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.