Friday, June 17, 2011

A Philosophical Interlude

I have a love-hate relationship with the subject of Philosophy. But during the last, oh, 10 years or so, the proportion has been shifting more towards "hate" than "love". I took 2 classes in philosophy while I was an undergraduate, both of them in philosophy of science, and enjoyed them tremendously (I got "A's" in both of them, if you had to ask). It helped that both classes were taught by a physicist who decided to go into philosophy later on in his career. So when he was describing certain physics principles, he knew them intimately.

But then, my feelings towards the subject of philosophy changed late in my graduate years, and continue to deteriorate as I become a physicist. It started to turn during the infamous Sokal Hoax. I realize that there are those who consider themselves as professional social scientists, philosophers, political scientists, etc., actually do not care whether they understood something well enough to actually say something about it, AND publish it! I was just amazed how the post-modernists can be such an influence and get away with bastardizing physics (and science in general), without being challenged. I suppose that was the impetus of the Sokal Hoax, to show that, really, the Emperor has no clothes.

When I read an article such as this, it kinda reinforce my view of philosophy. The author, who is a high energy physics theorist, describes a workshop on science and philosophy at Wuppertal.

Recently, the Wuppertal group organized an international spring school on particle physics and philosophy, which I found very exciting and enjoyable. It included a mixture of lectures by physicists, philosophers and historians, as well as working groups where students debated topics like the "theory–ladenness of experiments" and the "reality of quarks". Everybody was very enthusiastic, and the talks and tutorials triggered plenty of discussion between lecturers and students.

Of course, the very same issue on what really exists and what doesn't comes up again and again whenever a discussion on philosophy is involved.

I mentioned this to Robert Harlander who was sitting next to me during the lecture. To my surprise Robert answered that he does not believe in the reality of atoms – or in the reality of anything, for that matter. We argued for a while and tried to place our beliefs into the philosophical categories at hand. I finally settled for "progression realist", not least because the alternatives of "instrumentalist" or "anti-realist" sounded too negative to me. Robert called himself an "anarchist" which gave me the impression that he did not take the reality discussion very seriously. In any case, one of the good things about philosophical labels is that there are arguments and counter-arguments for almost every point of view, so you can easily change your position when you get tired of it.

At some point, this gets very tiresome. If no reality in anything means that nothing "exists" (and that word has yet to be defined properly), then even ideas do not exist, since ideas are less "solid" than atoms. So the idea that "nothing exist" doesn't exist either! For an atom that has no reality, it's property is certainly highly reproducible. How many times can you say that about something in philosophy?

In the end, the main theme that I got out of this article is that the whole thing is a lot of fun and quite enjoyable. Sure, I go to a Cher concert and found it a lot of fun and quite enjoyable as well. But is this merely fun, or interesting, or is it also important? Maybe the field of ornithology is fun and interesting to someone in that field, but for the birds, it is utterly insignificant. So yes, it may be interesting, but is it important? I don't see it, and it certainly doesn't look that way from this article.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting topic... I think the classic debate reveals how little we actually understand our universe. Perhaps 10,000 years from now, humans will look back at our views the same way we look back at those who believed Chemistry was witchcraft.