My Journey from Physics to the History and Philosophy of Science (a.k.a. HPS)

Recently, at a reception for the incoming grad students of IU Bloomington’s HPS Department, I was faced with a question, but it was a more specific question than had previously been posed to me.  Typically, I am asked, “How did you move from physics into philosophy of physics?”  The question my host, Dr. Sandy Gliboff asked me, with the hint of a smirk and a sense of humor, “What made you decide to go into HPS, rather than be a real scientist?”  I gave him my answer to the former question, which I will give presently; but I did not give him the answer to his question.  Given that so many people ask so regularly, and given that there are so few physicists that go into philosophy, I will take this time to answer publically; and so I begin with the answer to the former.

When I was in high school, my thinking could not have been more dogmatically an adherent to physics.  My thought was, essentially, that anything that could not be quantified or physically known was nonsense and, consequently inconsequential.  You can imagine that appreciation of aesthetics was not existent in me, at that time.  Rational, objective knowledge was the only game in town.  For those familiar with my brief blog post on epistemology, the times have certainly changed.  The first instances of change came over a two-day period in which I read Hume’s first Treatise and Gӧdel’s paper on incompleteness, after which I needed weeks to recover.  Hume’s assertion that there were no causal connections threw me for a loop.  He was saying that, between any to objects or series of events, there was no “thing,” no direct item to which we can refer that necessitates one event as following from another.  For anyone to whom this might not make immediate sense —it did not to me, I had to read Hume’s words a few times—, Hume is pointing to the fact that empiricism is dead in the water, a made up notion.  There is nothing in the physical world that necessarily connects to events; there is no “necessary causal connection.”  As soon as one realizes this, general methods of knowledge and schemas become important.  Once I started doing this, I was never fully a physicist-minded individual again.  A physicist cannot sit in a lab or in front of equations wondering about causal connections.  I did, however.  I remember sitting in Dr. Eugene Engels’ office at the University of Pittsburgh, asking him about Feynman diagrams, very innocently, saying: “Okay, so this force carrier goes over here, and tells this particle what the deal is, right?  Well, how does the first particle know to send the force carrier particle over there; how does the force carrier know where to be?”  Had Dr. Engels a broom and much less civility, his disposition was such that he may have chased me out with the former.  My run-ins with professors on philosophical issues, while in undergrad, were numerous, some humorous and some much less.  Some professors were seriously agitated by my questions.  To them, I was wasting time, precious time for physics to be done.

I am not sure when I became aware that some philosophers dealt with problems in science, but I do, now, see why I would have unconsciously shrugged them off.  One of my intellectual mentors, a non-physicist, had me thoroughly convinced that philosophy was a bunch of ethereal non-sense.  This was my natural sentiment, too, given where I was coming from intellectually, so his position reinforced my own.  One of the single instances that did the most to heighten my internal tension, a tension that was between proper physics and some, as of yet, unknown philosophically inclined discipline, was a cosmology conference in which Dr. Ravi Sheth was presenting.  Computational modeling was never my bag, nor has computational insert word here ever been my bag, but I certainly liked Dr. Sheth enough to go.  After one of the presentations, there was a discussion on standards for accepting particular types of data as inferring some consequence.  I was supremely bothered by the facts that: 1) The data had already been collected and 2) The arbitrary nature of choosing a threshold as being consistent with the consequence.  At just the right moment, an expected hero would come along and tell me about something called “HPS.”

Dr. Gordon Belot was unlike anyone I had even heard of before.  He was trained in mathematics (B.S. & M.S.), but knew loads of physics, more than I had at that time.  He wasn’t in the math or physics department, though.  He was in the philosophy and HPS departments.  On top of that, he often dealt with topic that I found outright fascinating.  On one occasion, I mentioned my concerns for a conceptual issue in physics.  After the brief discussion, which seemed to surprise him and which got him thinking deeply enough to forget that we were talking, he looked at me with surprise, as if noticing I was still there, and said, “You should look into philosophy or history and philosophy of science.”  I did, but the story doesn’t end there, because I went on to Carnegie Mellon, in hope that I would still move toward a PhD in physics, specializing in gravitation.  On the only occasion in which I met Dr. Tiziana Di Matteo, she asked me what my specific interest in gravitation was, I told her that I had a couple of original ideas, one of which might be a way of understanding inertia through gravitational fields.  To say that she didn’t react well is a bit of an understatement.  She looked at me as if I weren’t serious, then as if she didn’t know what to say, given that she then understood me to be serious, and finally settled on telling me about her research.  I was never asked how physically consequential my idea might be; in fact, I have never been asked by a physicist how relevant to physics, over and beyond philosophy, any such idea might be.  This occurred a little while before taking Dr. Rupert Croft’s General Relativity course, where we read Hartle’s introductory textbook.  The final straw was when the text said (I paraphrase), there is no gravity, only curvature of space.  I asked Dr. Croft what that meant, at which point he began writing an equation to explain.  I said, “no, no.”  I wanted to know what kind of a physical thing space was.  Up until then, I was always told by physicists that space is not a physical thing, so why the predication of adjectives, like “curvature,” to non-physical things, when “curvature” has always been regarded as a property of material things?  With my introduction to Kant, who began to answer the questions of Hume, my introduction to Kuhn, who shone a whole new light on my experience at the cosmology conference, and with this unacceptable use of “curvature” in a general relativity textbook, my formal studies in physics were over.

That is how I was led toward HPS, but there is an important piece missing.  I could have continued studies in physics, doing the slightly more philosophical stuff in my free time.  However, I think there is room for positive contributions to physics through philosophy.  Dr. Amit Hagar’s work, entitled The Complexity of Noise: A Philosophical Outlook on Quantum Error, illustrates the point.  My position is that philosophy is originates all academic disciplines, and that there is a spectrum ranging between pure philosophy and physics.  This particular piece of work by Dr. Hagar shows just how closely philosophy can work with physics and potentially make positive contributions on the foundational level.  One also sees this in the work of Dr. Rosa Cao, such as in her article, entitled “A teleosemantic approach to information in the brain.”  This is my aspiration: a high degree of synthesis between pure science and philosophy —it is the unexplored region on that spectrum between pure science and philosophy, and it is where science can benefit from philosophy.  This, on top of my growing interests in Kant, Newton, and so on, more or less, was the answer to Dr. Gliboff’s question that would have been most accurate.

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