Why Physicists Need Philosophers

Illustration for article titled Why Physicists Need Philosophers

There's a spat brewing between some theoretical physicists and philosophers of science recently, and NPR's Adam Frank has all the details. It started when one philosopher of science, David Albert, questioned the notion that the universe came "from nothing," as the title of Laurence Krauss' new book claims. This quickly escalated into a debate over whether philosophy of science was even a worthwhile endeavor, or just a distraction from the hard, nuts-and-bolts work of figuring out the nature of the universe.


Frank has a great explanation of just why these physicists are wrong to dismiss philosophy out of hand:

Richard Feynman was famously scornful of the philosophy of science. He thought it was immune to finding relevant results or making real progress. But the problem is that we aren't living in Richard Feynman's age of physics anymore. Something strange happened on the way to the modern intersection of cosmology and foundational physics. Some measure of philosophical sophistication seems helpful, if nothing else, in confronting this new landscape.

Its one thing for physicists exploring carbon nanotubes to say they have no use for philosophy. Their work lives or dies by experimental data that can be collected tomorrow. But over the last few decades, cosmology and foundational physics have become dominated by ideas that that appear to take a page from science fiction and, more importantly, remain firmly untethered to data.

Concepts like hidden dimensions of reality (string theory) or hidden infinite possible parallel universes (the multiverse) are radical revisions of the very concept of reality. Since detailed contact with experimental data might be decades away, theorists have relied mainly on mathematical consistency and "aesthetics" to guide their explorations. In light of these developments, it seems absurd to dismiss philosophy as having nothing to do with their endeavors.


Read the rest over at Frank's NPR blog.

Top Image: T. Piner.

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As a graduate student in the philosophy of physics, I get the impression that a lot of the commenters here don’t really understand what philosophers of physics actually study or do. Philosophers of physics (like David Albert) are part of the analytic, not continental, tradition, which means they have a sophisticated understanding of the science they write about, treat it with a great deal of respect, and are focused on rigorous logical argumentation. They do not write about postmodern BS, and arguing that all philosophers are worthless because some continental figures are worthless would be tantamount to me arguing that all scientists haven’t figured out anything useful about the behavior of subatomic matter because biologists haven’t. To argue this way is a logical fallacy (something philosophers are useful for pointing out).

But if you don’t believe that philosophy of physics has something useful to contribute to physics, here’s an example for you. One central question in the philosophy of physics is how we should understand quantum mechanics (QM). We may want to know what we should take QM to be about. It’s worth noting that, in some (but not all) cases, this is no longer an empirical question: for instance, the traditional Copenhagen interpretation of QM is empirically equivalent to the Everett "many worlds" interpretation of QM. So, if we can’t do an experiment to settle the issue, we need to resort to some other method, which is where philosophers of physics come in.

One might think that this kind of work is useless; after all, physics gives us good predictions, so why should we care what it tells us about the world? I can think of at least two reasons: first, we may want to understand the fundamental constitution of the world (that is, we may be interested in projects in metaphysics), and we may think that, to execute them properly, we should probably understand and take seriously the science that focuses on these fundamental constituents. But secondly, I think having a good interpretation of QM goes a long way towards making it easier to learn. QM has turned off a lot of physics students, as well as commenters I’ve noticed on this site, because it’s so hard to understand what’s going on. QM, as it’s currently taught today, seems to live by Feynman’s dictum to just "shut up and calculate", but if the whole reason we got into physics in the first place was to understand what the world is really like (as it was for me back when I was an undergraduate), we’re going to be sorely disappointed when we’re given stories about detector click frequencies rather than the behavior of very small particles or fields.

I have other examples I can pull from the philosophy of physics, but for the moment I just want to ask: if this is the kind of work philosophers of physics do, then why do so many of you dismiss its value out of hand? I am genuinely interested in your answers to this question.