The Problem with Physics

Sean Carroll has a pair of posts up, one of which is aptly titled “Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things about Philosophy“. Both posts are concerned with the reasons physicists often give to dismiss philosophy as a discipline and why those reasons are wrong. Both are worth reading.

It is also worth pointing out that Carroll is not focusing on physicists simply because he himself is a physicist who relies on the work of philosophers. It’s a problem common to a lot of physicists and more common among physicists than it is among scientists of other disciplines. Think of three well-known physicists, then check Carroll’s list of dismissive big names. Look at the amount of overlap between the two lists. Now come up with another group of people educated in a single topic who are similarly dismissive of philosophy.

As I said elsewhere when James Croft pondered the proper response to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s comments on philosophy.

I’m not even so sure I see it as *his* failing as much as I see it as a common failing of a physics education. Modern U.S. physics education at the college level and beyond is notorious for producing scientists who can’t manage the complexities involved in biology, much less the social sciences. Bob Park once told a physics professor friend of mine that there is no pseudoscience so ridiculous you can’t find a PhD physicist who will support it. (Though in retrospect, I’m guessing he would have made an exception for the crankery that gets mailed to physics departments all the time.)

There is a simplicity to physics, in the sense of limited variables, that there isn’t in most of the rest of the world. In many places, that simplicity is embraced as scientific superiority, and that sense of superiority is passed on with the basic knowledge of physics. It is entirely unsurprising that we continue to see physicists saying silly things about philosophy.

Not that this tells me anything about how to address the problem.

Holler if you have any ideas.

The Problem with Physics

9 thoughts on “The Problem with Physics

  1. 1

    *insert boilerplate dismissal of philosophers HERE*

    I kind of don’t see the point, beyond the general idea that knowing more is better than knowing less. On the other hand, I’m not sure of the super-deep thinking that philosophers are producing that I’m supposed to actually care about. Which is fine. I also don’t care about most forms of science, art, music, literature, etc. And I get equally bristly when fans/practitioners of those things insist I should share their viewpoint as well… *shrugs*

  2. 3

    Well, look t it from the point of view of any scientist who deals with predictive models. Let’s face it, philosophy is not a great way of understanding the physical world around us and the track record isn’t so hot.

    Let me throw out one reason philosophy can look a bit silly. Give me any philosophical set of models and using the very same criteria I can come to two completely opposed conclusions. You can’t do that in physics. I can’t say that, for example, radioactive decay happens the way we see it happening and conclude that the Earth is 6000 years old, not if all the other physics we have learned is correct — or even if only half of it is.

    But I can use the very same criteria Plato and Aristotle did and come to utterly different conclusions.

    Heck, a lot of social theories have this problem too. You can’t predict a damned thing with feminism or socialism. You just can’t. You start with an answer a priori (women deserve to be treated the same as men, they are equal beings, workers should own the means of production) and work backwards from there.

    Physics — any physical science, really — doesn’t work that way. So to anyone who is interested in the physical world and understanding it I see it as no surprise that philosophy gets frustrating.

    Another reason philosophy can seem “stupid.” It’s too easy for any reasonably intelligent undergrad student who has had the training in logic you get in math.

    I came to the humanities from the physical sciences as an undergraduate. (I started as a physics major). And I found that my English classes and Philosophy classes were the easiest As I ever got. Now, I am not a super genius or anything– I struggled mightily in the sciences. I am not some prodigy.

    But the fact that so few people in the humanities learned logic — which if you take geometry or calculus is basic to doing it at all — well, that’s why a lot of sciency-types when I was a young one used to sneer at the humanities people a little. I certainly didn’t feel it was rigorous in the way that vector calculus was. I felt like I could say any damned thing and the prof would love it because it was a coherent thought. And when I asked other former science people I got a similar story–the humanities seemed like a cakewalk. It’s hard to respect a field you find easy.

    Postmodernism (which was more a thing when I was a student) only served to confirm to many people in that generation that the humanities experts cared not at all about observable reality. NdGT is about my age, so I’d not be surprised if had the same reaction.

    This isn’t the fault of philosophy, but the fault of poor education in it and the rest of the humanities. And I am not saying that philosophy is bad or worthless — quite the contrary, I write for a living, after all — just noting some of the reasons why this attitude can happen.

  3. 5

    colnago80 @4: It was Feynman. The Great Man did indeed say some stupid things. As most Great Men do.

    To the larger point – dealing with the smallest and the largest scales we see in nature, with the most sophisticated mathematics, does seem to have bred a sort of arrogance. Regrettable, but it will eventually fix itself. We are a species which seems to lapse into arrogance all too easily. Just ask the other species who are still around!

  4. 7

    Judging by the physicists I’ve met, xkcd is right on the money.

    They aren’t just dismissive of philosophy, they’re dismissive of every other field. And not shy about letting you know it.

  5. 8

    Croft has the solution right in his first paragraph: A more well-rounded education at universities. FWIW, the door swings both ways, it’s just that it’s passe to talk about how people in the humanities can be dismissive of science and math, because it was already pointed out decades ago in Snow’s “Two Cultures”. I think you’re right that there are things unique to physics that make physicists more likely to fall into that trap, but any scientist educated in a modern university is going to be susceptible.

    In partial defense of Neil et al, I think one factor at work here is just how much bad philosophy is out there. Which is not an excuse to dismiss the whole field, but I understand hte frustration. Even good philosophers seem frustrated 🙂

  6. 9

    Jesse @ 3:

    Indeed, in my talk I, too, point out that what philosophers are doing and teaching in the academy now is multiply terrible, but that that is a completely different thing from what philosophy is, has been, can be, and sometimes is as a field of knowledge and inquiry. And I’m not the only one to notice this. I cite and summarize Bunge on exactly the same point in that speech, drawing from his book Philosophy in Crisis.

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