I get questions regularly about the bizarre nature of contemporary physics. I am sure practicing physicists with PhDs get these more regularly than I, yet I occupy an interesting and rare position in the academic disciplinary landscape: I’ve studied science, particularly physics, into the graduate level, and I am actively developing my expertise in the history and philosophy of science, particularly physics, as well as being a lifelong student of more traditional philosophy (e.g., analytic, contemporary, and Eastern). The question most regularly asked of late has been: What are physicists talking about with all of this “non-verifiable” theory; it sounds like philosophy? By this, they mean the fact that there is this apparent post-empirical turn, and the lack of requirement of empirical data to substantiate proposed theory. I’d like to spend some length explaining my thoughts on this, including a suggestion to all practicing scientists, regardless of discipline.
Tag Archives: physics
Neil deGrasse Tyson and Philosophy: The Voice and Never-Was of Science Insults the Foundation of All Intellectual Thought
The primary problem with putting anyone on any kind of pedestal is that the positioning in the spotlight contains quite a bit of power, power that can be misused or abused. Anyone possessing the spokespersonship of a particular academic discipline, in promoting their discipline, as a rule, should never knock other disciplines. Rather unfortunately, Neil deGrasse Tyson occupies one such position as a science advisor to the government and a science popular, and he has also misused (abused?) his position by knocking another discipline, philosophy. During a podcast that featured his presence, he spoke condescendingly of philosophy, spoke of its uselessness, and pointed out that it can ‘mess you up,’ presumably, meaning to say that philosophy can adversely affect the general mode of one’s thinking. (For the complete podcast, click on this sentence.) The objective in this blog is to address some of what Tyson has said, and hence partly a work of philosophy apologetics to a certain extent, but I also want to besmudge his reputation a bit, as he is in serious need of deflating —and I think the reader will find that very little needs to be done to each either of these ends, just a bit of thought.
Some time ago, I was discussing the qualitative-quantitative divide with a friend, a medical doctor, who happens to be very interested in the philosophy of science. The discussion became a debate, where we trying to get to the bottom of whether it was as I said, that the world is a qualitative entity, wherein the mind supplies quantity; or as he said, that the world has a mathematical ontology, something like the worldview championed by Meillassoux or Galileo. To be clear, I was just arguing that it could be either way, with some slightly greater likelihood that the world may not have quantity in it, apart from that supplied by the mind. By contrast, my colleague, the M.D., did not understand how it could be that there is no such thing as quantity in the world, in the sense that he could not envisage as scenario in which number does not inhere in the world. Between us was the barrier of language and experience, which was constituted in the difference between education of a physicist —though I did do a pre-med track and have interests in the philosophy of medicine— and that of a physician. We ended up settling on an example that is grounded in physiology. I will set up the groundwork for the discussion, then, give the example, and, finally, provide the resolution that has come to me only recently.
This is the second in a series of blog posts about a work done by Dr. David Lee Cale, professor at West Virginia University. Cale, a polymath, is chiefly a philosopher, trained in physics, political science, mathematics, economics, and numerous other disciplines, holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, an M.B.A., a B.A. in political science, and is ABD in economics, and is a notable ethicist. The work of his being examined is “The Simplest Possible Universe,” a monograph that synthesizes ancient Greek and Scholastic styles of thinking with modern physical insight. The work is striking, in that its brand of creativity is not common in modern intellectual enterprises. Retaining the good sense and substance of modern physics, Cale employs modes of thinking that are on loan from times nearly forgotten. The objective of this blog series is to deconstruct the monograph, examine its components, and assess the merits of each, redoubting where possible. At the end, if efficacious, an attempt at resynthesis of the project, consequent upon the conceptual retooling, will be made. Continue reading
I am not going to go too hard on him, James S. Trefil, because he is such a fine author and I enjoy his work; but I must address an error that this physicist makes in one of his books, From Atoms to Quarks: An Introduction to the Strange World of Particle Physics (1980). (See my review of the book by clicking on this sentence.) I have chosen Trefil’s error for discussion, because he is a fine physicist, which makes for a good mark in proving a point, namely, that physics needs philosophy of physics to mind a number of problems that are not central to advancement of the science. These problems include the kind of conceptual one that will be mentioned —one that I hope other physicists do not err on— and conceptual problems in foundations, metaphysics, and so forth. Continue reading