Why Physicists Disparage Philosophers, In Three Paragraphs

Periodically, some scientific celebrity from the physical sciences-- Neil deGrasse Tyson or Stephen Hawking, say-- will say something dismissive about philosophy, and kick off a big rush of articles about how dumb their remarks are, how important philosophy is, and so on. Given that this happens on a regular basis, you might wonder why it is that prominent physicists keep saying snide things about philosophy. But never fear, the New York Times is here to help, with an op-ed by James Blachowicz, an emeritus philosopher from Loyola, grandly titled There Is No Scientific Methods.

It's actually not that bad as essays about science from philosophers go, until the very end. Blachowicz's point is that the process of scientific discovery has more in common with other disciplines than generally appreciated. He kicks this off with a reference to a long-ago talk about the writing of poetry, but most of the essay is devoted to a comparison between a Socratic sort of argument defining courage and Kepler's discovery that Mars has an elliptical orbit.

The specific examples he uses are kind of dry and abstract, but I'm mostly on board with his argument. I would pretty much have to be, having written a whole book arguing that scientific thinking plays an essential role in everyday life. But then we come to the final three paragraphs:

If scientific method is only one form of a general method employed in all human inquiry, how is it that the results of science are more reliable than what is provided by these other forms? I think the answer is that science deals with highly quantified variables and that it is the precision of its results that supplies this reliability. But make no mistake: Quantified precision is not to be confused with a superior method of thinking.

I am not a practicing scientist. So who am I to criticize scientists’ understanding of their method?

I would turn this question around. Scientific method is not itself an object of study for scientists, but it is an object of study for philosophers of science. It is not scientists who are trained specifically to provide analyses of scientific method.

I have any number of problems with this, starting with the fact that it feels like he realized he was up against his word limit for the column, and just stopped, like an undergrad whose term paper crossed onto the tenth page in Word. We get a thorough exploration of blind alleys toward a definition of courage, then dismiss all of science with "highly quantified variables", and off to the faculty club for brandy.

But I think this horrible shruggie of an ending also serves to illustrate what drives (many) physicists (and other scientists) nuts about philosophers. That is, he makes a pretty decent argument by analogy that scientific thinking and philosophical thinking are more similar than not, but then fails to do... anything, really. As a scientist reading along, this positively screams for a "Therefore..." followed by some sort of action item. You've made an argument that the scientific method is "only one form of a general method employed in all human inquiry," great. I'm with you on that. And now, what do we do with that information?

I find this incredibly frustrating, in no small part because (as noted above) I wrote a whole book making a similar argument. And I had a pretty clear take-away message in mind when I did that, namely that the universality of the scientific method shows that science is not, in fact, incomprehensible to non-scientists. We can all think like scientists, and knowing that should give us courage to use those reasoning skills to our advantage.

Now, obviously, I'm a scientist, and thus inclined to favor a conclusion encouraging non-scientists to take some lessons from the study of "highly quantified variables" and apply them to their own activities. But I'd also be happy with a conclusion that ran in the opposite direction-- that the commonality on methods should lead scientists to show more respect for their colleagues in other fields of study. That's also a reasonable argument to make.

But instead, it's just ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. And while this is an especially abrupt ending, it's just an extreme example of a pretty general phenomenon when dealing with philosophers and other scholars in "the humanities." As a scientist, I often find myself nodding along with the steps of the process to work something out, only to be left waiting for some sort of concrete conclusion about what comes next. There's a comprehensive failure to build on prior results, or even suggest how someone else might build on them in the future, and as a physicist I find this maddening.

(Of course, the absolute worst part of this tendency is that it carries over into faculty governance. As a result, we have interminable meetings in which people ask questions but aren't interested in hearing answers, or identify problems but decline to make any policy recommendations toward solving them...)

And there's an extra bonus scoop of "maddening" when, as in this case, the great big ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ is followed by an assertion that study of these Important Questions is a matter that must be left to philosophers. Because, clearly, scientists simply aren't equipped to follow through this kind of analysis and then... not do anything with what they've learned thereby.

So, if you wonder why it is that scientists (particularly physicists) tend to roll their eyes and sigh heavily when the subject of philosophy comes up, I think this is an excellent case study. And it's something to take into account the next time somebody sits down to write (or edit) yet another essay on Why Philosophy Matters To Science. If you want physicists to take philosophy more seriously, you need an "and therefore..." at the end. Or they're likely to come up with their own more colorful but less helpful suggestions of what you can do with your research.

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To be fair, when philosophers of science have attempted to be normative, scientists have historically been the first ones to tell them to stuff it.

By Ori Vandewalle (not verified) on 05 Jul 2016 #permalink

The examples Blachowicz gives are closer in spirit to engineering than to science. None involve the development of new understanding, all are examples of craftspersons adjusting their output to match a pre-set ideal. The critical element that he fails to mention is the recognition that the pre-set ideal was wrong, and start over. An additional failure is the importance of making predictions. The one example from science that Blachowicz gives is Kepler's observation that the orbit of Mars is an ellipse, but he fails to further not that the "ellipse theory" then allowed Kepler to explain the orbits of the remaining planets. There are philosophers who appear to understand what science is (at least, I think there are), but Blachowicz is certainly not one of them.

It's something of a running joke that philosophers are good at asking questions but terrible at answering them. Maybe they are afraid to venture an answer because the answers they have are incomplete, and people will notice that those answers are incomplete.

But as physicists, we don't necessarily expect complete answers. The answers can be tentative or partial. They may even be of the form, "We need to do this experiment in order to find out the answer." That's the essence of doing science.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 05 Jul 2016 #permalink

These final paragraphs could be paraphrased in the immortal word of Gertrude Stein, "there's no there there".

The reason that *I* disparage most philosphers is that unlike science, they never test their ideas against reality. Not being falsifiable by any means save by failing to obey their own arbitray rules, the entire endeavor is a sterile excersize in navel gazing.

Feinman dispaired of finding any value there when he found that three philosophers couldn't agree on the definitions of a what an "essential object" was, when he asked for one, after having listened to discussion between them about essential objects.

I lost interest in ancient philosophy when I (instantly) realized that Plato's cave was an inversion of reality where-in the idealized forms were real and our realization of them was just a poor shadow... but in our understanding of the universe, the concepts of the mind are highly lossily compressed neural representations of a very limited perception of objects... and that cultural transmissions of "chairness" between minds is only an idiosyncratic generalization of a category of objects that are culturally labeled "chair"... that the shadows on the cave wall were the forms of the mind, not the shadows of thoughts projected onto the real world....

... and this was my adolescent realization. My disdain for "science studies" and all post-modernism / anti-enlightenment thinking has only grown. When a highly intelligent, logical individual can't follow a post-modernist essay without tripping over illogic in every paragraph, you know that something is wrong with modern philosphy.

By Kay Brown (not verified) on 05 Jul 2016 #permalink

Yes: the essay published in The Stone was an example of bad philosophy of science. But to condemn all of philosophy because there exists bad philosophy of science is as valid as dismissing all of science because that guy at the University of Utah argued that the human hand evolved for punching.

There is a concrete solution here: better interdisciplinary communication. Instead of The Stone (which is not representative of the vast majority of Anglophone philosophy), scientists should read work by the likes of David Albert, James Ladyman, Don Ross, or Peter Godfrey-Smith. For their part, philosophers should rely less on their memories of grade school science and read up-to-date scientific publications (as the aforementioned philosophers recommend).

By L. Finkelman (not verified) on 05 Jul 2016 #permalink

The big issue I had with the article was his casual dismissal of empiricism. If you're wondering why science is "more reliable than what is provided by these other forms", then it's validation by objective experiment that does it, not anything to do with quantified variables. (There are plenty of chemists and biologists who would be offended if you implied their qualitative experiments are either not science or not reliable.)

That probably also goes a way of explaining why physicists are upset a the lack of an “and therefore…” from philosophers. Scientists are trained that all the jawing in the world doesn't mean jack unless you follow it up with a verifiable experiment. A theoretical framework isn't useful in and of itself, it's useful for the (verifiable) predictions and conclusions you can make from it. Without an "and therefore ..." from a theory, you don't have anything to experiment with, and from a scientist's perspective that's just a waste of time. (Philosophers, it seems to me, are much more likely to see the construction of a theoretical framework as worthwhile effort in and of itself.)


Somewhat related to this topic, I think what might bother me most is when a scientist, even a scientist here at ScienceBlogs, has the temerity to assert a "scientific" something such as
“Abiogenesis is 100% a certainty”.

I think it’s 100% appalling.

I would think you should, too.

By See Noevo (not verified) on 05 Jul 2016 #permalink

We've had thousands of years to think up an alternative to abiogenesis.

Nothing even remotely plausible has ever been suggested.

Obviously Chad knows there is uncertainty in everything. But also, this is a pop blog not a science paper, so saying 100% is just a rounding up from 99.9%.

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 05 Jul 2016 #permalink

For me, the conflict between science and philosophy rests solely upon the problem of induction. If you look at science as a study of existing phenomena in order to predict future phenomena, then it works rather well. However, as a philosopher, this inductive reasoning is flawed because we are not omniscient.

What we are, though, is relatively decent observers of our surroundings. As our observations increase in specificity, and our explanations of those observations become more robust, it is harder to admit that we are still just going through the motions because they work rather than knowing that they must work. Of course, if one admits that we cannot know that our explanations must work, then we can finally discard this argument.

By transcendentape (not verified) on 05 Jul 2016 #permalink

Philosophy is an argument of logic, while science is an argument of utility.

By transcendentape (not verified) on 05 Jul 2016 #permalink

@david "The one example from science that Blachowicz gives is Kepler’s observation that the orbit of Mars is an ellipse, but he fails to further not that the “ellipse theory” then allowed Kepler to explain the orbits of the remaining planets".

Historically this is wrong on a rather subtle level. The "ellipse theory" didn't allow Kepler to explain the orbits of the remaining planets, he just simply assumed that they were also ellipses. In reality he offers no real proof or explanation for this assumption and strangely enough before Newton nobody really challenged it. Newton used Kepler's lack of proof or explanation to claim that it was he and not Kepler who was the true discoverer of the first two laws of planetary motion.

"...you might wonder why it is that prominent physicists keep saying snide things about philosophy"

Because said physicists are uninformed, revel in their ignorance and refuse to seriously consider attempts to enlighten them. This is like asking why prominent creationists keep saying snide things about evolution, despite frequent output of books and articles explaining the evidence for it.

"We get a thorough exploration of blind alleys toward a definition of courage, then dismiss all of science with “highly quantified variables..."

How do you get from 'science is not superior' to 'we should dismiss all of science'? Sounds like your dismissive attitude prevented you from representing the author's argument accurately and charitably.

"he makes a pretty decent argument by analogy that scientific thinking and philosophical thinking are more similar than not, but then fails to do… anything, really"

Um, you're talking about an op-ed in the NY Times, not an extended monograph. Since you seem to know so much about undergrad writing, you obviously appreciate the fact that the scope of your argument should match the length of writing format. Again, what would you think of a creationist who insisted that a scientist who make a general case for evolution in an op-ed then proceed to solve all potential questions about evolutionary theory? If you're wondering what the 'and therefore' is of philosophy, maybe go read some actual philosophy instead of waiting to be spoon-fed.

To #13:

“…where I part company with Blachowicz’s example is that scientific thinking and methods are generally applied to REAL objects.
"… When he says “deals with highly quantified variables”, I think he really is saying “deals with REAL objects”, but doesn’t want to say it (or think it) in those terms. It is, after all, REAL phenomena and REAL objects that can be quantified.

"So to sum up my own views: there is such a thing as the scientific method … And it’s not quite the same as writing a poem, or coming up with a definition of courage, because in the end it deals with physical objects and measurable phenomena.”

So, to sum up your own views, your view is not real.

By See Noevo (not verified) on 06 Jul 2016 #permalink

"So, to sum up your own views, your view is not real."


@Thony C - Indeed, you are right that Kepler himself did not confirm his statement that the orbits of all planets are elliptical. Later scientists did confirm it, however (within certain limits of accuracy). Science is often a community effort: one group builds the theory, another group performs the calculations needed to make a prediction, a third does the experiment.


You forgot the groups that come up with the epistemic framework, that do the necessary mathematical and statistical proofs etc. I think what you were going for is that knowledge formation is a community effort, of which science is only one part.

I reject the frame, that there is a pissing contest to participate in. Having said that, there would be no, "Scientific Method", without Aristotle.

By Steve Spears (not verified) on 07 Jul 2016 #permalink

Orzel writes “…I’m mostly on board with his argument. I would pretty much have to be, having written a whole book arguing that scientific thinking plays an essential role in everyday life.” But this seems to betray that he has failed to really understand Blachowcz’s point. Blachowicz writes, “Maybe the method on which science relies exists wherever we find systematic investigation. In saying there is no scientific method, what I mean, more precisely, is that there is no distinctly scientific method.” I take the latter to mean not that scientific thinking is used everywhere, as Orzel’s lines above seem to say, but rather that there is a basic form of inquiry that pops up all over the place and science uses it, too, in its own way, perhaps, but the basic form of inquiry is not distinctively or uniquely scientific. One thing that infuriates (at least some) philosophy folk is sloppy reading, and to this extent, at least, Orzel has read sloppily.

By George Wrisley (not verified) on 07 Jul 2016 #permalink

It's not a misreading, just a difference in the slant we take on the same argument. Blachowicz calls "the method on which science relies" a general form of human inquiry that finds specific application in science, and I call it "scientific thinking" and say it's applied in non-scientific contexts. This is because I'm trying to promote science, while he's trying to promote philosophy.

If you follow the link to information about my book, you'll find a bunch of material that spells this out. The clearest is probably the excerpt at The Science of Us, taken from the introduction of the actual book.

Thank you for your response and for the links. But to push back a bit, I'm not so sure it's merely a matter of "slant." There's a huge substantive difference in saying there is a method X that is employed by various fields, including science (where each field has its own spin on it) and saying that all these different fields employ a scientific methodology/thinking (some better, some worse). I have difficulty seeing how that is merely a "slant."

Part of the concern, from my perspective as someone doing philosophy, is that your "slant" easily tips into a scientism that claims that THE ONLY legitimate method of inquiry is through the scientific methodology/thinking in question, i.e., the one that you say appears in "non-scientific contexts." Of course, if it does so tip, then the claim would have to be that those "non-scientific contexts" are really scientific, for if they're not, then they're not legit.

Perhaps you want to claim a harder distinction between "scientific thinking" and "scientific methodology"? One that would allow for there to be a firmer distinction between the sciences and non-sciences, while even the non-sciences engage in scientific thinking; and which would further allow for there to be "non-scientific" modes of thinking and inquiry that complement the scientific? If that's the case, then we'd need a good explanation of the difference between "scientific thinking" and "scientific methodology." Perhaps your books does that? But even then, given recent rhetoric, labeling a method of inquiry as "non-scientific" is usually to disparage it as illegitimate.

By George Wrisley (not verified) on 07 Jul 2016 #permalink

I would say that we're both choosing our words to serve goals which might broadly be construed as political. As a philosopher, he's trying to avoid "scientism," while as a scientist, I'm trying to demystify science in order to promote greater public understanding and appreciation. I'm not that concerned with tipping toward science as THE ONLY legitimate method, because I really don't see much danger of that in society at large. The greater problem I see, and the one I'm trying to fight, is the popular image of science as alien and incomprehensible-- the thing where celebrities, politicians, and even professional academics in "the humanities" get a pass for saying "Oh, I'm not a science person, I can't possibly understand that..."

Obviously, the situation may appear different to someone whose goal is the promotion of "the humanities" rather than the promotion of science. And thus, the language used to talk about the same basic phenomenon will be different.

I'm still not convinced that the "choosing of words" here is merely a matter of slant, but I agree that what's at issue is also political, broadly construed, as you say. I can appreciate, I think, your perspective and frustration. The American public is not, generally, terribly astute when it comes to their understanding of science and its importance. And to take a perhaps trivial, but I think telling, example, I am always annoyed when watching a show when the character who is the "scientist" says something and those around them look confused and say, "Speak English!" Infuriating!

However, I don't think you're appreciating the dangers of the scientism I mentioned. One form of this is in the hyper-focus on STEM in colleges and universities. I would argue that while those subjects are, of course, vital, such a heavy emphasis in the name of short term economic gain is terribly short-sighted and involves a misunderstanding of what the humanities are up to and their importance. If nothing else, such a focus on STEM betrays an overvaluing of economic/monetary gains over other kinds of valuations.

Thank you for the back and forth!

By George Wrisley (not verified) on 07 Jul 2016 #permalink

The statistician's view.
We invent models. Then there are at least 3 possibilities. Let the models compete at explaining data (specification searches). Do hypothesis testing. Do decision theory. Two out of the 3 are arm-chair.

The problem is that scientists do not fully understand science any more, and as a consequence many have stepped out of Science, the best of them into Philosophy, but none of them good.
The problem is there is no fundamental progress anymore. This is the reality for over 50 years. It's disguised by the ongoing empirical and technological advance, all which driven by and are testament to the tremendous advances of yesteryear.
Scientists don't anymore understand how science is constituted and why science was so different. It's not as simple as 'testing' or some willingness to give up on scientific beliefs in the face of better performing ideas, over and above the human norm. Science is going to die unless someone saves it, now.

By Chris Mannering (not verified) on 07 Jul 2016 #permalink

Your observation is largely congruent with my own. When I took a philosophy survey course as an UG, I found the professor talked around the science but never in it. I subsequently obtained a confession that he felt inadequate to do so. The same behavior, if not admission, has been common in later interactions with other philosophers. I am reminded of the joke about the different STEM disciplines in the hotel that catches fire where the mathematician announces :A Solution Exists" and retires.

By Bruce Fowler (not verified) on 08 Jul 2016 #permalink

Ludwig Wittgenstein: "A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about."

If Mr. Orzel ever truly struggled with a philosophical problem, he would understand this.

Science is Everything but Everything is not Science

By Chris Mannering (not verified) on 09 Jul 2016 #permalink

Other people (including the blogger) have pointed to the lack of follow-through in philosophy and I think - given the context is the under-performance of philosophy in, and/or in regard of, science - the implied presence, or possibility of presence,of deep forces at work, to do with the intrinsics of what things are (their bounds) that places contributions of a fundamental nature to Science beyond Philosophy's reach (i.e. if there is no working concept available to Philosophy that can proxy for 'progress' in the scientific sense).

You'd think such concepts are available and on tap to all intelligent beings, but that may not be so. There's obviously a bigger argument to be had (by philosophers?) on this but just as testimony, one strong evidence against that kind of universalism is that there are notable knock-on consequences of this lack of follow-through, of a fairly debilitating nature.
One example is the propensity for rhetorical devices to enter into philosophical parlance at the boundary where philosophy attempts to cross over into science.

Everyone uses rhetorical devices occasionally and even if they didn't there would always be 'bad eggs' deploying such things - not just in Philosophy but every domain of human endeavour, including science. No, but the point about these rhetorical devices is the blind spot in play among philosophers that any such device exists at all. And the effect of that in turn, typically sees migration of such devices to the core or root, as centerpiece argument.
For example it is a major component of the argument for an expanded role for Philosophy in Science, that we are all always doing philosophy at all times in all things we do, and that this obviously includes scientists, and so given that they are, why not do it well.
The reason why that is specious in the setting of that argument, is because 'philosophy' is like 'evolution' or 'method' in that these are words that mean different but related things along a spectrum with 'ultra-generic' at one end. Just because any correlation of events may be referred to as an 'evolution' in generic terms, does not mean every sequence can be described as Darwinian Evolution. Or Evolution as you think of it in the biological frame.

So rotated through to that central point of evidence involving philosophy already being 'there' in science, just because that ultra-generic sense of philosophy is 'there' does not imply or make more likely even, that human attempts at more sophistication, rules based, exclusive levels of philosophy are suitable. It's also trash because you could as easily say that science at a generic level, is in everything we say and do. Just explaining my previous one-liner (taken from one of the Jewish sages incidently...originally "God is Everything but Everything is not God"
Yeah baby we're bigger than God

By Chris Mannering (not verified) on 09 Jul 2016 #permalink

Science is just " a refinement of everyday thinking. " Albert Einstein HIMSELF said that! He was perhaps the greatest intellect ever in the physical sciences. People get too carried away with their "science god." WE invented it. If aliens ever come to Earth they are so far ahead of us and our "science" is nothing to whatever they know.

By Michael Allen (not verified) on 09 Jul 2016 #permalink

Sorry I'm late to this discussion, but I've been busy. Plus I decided to read the article first rather than react to some off topic comments.

My problem with the story he uses as an example of the scientific method is that it is wrong. People, meaning early scientists, had known that circular orbits were wrong since before Ptolemy, and Copernicus only removed the largest epicycle by moving the Sun to the center. Smaller ones were still required (a "patchwork" akin to a series solution) to agree with the known data. Copernicus had shown that the orbits were not circles; like any good scientist, Kepler just had to confirm that for himself and explore what the data would allow.

Like those before him, Kepler was not looking for a way to write down his own personal vision of an internal meaning he wishes to express (poetry) or an agreed-upon definition of shared internal meanings of a word in a particular language. He wanted to describe data that could be obtained by anyone and that could not be tested by further observation but not disputed or ignored on principle.

That is what is missing from this philosophical story: Kepler had gotten his hands on the extraordinary data acquired by Tycho Brahe (who wanted to prove the earth was at the center) and those data led him from circles to ovals to an ellipse IF (the big if) he wanted to avoid epicycles. He could have used circles if he hadn't had good data or had chosen an internal reality over an external one.

And I won't even mention the precession of those orbits, which thus do not form closed ellipses.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 10 Jul 2016 #permalink

An important function of philosophy of science is simply to expose the often-unacknowledged metaphysical assumptions that get smuggled into scientific theories. One such very common assumption is that in order for something to be 'real', it must be 'observable', at least in principle. But this might not be true at all: there could be physically real things that are not observable (an example would be quarks). Another very common metaphysical assumption of physical science is that spacetime is a physically real 'container' for everything real. Philosophy of science is a critical attitude toward all the ingredients that go into constructing theories, not taking anything for granted, because sometimes it's the unacknowledged presuppositions that create barriers to scientific progress. Another way to understand this issue: physical science started out as 'natural philosophy', and properly done, that is still what it is. The greatest physicists were philosophers, too. Scientists who disparage philosophy are generally just doing bad philosophy themselves, and don't even realize that's what they are doing.

By Ruth Kastner (not verified) on 10 Jul 2016 #permalink

Hi CCPhysicist - Good points, the best one being - for me - that the basic setup that gave rise to a discovery involved suspending a large amount of incumbent knowledge - not because it could not answer the question - but because it could.

By Chris Mannering (not verified) on 11 Jul 2016 #permalink

Correcting a typo in the third paragraph @31: "could not be tested by ..." should be "could be tested by ".

@33: I don't believe the extant data (before Tycho) had anywhere near the precision to require an elliptical solution rather than an infinite series of epicycles. I see Kepler using his mathematical knowledge to seek "perfection" in the single equation of an ellipse over a series of circles.

@32: Quarks are observed the same way you observe a leaf, by scattering something from them and drawing inferences from the energy and distribution of what strikes your ocular detectors. They are also observed by looking at the light they emit, just like we studied atoms a century before.

@25: I think that fundamental progress continues to be made, by experiment even if not by theory.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 11 Jul 2016 #permalink

@34: Thanks, I agree that one can infer that an entity exists by indirect means. The point is that one cannot *directly* observe certain theoretical constructs, such as multidimensional quantum states (e.g. an entangled 2-photon state). But we can infer that they describe something that exists because we can observe the predicted phenomena. This would be a 'realist' interpretation of a physical theory, as opposed to an instrumentalist one. Of course, we have the option to be instrumentalist about theories rather than realist, but that is a choice that needs to be made in a critically informed way. Many physicists subscribe to the philosophical position of instrumentalism--a form of antirealism about a theory--without even knowing that they are taking a philosophical position. And often they get rather dogmatic about their uncritically adopted instrumentalism. I have seen this first-hand.

By Ruth Kastner (not verified) on 11 Jul 2016 #permalink

Most compelling comment: #32.

Most appalling comment: #28.

By See Noevo (not verified) on 11 Jul 2016 #permalink

My point is that we cannot directly observe anything. We observe a leaf by detecting a scattered photon with our eyes and the rustle in the wind with our ears. Both send electrical signals to our brain, which has to learn to interpret them by building a model of our external reality. We learn as children to name them and give them a (theoretical?) reality even when we are not observing them "directly".

This is doing science. Knowing something about an assumed, independently existing, external reality.

Sometimes those photons pass through a window and are refracted along the way, and sometimes they are recorded as an image that is put on a computer screen. Sometimes they cannot be seen without an instrument (eyeglasses) and sometimes those sounds are conveyed by a cochlear implant. Are those direct observations? I think your dichotomy between "direct" and "instrument" is an artificial one.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 12 Jul 2016 #permalink

Sure, we can critique that dichotomy. The main point is that everything we detect--whether 'directly' or 'indirectly,' is done so by way of specific spacetime events. We infer from this that everything 'real' must live in spacetime. However, we do not know that the entities described by our theories actually 'live in spacetime'. If tthose entities are accurately described, and their behavior under various conditions predicted, by theoretical quantities that 'live' in Hilbert space, such as entangled 2-particle quantum states, then those entities cannot be said to be living in spacetime, which has only 3+1 dimensions and is a mathematically distinct manifold from Hilbert Space. That's why many physicists (and philosophers too) dismiss realism about the objects of quantum theory. My work proposes that quantum objects (e.g. quarks, photons, electrons....) that are described by Hilbert Space quantities, do not live in spacetime, yet they are still real. For details on this please see my published works.

By Ruth Kastner (not verified) on 12 Jul 2016 #permalink

In reply to by CCPhysicist (not verified)

“… rather than continuing to push on the science, it may be best to ask about the unspoken philosophies supporting that research effort.
… These physicists feel our study of the cosmos has been taken too far from what data can constrain with the extra "hidden" dimensions of string theory and the unobservable other universes of the multiverse. Of course, there are many scientists who continue to see great promise in string theory and the multiverse. But, as Marcelo and I wrote in The New York Times last year, it all adds up to muddied waters and something some researchers see as a "crisis in physics."

Smolin and Unger believe this crisis is real — and it's acute. They pull no punches in their sense that the lack of empirical data has led the field astray. As they put it:

"Science is corrupted when it abandons the discipline of empirical validation or dis-confirmation. It is also weakened when it mistakes its assumptions for facts and its ready-made philosophy for the way things are."”


By See Noevo (not verified) on 12 Jul 2016 #permalink

Giancarlo Rota was interested in the philosophy of mathematics, but he recognized that some people, including many mathematicians, are not. I could never get into the debate about whether numbers have an independent existence or are something we make up. Now I've been reading Hasselmo's book on episodic memory, and I realize that all of our science and philosophy are derived from the way our brains work, and our brains work certain ways for contingent reasons.

Since our universe is comprehensible, thinking can be useful. A creature with a brain may have an advantage in Darwin's sweepstakes. Our brains have specialized neurons, most of which we know approximately squat about, but some we know are place neurons associated with places. There are direction neurons and speed related neurons. There are even grid neurons that deal with relative placement and motion. So much for pure reason. This isn't surprising since one advantage our brains give us is our ability to move around in ways that might help us survive and reproduce.

Now there is evidence that we think about conceptual space much as we think about physical space. There was an article in Science describing the similarity in the way our brains handle being here or there as opposed to whether something is a heron (long neck & legs), a duck (short neck & legs) or something in between. Overall, we know next to nothing, but what we are discovering is intriguing.

We can argue until we are blue in the face about the essential nature of duck-ness or here-ness, but it matters little in the face of how we are able to think about duck-ness or here-ness. It's like arguing about whether numbers exist or not. It really doesn't matter. As Giancarlo Rota noted, mathematicians often create intricate systems, often identical, but with the axioms and theorems inverted. What matters is what we can do, not what is. In this case, man is the measure of all things. (There, I deliberately misused that.)

P.S. One neat item in Hasselmo's book explains that the grid we use for understanding space expands when we are in a novel environment, and that this expansion is associated with a slower reference cycle in the brain. Could this be why it seems to take longer going somewhere than coming back home?

P.P.S. In some ways it is like quantum mechanics where we privilege the observer getting entangled with the observed.

"The reason that *I* disparage most philosphers [sic] is that unlike science, they never test their ideas against reality. Not being falsifiable by any means save by failing to obey their own arbitray [sic] rules, the entire endeavor is a sterile excersize [sic] in navel gazing." - Kay Brown

This is a perfect example of how some people do not know what they are talking about when they talk about Philosophy. Just one example which disproves this outrageous generalisation that no philosopher has ever tested their idea against reality is found in Katz's 2001 paper 'The End of Millianism'. In the paper (section 2 for anyone interested) Katz discusses the philosophical thesis that proper names are individuated by their bearers. He draws on every day, real world linguistic evidence to suggest that this view must be false.

"There’s a comprehensive failure to build on prior results, or even suggest how someone else might build on them in the future, and as a physicist I find this maddening." - Chad Orzel

Like Kay's comment, Chad's comment is another excellent example of how many people do not know what they are talking about when they talk about philosophy.

The example I cited earlier, Katz (2001), is taken from the broad field of the Philosophy of Language. In the field of philosophy of language there is a subfield concerning the study of the meaning of proper names. This has been a topic for roughly 150 years, since Frege and Russell sparked some debate in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Here's a condensed history. Frege proposed a puzzle which seemed to challenge a certain ordinary conception of what the meaning of a proper name is, namely that the meaning of a proper name is just its referent. Frege and Russell offered roughly (for our purposes) the same solution to this puzzle in the form of a new theory on the meaning of proper names, a theory which held (roughly) that proper names mean some sort of descriptive content, not simply their referents. This solution was widely accepted until the 1960s and early 1970s when philosophers like Saul Kripke argued forcefully against Frege and Russell's solution to the puzzle, showing how it was unworkable. Building on Kripke's discovery that Russell and Frege's solution did not solve the puzzle, philosophers have since tried to find other solutions. This is a prime example of how philosophers do routinely build upon the work of others.

If anyone would like to know why philosophers get so irritated that they feel the need to publicly defend themselves in op-eds then they need only read Kay and Chad's hilariously ignorant comments.

To JS: thank you. Amen.
As a philosophers of physics, I am constantly having to point out dogmatic and yet unquestioned *philosophical* pronouncements by physicists, taken by other physicists as God's truth. Some of these pronouncements are even self-contradictory. See for example http://arxiv.org/abs/1601.07545 , in particular Section 4

By Ruth Kastner (not verified) on 13 Jul 2016 #permalink

In reply to by JS (not verified)