A Scientist On Philosophy, The “Thankless Job” That Succeeds Through Superfluousness


[R]egardless of whom you want to assign the task of reaching across the line [between physics and philosophy], presently little crosses it. Few practicing physicists today care what philosophers do or think.

And as someone who has tried to write about topics on the intersection of both fields, I can report that this disciplinary segregation is meanwhile institutionalized: The physics journals won’t publish on the topic because it’s too much philosophy, and the philosophy journals won’t publish because it’s too much physics…

To me, the part of philosophy that is relevant to physics is what I’d like to call “pre-science”—sharpening questions sufficiently so that they can eventually be addressed by scientific means… 

Philosophers in that area are necessarily ahead of scientists. But they also never get the credit for actually answering a question, because for that they’ll first have to hand it over to scientists. Like a psychologist, thus, the philosopher of physics succeeds by eventually making themselves superfluous. It seems a thankless job…

That’s physicist Sabine Hossenfelder (Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies) writing on the value of philosophy for physicists, the ignorance some philosophers display in regards to physics, and the segregation between those who work in these disciplines, at Backreaction.

Philosophy isn’t useful for practicing physicists… But I think it’s an unfortunate situation because physicists—especially those who work on the foundations of physics—could need help from philosophers. 

She names some she calls “good philosophers”: David Albert (Columbia), Jeremy Butterfield (Cambridge), Tim Maudlin (NYU), and Steven Weinstein (Waterloo). But still, she says, too few philosophers and physicists are willing to engage with material across “the line” that separates their respective fields, and the result is that we have some bad philosophers:

Many of the “bad philosophers” are those who aren’t quick enough to notice that a question they are thinking about has been taken over by scientists. That this failure to notice can evidently persist, in some cases, for decades is another institutionalized problem that originates in the lack of communication between both fields.

When pressed for examples of “bad philosophy” in the comments at her post, Hossenfelder replies:

Philosophers discussing the “hole problem” (which is no more), the “twin paradox” (dito), the “problem of infinities” in quantum field theory (not referring to non-renormalizable theories in particular, also a problem of the past), philosophers discussing the laws of nature without knowing what a Hamilton evolution is (mind blown), philosophers discussing emergence without knowing what effective field theory is (PLEASE!), philosophers taking about “gravity” without knowing what a manifold is (bury me now) and I once suffered through a talk by a philosopher who apparently invented some crude type of matrix model, not knowing that this is something physicists have been on for decades (and that his variant was obviously incapable of reproducing observations, for example because he assumed particle number is a conserved quantity)… Then there was the philosopher who insisted that one can’t introduce a preferred slicing in Minkowski space (which of course one can), and so on. Don’t get me started on the supposed problem of “now” which in most of its incarnation is a problem merely of assuming the human brain is a point. Let me stop here. All very tiresome. No, I will not name names.

Philosophers—especially philosophers of science, and most especially philosophers of physics—what say you? What’s of value in what Hossenfelder says? Does she have too narrow a view of what makes philosophy of physics useful, or of what philosophy of physics is about? Is she right about the lack of institutionalized means for communication between philosophers of physics and physicists? (…Or is her understanding of philosophy a casualty of it?) And if so, what is to be done to improve things?

(Thanks to @TrueSciPhi for bringing Hossenfelder’s post to my attention.)

Joan Miró, "Blue III"

Joan Miró, “Blue III”

 

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Flavius Id
Flavius Id
4 years ago

Good philosophers of physics are aware of each of the examples mentioned here. As for the lack of interest in phil-sci from physicists, why is this a problem? Do physicists read articles published by chemists? Do particle physicists know what’s going on in condensed matter research? With the odd exception, the answers are no and no. Some individual scientists might have interests outside of their own narrow specializations, but those sorts of pursuits don’t lead to publications or grants. In other words, there are systemic pressures not to spend one’s limited time poking around in other disciplines. Yet philosophers of physics get a bad wrap because physicists aren’t interacting with their work. Why would we expect anything else in the modern academy?Report

Georg
Georg
Reply to  Flavius Id
4 years ago

The point is that even individual scientists or groups that are narrowly specialized nonetheless collaborate fruitfully across scientific boundaries. Your examples are badly chosen: the experimental realization of the Casimir effect in QED relies on the chemistry of carbon nanotubes among other chemical/bio-physical media; an experiment to detect WIMP dark matter uses DNA in a ‘nucleic acid tracking chamber’ and the tools of genomic sequencing; the consolidation of the standard model is the shining example of cross-fertilization between particle and condensed matter theory; the list goes on. I don’t have a good answer to the normative dimension of your first and last questions in the specific case of philphys, though. Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Flavius Id
4 years ago

Doing our duty as philosophers will be difficult for all the reasons you give above and more. But the moral isn’t that we should give up but that we are going to have to work hard to deal with these problems. At the very least, we’d better give making a positive contribution a serious try before we give up.Report

Joe Rachiele
Joe Rachiele
4 years ago

Yes, the first sentence is true regarding the opinion of physicts about philosophy as a whole. Then there’s this: “Philosophy isn’t useful for the practicing physicist.” Is her statement about the value to physicists of reading research articles in the philosophy of physics? Is it about the value of talking to philosophers of physics? It sounds like it’s about the value of something else, “philosophy,” whatever exactly that is. I’d say she’s wrong on all three interpretations.

Suppose for simplicity that philosophy were the study of making conceptual distinctions and evaluating reasons for belief. Conceptual clarity and argumentative rigor are virtues from which the theoretical physics literature could benefit.

In general, there is plenty of cross-displinary work and publications going on in the foundations of physics community–much of it quite technical. The work of many contemporary philosophers of physics is a part of the “same scientific project” as that of many theoretical physicists and mathematicians. Philosophers of physics are actively contributing to this interdisciplinary work. I see David Malament, Sean Carroll, and Shelly Goldstein as all working in the foundations of physics, even if they work on different topics in different departments. Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

Many metaphysicians need a better understanding of science, as do philosophers commenting on metaphysical questions, and (and this is the largest and most guilty group) philosophers who don’t think about metaphysics at all but beg the question on metaphysical issues that have bearing on their areas of specialization

Scientists need a better understanding of philosophy. Philosophers must do a much better job of helping them. Philosophers write very little to be read by people who are not fellow professional philosophers. We place little value on such publications.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
4 years ago

.”… and (and this is the largest and most guilty group) philosophers who don’t think about metaphysics at all but beg the question on metaphysical issues that have bearing on their areas of specialization….”

Yes! It is astonishing and inexplicable but it does seem to be a common practice. Report

Wayne Myrvold
Wayne Myrvold
4 years ago

This seems to be an endless cycle: a physicist makes dismissive remarks about philosophy; philosophers and other physicists leap to the defense of our profession, and on and on….

Hossenfelder’s attitude is shared by many, but by no means all physicists. To take just one example: last month I had the privilege of attending a lecture by the wonderful Carlo Rovelli, “Why Physics Needs Philosophy” (video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJ0uPkG-pr4 for those who are interested). This was a keynote talk at Foundations 2016, a large conference on foundations of physics attended by an abundance of physicists and philosophers of science of the good kind.

In these discussions, I have to ask: what’s at stake? I enjoy interacting with the physicists who are interested in philosophy, and welcome the prospect of interacting with more. On the whole, I think there’s a fairly healthy interplay between physicists and philosophers, exhibited at conferences like the one I just mentioned and at many others, and, in the journals, including the one that I co-edit, Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics. If there were a risk that all of that would fall apart, I would be concerned. But I’m not particularly bothered by the fact that Lawrence Krauss or Sabine Hossenfelder or any other physicist occasionally makes a dismissive remark about our profession. I always welcome more physicists to the ranks of those who are interested in engaging in philosophy, but I see no need to try to convert the entire profession.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Wayne Myrvold
4 years ago

A “fairly healthy interplay between physicists and philosophers” to what end? I can understand (though I disagree with) those who think we have nothing to offer one another, but I find it hard to see why someone would think the present level of interaction is good but that it wouldn’t be better to have more. Why is the present level important and why wouldn’t more be important for the same reasons?Report

Charles Pence
4 years ago

While I’m not up on the current literature on the hole problem or the twin paradox, those pieces of her comment seem to reproduce a pattern I’ve often seen when scientists talk about questions in the philosophy of science. “Problem P isn’t actually a problem anymore, haven’t you heard?” is very often equivalent to “I consider philosophical solution S to problem P so transparently obvious that I believe the problem to have been eliminated entirely.” Which is a perfectly fine position to hold, but is also a philosophical claim requiring more argument than saying “(which is no more)” in a parenthetical.Report

Joe Rachiele
Joe Rachiele
Reply to  Charles Pence
4 years ago

Good Morning!

I read her entire post but not the comments, so I’m lacking the context here. But it seemed like she was thinking that the first three examples were problems that had been solved by science, so were “bad philosophy.” So I’m not sure she was smuggling in her favored philosophical solutions so much as just doing “bad philosophy.” Anyway, let me say something specific about the examples.

The various incarnations of the hole problem simply haven’t been solved by science, though many scientists hold this mistaken view. (This is a bit technical. But, the “hole transformation” obviously relates empirically indistinguishable spacetimes–no scientific problem here. Mathematically, these models of GR are diffeomorphically related, which many scientists assume implies that these distinct models represent the same spacetime. But, here’s one “philosophical” question: do the models represent physically/metaphysically distinct but empirically indistinguishable sitation? If not, explain why these mathematically distinct models of GR related by a hole transformation represents the same physical spacetime. The latter task is harder than it first seems to many physicists.)

Again, the so-called “twin paradox” is no scientific mystery. But metaphysicians might discuss it’s relevance for the metaphysics of time.

I’m not sure what she means by the problem of “infinities in QFT.” There is obviously no *practical* problem with arbitrarily imposing cut-offs on the Hamiltonians and Lagrangians in QFT. But that doesn’t entail that there are no issues, “philosophical” or even “broadly scientific,” to be discussed. Report

Joe Rachiele
Joe Rachiele
Reply to  Joe Rachiele
4 years ago

In the parenthesis that should read: “…scientists assume this implies these distinct mathematical models represent the same *physical* spacetime.”

Sorry, I’m typing quickly on a phone.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
4 years ago

—“Philosophy isn’t useful for practicing physicists… But I think it’s an unfortunate situation because physicists—especially those who work on the foundations of physics—could need help from philosophers.”

Why gives a fig for what physicists think? No, really. Only rarely do I stumble on a physicist who has anything sensible to say about philosophy and usually they were writing before 1960. One could just as easily say that physics isn’t useful for practicing philosophers. Physics is an essentially trivial undertaking from a philosophical perspective and I feel we should tell physicists to go count quarks.

Can physics ever make a difference to metaphysics? Its problems haven’t changed since the axe was invented. What has modern physics changed? When wearing my metaphysician’s hat I struggle to see what is important about physics. No doubt someone will put me right.

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Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  PeterJ
4 years ago

Well, for one, modern physics makes it very hard to be a presentist, because the special theory of relativity gets rid of objective simultaneity . That’s not the only example by a long stretch, but it is a good one. Another simple example is that if there really is randomness at the qantum level, then detrminism is false.Report

Tomas
Tomas
4 years ago

I’m one of the dumb-dumbs who talks about laws of nature without knowing what a Hamilton evolution is. Would anyone be so kind as to provide a link or two to help cure my ignorance? Thanks in advance. 🙂Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
4 years ago

Hey Nonny Mouse –

–“Well, for one, modern physics makes it very hard to be a presentist,…”

Time was always a problem if we view it is as metaphysically real. Has physics changed this? It seems to be stuck with the same problem that Time has always presented. It may make more sense today than ever to say that time is conceptual, but it always did make more sense than time as an ontological fundamental.

–“Another simple example is that if there really is randomness at the quantum level, then determinism is false.”

Not for me. More of an argument would be required. I’ll ponder some more on this though since you might have a point. At any rate, randomness does not help us with defending freewill.

Not being churlish, I just don’t see how physics has changed anything. Do philosophers today find metaphysics any easier than in the past? There is no sign of this. I might be more inclined to agree if we included Schrodinger, Mohrhoff, Davies and a few like-minded physicists but these thinkers have had no impact on academic metaphysics as yet and anyway, it’s not so much their physics that is interesting to philosophy but their interpretations of the data – which is not physics but philosophy.

The clincher for me is that physics has yet to falsify the claim that the Perennial philosophy is correct. In this case it cannot have had a significant impact on philosophy. If anything it has lent credence to this claim and perhaps in this way, if it goes on lending credence, physics will eventually influence philosophy.

Perhaps I’d concede that physics could and should have this influence on philosophy but I would argue that that it hasn’t done so yet. Most philosophers seem to ignore physics as if QM never happened. The exceptions are not influential.

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Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  PeterJ
4 years ago

@PeterJ, modern physics has had a big impact on metaphysics, as a quick review of modern textbooks on metaphysics will show. Regarding your replies to my two examples, they depend on controversial opinions of yours that not all philosophers share. Physics is going to be relevant to the work of philosopher’s who don’t share them.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
4 years ago

Strange how you see things so differently. Metaphysics is where it always was. What has changed? Metaphysicians talk about physics more than they used to, maybe, but this is hardly a significant change.

My response to your examples does not depend on my opinions. None of this is a matter of opinion but is easily sorted out by a review of the literature. No progress due to physics (or anything else) is visible. This is not an opinion but a scientific fact. hence all the complaints from the sciences.

For confirmation even a proper review is hardly necessary. just check out the current Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics. 20th century physics has made not a jot of difference.
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A
A
4 years ago

A little background: I’m a grad student with a hard science foundation (physics) who fell in love with philosophy. I run into this problem all the time, with students and professors alike. Many of my physics mentors can’t understand at all why I would be remotely interested in philosophy, and my science background is routinely misnomered as scientism every time I explain the hard facts of why beloved philosopher x was on the right track but ultimately wrong. One of my favorite admonitions from a senior and quite well-known Ivy League philosopher was, “Yes, and thanks; this is a delightfully fascinating topic, but the scientific study of time has little relevance to the metaphysical and phenomenological study of time. They are two completely separate things.” And they are, if you’re determined to use contradictory and undefinable (and ultimately meaningless) Heideggerian terms for experiential layers of time but disallow any cognitive, psychological, and physical explanations. Report