Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Consolation of Philosophy

{Don't miss our nomination period to nominate your most attractive physicists}

It seems that Lawrence Krauss had to elaborate on the rather provocative interview that was published in the Atlantic barely a week ago. As you recall, in that interview, he challenged the usefulness and relevancy of philosophy and religion, in light of advances made in modern physics.

In this OpEd piece, he clarified his statement, with an apology to the philosophy community for lumping them all in one group. But he is not apologetic on the influence (or lack thereof) of the field of philosophy in advancing physics.

What I find common and so stimulating about the philosophical efforts of these intellectual colleagues is the way they thoughtfully reflect on human knowledge, amassed from empirical explorations in areas ranging from science to history, to clarify issues that are relevant to making decisions about how to function more effectively and happily as an individual, and as a member of a society.

As a practicing physicist however, the situation is somewhat different. There, I, and most of the colleagues with whom I have discussed this matter, have found that philosophical speculations about physics and the nature of science are not particularly useful, and have had little or no impact upon progress in my field. Even in several areas associated with what one can rightfully call the philosophy of science I have found the reflections of physicists to be more useful. For example, on the nature of science and the scientific method, I have found the insights offered by scientists who have chosen to write concretely about their experience and reflections, from Jacob Bronowski, to Richard Feynman, to Francis Crick, to Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, and Sir James Jeans, to have provided me with a better practical guide than the work of even the most significant philosophical writers of whom I am aware, such as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. I admit that this could primarily reflect of my own philosophical limitations, but I suspect this experience is more common than not among my scientific colleagues.
But what slammed the door on what I would call "theological philosophy" is what he wrote at the end of the article.

So, to those philosophers I may have unjustly offended by seemingly blanket statements about the field, I apologize. I value your intelligent conversation and the insights of anyone who thinks carefully about our universe and who is willing to guide their thinking based on the evidence of reality. To those who wish to impose their definition of reality abstractly, independent of emerging empirical knowledge and the changing questions that go with it, and call that either philosophy or theology, I would say this: Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature.
Hahaha.... I enjoyed reading that! :)



Anonymous said...

It's hard to think of something that has had more impact on all of science than Aristotle's `Organon'.

The Universe said...

Aw, sounds as if he's following in Hawking's footsteps and having a go at philosophers in order to gain attention. What does PhD stand for again?

ZapperZ said...

Puhleeze. Don't get hung up on something that is a historical legacy.


Unknown said...

From reading the Huffington piece, it seems that Krauss is a bit over the top. He is quite right that it would be a wonderful advance if humankind could derive both space-time and the quantum fields from some simpler model. This would greatly sharpen and inform the "Question of Nothing", but even Krauss admits that it would not answer all of it. We would still be saying that space + stuff were solutions to some equations, and we would't be commenting on what "breathes the life of physical reality" into those equations and (apparently) not others.

Krauss might find these other questions uninteresting, and I too prefer not to worry about them. But he should show some humility towards those who tackle them.