Why do physicists hate philosophy?

NotDead

Coming soon as a movie to a philosophy department near you.

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.

81 thoughts on “Why do physicists hate philosophy?

  1. I found Richard P. Feynman’s remarks interesting particularly his question. “Now how could we do that? Here’s this great Dutch philosopher, and we’re laughing at him.”

    I would suggest its because its a well worn cultural strategy long used in attacks on natural history and science.

    Richard P. Feynman’s a product of his culture and its one that seems very conservative in the way it communicates to the public. Populist and patronizing

    Beniot de Maillet was resurrected from the dead to ridicule natural history most notable the ideas of Buffon and Lord Monboddo was used in exactly the same manner to demonstrate that Darwin was a fool.

    Its not the most convincing strategy and in terms of education and teaching I would describe it is a car crash.

    I also note that the writer seems as bad at asking historical questions as I would be at asking ones about physics. Seems to say something about our modern education system as such blindness and ignorance with regard to other disciplines is certainly not a traditional feature of science or the arts.

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    1. It’s worth noting that Feynman marks the beginning of antiphilosophy among physicists. Up until that point, physicists thought philosophy was something like mathematics: a useful tool that educated men must take seriously (I say “men”, because at that time, that is how they would have said it).

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      1. “marks the beginning”

        I wondered if the story telling element is effectively a foundation legend. If memory serves me correct Hawkins ends his statement with the light bringer myth and ‘the torch of knowledge’ being past on (speculate the statement was made because he either has something to sell or is about to announce he is changing his name by deed poll to Obi Wan Kinobi).

        I wonder if its an attempt to infer that the natural order of intellectual life is hierarchical and someone must stand at the head of the great chain of being. Philosophy would be an obvious and attractive target simply from a story- telling perspective given its traditional placement in tales about the order of knowledge.

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        1. It would seem that the myths goes – once there were philosophers and now there are scientists….
          It is almost like the creationist canard about if humans evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys…
          Both missing the point.

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          1. Could be worse, as an older creationist canard was certainly to accept a relationship between humanity and lesser hybrids as a form of moral instruction demonstrating the sinful nature of out -groups.

            Tales told primarily for entertainment and moral instruction.

            “It would seem that the myths goes – once there were philosophers and now there are scientists….”

            I have only read one example but that was certainly the pattern. If its replicated, with a slight historical back-story praising philosophy’s then its certainly a functioning and live migratory foundation legend.

            You would expect creationist to use the same narrative strategies, you don’t need any knowledge of science to engage in a highly effective manner here, this is a manipulative strategy where the same emotions can be replicated and shared and shared goals can be reached within groups ( e.g Feynman and his son developing identical emotional responses) and it does seem to be the manner in which extreme ideas gain wider social currency.

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            1. I would answer that with a medieval tale on a not dissimilar reception of texts issue.

              “God First”

              “William de Braose was a rich and powerful man. As such he had to send letters all over the place; and it was his habit to overload them, or perhaps I should say to honor them, with words which asked the favor of Gods indulgence in this way, to the point where it became quite boring not only to his scribes but also to the recipients when they had the letters to read aloud to them.”

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  2. I forgot to add the positive point. I suspect this type of activity may be an indication you are dealing with very creative people. To be successful and go down in history requires a strong social component, its a seriously high sell activity and this type of behavior is not universal but certainly not uncommon across a range of creative professions.

    In an educational setting it is a disaster as i think it can stifle individual creativity as you are expected to conform to the perspective of the large social constructed elephant that leads the class.

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  3. It is really quite simple: the physicists cannot explain what they are doing or why by the principles of their physics (whether by wave mechanics, particle physics, or relativity). The investigating being escapes their mechanisms by its failure “to follow its natural laws”, becoming confused from devising all kinds of great absurdities to live by. Without an understanding of our own ignorance, modern science teaches we can know everything, but that we are nothing. Pascal shows us the two abysses which should terrify the physicists, but they think take can take refuge in particles, waves, and functions. We must rest satisfied with understanding their ignorance, which is also to understand why they are necessarily incorrigible.

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  4. There is also the individual moral element in which the physicist has difficulty recognizing the observation that modern science has allowed for the massive exploitation of nature and the degradation of the human condition.

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  5. My father is a Theoretical Physicist of some repute (Daniel Gogny), and in all my dealings with him (which as you might guess, have been lifelong) and his colleagues, nothing could be further from the truth.

    The difficulty I see is one of translation. A historic “drift” in directions over the past century or so has torn the two apart-One having it’s origins in the other. So much so, that the silos they have erected around their respective institutions, has lead to lexical deviations, distinguishing the fields frameworks.

    Simply put, when prompted on philosophy, the physicist who goes to speak will utter one phrase, only to pause mid sentence-for judging by the look of puzzled bewilderment on the philosophers face, the physicist’s misuse of terms is so foreign, so egregious even, that the two couldn’t possible have common ground to stand on.

    So the scientist defers to the “safe” resort- differing one to someone with expertise, or by denying the existence of philosophy altogether.

    There is nothing to bridge the two together, other that in the philosophy of physics, which is still principled guided by those coming from a background in philosophy primarily, and whose mission is to interpret theory, not tackle the dichotomy by opening a dialogue to two entirely different departments by now. That is, science and the humanities.

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