Wednesday, 15 March 2006

Undercutting reality in the name of science

A few of you have emailed me about the 'Philosophic Corruption of Physics' course some friends and I are running every second Saturday, asking (generally) how can philosophy dare 'diss' physics. Shouldn't the former precede the latter? Well, not exactly -- done properly, they both prove each other. But bad philosophy will soon infect the physics, as it has ever since the start of the twentieth-century.

Travis Norsen lays out the argument in a four-parter at the Objective Science site (although in a somewhat less entertaining fashion than our own course): The "post-modern philosophy of emptiness is the source of the superficiality found in so many areas of art and science today... Even the hard-nosed science of physics has not been immune to the influence of contemporary philosophy. In physics, this modern superficiality takes the form of mathematical formalism divorced from any reference to causal mechanisms, i.e., equations whose referents in the physical world are unknown and not sought."
...the problem with contemporary physics is not simply that we have equations without yet knowing the causal mechanisms behind them. That is the current state of affairs, but it is a normal, intermediate stage in the growth of knowledge. Rather, the problem is that physicists have abandoned the attempt to discover causal mechanisms. Such explanations of the equations are regarded as unimportant or impossible.

This attitude, which I call the Primacy of Mathematics, takes causal explanations to be either irrelevant to the progress of physics or inaccessible by the methods of physics. In either case, such explanations are no longer sought. This obviously stunts the growth of knowledge, since it makes physicists think they are finished understanding a given phenomenon when in fact they have only begun to describe it. Deep questions, the kind that lead to identification of underlying causes, simply no longer get asked...

What then is left of theoretical physics? Equations - along with the motto: "Calculate, calculate, calculate." Or in other words: "The equations are here; let's use them. What do they mean? Blank out."
When philosophy tells you that we can never know true reality -- that all we can know are so-called 'appearances' -- then its no wonder that mathematical formalism and appearances becomed more valued than are causality and identity. And its no wonder either that in fields from physics to politics to art to ethics that fundamental thinking and complex integrations are out. Read on here.

LINKS: Mathematics vs. matter: The philosophic roots of the rejection of physical causation in 20th century physics - Travis Norsen, Objective Science
Rugby, Physics, Philosophy & Beer - update - Not PC
Quantum Aristotle - Peter Cresswell

TAGS: Science, Philosophy, Objectivism


  1. 'Diss', PC? Ssssss!

  2. In my experience most practicing physicists take the instrumentalist approach you've described. If pressed for the "meaning" of QM they may express some variant of the Copenhagen interpretation but generally they'd prefer not to discuss any sort of ontological question at all.
    However, there are people willing to tackle the question and tackle it well. In a previous thread someone recommended David Deutsch's Fabric of Reality and I'd second that.
    Deutsch favours the "many worlds" interpretation and defends it well from a Realistic (capital R) point of view. Even if Deutsch's interpretation turns out to be wrong, his approach is correct - he asks what the experimental reasults mean about nature.

  3. Bernard - It is interesting that Deutsch is a libertarian and a blogger. See here and here.

    BTW, "many worlds" is not Deutch's idea: Deutsch significantly refined the theory, but the original idea is due to Hugh Everett III, one of the unsung heroes of 20th century physics.

  4. I did not know Deutsch was a libertarian. I'd just assumed that because he was an academic that ... well ... anyway ... I'm going to enjoy looking through the two sites you linked. Thanks for the pointers.


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