The Physics-Philosophy ‘Kerfuffle’

The ongoing spat between physicists and philosophers–sparked by David Albert’s negative review of Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing–is the latest instance of a simmering conflict that seems to recur between the academic practitioners of discipline ‘X’ and philosophers who specialize in ‘philosophy of X.’

One kind of complaint made in these disputes is that made by Krauss about philosophers’ excessive sensitivity about encroachment. Roughly (in the case of physics): philosophers don’t like it when physicists deign to solve ‘philosophical problems’ in physics, ones that philosophers have deemed unanswerable by them. (In the context of philosophy of mind and neuroscience, see the bickering between Colin McGinn and VS Ramachandran in the New York Review of Books.) Here, philosophers consider practicing scientists too happy to accept a facile resolution of a genuine problem because they are not sufficiently aware of the philosophical niceties at play in solving it. The charge leveled here: ‘philosophical questions’ that are sought to be answered by science are first reformulated to make them so amenable.

Another kind of complaint, phrased in various forms, and directed at philosophers, runs roughly like this: ‘How can you do ‘the philosophy of X’ when you don’t specialize in X?’ The philosopher thus stands accused of lacking credentials, the appropriate graduate training or professional experience, and thus the appropriate sensitivity to subject matter; without such credentialing, the philosopher is handicapped in his investigations of the conceptual foundations of ‘X.’ This requirement often underwrites X-practitioners’ skepticism about philosophers: You don’t understand the work we do, and you don’t have the background or the experience to do so. (I suspect this forms a subtext to the attitudes expressed by Krauss.) Unsurprisingly, the most vigorous instances of this sort of skepticism about philosophers’ competence to investigate the foundations of ‘X’ are expressed by members of scientific disciplines: science, conducted in a technical, specialized language, requires an immersion in its particulars and methods before it can be philosophized about. The ideal philosopher of physics would be a physicist himself, one who could wax philosophical about a subject he is intimately familiar with. Bohr, Einstein, for instance, in their philosophical moments, arguing about quantum completeness or the measurement problem, would be archetypes of this, as would, say, Sheldon Glashow arguing against string theory.

Now, it is not uncommon to find philosophers of ‘X’–where ‘X’ is some science–who are competent in ‘X;’ they have received some training or earned some experience in it. (David Albert for instance.) Most philosophers that write on these specialized domains are competent in them–without being experts capable of producing interesting results in that field by themselves.  Physicists then, might well doubt that a ‘competent-in-physics’ philosopher could deign to pronounce on the foundations of their discipline. But it may be that this competency is all that is required in order to tackle the questions the philosopher is interested in; perhaps the abstraction of these questions–and their answers–make them amenable to the philosopher.

These considerations should suggest to us that the most perspicuous response to disputes of this sort is to focus on the nature and method of philosophical and scientific question-asking-and-answering. That, plus close attention to the intertwined history of philosophy and science,  would do much to banish the rancor needlessly on display in this latest instance of academic turf warfare. The former inquiry would clarify how the framings of questions differ in philosophy and science and influence their notions of what kinds of answers are considered reasonable. The latter inquiry would show how questions in the sciences either grew out of philosophical speculation or are original to the sciences themselves and how philosophical questions, even after generating fields of scientific inquiry, can persist in forms facilitative of persistent engagement.

8 thoughts on “The Physics-Philosophy ‘Kerfuffle’

  1. Hi. Nice post. I did not read Krauss’ book. But I did read Albert’s review and it seemed interesting. Albert did not get personal with Krauss. But Krauss did get personal (“moronic”). Its a shame.

    I think scientists — out of fear of writers on religion saying “Ah! You don’t know” — are scared to say they don’t know. Albert posses some very good questions and Krauss, nor anyone else really know the answers. But there is a fear of saying “We don’t know” or even “We don’t know yet.” This is also found a lot with the anthropic principle and the multiverse.

    I think there is enough room for scientists and philosophers to try to make sense of what is going on out there.

    On a more mundane question, Jim Holt quotes Nietzsche “As the circle of science grows larger, it touches paradox at more places.” I cannot find that quote anywhere except that article. In books it is quoted from Putnam from “The Birth of Tragedy” but I cannot find it there. Einstein is attributed with “As the circle of light increases, so does the circumference of darkness.” John Archibald Wheeler on page 83 of Horgan’s End of Science says “As the island of our knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” But I can not find the Nietzsche quote…. Anyone out there ever seen it???

  2. Noson,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree – the admission that certain kinds of questions are not answerable within a scientific framework would appear to be too threatening.

    As for your question about the NIetzsche quote, here is a relevant link:

    It has been misquoted from Birth of Tragedy. You can use the section quoted there to search in an online version of BOT.

  3. One of the more substantive cases that I wonder about is that of Huw Price and his book _Time’s Arrow_, where he critiques Hawking and others for not adhering consistently to an atemporal perspective in formulating questions of cosmology. (The simplest and most memorable example is that if the law of entropy is time-symmetric, postulating any future non-low-entropy state requires far more explanation than physicists usually give.) Price isn’t professionally trained as a physicist, but I found his book quite convincing. Do physicists? Albert and Sean Carroll had a similarly intriguing debate over quantum physics a few years back, where Albert seemed to raise epistemological questions that Carroll didn’t seem to have fully worked through.

    Now, Price is not engaging in the sort of metaphysical speculation that’s at stake with Albert and Krauss, which is where things seem to get ugly. I’m surprised people haven’t brought up David Bohm, whose views are considerably more outre than anything Albert has ever said. Because of that it’s hard for me to see Krauss’s attack on Albert as an attack on philosophy per se.

    1. David,

      Thanks for the comment. In general, the metaphysically-heavy discussions always tend to get hairiest precisely because there is so much disagreement about basic terms.

      As for Krauss, his interview seems to contain a general attack on philosophy of science as such, dismissing it as irrelevant. That struck me as profoundly narrow-minded and anti-intellectual.

      BTW, as for Bohm, you do know that John Bell spent a great deal of time defending his interpretation of QM, right? (I think that when you refer to his views as ‘outre’ you are referring to his views on the implicate order?)

      Also, Albert has a connection to Bohm. He did his post-doc with Aharonov, who was one of Bohm’s collaborator in his later years.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: