When Scientists Read Philosophy, Are They Reading The “Wrong Philosophers”?


“The trouble with physicists who denigrate philosophy is that they read the wrong philosophers, which sad to say is most philosophers.”

That’s Clark Glymour (Carnegie Mellon) in an interview with Richard Marshall at 3:AM Magazine.

Glymour distinguishes between two different approaches to philosophy, noting that the one that is more useful is not the one most philosophers identify with:

By their fruits ye shall know them. Compare Plato and Aristotle, superficially. Plato made no effective contributions to how to acquire true belief. Plato had analyses and counterexamples (The Meno) and a huge metaphysical discourse; we still don’t know necessary and conditions for virtue, the subject of the Meno. Aristotle had axioms for logic, a logic that was pretty much the best anyone could do for 2300 years. He had a schema for conducting inquiry (albeit, not a terribly good one, but it wasn’t bested until the 17th century). Euclid was not a contemporary of Plato or Aristotle, but he systematized the fragments of geometry then current. The result was a theory that could be systematically investigated mathematically, applied in a multitude of contexts, and that constituted a stalking horse for alternative theories that have proved better empirically. Euclid has no formal definition of “point” that plays any role in his mathematical geometry. Just imagine if instead the history of geometry consisted of analyses of necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be a point.

Newton, von Neummann, Schulte, Ramsey, Hilbert, Bernay, and Lewis come in for praise for their axiomizations and systematizations of physics, decision theory, first-order logic, and the logic of counterfactuals. Meanwhile, “Socratic thinking has no comparable fruits.”

That way of conceiving the landscape of philosophy informs Glymour’s answer to this question from Marshall:

Several prominent scientists, including the late Stephen Hawking, ask: if philosophical questions are so vague or general that we don’t know how to conduct experiments or systematic observations to find their answers, what does philosophy do that can be of any value? Maybe in the past it was creative and was the basis of science, but that was then: why do philosophy now? How do you answer them?

Here is Glymour’s reply:

The trouble with physicists who denigrate philosophy is that they read the wrong philosophers, which sad to say is most philosophers.   Had they read Peter Spirtes (CMU), or Jiji Zhang (Lingnan, Hong Kong) or Frederick Eberhardt (Cal Tech) or Oliver Schulte (Simon Fraser) or Teddy Seidenfeld (CMU) or Scott Weinstein (Penn), they might have had a different opinion. Looking back to the last century, philosophers (e.g., Bertrand Russell) made major advances in logic, created the basics of behavioral decision theory (Ramsey), co-created computational learning theory (Putnam), and created the causal interpretation of Bayes nets and the first correct search algorithms for them (Spirtes, Glymour and Scheines)…. One of my colleagues, Steve Awoody, made a central contribution to the creation of a new branch of mathematics, homotopic type theory.

The reason a handful of philosophers were able to make these contributions is relatively simple: they were well-prepared and in academic or financial circumstances that enabled them to think outside of disciplinary boxes and develop novel ideas in sufficient detail to make an impact, or in Ramsey’s case, lucky enough to have a later figure really develop the fundamental idea. It is a rare university department that allows for such thinkers.

Statistically, the physicist critics are pretty near correct. Philosophy of science is a deadletter subject filled with commentary book reports on real scientific work, banal methodological remarks (e.g.,scientists of a time don’t always think of true alternatives to the theories they do think of; scientists sometimes have to think at multiple “levels”), and “mathematical philosophy” some of which is very interesting but none or which is of practical scientific relevance. I once was interviewed for a job at UCLA. Pearl was invited to dinner with me and with some of my potential colleagues. Pearl managed to compliment me and insult the others with one question: “Why don’t the rest of you guys do anything?” In the context of your question, Pearl’s was a very good question.

Here is my answer to Pearl’s question: Demographics and history have killed philosophy of science. The Logical Empiricists, European émigrés just before and after World War II, had almost no interest in methodology, did not engage much in the developments in statistics or computation, and basically gave philosophy of science a reconstructive turn—the heritage of their neo-Kantianism. They educated two generations of American philosophers interested in science. By the 1980s computer science and statistics increasingly took over methodology, and (at least in computer science) began to address some of the issues that motivated me a generation earlier to study history and philosophy of science. After that, someone with my interests would have to be either very ambitious or foolhardy or not really smart to study philosophy rather than statistics and machine learning. Born too early, I was.

There’s more (and more kinds of) philosophy of science than ever before. Glymour knows that, of course, so when he talks about philosophy of science being “killed,” he doesn’t mean that no one’s doing it. What he means, rather, is that it is Socratic, in the sense of fruitless. I would imagine that many philosophers of science would disagree. Thoughts welcome in the comments.

Roxy Paine, “Symbiosis”

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Richard Russell Wood
Richard Russell Wood
2 years ago

But…aren’t those guys (Newton, von Neummann, Schulte, Ramsey, Hilbert, Bernay, and Lewis (mathematicians) really just them guys (scientists)?
It looks to me (an amateur hack) that maybe the discipline is simply evolving, that instead of counting the number of angels that one can fit on a pinhead we ( that is to say, yinz ) will be talking about the number of lives Schrödinger’s Cat has?
mv,vhoReport

Richard Russell Wood
Richard Russell Wood
Reply to  Richard Russell Wood
2 years ago

Erratum: Minor pedantic note: missed a right paren, first sentence.
“More intellectual ‘ticking off’ from Bertrand Russell at dinner because I used the wod ‘sentence’ when I should have used ‘phrase’. I’m dead sick of it.” – Martin GilbertReport

Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn
Reply to  Richard Russell Wood
2 years ago

The question about the angels is a reasonable metaphysical question (given some theological assumptions), but the question about the cat seems quite pointless. Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  Colin McGinn
2 years ago

The number of lives the cat has is crucial to understanding the ontological implications of quantum mechanics, an exquisitely well-verified physical theory—so no, it is not “quite pointless.” Among other things, the right answer has important implications for how many worlds physics entails there are, something which I dare say is a much more important question than angels and pins.Report

Richard Russell Wood
Richard Russell Wood
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
2 years ago

Isn’t that umm, science?
Report

Chris
Chris
Reply to  Richard Russell Wood
2 years ago

Well, that’s one thing philosophers of science (such as Glymour, to pick an example) do – they argue about interpretations of science. When the conceptual issues are entangled, sometimes philosophers succeed in clarifying things (really!).

As Glymour says in the interview, if you just want to relabel the work that those philosophers did as “not philosophy”, you’re free to do so. But it was done by people with training in philosophy, among other areas. And it was often done by people who have academic positions in philosophy departments. Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  Chris
2 years ago

Charles: entirely fair point. I could have expressed myself better.Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  Richard Russell Wood
2 years ago

Richard: As I explained in another recent thread, I agree with Glymour that it is a mistake–one that has only harmed our discipline–to hold that science and philosophy are somehow inherently distinct. Throughout much of history, philosophy and science were considered continuous with one another (scientists were called “natural philosophers), and I think rightly so. Philosophy in my view backed itself into a terrible corner in the 20th century when analytic philosophers (following Frege, Russell, and the positivists) increasingly began to identify philosophy with solving a priori puzzles. This was a *choice* many in the discipline made. It is was not an inevitable one, nor one demanded by anything inherent in the semantics of the concept “philosophy” (which I think is entirely up to us to decide the contours of). And in my view we only do the discipline a disservice by pretending philosophy and science are distinct. Our having done so has (in my view) not only progressively isolated philosophy in the academy, but also (in my view) obscured the implications that science should have for philosophy, and vice versa.

Following Glymour, I think that philosophy done well can (and should) *bridge* the a priori and scientific. This isn’t to say that there aren’t a priori philosophical issues that science cannot answer. It is to say that science and philosophy might both be better off working together more than they do–something I have argued for myself in a number of places. For example, since we’re on the subject, I’ve published work on the Schrodinger cat issue, arguing that the conjunction of a variety of views in analytic metaphysics suggest a novel and explanatorily powerful explanation of what may be going on in the quantum-physical cat case (see e.g. https://philpapers.org/rec/ARVANT-2 and https://philpapers.org/rec/ARVTPS). I’ve also argued that moral philosophy should be based on empirical moral psychology (https://philpapers.org/rec/ARVRAF).

So, no, I don’t think “it’s just science.” I think philosophy and science are, or at least should be, considered fundamentally continuous and intertwined.Report

Richard Russell Wood
Richard Russell Wood
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
2 years ago

Thank you.
Report

Richard Russell Wood
Richard Russell Wood
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
2 years ago

b.t.w. – As a freshman I told my academic advisor that I wanted to be a “natural pholosopher”. He was a well-respected Ph.D. on chemistry, but I don’t think he grokked me.Report

Richard Russell Wood
Richard Russell Wood
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
2 years ago

Well said, b.t.w.
Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
2 years ago

Thanks, Richard! 🙂Report

Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
2 years ago

I find this a very strange description of the work done by Frege, Russell, and the positivists (such as Carnap). What about, say, Russell’s Analysis of Matter? Frege gave an entire semantic theory of language. Carnap’s Aufbau? Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
2 years ago

Sorry, I could have been clearer.
I didn’t mean to impugn Frege, Russell, or the positivists per se.

For example. I think Frege’s work in the philosophy of language is undoubtedly important, especially insofar as it has empirical implications for linguistics and cognitive science. Similarly, while I think positivism is ultimately mistaken, I am nevertheless sympathetic (more than most perhaps) with its general thrust—that philosophy should aspire to be scientific—as well as with some of Carnap’s skepticism

My concern is rather what happened in the aftermath of these early analytic figures. While there have always been empirically minded philosophers (Dennett, Putnam, etc.), there was (it seems to me) a sharp turn in th latter 20th century toward seeing philosophy more as an a priori endeavor—a trend that in some ways continues to this day (as evidenced in discussions like these about what is “philosophy” and what is “science”, as well as in a number of philosophical debates and subfields).

I have no problem with a priori work, etc. I do have worries about drawing philosophical boundaries in ways that appear to me to have become especially popular in parts of the recent philosophical tradition.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
2 years ago

Not really fair on Russell whose last book , My Philosophical Development, includes a plea to philosophers to take science seriously and whose later work was deeply informed by the physics of his day. Report

Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
2 years ago

I take the underlying question about angels to concern the metaphysical implications of the corporeality of angels (not the exact number of angels atop a chosen pinhead–who cares about that?). The question about the cat is about indeterminacy at the quantum level (not about the exact number of lives an arbitrary cat has). The number of electrons in a hydrogen atom is of great scientific interest, but why does it matter that the number of lives a cat has is 9 or 15 or 1000?Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  Colin McGinn
2 years ago

“why does it matter that the number of lives a cat has is 9 or 15 or 1000?“

It matters because different philosophical interpretations of quantum mechanics and what happens with tha cat have vastly different ontological implications—regarding the ultimate nature of reality, minds, measurement, the number of universes there are and number of lives we might lead, and whether we live in a simulation, among other things.Report

Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
2 years ago

Of course all that matters–I wasn’t disputing it. I was referring to the initial comment. Report

Richard Russell Wood
Richard Russell Wood
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
2 years ago

Esteemed Professors Arvan and McGinn –
Thank you both.
I wasn’t trolling. I appreciate the dialogue.
(I studied a little bit of philosophy and HPS at Pittsburgh, many years ago, when CMU was still Carnegie Tech, where philosophy was recursive functions,, and references to “people who have academic positions” was still considered “ad verecundiam”. (If only I could remember my Latin. 😉 ))
Report

Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn
2 years ago

Just one point: he praises Russell for making advances in mathematical logic, so that he is one of the good guys by Glymour’s standards, but what about all Russell’s other philosophical work–is that all worthless? Presumably Frege is to be commended for his logical work, but is his work on philosophy of language a waste of time? Report

Max
Max
Reply to  Colin McGinn
2 years ago

As far as I know Russell making advances “mathematical” logic is a myth. Russell and Whitehead simply took the system of Frege and changed the notation. They tried to axiomatize mathematics, with less ambitions and more success than Frege, but this is not an advance in logic, but in the foundations of mathematics.

And yes, Glymour clearly says anything except formal advances are worthless. Which is 99.9% of all philosophy. His dismissal of conceptual analysis (“Socratic method”) suggests that he is simply not interested in philosophy.Report

Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn
Reply to  Max
2 years ago

That would seem to be his position all right, though he doesn’t come right out and say it. His prerogative, I suppose, but no reason for the rest of us to follow suit. What if someone announced that he had no interested in science?Report

Brian Kemple
2 years ago

…anyone thinking that Descartes’ “schema for conducting inquiry” bests Aristotle’s doesn’t, I think, understand the difference between philosophical (“cenoscopic”, to use the terminology of Bentham/Peirce) inquiry and scientific (“idioscopic”) and is likely operating on some very questionable (i.e., wrong) presuppositions about the purpose of knowledge, science, and how scientists stand in a place of privilege in the intellectual hierarchy, to which philosophers ought to serve as handmaids.

But when you’ve built a career on these presuppositions…Report

Adam
Adam
Reply to  Brian Kemple
2 years ago

I’ll give Glymour the benefit of the doubt and assume he can distinguish between philosophical and scientific inquiry. Report

Brian Kemple
Reply to  Adam
2 years ago

Generous of you. I don’t give anyone today the benefit of that particular doubt, particularly not when they say things like what Glymour said in the interview.Report

Tim Simmons
Tim Simmons
Reply to  Brian Kemple
2 years ago

Could he have been referring to Bacon?Report

Brian Kemple
Reply to  Tim Simmons
2 years ago

Possible. But it doesn’t matter which of them–or even if he meant all of those who not only diverged from but rejected Aristotle–I believe my point stands.Report

Yifan Li
Yifan Li
2 years ago

Just a minor point: the name of the person who gave the axiomatization of first-order logic with Hilbert is “Bernays” but not “Bernay”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Bernays
It is a mistake in the original interview, but I suspect that some people might get confused by it.Report

Richard Russell Wood
Richard Russell Wood
Reply to  Yifan Li
2 years ago

Right.
As long as we’re being pedantic, it’s “von Neumann”, and not “von Neummann” (supra).
Now…where were we again?Report

Jj
Jj
2 years ago

Glymour’s remarks on historical figures, say Plato and Aristotle, seem to be, to turn the phrase, result of reading the wrong historians (or perhaps of skimming rather than reading). It’s a bit sad reading actually, for a philosopher there seems to be little appreciation of philosophy.why not just be a scientist?Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Jj
2 years ago

“why not just be a scientist?”

He does basically say in a later section of the interview that if he had been born five or six decades later, he probably would have ended up studying computer science or machine learning or data analysis or something else that isn’t considered “philosophy” these days.Report

Jj
Jj
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
2 years ago

But that is just silly. It’s like saying that the science of the time was not yet up to his interests or abilities or whatever when he was born, so he did not do it. In any case, it all seems to me like an instance of someone interested in very niche (or even marginal) philosophy complaining that because of ignorance of others it’s not mainstream.Report

Holger Leuz
Holger Leuz
2 years ago

Didn’t Plato state in the Timaeus that we can only give a likely explanation of natural phenomena, not a certain one, and that it is the task of astronomy (the only developed science at the time, it appears to me) to construct mathematical models of celestial motions which are mathematically as elegant as possible while fitting empirical phenomena? Plato seems to have given a very good characterization of physics.Report

Patrice Ayme
2 years ago

There is fake news, and then there is worse: fake thinking. Rousseau claimed that, everywhere he looked, people were in chains. Well, not really: instead they wear minds which subjugate them.

For example, much of the conventional version of history is fake, because ultra significant dimensions have been omitted. For example World War One and World War Two are full of those. A fake version of what happened before, during and after World War One was the main logic which enabled the Nazis to be elected to power.

I believe that much intellectual activity in France in the Twentieth Century, among the most renown intellectuals was somewhat similar to that of “new philosopher” Bernard Henri Levy, its poster boy. It was all about self-dealing (BHL got huge subventions for French governments, as part of “France-Afrique”).

“French Theory” became a Trojan Horse against civilization in general, & “We The Peoples” of France and the West. That was its use, that was why it became popular in the top (most plutocratic) universities. How did “French Theory” do that? By barking up wrong trees frantically, it prevented mental activity to be directed where it should have been. Thus French Theory hid the real problems. This turns most of its famous, publicity greedy practitioners into obvious traitors, not just De Beauvoir. De Beauvoir was a high level Nazi propagandist working at Radio Vichy as late as 1944!

Simone De Beauvoir could have been shot in 1944, for having worked as a Nazi propagandist at a very high level earlier that year (As a teacher, she shouldn’t have needed the money). That she wasn’t shot, or even judged, tells volume about high level corruption in French intellectual circles! (France executed 40,000 Nazi collaborators, and thousands did less than De Beauvoir!)

This is not so far fetched: the famous writer Brasillach was condemned to death (for Nazi propaganda). To spare himself penetration by red hot bullets, he sent De Gaulle (then president) a sob story to spare him that pain and indignity. De Gaulle refused: an example had to be made, a bit as one was made in Athens with Socrates in roughly similar circumstances. So Brasillach was executed. Much later, photographs showing he saw the massacre of innocent people by the Nazis, surfaced.

The nefarious work of many other experts of “French Theory” was more destructive: by making fun of thinking itself to the point of annihilating it, they worked against civilization, and for the great empires, those of Stalin and Nixon/McCarthy, and Mao… And now their successors. The mission of these fake intellectuals, whether they realized it, or not, unwittingly or not, the reason why they were so rewarded. was to make fake thinking fashionable.

Fundamentally, the fakery of French Theory destroyed the Enlightenment in France, and thus the world. Preparing thus the mindset for ever greater inequalities, by abrading the very sense of what it meant to think.

This is also why so many intellectuals embraced too much tolerance for Islamism, a terroristic system of thought Voltaire himself had condemned as stridently as he condemned Catholicism, for the same reasons (Voltaire’s critique of Islam is now censored in Europe, something which goes hand in hand with “French Theory”)

Those fake intellectuals succeeded in imposing their fake pursuits as all the truth we could aspire to. So now what is officially viewed as higher philosophy is pretty such a lie that it diverts any efficient critique against the established order.

It was just discovered that one of those viewed as a a top, most honored, philosopher was just a Bulgarian spy. That pretty much sums it up.
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Leif
Leif
2 years ago

Philosophy isn’t weak science and science isn’t strong philosophy. Philosophy does need to understand science natural and social. It is constrained by its findings. But it has bigger fish to fry. Historical understanding and meaning. Report

Peter Alward
Peter Alward
2 years ago

Just another example of disciplinary self-loathing among philosophers. So let me just say that I like philosophy — warts and all — and I don’t care much about what a bunch poorly informed physicists say.Report

Desiderio Lopez Guante
Desiderio Lopez Guante
Reply to  Peter Alward
2 years ago

Well said Peter!Report

Just Saying
Just Saying
2 years ago

According to Glymour the problem with armchair philosophers is that they can’t do math, especially not creative math. Like Descartes and Leibniz, right? So, the Meditations and the Monadology must be lab reports.Report

Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn
Reply to  Just Saying
2 years ago

Also Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Carnap, Putnam, Kripke–just lousy at math!Report

Pendaran Roberts
Pendaran Roberts
2 years ago

Physicists denigrate philosophy out of ignorance. Modern physics doesn’t value making sense (e.g. see relativity and quantum theory in particular), but values sounding profound, deep, and strange. Modern theoretical physics comprises the worst of philosophy. The irony is that they don’t seem to even understand this. Much of philosophy is out to lunch, but it’s the physicists sitting at the head of the table. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Pendaran Roberts
2 years ago

Modern physics places no value whatsoever on seeming “profound, deep, and strange”. It places value on, ideally, empirical results, but failing that (in places where the route to empirical data is long and unclear) on the ability to calculate and to develop quantitative understanding. If the results of that process seem profound, deep, and strange, blame the Universe, not physicists.

You write “Modern theoretical physics comprises the worst of philosophy”. That’s an astonishing claim. The precision calculations of Standard Model coefficients that were so strikingly reproduced in the LEP-II experiments? The startlingly accurate black hole ringdown patterns confirmed by LIGO? The Jarzynski equality and its empirical confirmation in the stretching of RNA chains? All this is comparable to “the worst of philsophy?!” That’s all restricting my examples to things (a) based on theoretical work in the last few decades; (b) that have been directly and conclusively tested; (c) that I can do from memory.

You write: “Physicists denigrate philosophers out of ignorance.” Agreed. But you are in danger of doing exactly the same thing in reverse.

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Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn
Reply to  David Wallace
2 years ago

Perhaps he was thinking primarily of the effusions of Neils Bohr and company (in line with recent incisive pieces by Albert and Maudlin criticizing his kind of physics).Report

Holger Leuz
Holger Leuz
Reply to  David Wallace
2 years ago

Some physicists represent physics in the way Pendaran Roberts has criticized, however, in their *popular books*. It appears to me that interpretation of empirical results and of mathematical modelling is virtually absent in actual physical practice today. It can only be found in popular books (Feynman, Hawking, Penrose, Weinberg, de Grasse Tyson, Krauss, Kaku, Greene, …) Question: Should we simply ignore those books as not serious, or as only aimed at cashing in? Or can we understand them as interpretations of physics by their authors?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Holger Leuz
2 years ago

“It appears to me that interpretation of empirical results and of mathematical modelling is virtually absent in actual physical practice today.”

I read the primary theoretical physics literature fairly extensively and have lots of conversations with theoretical physicists. To put it mildly, this is not my impression of physical practice. Report

Stuart Steinman
Stuart Steinman
2 years ago

Alas, poor Socrates and Plato were Intrested in the science of what it takes to become fully human. No scare quotes around ‘science’. The idea that we are in the process of becoming human Is at least arguably supported by evolutionary theory . Of course, evolutionary theory itself is in the process of development, as well. And as Socrates and Plato knew quite well, the science of becoming human involves essentially 1st person experiments. With a little help from our friends in the 3rd person.Report

Rollo Burgess
Rollo Burgess
2 years ago

In terms of the mutual value of physics and philosophy, I actually think that we are at a moment where this disciplinary nexus is critical.

Live contemporary debates in fundamental physics concern the validity or otherwise of anthropic arguments and explanations, of ‘naturalness’ and aesthetic considerations in assessing physical theories, and of the empirical status of unfalsifiable claims. Additionally it remains the case that central physics formalisms lack universally agreed interpretations.

Philosophy, practiced by mathematically and physically trained people, is at least as relevant to addressing these topics as physics – the training of a physicist in no way uniquely qualifies them to address these interpretative and ‘meta-physical’ questions.

The ‘philosophy is nonsense’ brigade (Krauss etc.) are, on this question, every bit as fundamentally unserious as Lit Crit types arguing that physics is an oppressive discourse or equivalent drivel.
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David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Rollo Burgess
2 years ago

“Philosophy, practiced by mathematically and physically trained people, is at least as relevant to addressing these topics as physics – the training of a physicist in no way uniquely qualifies them to address these interpretative and ‘meta-physical’ questions.”

I think there’s some tension here. I agree that if you’re sufficiently “mathematically and physically trained” you can make contributions here whatever your formal disciplinary affiliation, and that the contribution can then benefit further from exposure to philosophy. (I’m in trouble if that’s not the case!) But that training *is* the training of a physicist.

For instance, you mention naturalness, which – given the apparent absence of new physics up to energies well above the mass of the Higgs – indeed is one of the big conceptual questions facing contemporary physics. But to understand nturalness requires a reasonably sophisticated understanding of effective field theory in particle physics, usually the sort of thing you do in the third semester or so of coursework in a theoretical physics PhD. There are ways of getting that understanding that bypass formal physics training – and to some extent you can shortcut it with a partial understanding and a collaborator in physics – but it is not something that can just be picked up on a rainy afternoon, or indeed in a rainy month.Report

Rollo Burgess
Rollo Burgess
2 years ago

As a dilettante I of course defer to your expertise (genuinely! – sometimes the internet makes things sound sarcastic). You’re obviously right that what I said is fairly trivial if the definition of ‘trained’ is actually being a fully trained physicist.

I guess that what I was *trying* to say is that a) you obviously need to have engaged with the subject at a level of understanding the mathematical formulation of the claims that you are discussing and reading some proper papers etc. rather than relying on analogy-based popularisations but that b) a on at least some of the topics that are debated pretty heatedly amongst parts of the physics community I think that there are points that can validly be made from a philosophical perspective without needing PhD level physics.

Perhaps naturalness as such is not a good example but I think that some of these topics, such as whether apparently arbitrarily finely tuned parameters in the standard model can be taken as making it more likely that we live in some sort of multiverse (a many-bubble-universes-with-different-parameter-values multiverse not an many-worlds QM one), this is a question that requires *enough* knowledge of physics (clearly ‘enough’ is a discussion point!) but is basically a question that arises out of physics rather than a question only for physicists.

Presumably (and honestly – I’m a total amateur so perhaps it just ain’t so!) actual working physicists can’t usually spend much of their time noodling over these sort of questions. ‘Shut up and calculate’ is a parody but doesn’t arise out of nowhere. And when physicists do discuss these sort of matters they appear from my interested-layman perspective sometimes to be talking nonsense (as per the widely noted tiff around D Albert’s review of L Krauss’s book).

I also think that some philosophically interesting questions arising out of physics are more accessible than QFT. I got interested in physics, worked through Susskind’s theoretical minimum books, thought non-locality in QM was interesting and then read the EPR paper and Bell’s paper and Tim Maudlin’s book about this. I am a million miles away from being able to make a worthwhile academic contribution to a debate on this subject, but I think I am starting to get the joke, as it were… and I am not an academic of any sort, just a guy who reads books on the tube on the way to and from my unrelated job.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Rollo Burgess
2 years ago

I agree that often there is a conceptual problem that can be distilled out of the physics and which can be considered without need for advanced details. The catch is that you can’t *do* the distillation without knowing the advanced details. So if I say to you, “here is the essence of the fine-tuning problem, now give me a philosophical analysis” then that’s fine, provided you trust that I’ve identified the essence correctly. But if someone else says, “no, the real problem is X” it can be difficult to resolve that without going into the details again. And of course, in philosophy, framing the problem is usually where most of the work happens – ours isn’t a discipline where we can have consensus on the problems and just disagree on the solutions to them.

There isn’t a very easy way around this – I agree that the disciplinary nature of physics doesn’t always lend itself to conceptual reflection, so that in principle philosophy can help, but equally, the technical details often end up mattering. Collaboration can help, to some degree.
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Rollo Burgess
Rollo Burgess
2 years ago

Fair enough, that all makes sense. Thanks for clarifying my thinking 🙂Report

Ed
Ed
2 years ago

“Philosophy of science is a deadletter subject filled with commentary book reports on real scientific work, banal methodological remarks (e.g.,scientists of a time don’t always think of true alternatives to the theories they do think of; scientists sometimes have to think at multiple “levels”), and “mathematical philosophy” some of which is very interesting but none or which is of practical scientific relevance.”

This is a version of “The philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds,” the background assumption being that philosophers of science generally want or have some mandate to be useful to working scientists. Maybe that’s true for some, but it’s hardly true in general. I’m really interested in the use of models in science, but not because I think any of my work is going to make a difference to science. Maybe I just want to know how models work to represent the world and how they’re applied in science. Maybe that’s something some scientists are interested in too, or maybe not. I do know that there are plenty of other people who are interested in these matters. But I guess if I’m not interested in doing what Glymour thinks is interesting and worth doing, then I’m doing something wrong — or worse: valueless. Sigh.

“By their fruits ye shall know them. Compare Plato and Aristotle, superficially. Plato made no effective contributions to how to acquire true belief.”

This seems a bit strong. Plato taught me a lot about what virtue / knowledge / etc. isn’t, and how to work out what various other things aren’t. And it’s not like practicing scientists have never used something like Socratic reasoning to improve their own conceptual clarity…Report

Matias Slavov
Matias Slavov
2 years ago

In my view, Hawking’s critical comments about philosophy are partly self-contradictory, but partly astute.
In the infamous book he first declines philosophy but then goes on to support a governing conception of laws of nature in the metaphysics of laws, and devices a model-dependent realism, ie. neo-Kantian epistemology and metaphysics of science. So there’s a lot of philosophy in the book. However, some traditional questions like the origin of the universe or the nature of matter are rather parts of fundamental physics including the math and technology involved. Here armchair philosophy seems obsolete to me. I think this is valid point by Hawking.Report

Thomas W.
Thomas W.
2 years ago

Physicists typically begin by defining objects of interest, then performing experiments and making measurements to describe those objects and their behavior. Next, they construct mathematical models representing their measurements. Finally, they develop HYPOTHESES regarding real-world phenomena that may account for the objects and behaviors represented by their models.

It is in this final step — hypothesis construction — that physicists require far more assistance from philosophers. Heretofore, their imagination has been open-ended, unconstrained by any logic beyond maximizing the fit of a curve.

Most notably, inventing the Uncertainty principle in the 1920’s was a fabulous guess born out of simple ignorance, akin to the creation of gods and other myths. Particles were called both point objects and waves of probability that might show up anywhere. Today, physicists are stuck on that path, and are therefore required to endorse a growing list of ridiculous claims, such as particles communicating over vast distances at thousands of times the speed of light, virtual particles that have never been observed, vibrating strings, parallel universes.

ASSUMPTIONS made by physicists in the 1920’s have become the FACTS cited by physicists today. Physicists have no use for the philosophy of science, and it shows. Nine years from today, the Uncertainty principle will have guided physics for 100 years. Report

Maria Snyman
Maria Snyman
2 years ago

We’re still talking, debating, differing, so somewhere there appears to be gap, an undecidability, a sentence of sentences or a set of sets that keeps us guessing, and going, “downright monotonously,” as Derrida put it about any possible developments in his oeuvre. Perhaps we must just face the fact that we remain – fruitlessly? – between science and philosophy, like between birth and death, fanning on the next debate … Enjoy the ride!Report

Carl Weisbecker
Carl Weisbecker
1 year ago

Is not Popper one of the most important philosophers of science? I can’t make sense of a critique of the subject that doesn’t mention him. Who are these other guys in relation to him?Report