More Feynman on philosophers

Take note: he’s writing this in the dark ages of philosophy of science (1965):

Another most interesting change in the ideas and philosophy of science brought about by quantum mechanics is this: it is not possible to predict exactly what will happen in any circumstance. For example, it is possible to arrange an atom which is ready to emit light, and we can measure when it has emitted light by picking up a photon particle, which we shall describe shortly. We cannot, however, predict when it is going to emit the light or, with several atoms, which one is going to. You may say that this is because there are some internal “wheels” which we have not looked at closely enough. No, there are no internal wheels; nature, as we understand it today, behaves in such a way that it is fundamentally impossible to make a precise prediction of exactly what will happen in a given experiment. This is a horrible thing; in fact, philosophers have said before that one of the fundamental requisites of science is that whenever you set up the same conditions, the same thing must happen. This is simply not true, it is not a fundamental condition of science. The fact is that the same thing does not happen, that we can find only an average, statistically, as to what happens. Nevertheless, science has not completely collapsed. Philosophers, incidentally, say a great deal about what is absolutely necessary for science, and it is always, so far as one can see, rather naive, and probably wrong. For example, some philosopher or other said it is fundamental to the scientific effort that if an experiment is performed in, say, Stockholm, and then the same experiment is done in, say, Quito, the same results must occur. That is quite false. It is not necessary that science do that; it may be a fact of experience, but it is not necessary.

From Lectures on Physics, volume I, chapter 2. Bolding added.

27 thoughts on “More Feynman on philosophers

        1. I actually like the way much philosophy of science has gone recently — more focus on facts than on language, more focus on sciences than some posited monolithic Science, more interest in both history and experiment — and good description is not to be despised, since it can be the difference between clarity and utter confusion, but I doubt philosophy of science will ever again (for better or for worse) contribute to working scientists’s understanding of their task or to the general public’s appreciation for how scientists actually work as it did during the ‘dark ages’.

          I also think philosophers today tend to delude themselves about how much they are actually avoiding prescription. When describing how something of high value works it takes extraordinary effort to avoid treating it as how things should work in general, and this is especially true when one’s mission is to try to help clear matters up. A cynical person could very well say that philosophers of science prescribe as much as they ever did; they’ve just learned to be sneakier about it by fawning and bootlicking a bit more. And while I don’t think it’s a general truth, I do thinkit fits the evidence as much as most of the more flattering descriptions.


      1. John Wilkins: Back when philosophers still thought they could prescribe, rather than describe and explain, science.

        Describing and explaining sounds to me more like sociology than philosophy. Shouldn’t philosophers be poking at the theoretical/philosophical underpinnings of various disciplines to see what scientists are doing wrong or at least what they could be doing better? “You can’t reason like that, and here’s why … ” seems like a useful bit of guidance. “Here’s what you’re doing …” with no further comment seems quite useless, since we’ve probably already noticed the methods we apply.


        1. What philosophers of science do is try to analyse and when necessary correct the conceptual condition of a theory, a school or a personal view. They do this in terms of the general tools of philosophy: logic, prior argument, and the use of conceptual analysis. So far this is useful to scientists and part of the general philosophical arsenal.

          The trouble arises when we start to insist that scientists must study things in a particular way, or try to insist that a certain interpretation of a theory is correct. Even worse is when we insist that only some particular methodology or process of inference is “truly” scientific. Science does perfectly well doing things its own way, and scientists are whores for any method that works. What we philosophers must do is explain why this works, and how “working” is specified, and so forth, always at the mercy of empirical fortune (the classic example being Kant’s declaration that space and time are absolute for conceptual reasons).

          I wish I could be as optimistic that scientists already notice the failings and methodological errors we occasionally bring to the fire and investigate. Often you do, but without the right perspective and scope (i.e., you will identify a particular error in a given context, but not generalise), but equally often it is not noticed in the thick of professional exigency. And it’s hard to go against the consensus of the discipline or field. So we can, because we don’t make our careers agreeing with everyone. Well, sometimes.

          I have been attacked for disputing the history and philosophy propounded by Ernst Mayr. I can withstand this to a degree because I am not a scientist (although I wonder sometimes how that has affected my likelihood of being interviewed for jobs). The trouble is, the attacks came from within history and philosophy of science. So I guess I just undercut my own case.


  1. Been reading The nature of philosophy and its role in modern society thread while searching out Popper. …

    Only 20% of the population have an inherent habit of critical reasoning. The other 80% of humanity have subjective ability.

    Philosophy is dated by being overly successful. The benefits of critical reasoning have accumulated and disbursed across science and technology. Now many disciplines serve as intellectual authority. The pool of those with innate ‘critical ability’ is depleted by demand from the expanded market.

    It is hard for subjective people to be objective. The converse is also so. Philosophy can evolve and renew it’s leadership role by adapting to the subjective reality while maintaining it’s innate objective nature.

    That goal isn’t easy but it is feasible. That’s why I am posting here … to do what I can to build a link between subjective and objective.


  2. I love, I just love that we’re paying attention to a guy who thinks that “some philosopher or other” is a valid way to cite an opinion allegedly held by an opponent. Imagine if a major philosopher came out with a book in which he quoted “some darwinist or other” as saying something miseleading or false, and inferred that darwinism is basically useless. Somehow, when it’s our beloved Feynman, things change, don’t they?

    I’m going to go ahead and say that Feynman is very often not worth listening to. I’ve read him and listened to his lectures, and his inability to speak coherently from a more general perspective is troubling. He was a scientific savant whose work helped to make our technology what it is today. As a spokesman for science in general, he is the equivalent of a 6 year-old child throwing mud at other children in the schoolyard. We can respect Feynman the scientist without thinking that he has anything useful at all to say about the relationship between philosophy and the sciences.

    As an aside, it looks very much like the philosopher in question may have simply been referring to the repeatability criterion for results in the sciences. He may have said something like “if you get a result in Stockholm, it should be repeatable in Quito”, which is an absolutely foundational rule in the sciences, so far as I know. No philosopher that I’ve ever read would claim that the same THING must happen given the same experimental setup, but the same RESULT (in the scientific sense) must be repeatable in this way, otherwise ghost-hunters and psychics will have to be published in Nature. This is an eminently sensible idea, and I can’t see any reason to attribute anything other than willfull ignorance to Feynman on this point.


    1. Yeah, I actually wasn’t sure if John was quoting Feynmann ironically or what. I first thought he was holding it up as an exemplar attack on strawmen philosophers.

      I also can’t help but notice that it seems to be only physicists that think it’s a major revelation that the world is fundamentally statistical.


      1. Actually you were right. I collect scientists declaring that the philosophers are all wet. And as I recall statistics were first formulated in social sciences and biology before physics. Not by much, but they were there first.

        But there were philosophers making the claims Feynman rejects here in the 1960s and earlier. Not the good ones like Nagel, but I could see a scientist getting annoyed. Mind, the earlier debates about the two tables argument I visited a few months back had sensistised physicists against philosophy. The trouble is, the physicists insist on doing philosophy themselves.

        Feynman is responding, I think, as many scientists do now when attacking philosophy, to pop philosophy.


  3. I suggest going back and reading what some prominent philosophers of science from the “dark ages” actually said. For example, it’s hard to portray Popper as a rigid determinist if you consider his work on the propensity interpretation of quantum proabilities. Similarly for Ernest Nagel, who pointed out, rightly it seems, that although individual events are not precisely predictable, probability distributions across ensembles of events are predictable. In fact, wasn’t it the benighted logical positivists who appealed to actual science (i.e., relativistic and quantum physics) to argue against naive scientific realism?


  4. When talking about philosophy, it matters a very great deal whether you define the activity as an academic discipline, i.e. what a particular bunch of college professors do, or as a generic human activity. Feynman, like every other physicist or, for that matter, everybody else, couldn’t evade doing philosophy in the later sense since even the claim that scientific results are the highest form of knowledge is not a scientific but a philosophical claim. That doesn’t mean that philosophy isn’t ridiculous, just that its absurdity is a consequence of the human condition and not the optional vanity of a particular collection of men and women. It is bound to be pretty funny when a temporary animal on a jerk water planet sets about weighing the ultimate nature of things. But how do you opt out of that? Even the sacrifice of the intellect recommended by certain versions of religion doesn’t help, because the sacrifice is itself a philosophical act. I have heard the three laws of thermodynamics summarized as you can’t win, you can’t break even, and you have to play. Maybe there’s a fourth inevitability: you can’t help thinking about it all.

    Even if we are talking about philosophy of the academic variety, Feynman’s comments aren’t very credible. I think of it as part of the man’s charm, but he really was very narrowly educated and seems to have come up with an evaluation of philosophers based on encounters with a random collection of assistant professors. There’s a certain symmetry between a physicist who reads a book or two and then makes sweeping pronouncements about philosophy and a philosopher who reads a book or two and makes sweeping pronouncements about philosophy. Of course autodidacts sometimes do see things in a fresh and useful way—Feynman got interested in Mayan hieroglyphics at one point in this life, for example, and made a small but meaningful contribution to their decipherment—but you can’t really make useful statements about a subject as complex as traditional philosophy without studying it.


  5. I’m still having a problem wrapping my head around the idea that philosphy of science was in some sort of “dark ages” in 1965. That was the year that Hempel published “Aspects of Scientific Explanation.”


    1. Which Feynman and most other philosophers of science had yet to read and profit from. Anyway, that was the tail end of that period, I think, the heyday of which was the 30s and 50s. It has to do with the rise of logical positivism, analytic philosophy and the shift out of a Kantian view of epistemology as held, for example, by that well known philosopher, Albert Einstein…


  6. “I’m still having a problem wrapping my head around the idea that philosphy of science was in some sort of “dark ages” in 1965.”

    I was running with the idea John was using the term in an ironic way. It’s a very mis-leading term based on the false assumption of imperial collapse and final slow recovery, reaching its peak in the renaissance. Whiggish dreaming.


    1. ‘Dark Ages’ seems like a good term for the 1960s to me. In ’67 I took a 3rd semester of Philo of Science — much to my surprise — after 2 terms of History of Western Philosophy (it was required), even tho I hadn’t wanted any of that mushy-headed stuff. What can I say — I was a naive Biology major. I’ve been a fan of required courses ever since. BTAIM, I came away from Philo of Science still hungry — It hardly mentioned biology or geology at all. Since then, I’ve kept my eye on it and watched philosophers tackle historically contingent sciences that deal with unique entities like organisms. Seems to me that Mayr, Sober, Dennett, Hull, Ruse, et al. have considerably enlightened our view of the nature of science, even thought there are still dark corners lurking around the
      demarcation problem.


    2. Of course it was ironic. “Dark Ages” is a term that greatly underestimates the cultural and technological developments of the early middle ages, and involves a fair bit of Whiggism indeed. Every period is its own thing, with its own virtues and vices from our perspective, and the more one looks at the scholars of the time the more one has to admire them for their achievements in difficult times.


  7. John S. Wilkins:
    It has to do with the rise of logical positivism, analytic philosophy …

    A kinder gentler and more user friendly philosophy doesn’t dull, nor hide the forcefulness of it’s inner ‘critical reasoning’ working.

    John S. Wilkins: …
    Feynman is responding, I think, as many scientists do now when attacking philosophy, to pop philosophy.

    I disagree.

    There is something profoundly ill fit and stifled about philosophy.

    It’s inner working depends upon convergence in the limit to perfect exactitude. This compromise allows for the embrace of a timeless and universal, virtual-realization (external god’s eye view). Timeless and virtual realization is exactly that … exact, perfect and without compromise.

    Backing away in differential creep to abstract upon circumstances that are relative and uncertain succeeds. .. . but is also a fallacy.

    Uncertainty and partitioning in nature do not need to automatically mean the same thing as what may be presumed in retrograding from timeless universal exactitude.

    When philosophy uses it’s strong armed forcefulness of critical reasoning appropriately that’s fine. Yet it is effortless and unfair to be a big bully with argumentative reasoning without ever realizing the misapplication of excess.


  8. The practitioners of any art are often unappreciative of those who set themselves up as its critics. So anyone who professes expertise in the philosophy of X is likely to put the backs up of those who actually do X.

    And with regard to Jim’s “symmetry between a physicist who reads a book or two and then makes sweeping pronouncements about philosophy and a philosopher who reads a book or two and makes sweeping pronouncements about philosophy” (where I presume he meant to end with “physics”), I think the symmetry is broken by the fact that Feynman’s pronouncements about philosophy were mostly about what philosophers said about physics and the philosophers’ pronouncements about physics that he objected to were about what physicists can or should do.


  9. Alan Cooper:
    The practitioners of any art are often unappreciative of those who set themselves up as its critics.

    People take things personally. Philosophers are no different.

    It is painful to see philosophers fall into what they know to avoid. That makes me feel sad.


  10. I’m a layman in both Philosophy and Physics, but I have read a fair number of Physics books that are written for the educated layman and also most everything written about Feynman. Reading the quote from the un-identified Philosopher I take it to mean he is discussing the more “hard” sciences of biology, chemistry and practical physics, where an experiment when repeated yields the same results, wherever and whenever it is performed. For example, Like when mixing the same two solutions, the same reaction always occurs. However from Feynman’s world view of science and theoretical Physics he is not looking at science from this “simplistic” viewpoint. To him and his viewpoint you have to look at things from the viewpoint of something at the theoretical and sub-microscopic level and like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, so no two experiments can ever be the same or yield the same result. The thing is, trying to read and understand Theoretical Physics from a layman’s viewpoint it ALL reads and sounds like Philosophical musings.


  11. John S. Wilkins:
    It’s a human failing. Just to the extent that philosophers are human, they are subject to this failure as much as anyone else.

    ( no need to explain )
    ( A is good , Q is indescribable perhaps )

    Indicating between subject and object can be anguish (for me who frequently migrates back and forth between the two) …

    You (who strongly engage both subject and object) have shown me the way (as sort of how you manage it) … a static solution

    subjective identity and critical reasoning are in conjunction


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