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  1. Bertrand Russell - Wikipedia
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  4. Natural philosophy redux

Weinberg and Tong, in fact, are expressing a platonic view of reality commonly held by many theoretical physicists and mathematicians. They are taking their equations and model as existing on one-to-one correspondence with the ultimate nature of reality. In the reputable online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Mark Balaguer defines platonism as follows:. Many physicists have uncritically adopted platonic realism as their personal interpretation of the meaning of physics. This not inconsequential because it associates a reality that lies beyond the senses with the cognitive tools humans use to describe observations.

In order to test their models all physicists assume that the elements of these models correspond in some way to reality. But those models are compared with the data that flow from particle detectors on the floors of accelerator labs or at the foci of telescopes photons are particles, too. It is data—not theory—that decides if a particular model corresponds in some way to reality.

If the model fails to fit the data, then it certainly has no connection with reality. If it fits the data, then it likely has some connection. But what is that connection? Models are squiggles on the whiteboards in the theory section of the physics building. In his Scientific American article Krauss reveals traces of platonic thinking in his personal philosophy of physics, writing:. The direct, platonic, correspondence of physical theories to the nature of reality, as Weinberg, Tong and possibly Krauss have done, is fraught with problems: First, theories are notoriously temporary.

We can never know if quantum field theory will not someday be replaced with another more powerful model that makes no mention of fields or particles, for that matter. Second, as with all physical theories, quantum field theory is a model—a human contrivance. If there were an empirical way to determine ultimate reality, it would be physics, not metaphysics; but it seems there isn't.

In the instrumentalist view we have no way of knowing what constitutes the elements of ultimate reality.

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In that view reality just constrains what we observe; it need not exist in one-to-one correspondence with the mathematical models theorists invent to describe those observations. The explanatory salience of our models may be the core of the romance of science but it plays second chair to its descriptive and predictive capacity.

Quantum mechanics is a prime example of this because of its unambiguous usefulness despite lacking an agreed-on philosophical interpretation. Thus, those who hold to a platonic view of reality are being disingenuous when they disparage philosophy. They are adopting the doctrine of one of the most influential philosophers of all time.

That makes them philosophers, too. Now, not all physicists who criticize philosophers are full-fledged platonists, although many skirt close to it when they talk about the mathematical elements of their models and the laws they invent as if they are built into the structure of the universe.

Indeed, the objections of Weinberg, Hawking, Mlodinow, Krauss, and Tyson are better addressed to metaphysics and fail to show sufficient appreciation, in our view, for the vital contributions to human thought that persist in fields like ethics, aesthetics, politics and, perhaps most important, epistemology. Krauss pays these important topics some lip service, but not very enthusiastically. Of course, Hawking and Mlodinow write mostly with cosmological concerns in mind—and where metaphysical attempts to grapple with the question of ultimate origins trespass on them, they are absolutely correct.

Metaphysics and its proto-cosmological speculations, construed as philosophy, were in medieval times considered the handmaiden of theology. Hawking and Mlodinow are saying that metaphysicians who want to deal with cosmological issues are not scientifically savvy enough to contribute usefully.


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For cosmological purposes, armchair metaphysics is dead, supplanted by the more informed philosophy of physics, and few but theologians would disagree. Krauss leveled his most scathing criticisms at the philosophy of science, and we suggest that it would have been more constructive had he targeted certain aspects of metaphysics. Andersen, for The Atlantic , interviewed him on whether physics has made philosophy and religion obsolete.

And although it hasn't done so for philosophy, it has for cosmological metaphysics and the religious claims that depend on it, such as the defunct Kalm cosmological argument begging the necessity of a creator. Surely Krauss had metaphysical attempts to speculate about the universe at least partially in mind, given that the interview addressed his book on cosmology. Whatever may be the branches of philosophy that deserve the esteem of academics and the public, metaphysics is not among them.

The problem is straightforward.

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Metaphysics professes to be able to hook itself to reality—to legitimately describe reality—but there's no way to know if it does. So, although the prominent physicists we have mentioned, and the others who inhabit the same camp, are right to disparage cosmological metaphysics, we feel they are dead wrong if they think they have completely divorced themselves from philosophy. First, as already emphasized, those who promote the reality of the mathematical objects of their models are dabbling in platonic metaphysics whether they know it or not.

Second, those who have not adopted platonism outright still apply epistemological thinking in their pronouncements when they assert that observation is our only source of knowledge. We are not sure how model-dependent realism differs from instrumentalism. In both cases physicists concern themselves only with observations and, although they do not deny that they are the consequence of some ultimate reality, they do not insist that the models describing those observations correspond exactly to that reality.

All of the prominent critics of philosophy whose views we have discussed think very deeply about the source of human knowledge. That is, they are all epistemologists. Certainly, then, philosophy is not dead. That designation is more aptly applied to pure-thought variants like those that comprise cosmological metaphysics. Victor J. Stenger — was emeritus professor of physics at the University of Hawaii and adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado.

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James A. He is author of the bestseller, A Manual for Creating Atheists. You have free article s left. Already a subscriber? Sign in. See Subscription Options. It has no impact on physics whatsoever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it's fairly technical. And so it's really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I'd say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened—and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn't.

I, and most of the colleagues with whom I have discussed this matter, have found that philosophical speculations about physics and the nature of science are not particularly useful, and have had little or no impact upon progress in my field. Even in several areas associated with what one can rightfully call the philosophy of science I have found the reflections of physicists to be more useful. That is a lie.

The building blocks of our theories are not particles but fields: continuous, fluidlike objects spread throughout space. Platonism in this sense is a contemporary view.

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It is obviously related to the views of Plato in important ways but it is not entirely clear that Plato endorsed this view as it is defined here. Analysts tend to agree that concepts and theories are what can be known about the world, and that these are judged by testing models against observations. Analysts essentially regard physicists as logicians of the world. Pragmatic philosophers, whose founders include Charles Peirce a physicist , William James and John Dewey, are interested in how scientists solve puzzles and what the consequences are.

Pragmatists believe that true scientific ideas make a difference to the world and to science, that inquiry involves doing rather than just cognition, and that scientific work is judged by how well it explains, predicts, and gives us power over rather than just describes nature. Pragmatic philosophers view physicists as puzzle-solvers of the world.


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  • Continental philosophers, whose founding figures include Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, approach scientific activity as one way of life, among others, in which humans engage with the world. Continental philosophers agree that scientific activity gives a primacy to things that appear in a certain framed way — to things that can be measured and manipulated — and tends to ignore things that do not, such as the powerful metaphors, images and deeply embedded habits of thought that shape our thinking. Humans must be trained, technically and interpretatively, to think like scientists.

    Continental philosophers view physicists as disclosers of the world insofar as it is knowable and manipulable. How a philosopher approaches such problems — the scientific character of string theory, say — depends on their tradition. Analytic philosophers would start with their traditional description of scientific method — in which testability is essential — and add additional criteria to make string theory conform.

    Analytic philosophers can stimulate the question of how much the answer has to do with methodology. Pragmatists can argue that answering such a question is less methodological and more a matter of evaluating the consequences of accepting or rejecting string theory.

    Natural philosophy redux

    Continentals can point to the relevance of scientists consulting their own experience, so that they are not just reflecting on questions of method, confirmation, inquiry and community consensus, but also considering how the relationship between science and the wider world can become part of the regular practice of science itself. Browse all. Buyer's Guide Jobs Sign in Register. Type to search. Topics Astronomy and space Atomic and molecular Biophysics and bioengineering Condensed matter Culture, history and society Environment and energy Instrumentation and measurement Materials Mathematics and computation Medical physics Optics and photonics Particle and nuclear Quantum.

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