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A physicist flirts with philosophy (and lives to tell the tale)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Søren Kierkegaard

Five years ago, I wouldn’t touch philosophy with a barge pole. I was nearing the end of my physics degree, and this had provided me with an adequate enough explanation of the workings of the cosmos.

Philosophy, in my view, was obsolete – important to the Ancient Greeks, but of about as much use today as an inflatable dartboard. Who could need frustratingly unprovable ruminations on the nature of life when physics provides handy, bitesize equations with which to describe the universe?

Metaphysics? Schmetaphysics.

But philosophy has since come back to bite me on the backside.

It all began soon after I was given a cartoon version of the history of philosophy. My interest piqued, I started to read more about this mysterious topic, with its cast of eccentric thinkers and horse-hugging madmen.

The first philosopher to catch my attention was Søren Kierkegaard, a rather dandy-looking Danish fellow who lived during the 19th century. I was intrigued to find out how he maintained his Christian belief despite being an existentialist, and how he maintained his wonderful quiff despite living 100 years before the invention of Brylcreem.

Werner Heisenberg, German theoretical physicist.

Then I stumbled across Werner Heisenberg’s book Physics and Philosophy, in which he discusses the implications of his uncertainty principle, a key concept of quantum mechanics. Reading through this, I began to realise that philosophy and physics aren’t such enemies after all.

Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which says that it’s impossible to simultaneously measure both the position and momentum of a quantum particle, opened up a can of worms for philosophers. If we can’t be certain about the properties of fundamental particles, what does that say about our knowledge of nature?

In Heisenberg’s words: “the atoms or the elementary particles…form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.”

The dialogue between contemporary physics and philosophy arguably began when Isaac Newton went apple spotting sometime during the 17th century.

By showing that the motions of all bodies could be described by a beautifully simple set of equations, Newton hammered a nail into the coffin of those who believed in free will. If everything is governed by universal laws, then our actions as human beings must follow the same rules. Goodbye freedom, hello determinism.

Dice…God may or may not play with them.

But free will was resuscitated by quantum physicists, who revealed that some uncertainties are fundamental to nature. Albert Einstein, a stolid determinist who famously believed that “God does not play dice”, saw this as a messy imperfection in quantum mechanics, trying to fix it by adding extra ‘local hidden variables’. Unfortunately for determinists, this theory was later disproved.

Einstein’s formulation of special relativity, on the other hand, has stood the test of time. This theory is another source of philosophical debate: one of its consequences is that space and time are interwoven, and that both space and time came into being at the Big Bang – a situation which is similar to the Christian view of creation.

So advances in physics have tended to pour petrol, rather than water, on the philosophical bonfire. And there are plenty of other research areas that provoke debate amongst philosophers: evolution, neuroscience, and genetic engineering being a few examples.

There’s also the branch of philosophy concerned with the more general aspects of science, pioneered by Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, and others. The questions raised by these philosophers strike at the very heart of science: “when can a theory be said to be universally true?”, “how objective is science?”, “is scientific progress linear or subject to ‘paradigm shifts’?”.

Duck-Rabbit Illusion. Thomas Kuhn used this duck-rabbit optical illusion when discussing how a scientific revolution, or ‘paradigm shift’, can result in the same information being seen in a completely new way.

And as well as helping to fuel philosophy, science owes its very existence to the ancient philosophers and their forays into understanding the world around them – the animals, shapes, and celestial bodies that they observed. Logic, an early branch of philosophy, went on to become one of the cornerstones of computer science.

Given that science and philosophy are so intertwined, I sometimes wonder why I was skeptical about philosophy. Maybe I bought into the cliché of philosophers as aloof types who pontificate about the nature of a chair. Maybe I was just put off by all the long words.

But whilst there are some brain-meltingly abstract ideas in philosophy (epiphenomenalism, anyone?), there are, thankfully, people who make the subject more accessible, explaining how philosophy’s influence can be found lurking in the most unexpected places.

So, I’m now converted – science and philosophy make surprisingly cosy bedfellows. After all, science can explain the ‘hows’, but it’s not so good at the ‘whys’…

Images: Søren Kierkegaard; Werner Heisenberg, Dice, Duck-Rabbit Illusion.

James Lloyd About the Author: James Lloyd studied physics at university and recently finished a climate science PhD. He has now swapped semiconductors for semicolons, blogging about science at The Soft Anonymous and contributing to the online magazine Guru. When not doing sciencey things, James enjoys music making, hill walking, and trying to find the perfect flapjack. You can find him on Twitter here. Follow on Twitter @jbb_lloyd.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 14 Comments

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  1. 1. smcnerne 3:09 pm 09/23/2011

    Well done James. In an age where truth and knowledge are completely ignored (at least in the main stream), it’s really important for people to read some philosophy.

    I’m a psychologist, but my BA in philosophy laid an invaluable intellectual foundation.

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  2. 2. fyngyrz 4:58 pm 09/23/2011

    Here’s your entire problem: You need to learn to say “we don’t know the answer to [question]; we may never know the answer to [question]; and in the meantime, even if that meantime is forever, we don’t need to make up answers to [question.] If, however, we can determine a way to actually find the answer to [question], that would actually add value to human knowledge and society.”

    Free will? We don’t know. Birth of the universe? We don’t know. AI? We don’t know (though I’m pretty confident that veil is about to fall.) Etc.

    Philosophy is (in its very best guise) a mechanism for examining questions and guessing at answers without significant, objective reality backing up the process. Consequently, it is of little use other than to deceive and distract.

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  3. 3. eudaimonist 6:27 pm 09/23/2011

    In spite of the confidence of “fyngyrz” that philosophy is best at guessing at answers, it functions for a much different purpose. Even when we don’t know the answers to life’s difficult questions, we still must act in the world; we still have to act on the best information present. Philosophy, at its best, helps us notice that often times our arguments contain spurious evidence and so philosophy protects us at a time when we are vulnerable (i.e. at a time when we don’t know yet still must act). The deception is created by those that tell us philosophy is a nuisance, much like the rhetoricians who charged money to help their customers “win”.

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  4. 4. mhilm 9:56 pm 09/23/2011

    Philosophy is an attempt to understand. Like science, it must be done with (ideally) an understanding of what is known, an open mind, and a willingness to engage in constructive debate.
    Philosophy can be used to clarify ambiguity, thus enabling more precise experimentation and deeper exploration.
    It teaches people to think and reason.
    And it is an invaluable tool when attempting to understand something as confused and confusing as humanity. We are not rational. We are emotional creatures, prone to belief and not altogether fond of rigorous study. Science may tell us how our brains work, but philosophy can help us understand why we use them as we do.
    Think of philosophy as a tool for analyzing and hopefully gaining understanding of aspects of humanity that science can’t.

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  5. 5. gesimsek 2:21 pm 09/24/2011

    “Know yourself”

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  6. 6. Thompson 5:31 pm 09/24/2011

    …a physicist trifles with randomness and crafts an essay.

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  7. 7. jlloyd 7:50 pm 09/24/2011

    @smcnerne Glad you agree!

    @fyngyrz,eudaimonist,mhilm Interesting to read your views. I guess science and philosophy will always have a bit of a love-hate relationship…probably why it’s so fascinating, for me at least.

    There’s a great science vs. philosophy discussion in the Robin Ince / Brian Cox ‘Infinite Monkey Cage’ podcasts… (listen in the player…it’s the December 2010 episode).

    @Thompson Not sure what you’re implying ;) I think I’ll take it as a compliment.

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  8. 8. Torbjörn Larsson, OM 8:12 am 09/25/2011

    Interesting, I have done the exact opposite journey. I started out as idealist and an implicit liking for philosophy among other ideals. But as a newborn realist I didn’t know what to make of it until I stumbled on testability.

    Then, of course, philosophy is revealed as the art of “making shit up”, or tell just-so stories. It is as all such endeavors exactly contrary to science. In eudaimonist terms it is at best a nuisance, on the par of rhetoricians, at worst a danger.

    As a result it seems any practical and philosophical questions melt under the light of empiricism.

    A few examples: observing that testing converges on robust theories tests testing; asking “why” is to ask for a theological teleology; realism is “constrained reactions on constrained actions” or classical action-reaction or quantum observation-observables and is deepened by quantum physics observations on its properties; “free will” is confusing a theological dualism of souls or a practical folk psychology of self observation with the biology where actions are decided way before it enters the conscious mind*; and so on.

    * Many or most biologists reject “free will” entirely. I have been arguing with for example Coyne that the folk psychology theory is still valid as an effective theory, even if it is contrary to biology.

    As a note, “free will” is way more realizable in deterministic systems than quantum, since classical systems can diverge exponentially and chaos is observed. No finite system can decide the “replay” initial conditions, so such experiments will show “free will” with different outcomes.

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  9. 9. obscurantist 9:45 am 09/25/2011

    Many people in the scientific community have mistaken notions of what philosophy is, thinking that it’s just obsolete speculation about the physical universe. In part, they’re right. A number of philosophical questions (What force makes the heavenly bodies move? What are the ultimate constituents of matter? maybe even What is time? maybe What gives us the sense of self among our stream of separate experiences?) have been put to rest by modern science. But philosophy is not a one-trick pony. In fact, what philosophy is has often been a matter of controversy among philosophers. It sometimes does useful service in clarifying concepts or, if you prefer, use of language. Mr. Lloyd mentions issues in the philosophy of science that science doesn’t seem to be able to answer. I don’t think science quite knows yet how to explain what “mind” is as something that seems different from “body.” Philosophy has often tried to understand what the limits of human knowledge are, not based on the limits of our instruments but based on the nature of human knowledge itself. When the Roman Catholic Church declared that the existence of its concept of God can be proven through argument alone, philosophy put its ideas to the logical test. There is more to be said, but I just wish the scientific community would down-pedal the stereotyping and keep a more open mind about philosophy. Philosophy has often attracted the greatest minds of the age (granted, less so since the more recent successes of science), so it shouldn’t be dismissed out of ignorance.

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  10. 10. christinaak 4:20 pm 09/29/2011

    there is a world of difference between the notions “we may never know” and “we can not know”. it may be true that we may never know the answers to all questions, but it does not mean that we can not (in fact, i would say that in principle, we can know the answer to every conceivable question-eventually). science may be able to answer many questions that are of a metaphysical nature. for example i think it is inevitable that an evolutionary cyclic model will eventually be demonstrated to be correct. in this model, the universe expands and contracts over and over (actually i would suggest that there are cycles of cycles beginning with the simplest cosmic incarnation and ending with the most complex form the universe may take within thermodynamic limitations before beginning the cycle again) throughout eternity and evolves. an evolutionary model like the one i propose best explains the so-called fine-tuning of cosmic parameters as well as the relative complexity and low entropy state in the universe at the big bang. evolution as a universal principle has provided the answers to a number of philosophical questions (including those concerning our biological origins). if as i am convinced will be the case, that the cyclic model is proven to be correct, we may not be able to prove that a god does not exist. however, we will be able to prove irrefutably that the existence of such a creature would be superfluous (eliminating the most important gap of all for the so-called “god of the gaps”). christina anne knight

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  11. 11. jgrosay 5:13 pm 09/30/2011

    A very beautiful article. One has the feeling that greek philosophers marked the start of mankind using our mind for something else than hunting or fighting, in fact they had intuitions of many things that were proven later by physics to be facts. However,you find among philosophers, and philosophy can be considered just as some kind of specialized literature, having his/her fans, as romantic literature has its own, philosophers often fall into the temptation of producing rules, political changes and ethical judgements, all things being probably outside of acceptable goals for any written work. Some philosopher’s comments have been raised to the level of undisputable guidelines by many, and equal as philosphers tend to think always in terms of absolute, some of their followers end in a situation of not tolerating intolerance about their master’s works. As an example, the french Auguste Comte, very loved in several american countries, that used his ideas in shaping their constitutions and political life, a philosopher that is cited among the founders of positivism in a web page connected to Karl Marx, Comte once wrote: “It’s evident that the solar system is badly designed”. I won’t trust nothing coming from an apparently so delirious mind. Philosophy is an interesting and stimulating kind of reading, but for ruling yourself, the Bible is a better guide. Salut +

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  12. 12. Dr. Strangelove 9:51 pm 10/2/2011

    Science and philosophy ask the same big questions. Their difference is the method of finding the answers. Science rely on the scientific method. Philosophy rely mainly on speculation, logic, intuition.

    More and more, science will answer the questions of philosophy. Physics will answer metaphysics. Neurology for epistemology. Cosmology for theology. Psychology for ethics. Sociology for politics. But the pure philosophers will not always be satisfied with the answers of science.

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  13. 13. poeteye 2:51 pm 12/7/2011

    – James Ph. Kotsybar

    Poets and scientists
    are forever philosophizing
    the same great questions.

    Despite their best efforts,
    they have never come up with
    anything but suggestions for
    the meaning of life or
    why we’re here or
    the ultimate cause of existence.

    They’ll never get better than close,
    it’s clear, and yet they persist
    in their persistence,
    with allegory,
    premise and theory,
    to lock down the answers larger than they.

    Whatever the Age,
    they don’t get weary of adding their voices,
    with more to say, and,
    while there is some progress we can see,
    what emerges is never certainty.

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  14. 14. inverth 11:32 am 12/28/2011

    What an idiot ! How did he get the degree in physics? Shit{sci+phil are cosy bedfellows; sci good at ‘hows’ but short at ‘whys’} To answer ‘whys’, you must make a series of ‘how’ clear. So essentially Hows=Whys, though trivially literally logically they are diff.

    He does “blogging about science at The Soft Anonymous and contributing to the online magazine Guru.” Oh my DOG! How can a guru-ish fool talk about science? I wanna gasify all idiots who admire gurus.

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