Friday, May 1, 2015

Defending philosophers of physics

Tim Maudlin writes on Why Physics Needs Philosophy:
How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality?….Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge. —Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

This passage from the 2012 book “The Grand Design” set off a firestorm (or at least a brushfire) of controversy. ...

In fact, several leading philosophers of physics hold doctorates in physics. Yet they chose to affiliate with philosophy departments rather than physics departments because so many physicists strongly discourage questions about the nature of reality. The reigning attitude in physics has been “shut up and calculate”: solve the equations, and do not ask questions about what they mean. ...

Comprehending quantum theory is an even deeper challenge. What does quantum theory imply about “the nature of reality?” Scientists do not agree about the answer; they even disagree about whether it is a sensible question.
The problems surrounding quantum theory are not mathematical. They stem instead from the unacceptable terminology that appears in presentations of the theory. ...

Philosophers strive for conceptual clarity.
Maudlin is a smart guy who understands a lot of physics, but do physicists really need philosophers to lecture them on the nature of reality?

I just don't see that Philosophy has told Physics anything significant about quantum theory. He does not want to accept the common understanding of 1930, but what we have today is not much better.

On the other hand, Physics is overrun with crackpots of their own. Even Scientific American articles talk about parallel universes, black hole firewalls, and other nonsense.

I do not think that physicist hostility to philosopher is based on a differing view of realism, or in the lack of important contributions by philosophers. Most important are the philosophers at war with physics. Notice how Maudlin attacks physicists for ignoring the meaning of what they do, and of using unacceptable terminology. Other philosophers actively deny that physics are rational, or that they make progress, or that they find objective truths. So of course physicists do not think much of those philosophers.

1 comment:

  1. These demarcation disputes, which you are deploring, bring to mind the country gent who when asked for directions to somewhere by some lost travelers scratched his head and said, "Well I wouldn't have started from here".