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Physicists attack philosophy when they are no longer doing good physics

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In “Physicists, Stop the Churlishness” (New York Times, June 8, 2012), Jim Holt pleads,

A KERFUFFLE has broken out between philosophy and physics. It began earlier this spring when a philosopher (David Albert) gave a sharply negative review in this paper to a book by a physicist (Lawrence Krauss) that purported to solve, by purely scientific means, the mystery of the universe’s existence. The physicist responded to the review by calling the philosopher who wrote it “moronic” and arguing that philosophy, unlike physics, makes no progress and is rather boring, if not totally useless. And then the kerfuffle was joined on both sides.

Physicists say they do not need any help from philosophers. But sometimes physicists are, whether they realize it or not, actually engaging in philosophy themselves. And some of them do it quite well. Mr. Weinberg, for instance, has written brilliantly on the limits of scientific explanation — which is, after all, a philosophical issue. It is also an issue about which contemporary philosophers have interesting things to say.

Mr. Weinberg has attacked philosophical doctrines like “positivism” (which says that science should concern itself only with things that can actually be observed). But positivism happens to be a mantle in which Mr. Hawking proudly wraps himself; he has declared that he is “a positivist who believes that physical theories are just mathematical models we construct, and that it is meaningless to ask if they correspond to reality.” Is Mr. Hawking’s positivism the same positivism that Mr. Weinberg decries? That, one supposes, would be an issue for philosophical discussion.

In two words, clueless arrogance.

The oddest part is that most great scientists, like Einstein, Heisenberg, and Bohr, did not despise philosophy; they understood its conceptual power. Whereas it is today’s multiverse, giant sim, giant hologram, etc., proponents who rattle on against philosophy – principally because philosophers can easily see through their pretenses by simple acts of logic.

Note: The play, Copenhagen, which touches on such themes, is well worth seeing:

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9 Responses to Physicists attack philosophy when they are no longer doing good physics

  1. If multiverse idea is true, universes are dime a dozen. There could be business opportunity there…
    :)

  2. When I click on the link provided, it takes me to a CBC report on a suspended Edmonton teacher.

    This link appears to be the report that is actually discussed.

    I’m puzzled when Holt says:

    Physicists say they do not need any help from philosophers. But sometimes physicists are, whether they realize it or not, actually engaging in philosophy themselves.

    Does he not understand that the complaint is about professional philosophers, rather than about the philosophizing that all people do?

  3. Thanks, link corrected!

  4. Does he not understand that the complaint is about professional philosophers, rather than about the philosophizing that all people do?

    I don’t see how that’s related to the quote. Especially since, yes, some physicists (and scientists generally) do seem to not know when they’ve stopped doing science and started engaging in philosophy. Or they act as if they’re answering questions that philosophers have been struggling with by giving a scientific answer, when they’ve either mangled the question (answering something other than was asked) or the answer (by giving a philosophical/non-scientific answer, and trying to pretend it’s all science.)

    I don’t think Holt’s article is perfect – I think his Democritus line is a bit flippant – but his concern is real, and it could be solved by scientists recognizing where they are authorities, and where they are not. They can philosophize or theologize, but at that point they no longer are speaking from authority – and if they dislike that, they can and should stick to that QM-related dictum: Shut up and calculate.

  5. Richard Dawkins has dismissed David Albert’s review of Lawrence Krauss’ book because it was, and I quote, “written by a philosopher, not a scientist”. This quote also comes from the same thread, on his website, where he insults Sir Anthony Kenny (who chaired his dialogue with The Archbishop of Canterbury) as being a meddling “‘philosopher’, with special training in obscurantism”:

    http://richarddawkins.net/comments/933553

    However, does Dawkins not even realise that David Albert actually HAS training in physics!? He has a theoretical physics doctorate – so if anybody ought to keep their mouth shout speaking on both physics and philosophy, it’s Dawkins!

    I mention these issues in this video, and I have another coming up:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9H2bxHIBfg

  6. (going to try embedding it too, in case that works)

  7. (didn’t work, just follow the link, I think you’ll enjoy it)!

  8. However, does Dawkins not even realise that David Albert actually HAS training in physics!?

    Dawkins has been the biggest loser in the fall of Krauss’ book.

    Krauss lost badly in that he had to retreat (‘Okay my book doesn’t answer that question. But why would you think it did? The title was just, you know, for attention!’), apologize, and really came across as a charlatan who didn’t know about the very thing he was trying to attack (theology and philosophy, rather than physics).

    But Dawkins? Dawkins got thrown under the bus by everyone, since he wrote that stupid addition to Krauss’ book – and Krauss’ new line of “Well of course I didn’t settle the philosophical question, that wasn’t really the point” directly clashes with Dawkins’ old line of “He settled that question, he’s the Darwin of physicists!” Not to mention, Dawkins had, less than half a year ago, heaped praise on Hawking’s book for having dealt a blow to Christianity, before heaping praise on Krauss’. The problem is that Hawking’s book boosted string theory, and Krauss isn’t much of a fan of it.

    I hate to use that stock phrase, but at this point Dawkins has jumped the shark and everyone knows it.

  9. 9
    Chance Ratcliff

    Byrom, great video. Dawkins’ confession of not understanding the difference between structural and functional complexity was at least honest, but underscores part of the problem – that he often just doesn’t know enough about what he’s evangelizing.

    Nullasalus, perhaps that phrase is exactly appropriate here. The debate has moved well past Dawkins’ ability to engage it, from all appearances. He’s a personality – an entertainer – like a comedian whose jokes are just not funny now that we’ve heard them for the hundredth time.

    Perhaps I misunderstand Dawkins. But on one hand he demands that the postulated God be dramatically complex; while on the other suggesting that the proposed “nothingness” be remarkably simple. Why the double standard? Of course “nothing” is neither simple nor complex; but Dawkins appears confused by his own intuition that something must precede the universe, and he applies the most inappropriate label imaginable for something.

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