical world as their starting point, the Churchlands, Dan Dennett come to mind. Often the criticism from Krauss and others is that philosophy, like theology is often so speculative and removed from the empirical world that, what has it contributed? Not much. And to do science no matter how folks like Pigliucci or Van Frassen and company define it is wholly unreliant on whatever characterizations they come up with. I think thats where Krauss and others are coming from. Studying Plato and Liebniz’s monads for example are good historical exercises, but beyond that, not much use in discovering how the world works. Much of philosophy is harmless distraction, while theology just gets in the way in its delusional claims. Check out the Stockholm debate with philosophers/journalists with Krauss for a bit of the conflict.
    The journalist comes off most clearheaded it appears. I think Krauss is in good company with Weinberg, Feynman and Bohr.

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  195. Rafael Rosende says:

    Someone wrote:

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

    The knowledge gained in ornithology
    maybe useful for birds
    -even saving some of them from extinction-
    without birds even knowing…

    Could that be the case with philosophy for physicists?

    Someone else wrote:

    Philosophy is great at asking interesting questions but lousy at answering them.

    Raising good
    and interesting questions
    is a fundamental part of the job
    and perhaps the best place to begin
    to open a trail towards
    eventual fine answers,
    that surely will
    open new questions,
    hopefully more fundamental
    and fruitful as the best ones
    that preceded them.

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  196. Nemo says:

    I just LOL at all the pro-physicists that dismiss philosophy by unknowingly making philosophical wuestions including whether or not is the meaning of a wavefunction physical or philosophical, or “what can philosophy contribute to science/the world?” which is obviously a topic of philosophical and not physical content. All this trying to dismiss philosophy as useless while trying to appeal to philosophy themselves to do it (and not physics!). Fail.
    PS: Try to criticize philosop´hy using physics equations, then we talk. Noobs.

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  197. T.E. Oakley says:

    Re, William A. Zingrone :
    “Check out the Stockholm debate with philosophers/journalists with Krauss for a bit of the conflict. The journalist comes off most clearheaded it appears. I think Krauss is in good company with Weinberg, Feynman and Bohr.”

    What is just as interesting is Dr. Krauss’s Stockholm lecture preceding the debate; two separate videos. I have already brought attention to the 2013 Isaac Asimov debate with Dr. Krauss and Dr. DeGrasse Tyson (see comment thread: T.E.Oakley, June 24, 2014 12:40 PM and my response to Alan J., posted June 25, 2014, 10:02 AM).
    After reviewing the Stockholm material, here are my additional observations on Dr. Krauss’s “nothing” conjecture:
    1). There is a MAJOR problem with “physical law” in his scenario; Dr. Krauss declares in the Tam Hunt interview (Santa Barbara Independent, August 1, 2013):
    “…the transition [from ‘absolute nothing’ to the early universe i.e., t= ‘a millionth, of a billionth, of a billionth, of a billionth of a second old’] is mediated by some physical laws. Where did they come from? That is a good question, and one of the more modern answers is that even the laws themselves may be random, coming into existence along with the universes that may arise….” Dr. Krauss’s conception/ definition of physical law is never made clear, to my knowledge, in any of his writing; perhaps this is an issue he SHOULD address (see: my blog thread, T.E. Oakley, June 25, 2014 10:02 AM). All physical laws are PHYSICAL and said laws don’t exist in his conception/ definition of “nothing”
    as he explicitly states in his Stockholm lecture: “no laws, no space, no time, no particles, no radiation…to me that’s nothing” (Dr. Krauss, Stockholm Lecture, YouTube 1:05:00). To assume, as he does in his “Universe From Nothing” book, that “…certain properties, like quantum mechanics, permeate all possibilities,” including, NECESSARILY FOR THE VALIDITY OF HIS ARGUMENT, the domain of “nothing,” is to make a confused a priori assertion lacking any empirical foundation; how do physical laws necessarily exist in a domain he defines as not having them! In Dr. Krauss’s view, if we can’t empirically test an idea “we call it impotent.” (Stockholm Debate, 28:20).

    2). The simple “bookkeeping problem” of kinetic and gravitational energy fails ultimately to prove the point of cosmic genesis from the above definition of “nothing.” Think of a billiard table; think of an equal number of positive (kinetic energy) and negative (gravitational energy) billiard balls; they sit on the table but they don’t annihilate each other, energetically speaking; the energy conservation law still applies; we have NEVER observed ENERGY DESTRUCTION, only MUTATION into a different form. Energy is STILL conserved. Are we supposed to believe in quantum scale, zero energy “universes” like “zero energy” virtual particles? The former supposedly emerging “quantum mechanically” from the above defined “nothing” as a quantum gravity “variable” (Stockholm Lecture, 53:00), a variable in a quantum theory that has not yet been formulated! Dr. Krauss states EXPLICITLY his defined “nothing” cannot function quantum mechanically because there are NO QUANTUM LAWS in his concept of “nothing.” Note also that the latter, “virtual particles,” always emerge from an ENERGETIC FIELD; one can’t empirically observe something i.e. “absolute nothing,” that is DEFINED as non empirical!
    What if just one or two of the “positive” billiard balls on the billiard table were larger or smaller, by some very small amount, as would be the case on a quantum scale in the early universe. How would that work? Positive and negative energies would certainly not cancel to zero. We are told by Dr. Krauss that the cosmic microwave background radiation measurement indicates a flat universe to an accuracy of +/-1%. (Stockholm Lecture, 32:00). but ACTUALLY, he tells us, we live in a CLOSED UNIVERSE because a “closed universe” is the only universe with zero total energy! (Stockholm Lecture, 54:15). It ionly appears flat because the universe is so large, but as Bengt Gustafsson, the Swedish astronomer in the Stockholm Debate noted, there is a potential problem vis-à-vis the error margin in the Omega measurement (Stockholm Debate, 4:31). The question of the possibility of “excessive extrapolation” from data, data that must be extraordinarily accurate to justify the conclusions, is a real possibility.

    3). Dr. Krauss does concede that our cosmos could have come from something physically greater and eternally existing, with meta-laws that transcend our universe’s specific laws: this being “the multi-verse.” But, he nevertheless:
    a). Doesn’t admit that a PHYSICAL LINK is necessary to any previous cosmic “phase” or “domain,” as would be the case if he considered that Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss didn’t exist a hundred thousand years ago, but nevertheless must have had a GENETIC, PHYSICAL link to a previous life stream which makes his present existence possible.
    b.) clings tenaciously to a metaphysical definition of “nothing” because he apparently has no clear conception of the demarcation line between the “physical” and the “nonphysical.” We can use Dr. Sean Carroll’s beloved Boltzmann entropy formula in this context:
    S=k log W
    Where a.) W = { } “set of microstates,” and
    b.) W is equal to or greater than one = a “physical state.”
    c.) W = { 0 }, a null set = a “non-physical state.
    ***** ***** *****
    In conclusion. I would like to bring to your attention an alternate cosmic evolutionary viewpoint:
    “Aeons before the Big Bang”
    Lecture by Sir Roger Penrose,
    November 18, 2011
    Kraków Methodological Conference: Physics and Philosophy. (YouTube).
    T.E. Oakley

    Sent from my iPhone

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  198. allan j says:

    There’s a lot of discussion of Krauss. It may have been missed in the blizzard of comments so I’m repeating the link Professor Brown gave to his own thoughts on the subject.

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  199. paul kramarchyk says:

    Why Does the World Exist? —- Jim Holt and Stephen Colbert

    Why Does the World Exist? —- Jim Holt and Sean Carroll

    After Stephen Colbert, Sean Carroll does the 2nd best job of answering, “Why Does the World Exist?” Jim Holt doesn’t buy either answer. Too bad, because both Stephen and Sean are correct.

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  200. 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.

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  201. 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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  203. 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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  205. 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.

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  206. 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.

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  207. 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.

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  208. 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.

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  209. 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.

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  210. 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.

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  211. 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.

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  212. 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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  213. Pingback: The Mumbling Philosopher | PicturesDotNews -the LifeStyle Magazine

  214. 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.

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  215. 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.

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  216. 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.

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  217. 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.

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  218. 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.

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  219. Adem says:

    Je suis pour le moment nouveau. Je viens de découvrir cette page après qu’un ami me la recommandée. Je vais la lire plus tard, mais je veux garder son lien.

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  220. Adem says:

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

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  221. 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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  222. Pingback: Why scientists should talk to philosophers | Climate Etc.

  223. 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.

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  224. 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.

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