Physics needs philosophy

Tim Maudlin explains why physics needs philosophy: “What philosophy offers to science, then, is not mystical ideas but meticulous method. Philosophical skepticism focuses attention on the conceptual weak points in theories and in arguments. It encourages exploration of alternative explanations and new theoretical approaches.”


Time v. math

Is the universe ultimately made of time or of timeless numbers? In a review of Unger and Smolin’s The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, Bryan Appleyard discusses the “superstitions and allegories” of science, especially physics.  “If, as Unger and Smolin insist, time is real and not simply an aspect of space or of our perceptions, then the laws of physics begin to look even less solid.  If everything is subject to time and, therefore, change, then these laws can evolve. They suggest the idea that these laws are eternally fixed is a supersition caused by mathematics – all the insights of maths are timeless and maths is only a human creation. In fact, two of the greatest physicists of all time – Richard Feynman and Paul Dirac – both accepted the possibility that the laws of physics evolve through time. Yet eternal, immutable physical laws, somehow detached from our physical universe, remain one of the primary superstitions of our age.”

Return to “The Lagoon”

Another review of “The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science,” this one by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, the author of Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. Goldstein admires Aristotle but also defends Plato: “Plato and Aristotle: What an accident of history that two such contrasting orientations toward the physical world, animated by two such different aesthetic sensibilities, should have been pedagogically entangled with each other. One espies beauty in the elegance of the mathematical proportions he is certain rules the cosmos, the other in the richness of sensed particularities he is certain can be functionally explained. Both orientations would find application in the developed sciences to come … .”

Has “philosophical superficiality” harmed physics?

John Horgan interviews quantum gravity expert Carlo Rovelli. Can science attain absolute truth? “I have no idea what ‘absolute truth’ means. I think that science is the attitude of those who find funny the people saying they know something is absolute truth. Science is the awareness that our knowledge is constantly uncertain. What I know is that there are plenty of things that science does not understand yet. And science is the best tool found so far for reaching reasonably reliable knowledge.” And what is your opinion of the recent philosophy-bashing by some scientists: “Seriously: I think they are stupid in this.   I have admiration for them in other things, but here they have gone really wrong.  Look: Einstein, Heisenberg, Newton, Bohr…. and many many others of the greatest scientists of all times, much greater than [those who are bashing philosophy], of course, read philosophy, learned from philosophy, and could have never done the great science they did without the input they got from philosophy, as they claimed repeatedly.”

Why physicists talk to philosophers … Part 4

Ivette Fuentes explains: “Science and philosophy share common goals. They aim at developing and deepening our understanding of reality, at uncovering the basic constituents of the Universe and its fundamental laws. Science and philosophy also share a common past. … But the overlap between science and philosophy is not only a matter of the past. In our present search for knowledge there are many moments in which the lines between them blur. Every single scientific theory and philosophical exploration starts with questions and with reflection upon them. Basic ideas are produced in order to provide answers to these questions. These ideas are developed though critical and logical thinking. At this point science and philosophy are indistinguishable. …  Once a new scientific theory is proposed, it is not only confronted with experiments (when possible) but also to philosophical scrutiny. Once a theory is born, there is an unavoidable need to interpret the objects of the theory and its results. At this stage science and philosophy again come close together.”

Why physicists talk to philosophers … Part 3

Lee Smolin explains: “To aspire to be a revolutionary in physics, I would claim, it is helpful to make contact with the tradition of past revolutionaries.  But the lessons of that tradition are maintained not in the communities of fashionable science, with their narrow education and outlook, but in the philosophical community and tradition.  And that is why I talk with philosophers and encourage my students to do so.”

Why physicists talk to philosophers … Part 1

Sean Carroll explains: “Science often gives us models of the world that are more than good enough, in terms of getting answers that fit the data within the error bars, even though they might not be completely coherent or well-defined. But that’s not really what drives us to do science in the first place. We shouldn’t be happy to do ‘well enough,’ or merely fit the data – we should be striving to understand how the world really works. Our best chance of achieving that outlandish ambition is for science and philosophy to work together.”