Lately there has been a slew of physicists making claims like this:
Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. [Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design 2011, p5]
My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, what are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning? [Neil deGrasse Tyson]
… physics has encroached on philosophy. Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then “natural philosophy” became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers. This sense that somehow physicists, because they can’t spell the word “philosophy,” aren’t justified in talking about these things, or haven’t thought deeply about them. … Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, “those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.” And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t. [Lawrence Krauss]
Physicists do of course carry around with them a working philosophy. For most of us, it is a rough-and-ready realism, a belief in the objective reality of the ingredients of our scientific theories. But this has been learned through the experience of scientific research and rarely from the teachings of philosophers. This is not to deny all value to philosophy, much of which has nothing to do with science. I do not even mean to deny all value to the philosophy of science, which at its best seems to me a pleasing gloss on the history and discoveries of science. But we should not expect it to provide today’s scientists with any useful guidance about how to go about their work or about what they are likely to find. [Steve Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory, p167]
My son is taking a course in philosophy, and last night we were looking at something by Spinoza and there was the most childish reasoning! There were all these attributes, and Substances, and all this meaningless chewing around, and we started to laugh. Now how could we do that? Here’s this great Dutch philosopher, and we’re laughing at him. It’s because there’s no excuse for it! In the same period there was Newton, there was Harvey studying the circulation of the blood, there were people with methods of analysis by which progress was being made! You can take every one of Spinoza’s propositions, and take the contrary propositions, and look at the world and you can’t tell which is right.” [Richard P. Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, p195]
Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. [Ascribed to Feynman, but probably from Weinberg]
What is all this? Physicists used to not only value philosophy but do it. Einstein is a case in point; his contributions to his Schillp volume in Library of Living Philosophers are straight-out philosophical discussions of his theories and their implication for epistemology. Heisenberg is another example. Schrödinger another. Sometime after the second world war, however, physicists shifted from philosophical reflections about physics to cant against philosophy.
We might see this as a shift in education. Physicists after the nuclear and quantum age had to specialise much earlier and do more math than before. The liberal education of older physicists was trimmed down so that philosophy had almost no place in their training.
Or we might see it as a case of the industrialisation of physics. As “big science” took root, physics became more technological and high cost, and the practical exigencies of running accelerators and colliders became important. Industrial activities are rarely reflective.
Or we might see it as the hegemony of American pragmatism, eschewing theoretical problems in favour of just getting the job done.
But I think that the main reason is what we might think of as disciplinary over-reach. The deeper physics gets to fundamental realities, the less inclined physicists are to think that anything is beyond their reach. Philosophical problems abound in physics, of course. Krauss’ claim that “something comes from nothing” turns out to be a standard reductionist account: so-called particles are nothing but quantum fields and energy. The causes of quantum fields are not addressed, so something still has to be (philosophically) accounted for. Likewise the often made claim that philosophy makes no progress is simply the result of not thinking that progress is anything but physics. Debates over metaphysics, epistemology and aesthetics have definitely made progress. What the physicists want, however, are fixed and final answers. And the irony here is that they don’t seem to get there either. While we are sure enough about some (not all) of the properties of fundamental particles and fields, there are an indefinitely large number of possible theories about them (10500, at last count, and rising). What was that about progress, again?
Disciplines in academe tend to compete for a decreasing amount of funding and resources, both in terms of money and students, and physics is very big business. The notion that people might do work that is relevant to what they do who are not physicists is seriously objectionable to some physicists. An old joke (due to Asimov, I think) is that while physicists need instruments, mathematicians only need pencils, paper and erasers, and the philosophers don’t even need erasers. But this is a real caricature of philosophy. Three days ago, I attended a talk by a philosopher who started out by saying that he had been wrong on a philosophical claim and was now recanting, and this is not uncommon. Philosophy’s standards of error, however, are conceptual, not empirical (although even philosophers make empirical claims from time to time), and the criteria for error correction have to do with such things as conceptual coherence, consistency with premises (which might in fact be empirical or scientific), and the plausibility of the conclusion.
As to the quite silly claim by Hawking and Mlodinow that philosophy – especially of science and most especially of physics – hasn’t kept up with recent developments, take a browse through journals like Philosophy of Science, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Erkenntnis or Studies in History and Philosophy of Science and tell me that philosophy is not keeping up (and, what is more, relating it to history of these disciplines, something the physicists do not do very well themselves often). Yes, there is also a lot of philosophy in these journals – they are after all philosophical journals – but often the physics being discussed is very up to date, much more so than the physicists’ grasp of philosophy.
That being said, there are two reasons why physicists might dislike philosophy.
One is that for a very long time, up until the late 1960s, philosophers of science attempted not only to analyse the ways science came to know the world, and to discuss the implications of science, but to establish scientific method. Although some of these philosophers were themselves very au fait with modern science, mostly physics, they were rarely active physicists, and some of their strictures, in particular those of Karl Popper, were faintly absurd. Popper denied that science could use induction, for example, and that discovery was a matter of chance or taste or inspiration. This of course is quite contrary to the experience of many scientists who do their discovery the old fashioned way, by gathering data and generalising from that.
When some philosophers started to say things like “Science is as valid as creationism” (as Feyerabend did), this understandably got up scientists’ noses, although this particular comment occurred in a philosophical debate about authority. But in the 1970s, the so-called postmodernists became prominent, and eventually predominant, and some postmodernists took Kant too far and asserted that we create our own worlds.Scientists, who deal with a recalcitrant world (as Huxley said, nature whispers ‘yes’ but shouts ‘No!’), found this ridiculous.
But it isn’t even the postmodern challenge that soured philosophy for scientists. It is, instead, the worst cases of that kind of philosophy. The antiscience movement took root and began to attack the very idea of science for a variety of good and bad reasons. Some, such as Sokal and Bricmont, attacked it as “Fashionable Nonsense”. Of course, every discipline has good and bad examples, and one can get a totally skewed view of philosophy if you rely upon popularisations or self-appointed media stars. Let me tell you, philosophy looks very different within the discipline than it does in the media.
It seems to me that it is time to stop these silly pissing contests. Philosophy is philosophy and physics is physics, and each can equitably accommodate the other with a bit of good will and charity.