I was reading this article by Goldhill and found the opening rather refreshing. It led me to write this article about physicists’ rejection of philosophy.
We shall examine the article by Goldhill further in future articles. But for now, here is that opening:
It’s often assumed that physics and philosophy are at opposite ends of the academic spectrum. In fact, they’re close…Olivia Goldhill
It is rather refreshing that the author admits that philosophy has any relevance to physics at all. Since most physicists would disagree with this.
I would say that many in physics are outright hostile towards philosophy!
Let me provide a few quotes to amply make this point.
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.Lawrence Krauss
What about another one from the late Stephen Hawking (we discuss him in our second podcast episode here)?
Philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.Stephen Hawking
What about one heard repeated by Steven Weinberg but often attributed to Feynman?
The philosophy of science is just about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.Weinberg/Feynman
What about one from the famous Max Born?
“I have tried to read philosophers of all ages and have found many illuminating ideas but no steady progress toward deeper knowledge and understanding. Science, however, gives me the feeling of steady progressMax Born
You get the idea. Many in physics are deeply hostile to philosophy. At best they think that philosophy has no relevance to what they do. At worst they believe that it contradicts their view of the world.
Because they do not understand the role of philosophy, they are often hostile to it.
Why? Well, for several reasons.
One of those would be that rational philosophies demonstrate that many tenents of modern physics cannot be right. For instance, Aristotle’s metaphysics and epistemology blast a lot of their fallacies apart.
For instance, Aristotle’s philosophy makes it clear that particle-wave duality is nonsense. Something cannot be two mutually exclusive things at once.
The most certain of all basic principles is that contradictory propositions are not true simultaneously.Aristotle, Metaphysics
It also makes it clear that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is also nonsense. Everything that exists has identity, it has a definite nature. Not a vague, indefinite nature as alleged by this principle.
Now “why a thing is itself” is a meaningless inquiry (for—to give meaning to the question ‘why’—the fact or the existence of the thing must already be evident—e.g., that the moon is eclipsed—but the fact that a thing is itself is the single reason and the single cause to be given in answer to all such questions as why the man is man, or the musician musical, unless one were to answer, ‘because each thing is inseparable from itself, and its being one just meant this.’ This, however, is common to all things and is a short and easy way with the question.)Aristotle, Metaphysics
But physicists have accepted anti-Aristotelian, anti-reality ideas. Therefore, they feel that they must rebel against the very ideas that brought the world out of the Middle Ages. The very ideas which made advanced science, including physics possible.
They are rebelling against the Aristotelian revival that made all this possible. The very knowledge that made it possible to get to the point where they know enough about atoms and space to make the kinds of irrational conclusions they have been making for over one hundred years!
Philosophy and physics are deeply intertwined.
Our view of metaphysics tells us what kind of world we think we live in. One in which objects have primacy or one in which consciousness and magic are primary.
Our epistemology includes our view of whether we live in a knowable world. And how we can know anything or if we think knowledge is even possible.
Physicists are, of course, influenced by philosophy. They believe that reality is inflicted with a kind of vagueness, in as far as it lacks a definite nature.
They believe that our senses are unable to perceive reality as it is, ala Kant.
Like Plato, they reify mathematics as somehow being more fundamental than physical objects, ala Plato.
So then, physicists are influenced by philosophy. Why then do they deny that philosophy influences them?
Because they do not understand the role of philosophy. They see it as intrusion on the business of science. Which they see as doing experiments and analyzing the results.
However, physics is not simply performing experiments and coming to whatever conclusions you wish. It is about explaining how the physical world works.
This requires one to be able to analyze the evidence of the senses and infer how the physical world works. It requires one to perform experiments and to be able to infer the mechanisms of nature from the results of said experiments. Without the conclusions contradicting basis metaphysical axioms such as “A is A”.
This is where one’s philosophy comes into play.
When looking at the results of these experiments, one’s view of the fundamental nature of reality, of metaphysics will come into play.
Their metaphysics tells them that things are not what they are, that they do not possess identity and that things can exist as something with a contradictory nature.
And this will seep into their physics. They will tend to interpret reality in this way and come to bizarre conclusions. The kind of bizarre conclusions modern physicists like to arrive at.
If they believe that reality is not knowable, then this will seep into their physics. They will pretend that some things cannot be known and thus do not need to be rationally explained. Or even explained at all.
They will evade explanations or offer non-explanations in their place.
Much as modern physics does when it pretends that the following is an explanation of gravity:
Einstein’s law of gravitation controls a geometrical quantity curvature in contrast to Newton’s law which controls a mechanical quantity of force.Arthur Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (1928) p. 133.
Or when it pretends that “electrons are a probability cloud” explains the unusual behavior of electrons.
A proper philosophy helps avoid these kinds of non-explanations. Irrational philosophies tend to make them inevitable.
Which is why modern physics is in the mess it is in. Good luck pointing that out given philosophy is allegedly useless!
It is rather like the man dying of thirst complaining that water is bad for him.
No, he needs water! And physics needs philosophy. Even if physicists lost in their desert of irrationality like to pretend otherwise…