Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Jim Holt on physicists and philosophy

Jim Holt has a fine essay on physicists who deny the centrality of philosophy in science.


Physicists say they do not need any help from philosophers. But sometimes physicists are, whether they realize it or not, actually engaging in philosophy themselves... 
As Bertrand Russell (himself no slouch at physics and mathematics) observed, philosophy aims at knowledge, and as soon as it obtains definite knowledge in a specific area, that area ceases to be called “philosophy.” And scientific progress gives philosophers more and more to do. Allow me to quote Nietzsche (although I know that will be considered by some to be in bad taste): “As the circle of science grows larger, it touches paradox at more places.” Physicists expand the circle, and philosophers help clear up the paradoxes. May both camps flourish.

The uprising of (atheist) physicists against philosophy is a remarkable feature of modern science. Of course the opinions expressed by the physicists are not scientific opinions. They are philosophical opinions. Specifically, they are philosophical opinions that philosophical opinions are irrelevant to science.

These half-educated technicians (which is what a scientist who doesn't understand the philosophical issues inherent to his science is rightfully called) are making a mockery of science. They don't even understand that assertions that philosophy is irrelevant to science are self-refuting. The assertions of irrelevance are philosophical assertions, not scientific assertions.

The reputation of science suffers for this. Deservedly so. 


  1. If I had to choose between "half-educated technician" Richard Feynman and failed physicist David Albert I would choose the former. It cracks me up that Albert's main point in the New York Times essay is that philosophers are more knowledgeable about nothing than just about anybody else. I am pretty sure Larry Krauss was grinning ear to ear when he saw this storm in a tea cup. What a laugh riot!

  2. Poor Egnor doesn't understand anything outside brain surgery, and I'm not even sure about that. He knows nothing about physics, biology, or philosophy, but likes to pretend he does.

  3. Not all philosophical assertions are created equally. Its one thing for philosophers to talk about the mathematical models of science and their relationship to “reality”, it’s quite another for philosophers to develop the models themselves by injecting such concepts as “final cause” or “pure actuality”.

    Saying that scientists can’t criticize philosophy because that is a philosophical position strikes me as a rather simple attempt to protect your favorite philosophical positions from criticism.


  4. Oleg,

    It depends on what I wanted/needed them for. If I wanted someone to project the trajectory of a missile, I would choose the technician. If I wanted someone to command the missile battery, it would be the philosopher.
    PS You had a guy calling you professor of philosophy on yesterdays post. I told him that would have the same effect on you as calling me a law prof :P

    Grow up. Your assertions would not cut it in a pre school.

    Final causes, teleology, and other such concepts are philosophical. They are based on logic and reason. Scientists who criticize philosophy do not realize that ALL science is based on philosophy and that philosophy is what makes USE of their discoveries and observations.

    1. I wouldn't trust a philosopher with anything. Hire a military professional, crus.

      As to Troy's remarks, you did not read them carefully enough. He did not say that I am a professor of philosophy, he said I am a doctor of philosophy. Which is, in fact, true.

    2. "I wouldn't trust a philosopher with anything."
      LMAO. No?! You don't say?

      "Hire a military professional, crus. "
      We don't 'hire' anyone, Oleg. We assign them duties. My illustration assumed both men were military. We have many lettered people in service. More than one 'philosopher', and more than one 'technician' - all military.

      Re Troy: Actually he called you a 'philosophical doctor', and I knew what he meant. I was having some fun with his wording.
      No doubt a 'language thing', but still quite funny: Calling YOU philosophical.
      Shame you do not see the humour in it.

  5. It wouldn't surprise me if Krauss's book (or at least its title) was conceived as a spoof whose main aim was to induce philosophers to come out of the woodwork.

    Krauss is no stranger to hoaxes. When he was an assistant professor at Yale, he submitted a spoof article to Physical Review Letters. Unlike the editors of Social Text, who totally fell for Alan Sokal's hoax, the PRL editors saw through Krauss's charade and replied in kind, sending him hilarious made-up referee reports.

    It seems to me that this time around Krauss is just tweaking philosophers' noses, while they seem to take his musings seriously. That's hilarious.

    1. Dawkins sure seemed to take his musings seriously. But perhaps you are giving us a useful heuristic: no atheists are to be taken seriously.

  6. They don't even understand that assertions that philosophy is irrelevant to science are self-refuting. The assertions of irrelevance are philosophical assertions, not scientific assertions.

    So? Even if it is a philosophical assertions the assertion that philosophy is irrelevant to science is not a self-refuting statement. One could possibly say that the claim that philosophy is irrelevant in general might be a self-refuting statement, but that's a different assertion.

  7. Atheist scientists have a major problem with words; here is a list of words they always have problems with:

    They use evolution when they mean adaptation.
    They use mutation when they mean plan or blueprint.
    They use random when they mean purpose or teleology.
    They use stupid and idiot when they have no better argument.

    Poor souls...

    1. @ Pepe,

      Well, if you would ever put forward an argument (besides links to web pages you can't understand) then it COULD be responded to with a counterargument, but you don't have enough brains to do so.

    2. @ Anonymous(e) or whatever...

      As one great PM of Canada once said:


    3. Debating atheists is worse than trying to discuss calculus with a dog.

      All you get back is bark and fart!

  8. Hello!
    The "Jocaxian Nothingness" answer the question: "Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?"

    See the answer here:

    Thank You
    Joao Carlos