Philosophy and Pictures of Physics

I've been sort of falling down on my obligation to promote myself-- I've written two blog posts for Forbes this week, and forgotten to post about them here. The first is a thing about philosophy in physics, and how Einstein illustrates both the good and bad aspects of a philosophical approach.

The second is a bit on the listicle side, looking at some types of diagrams that physicists draw when talking about physics. It's prompted by a ZapperZ post noting that scientists talking about science always draw pictures, but other subjects get by with just talking.

These are both quickly-dashed-off sorts of things, as I've had a wretched cold for the last week and a bit, and didn't have the brain for any really in-depth physics. And, of course, the philosophy thing has gotten an order of magnitude more views than last week's in-depth dog physics post. Ah, the Internet...

Anyway, if you hadn't seen those before, well, there they are. Go on over and read them. Or don't. It's all good.

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Re: the philosophy issue, seems to me that most of the good arguments call for more philosophical training for physicists, not necessarily for philosophers to get involved (let alone adjudicate) current issues in the "foundations" of physics (whatever that may mean). Sadly, academic disciplines are usually too specialized for an outsider to make a meaningful contribution. A good example of the ability of academics in one discipline to make contribution to another is scientists talking about philosophy of science, which is almost all Popper-inspired sloganeering, at best peppered with some Kuhn. That is, nothing fresher than 50 years old knowledge, usually acquired in first year classes.

I want to suggest that you might have mentioned over on Forbes all the category theory stuff that is increasingly being proposed for mathematical and quantum computing/information approaches to Physics. I think of Bob Coecke as giving the most flamboyant pictures. It seems that category theory is gradually getting closer to being accessible enough and potentially useful enough, certainly that there is an increasing awareness that these graphical methods are out there and /perhaps/ coming in. It /might/ be the biggest omission in what you have to say on Forbes, just because it's always good to be able to say "you heard it here first". Futures on Forbes. On the other hand, pffft.
Personally, I never like a diagram unless I can clearly see its connection to the equations it's supposed to represent and, as well, to what in the real world the equations and the diagrams are trying to model; for category theory it feels as if, to mix sensory metaphors, the relationships are on the tip of my tongue, except that the mathematical end of category theory is most often presented with what I can only feel to be fantastical abstraction.

By Peter Morgan (not verified) on 13 May 2015 #permalink

The person with the office next to mine works in mathematics education. It turns out that, whenever one tries to talk about what to teach in (in his case, high school) mathematics and how to teach it, one has to fall back at some point upon discussing what mathematical statements mean and what they are used for. In short, one starts doing philosophy of mathematics. (I've become the practicing mathematician with several undergraduate philosophy courses he uses as a sounding board.)

Assuming physics education as a field has progressed far enough to engage with such concerns, it might be an area where a good understanding of the interaction of physics and philosophy is useful, on a practical everyday level rather than a grand theoretical one. Presumably, one might teach physics differently depending on whether one thinks of force as a real thing or as a mathematical abstraction that leads to accurate predictions of motion.

By quasihumanist (not verified) on 13 May 2015 #permalink

One thing I was not clear on in the last comment:

By "what mathematical statements mean", I don't mean what they mean in general, but rather what specific (types of) mathematical statements mean. In other words, when we say "All primes other than 2 are odd", what exactly are we saying and what counts as evidence for or against this claim?

In my opinion, one can say something useful (and, in particular, useful to a teacher) about "All primes other than 2 are odd" without committing to an overall philosophy of mathematics, and, indeed, history suggests that trying to start to analyze a statement about primes by coming up with an overall theory about mathematical statements is a terrible way of trying to answer such questions. Of course, a significant minority of philosophers disagree with me.

By quasihumanist (not verified) on 13 May 2015 #permalink