The Sciences

Does Philosophy Make You a Better Scientist?

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollJul 6, 2009 1:27 PM


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Steve Hsu pulls out a provocative quote from philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend:

The withdrawal of philosophy into a "professional" shell of its own has had disastrous consequences. The younger generation of physicists, the Feynmans, the Schwingers, etc., may be very bright; they may be more intelligent than their predecessors, than Bohr, Einstein, Schrodinger, Boltzmann, Mach and so on. But they are uncivilized savages, they lack in philosophical depth -- and this is the fault of the very same idea of professionalism which you are now defending.

It's probably true that the post-WWII generations of leading physicists were less broadly educated than their pre-war counterparts (although there are certainly counterexamples such as Murray Gell-Mann and Steven Weinberg). The simplest explanation for this phenomenon would be that the center of gravity of scientific research switched from Europe to America after the war, and the value of a broad-based education (and philosophy in particular) has always been less in America. Interestingly, Feyerabend seems to be blaming philosophers themselves -- "the withdrawal of philosophy into a `professional' shell" -- rather than physicists or any wider geosocial trends. But aside from whether modern physicists (and maybe scientists in other fields, I don't know) pay less attention to philosophy these days, and aside from why that might be the case, there is still the question: does it matter? Would knowing more philosophy have made any of the post-WWII giants better physicists? There are certainly historical counterexamples one could conjure up: the acceptance of atomic theory in the German-speaking world in the late nineteenth century was held back considerably by Ernst Mach's philosophical arguments. On the other hand, Einstein and Bohr and their contemporaries did manage to do some revolutionary things; relativity and quantum mechanics were more earth-shattering than anything that has come since in physics. The usual explanation is that the revolutionary breakthroughs simply haven't been there to be made -- that Feynman and Schwinger and friends missed the glory days when quantum mechanics was being invented, so it was left to them to move the existing paradigm forward, not to come up with something revolutionary and new. Maybe, had these folks been more conversant with their Hume and Kant and Wittgenstein, we would have quantum gravity figured out by now. Probably not. Philosophical presuppositions certainly play an important role in how scientists work, and it's possible that a slightly more sophisticated set of presuppositions could give the working physicist a helping hand here and there. But based on thinking about the actual history, I don't see how such sophistication could really have moved things forward. (And please don't say, "If only scientists were more philosophically sophisticated, they would see that my point of view has been right all along!") I tend to think that knowing something about philosophy -- or for that matter literature or music or history -- will make someone a more interesting person, but not necessarily a better physicist. This might not be right, though. Maybe, had they been more broad and less technical, some of the great physicists of the last few decades would have made dramatic breakthroughs in a field like quantum information or complexity theory, rather than pushing harder at the narrow concerns of particle physics or condensed matter. Easy to speculate, hard to provide much compelling evidence either way.

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