by Judith Curry
The divorce between philosophers and scientists is fairly recent. Its time for a reconciliation.
[P]hilosophers have not kept up with science and their art is dead. – Stephen Hawking
Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, “those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.” – Lawrence Krauss
[Philosophy] can really mess you up. [P]hilosophy has basically parted ways from the frontier of the physical sciences. – Neil deGrasse Tyson
Sean Carroll, a physicist at CalTech has a blog post Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things about Philosophy. Excerpts:
The last few years have seen a number of prominent scientists step up to microphones and belittle the value of philosophy.
The point, I take it, is to understand how nature works. Part of that is knowing how to do calculations, but another part is asking deep questions about what it all means. That’s what got me interested in science, anyway. And part of that task is understanding the foundational aspects of our physical picture of the world, digging deeply into issues that go well beyond merely being able to calculate things. It’s a shame that so many physicists don’t see how good philosophy of science can contribute to this quest. The universe is much bigger than we are and stranger than we tend to imagine, and I for one welcome all the help we can get in trying to figure it out.
The New Republic has a lengthy essay by physicist Carlo Rovelli entitled Science is Not About Certainty, that picks up on the theme of scientists engaging with philosophers. Excerpts:
What, then, are the aspects of doing science that I think are undervalued and should come up front? First, science is about constructing visions of the world, about rearranging our conceptual structure, about creating new concepts which were not there before, and even more, about changing, challenging, the a priori that we have. It has nothing to do with the assembling of data and the ways of organizing the assembly of data. It has everything to do with the way we think, and with our mental vision of the world. Science is a process in which we keep exploring ways of thinking and keep changing our image of the world, our vision of the world, to find new visions that work a little bit better.
This takes me to another point, which is, Should a scientist think about philosophy or not? It’s the fashion today to discard philosophy, to say now that we have science, we don’t need philosophy. I find this attitude naïve, for two reasons. One is historical. Just look back. Heisenberg would have never done quantum mechanics without being full of philosophy. Einstein would have never done relativity without having read all the philosophers and having a head full of philosophy. Galileo would never have done what he did without having a head full of Plato. Newton thought of himself as a philosopher and started by discussing this with Descartes and had strong philosophical ideas.
There is narrow-mindedness, if I may say so, in many of my colleagues who don’t want to learn what’s being said in the philosophy of science. There is also a narrow-mindedness in a lot of areas of philosophy and the humanities, whose proponents don’t want to learn about science—which is even more narrow-minded. Restricting our vision of reality today to just the core content of science or the core content of the humanities is being blind to the complexity of reality, which we can grasp from a number of points of view. The two points of view can teach each other and, I believe, enlarge each other.
Rotman Institute of Philosophy
The Rotman Institute of Philosophy is committed to fostering and supporting dialogue and collaboration between philosophers and scientists, and building bridges between the humanities and the sciences.
The Rotman Institute of Philosophy has a series of 4 posts Why Talk to Philosophers (I, II, III, IV). The series seems partly motivated by Neil de Grasse Tyson’s recent dismissive remarks about philosophy. Excerpts from Part IV (written by a quantum physicist Yvette Fuentes):
In our present search for knowledge there are many moments in which the lines between them blur. Every single scientific theory and philosophical exploration starts with questions and with reflection upon them. Basic ideas are produced in order to provide answers to these questions. These ideas are developed though critical and logical thinking. At this point science and philosophy are indistinguishable. Then comes the moment in which methods are applied to formalise the questions and the ideas to provide their answers. The methods in science and philosophy differ. Science generates knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions. Physics, for example, heavily relies on mathematics to make these predictions. Philosophy relies on rational argument. During this time science and philosophy become distinguishable; however, they merge again at later times. Once a new scientific theory is proposed, it is not only confronted with experiments (when possible) but also to philosophical scrutiny. Once a theory is born, there is an unavoidable need to interpret the objects of the theory and its results. At this stage science and philosophy again come close together.
In my opinion a scientist who is not open to exploring that zone where science and philosophy overlap is missing out on the opportunity of taking his or her science to the point where truly new ideas are developed.
Once a theory is established, because it succeeded at predicting the outcomes of experiments, or because enough people were convinced to work on it, it becomes much less common that scientists become preoccupied with philosophical questions. This is perhaps necessary in order to make progress within a theory. This is when the shut-up and calculate or don’t-think and calculate style of working adopted by some scientists provides efficiency at finding results. However, if the theory fails at explaining parts of reality, then it becomes necessary to reflect on the assumptions made, to re-interpret, to think deeper. And we must enter that grey area between science and philosophy because the shut-up and calculate approach fails. This approach is no longer efficient when evidence points out for the need of a more fundamental theory of nature. When one is after something new, deeper questions are always essential. New perspectives require questioning the very fundamental elements of a theory, becoming aware of all the basic assumptions. It also requires creative thinking, inspiration, connecting dots, integrating. In my experience, interacting with philosophers and asking questions which some physicists would consider forbidden has helped me come up with new ideas. When considering philosophical questions, I often find myself thinking harder and understanding better my own work. The point of view of philosophers often provides different perspectives to my own. In my case, these new perspectives inspire me to come up with new ideas.
Most of climate science is in ‘shut up and calculate’ mode. This is a very dangerous place to be given the substantial uncertainties, ignorance and areas of disagreement, not to mention the problems/failures of climate models. Climate science needs reflection on the fundamental assumptions, re-interpretations, and deeper thinking. How to reason about the complex climate system, and its uncertainties, is not at all straightforward. And then of course there are the ethical issues, including understanding how the climate debate has gone so badly wrong.
An increasing number of philosophers have been focusing on climate science -some philosophers that I’ve been reading include Arthur Petersen, Wendy Parker, Joel Katzav, Eric Winsberg, Elizabeth Lloyd, Gregor Betz. Other philosophers have focused more on the ethical and moral aspects of how we respond to climate change.
I have personally been moving in the direction of more fundamental questioning, reading philosophy papers, and engaging with philosophers (in case you haven’t noticed!). In fact, I have been invited to a Workshop at the Rotman Institute next fall. I have also been invited to write a paper for a philosophy journal.
Motivated by policy makers’ needs for quick answers, climate science prematurely went into a ‘calculate and shut up’ mode, with anyone questioning the basic assumptions, climate models, or preferred policies are ostracized by the scientific community (see this recent profile of ‘outcast’ John Christy in the NYTimes). The only way we are going to dig out of this rut is through some fundamental questioning. Here’s to hoping that philosophers and the approaches of philosophy can help kick climate scientists out of their faux comfort zone of consensus and ‘settled science’.