I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. -- Thomas Jefferson

Friday, September 4, 2009

Physicists Dissing Philosophy

The feisty Czech physicist Luboš Motl recently weighed in on the “what’s gone wrong with philosophy” issue. I think it is fair to say that Luboš specializes in controversy, but I also think his views on the issue of philosophy are very widespread among practicing scientists.

Luboš also links to an interesting essay by an old professor of mine, the Nobel laureate Steve Weinberg, in which Steve addresses the “unreasonable ineffectiveness of philosophy”: why has all the effort of philosophers during the last couple centuries borne so little fruit?

Steve’s basic conclusion is that the best that good philosophy can do is simply to serves as an antidote to bad philosophy: as he states at one point, “But here again the service of philosophy was a negative one; it helped only to free science from the constraints of philosophy itself.”

I do think that Steve is a bit too harsh towards the philosophy of “mechanism,” i.e., the idea that all of reality consists fundamentally of simple entities that do nothing but push and pull on each other. He is of course correct that the rise of the concepts of fields (e.g., the magnetic field) in the nineteenth century disproved the most naïve versions of mechanism – the world is indeed more than just billiard balls bouncing off each other, which is the underlying picture behind the most primitive version of mechanism.

However, as much as we physicists may admire ourselves for our new, more sophisticated picture of reality, which Steve discusses – quantum fields, superstrings, etc. – still, to an ordinary layperson the scientific world-view remains pretty mechanistic. Quantum fields, superstrings, etc. are still simple, mindless little things that push and pull on each other in simple, mindless ways.

If the modern physicist’s view of reality is not quite the simple “clockwork universe” of the nineteenth-century physicist, it is still, as Steve himself has noted elsewhere, basically a view of the universe bereft of meaning, purpose, or feelings.

In short, a pretty mechanistic universe, from the perspective of most human beings (and traditional philosophy).

I think the underlying issue here is the essential three-way conflict among science, philosophy, and religion.

Science, philosophy, and religion all make claims to have a broad, integrated view of reality. But, the views of reality they arrive at differ dramatically.

The scientific view of reality is based on actively trying to disprove one’s hypotheses (believe me – I, and any good scientist, would dearly love to show that we have a wonderful new theory that overturns all the existing theories in our field!) and on only retaining those theories that survive the most vigorous attempts at disproof. Science also embodies the rather paranoid concept that nature is hiding its secrets from us and that we can uncover those secrets only through obsessively detailed observation and experiment. And, science rests on a broadly mechanistic picture of reality, a universe lacking in objective purpose, meaning, or feelings.

Philosophy is radically different: it supposes that the secrets of reality can be uncovered by concentrated thought alone, that reality is naturally open to human understanding. The “testing” of philosophical theories consists basically of verbal assaults by other philosophers. And, historically, most philosophers seem somehow to have uncovered a reality in which human feelings and concerns have a natural home.

Religion differs dramatically from both philosophy and science, most notably in the fact that very few religions welcome attempts to prove that they are wrong: indeed, in practice, the primary warrant for religious belief is that those who deny or seriously question the core beliefs are encouraged or compelled to leave the religious community. And, of course, religions commonly claim that the driving Spirit behind reality has made an active effort to explain Himself to us. Needless to say, religion generally offers a universe full of purpose, meaning, and feelings.

It would be quite surprising if three such radically different approaches to confronting reality were to give compatible pictures of reality.

Of course, they do not.

This is a deeper cultural conflict than often acknowledged: these three views of reality cannot all be right.

It is easy for us scientists to deride creationists who claim that their religious beliefs disprove modern biology and paleontology. It is also easy for us to dismiss “postmodernists” who claim that their verbal musings trump the findings of modern science.

But, in some ways, both the creationists and the postmodernists deserve credit for seeing something that more sensible, moderate folks try to evade: in the long-term, science, philosophy, and religion cannot co-exist.

Choices have to be made.

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