The Sciences

Science and Philosophy Interview

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollMay 12, 2011 3:33 PM


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Fabio Gironi recently interviewed me at length for an issue of Speculations, a "Journal of Speculative Realism." The subject was science and philosophy, which I've been known to opine about at some length. But here we're talking great length indeed. The interview isn't available separately, but you can download the pdf of the whole issue here (or buy it as a bound copy). My bit starts on page 313. (The rest of the issue is also worth checking out.) I'm a big believer that academic disciplines should engage in messy interactions, not keep demurely separate from each other. But it's a tricky business. Just because I'm (purportedly) an expert in one thing doesn't make me an expert in everything else; on the other hand, it is possible that one area has something to offer another one. So I am in favor of dabbling, but with humility. It's good for people to have thoughts and opinions about issues outside their immediate expertise, and to offer them in good faith, but it's bad if they become convinced that experts in other areas are all idiots. So when you find yourself disagreeing with the consensus of expertise in some well-established field, it might very well be because of your superior insight and training, or maybe you're just missing something. Hopefully in an exchange like this I have something to offer without making too many blunders that would make real experts cringe. Here's a sample of the interview.

SC: I would be extremely suspicious of any attempts to judge that the world must ‘necessarily’ be some way rather than any other. I can imagine different worlds—or at least I think I can—so I don’t believe that this is the only possible world. That would also go for any particular feature of the laws this world follows, including their stability. Maybe the laws are constant through time, maybe they are not. (Maybe time is a fundamental concept, maybe it isn’t). We don’t yet know, but it seems clear to me that these are empirical questions, not a priori ones. Because we want to understand the world in terms that are as simple as possible, the idea that the underlying laws are stable is an obvious first guess, but one that must then be tested against the data. Said in a slightly different language: any metaphysical considerations concerning what qualities the world should properly have can be taken seriously and incorporated into Bayesian priors for evaluating theories, but ultimately those theories are judged against experiment. We should listen to the world, not decide ahead of time what it must be.

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