Thoughts on Physicists Versus Philosophers

In her opinion article “Physicists Versus Philosophers” (in The Philosophers Magazine Issue 58, 3rd Quarter 2012), Ophelia Benson presents a short, but interesting, account of friction between philosophers and physicists.  I was a bit bothered by a number of elements presented in the article, and provoked to sympathy for the physicists, by way of reflection.  “Sympathy,” not because I side with the comments of physicists, like “‘The only people, as far as I can tell, that read works by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science’”; but because of all of the changes in tides and shifts in power away from physics.  It really is a tumultuous time in academia.  Take a second to consider it.  Many (maybe most?) scientists and philosophers no longer believe in ontological reduction down to the level of physics.  On top of that, there has been a titanic shift in opinion in the direction that the life sciences are where the action is.  Sure, most laymen still maintain that the pinnacle of academic disciplines is physics; and there is the added awe of the presupposition that physicists are unlocking the mysteries of the universe, which is probably a mixture of ontological reductive hope with a bizarre view of metaphysics.  After all, this is the reason the seventeen year old version of me went into physics —I wanted to know how the world works.  However, once you are in academia (or become immersed in the literature), you begin to get the sense that the physicists don’t have all the answers.  I’m sure a large number of physicists still think they might, one day, have all the answers, but that is probably a misplaced hope.  I will not argue one way or the other on that point, but I do think it is worth taking a moment to view the sociological aspect of the disciplines, and their current and recent changes in privileged status, because I think there is a psychological component involved when a physicist, like Lawrence Krauss, lashes out.

On the matter of Krauss, I think we have a problem that extends quite bit further than agitation with the changing status of physics.  Krauss was agitated by the fact that a philosopher was criticizing him.  I haven’t read Krauss’ work, but I can’t imagine that Albert was too inaccurate, if at all, in his assessment; we have seen a ton of books published by physicists on topics that are philosophical, and the physicists have failed to acknowledge the boundary of their own discipline.  Quite often, in recent times, we have seen physicists publish on a whole slew of topics, among the most popular being metaphysics (though not so identified in the texts), all of which the physicists are thoroughly unqualified to discuss.  An expert composer, so trained, having never done any real work in philosophy, should, basically never, write works on aesthetics.  It is beyond the scope of the theory in which they work.  The thing I find absolutely hilarious about the Krauss/Albert exchange is that Albert has a Ph.D. in physics!  Why this was not mentioned in the article, I don’t know.  Albert is a professor of philosophy, and even though little or no graduate level physics is needed to be a philosopher of physics, Albert is a well-trained as anyone in the physics profession, even if not completely up to date on all the latest physics publications outside of his interests.

The bizarre thing about the article is that there is a bit of a self-righteous tone taken.  When you end with Daniel Dennett telling Krauss what’s what, it is send a message of victory for philosophers; but that’s not the end of the story.  Scientists (the ones that don’t work closely with philosophers of science) and laymen tend to think of “philosophers” in just the way that Giere and Hanson described the early philosophers of science who talked “ravens and flagpoles.”  There is quite a range of what a philosopher of science is, these days.  For example, you have scholars like Babette Babich, who deal in focusing on science in traditional philosophies/philosophers (e.g., Nietzsche), which takes very little in the ways of formal training in science; you have scholars like Roy Sorensen who deal with topics like thought experiments, which, again, requires little formal training in science and some knowledge of scientists’ methods and biographies, all of which is not too far removed from what a traditional philosopher does; and then you have the philosopher of science, who either has a Ph.D. in science, a Ph.D. in HPS, or, like Dennett, has a Ph.D. in philosophy, but studied his tail off, to the point that he is eo ipso a trained scientist —or like Massimo Pigliucci, who has Ph.D.s in botany, biology, and philosophy.  In my experience, I have found no regular area of scholarship so consistently well and thoroughly trained as the historian & philosopher of science.  Given their paucity in number, it is not too much a wonder why popular perception and perception among, say, physicists has not changed.  (And I will not go into the importance of the work of philosophers of Babich to bring science to the humanities, but this has been an incredibly fruitful and laudable endeavor, without a doubt.)

The relevant point to make comes in answer to the question: Why so much training?  The answer is that historians and philosophers of science want to advance the understanding of science, and even advance science, in some cases.  Amit Hagar is a great example, as evince by his monograph, entitled The Complexity of Noise: A Philosophical Outlook on Quantum Error Correction.  The thing is that scientists tend to solve problems that advance the field in some immediate way, and many of the foundational questions, big questions, and questions of internal consistency to the science, to name three, go untreated by the scientist.  Just a couple of days ago, Elizabeth Lloyd commented on just how little treatment the question of life and death gets: What distinguishes a living pile of matter from that same pile when dead?  Of course, biologists are interested, but you probably won’t see any grant proposals that propose to “discover the mystery of life” in one fell swoop.  It’s an odd situation, but, as you can see, there are niches in science for the philosopher of science to advance the science by resolving issues within the named topics.  It is, then, little wonder as to why the National Science Foundation now offers support for HPS.  Individuals, like Krauss, maybe, do not get this.  The point is, in opposition to Krauss and the author of the article, it is not, or at least should not be, philosophers versus physicists.

To close, I really hope that Krauss was in an irrational state of agitation, when he said that philosophy of science has no impact on physics —don’t even get me started…

Update:  Since I wrote this post, I have read Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing, and my opinion of him has changed.  Before having read it, I was only familiar with him on the basis of a few papers, and I had not seen him present, so my familiarity was strictly impersonal and within the technical literature.  After reading the book, I my thought is that he is not just someone who has made a few fairly ignorant comments, but someone who has made some very idiotic statements and has systematically targeted groups of, what he sees as, inferior intellectuals, philosophers among them.  For more, please see my post on the book by clicking on this sentence.  Being that my undergraduate coursework and much of my graduate coursework, and given the added personal motivation as a philosopher, I also critique, from the standpoint of physics, some things he said that are erroneous.  Between at least one conceptual error within the physics and his inability to write a book, insofar as my experience goes, there is something blatantly ironic about him calling into question the intellectual capacity of others from other disciplines.  The man is so narrow-minded that he thinks theologians are all born-again Christians.  I wonder how Bart Ehrman feels about that.

1 Comment

October 19, 2012 · 5:53 am

One response to “Thoughts on Physicists Versus Philosophers

  1. Pingback: Why “A Universe from Nothing” Is Garbage | milliern

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