Feynman on the Necessity of Philosophy for the Progress of Physics

Serendipity often leads to some of our most fruitful realizations, creative ideas, and understanding —and are even responsible for our most citation-worthy bits of supporting information.  Such is the case to be discussed here.  It so happened that, just after writing the blog in response to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s ignorant position on philosophy, I read Richard P. Feynman’s The Character of Physical Law to unwind.  The Nobel laureate was always notoriously, even devilishly, anti-philosophy.  On a walk in which my path had crossed with philosopher and cognitive scientist, Colin Allen of Indiana University, Colin expressed to me just how mocking Feynman was of philosophers.  I hadn’t really heard much about Feynman’s anti-philosophical bent, at the time, but I was trying to reconcile, what seemed to me, Feynman’s philosophical demeanor with some of the disparaging things he said about philosophers, not too far off from the kinds of things that Tyson would agree with it.  The reconciliation that Colin and I made was that the disparaging remarks more or less had to do with professional philosophers, and with a view toward professional philosophers having anything to do with science.  Physics-trained philosopher of science and professor emeritus, Ronald Giere has, I think, put it best, when distinguishing a philosopher of science and philosophically minded scientist from a mere philosopher from any old philosophy department.  He said something to the effect, “philosophers of science and philosophically minded scientists know science: they’ve experienced it, they know what a mess data is, and they know how ad hoc theory can sometimes be.  Philosophers, trying to handle the content of science, general talk about black ravens and flagpoles, or the latest buzz words that they’ve heard, “black hole” and “neutrino.”  If you consider someone like Daniel Dennett, who was trained as a philosopher, you may have heard about the immense amount on-the-side studying he did in the life science, neurosciences, etc., often giving effusive thanks to such institutions as Oxford for putting together modules to learn the content in an organized fashion.  The point is that we need to distinguish between science-trained philosophers and philosophically minded scientists, when discussing the collection of “philosophers.”  This is where Feynman’s book comes into play.


In the last paragraph of chapter six, he says something remarkable about philosophers, and it struck me, given what I said about him in the foregoing.  In a passage that far from typifies Feynman’s opinions, he says:


What is necessary “for the very existence of science”, and what the characteristics of nature are, are not to be determined by pompous preconditions, they are determined always by the material with which we work, by nature herself.  We look, and we see what we find, and we cannot say ahead of time successfully what it is going to look like.  The most reasonable possibilities often turn out not to be the situation.  If science is to progress, what we need is the ability to experiment, honesty in reporting results —the results must be reported without somebody saying what they would like the results to have been —and finally— an important thing— the intelligence to interpret the results.  An important point about this intelligence is that it should not be sure ahead of time what must be.  It can be prejudiced, and say “That is very unlikely; I don’t like that”.  Prejudice is different from absolute certainty.  I do not mean absolute prejudice —just bias.  As long as you are only biased it does not make any difference, because if your bias is wrong a perpetual accumulation of experiments will perpetually annoy you until they cannot be disregarded any longer.  They can only be disregarded if you are absolutely sure ahead of time of some precondition that science has to have.  In fact it is necessary for the very existence that minds exist which do not allow that nature must satisfy some preconceived conditions, like those of our philosopher.


This is a rather fascinating last statement, looking back to Tyson.  What Tyson says is “useless” and a “waste of time,” one of the few truly great physicists of the twentieth century says is a conditio sine qua non!  By extension, he is also intimating that every truly great scientist or physicist, who had the great fortune to stand at the frontier of human knowledge briefly and to push it forward, was, in some sense, a philosopher.  Isn’t that the punch in the mouth that Einstein delivered to the physics community?  He rejected the conclusions that Mach, Poincaré, Lorentz , and so many others, concluding just the opposite, coming to conclusions which, perhaps, the named had even mentioned, but had made some qualifier (e.g., we know that the result arrived cannot be so, otherwise blah, blah, blah —where the “blah, blah, blah” is precisely what Einstein accepted and reasoned on behalf of).  Having studied science and physics extensively as an undergraduate and graduate, the number of students I have seen earn PhDs, only to find themselves incapable of the most shallow amount of philosophic inquiry would astonish most of my readers: many physicists at Carnegie Mellon, Pittsburgh, and even a colleague awarded a Marshall Scholarship, went on to becomes quants, finance specialists, computer scientists, and government science advisors —none of which are bad careers to have—, simply because their ability to think unconstrainedly was abysmal.


That’s pretty much what I wanted to say, so, in thanks to the book, I will give it a plug, recommending it to all those without a very extensive scientific background, as well as those with conceptual and philosophical interests in foundational science and physics.  I have a terse Amazon review you can get to by clicking: The Character of Physical Law by R.P. Feynman.


Addendum: Some may be interested that, after posting, Massimo Pigliucci responded to my blog via Twitter.

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Filed under Education, Philosophy, Physics, Popular Science, Science

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