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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Groovybaby says:

    Infringing, not infronging. Stupid fat fingers…

  4. 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?

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. Pingback: Not All Physicists » Pharyngula

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. colnago80 says:

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

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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?

    :p

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

  16. 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.

  17. Random Excess says:

    Kant Weyl get along?

  18. 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.

  19. 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 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sturgeon%27s_law

  20. 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.

  21. 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?

  22. 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.

  23. 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?

  24. 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

  25. 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.