Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Physicists against philosophy

Jim Holt writes in a NY Times op-ed:
Lawrence Krauss ... responded to the review by calling the philosopher who wrote it “moronic” and arguing that philosophy, unlike physics, makes no progress and is rather boring, if not totally useless. ...

This is hardly the first occasion on which physicists have made disobliging comments about philosophy. Last year at a Google “Zeitgeist conference” in England, Stephen Hawking declared that philosophy was “dead.” Another great physicist, the Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, has written that he finds philosophy “murky and inconsequential” and of no value to him as a working scientist. And Richard Feynman, in his famous lectures on physics, complained that “philosophers are always with us, struggling in the periphery to try to tell us something, but they never really understand the subtleties and depths of the problem.”

Why do physicists have to be so churlish toward philosophy? Philosophers, on the whole, have been much nicer about science.
No, philosophers are not nice to science. Most of them subscribe to a theory of Kuhnian paradigm shifts. This theory says that science does not make progress towards truth, and new theories are not measurably superior to old ones. It is a direct attack on what science is all about.

That being said, Krauss wrote a pretentious and crappy book. If he writes about philosophy, then he should be willing to defend himself against criticisms from philosophers.
Mr. Weinberg has attacked philosophical doctrines like “positivism” (which says that science should concern itself only with things that can actually be observed). But positivism happens to be a mantle in which Mr. Hawking proudly wraps himself; he has declared that he is “a positivist who believes that physical theories are just mathematical models we construct, and that it is meaningless to ask if they correspond to reality.”
Hawking said that in his 1996 book with Penrose, Nature of Space and Time. He repudiated that in his 2010 book with Mlodinow, The Grand Design, where he advocates M-theory and Model-dependent realism. No positivist would ever speak in favor of M-theory.

It is hard to take psychology seriously as long as S. Freud is its biggest hero, hard to take anthropology seriously as long as M. Mead is its biggest hero, and hard to take philosophy of science seriously as long as T. Kuhn is its biggest hero.
Today the world of physics is in many ways conceptually unsettled. Will physicists ever find an interpretation of quantum mechanics that makes sense? Is “quantum entanglement” logically consistent with special relativity? Is string theory empirically meaningful? How are time and entropy related? Can the constants of physics be explained by appeal to an unobservable “multiverse”? Philosophers have in recent decades produced sophisticated and illuminating work on all these questions. It would be a pity if physicists were to ignore it.


  1. I think the reason why physicists don't usually like the subject of philosophy is because it is usually written in a natural language like English or German without special symbols.

    Physicists like to see reality described by equations, with exact symbols.

  2. I think some physicists chomp at the bit because they're also ipso facto members of the set Philosophers, which is less exclusive (paraphrasing: "Everyone is a philosopher.", A. Rand, 'Philosophy: Who Needs It?", commencement speech at West Point, 1974). (http://www.tracyfineart.com/usmc/philosophy_who_needs_it.htm)

    Choice of axioms is always philosophical, be it in math or science. Choice of meta-axioms, be in in math or science, is likewise ... ad infinitum. A choice to apply Bayesian as opposed to classical statistical analysis is a philosophical choice.

    Our culture has expressions like "If pressed, ..." and science does faithfully incorporate that notion in the form of 2AFC experiments (Two Alternatives, Forced Choice). I believe many scientists fall victim to what a friend of mine remarked about one of them (another friend of mine): "He seems like the type who's ony comfortable in his physics lab; out in the field, he falls apart". Under 2AFC axiom-choice, most scientists would (what's the phrase from psychology?) "subconsciously generate intense defense mechanisms 'calculated' to suppress the fact that they're also, at root, philosophers" -- engaging in Philosophy -- and right along with it, the corollary that they've no especial acumen therewithin.

  3. "Philosophers have in recent decades produced sophisticated and illuminating work on all these questions."