Sean Carroll Urges Physicists to Stop Saying Stupid Things About Philosophy…

here, and it is a much needed exhortation!

I’ve seen way too much stupidity coming from non-philosophers (often physicists, but I don’t think there’s anything symptomatic going on here stemming from the nature of physics as a discipline), somehow imagining themselves to understand what philosophy is while displaying a complete lack of understanding regarding the kinds of questions posed by actual academic philosophers as well as a mindbogglingly naive conception of some sort of magical boundary separating “actual empirical findings” from “mere intellectual speculation”. As if philosophy of physics, for example, was not continuous with physics; as if philosophy of language was not continuous with linguistics; as if philosophy of mind was not continuous with neuroscience; and on and on.

There is no easy way to characterize philosophy (just as there is no easy way to characterize science) but what is absolutely clear just from looking a philosophical practice is that philosophy is not a collection of subjects separate from the subjects studied by scientists (or others for that matter). The general difference being that clear examples of pure science consist in empirical investigations trying to answer questions about quantifiable phenomena whereas clear examples of pure philosophy consist in logical analysis of concepts found in science and elsewhere. Clearly, much of scientific theory building involves conceptual analysis and questions regarding “what all these findings really mean” apart from the quantifiable measurements. The debate over the correct interpretation of quantum physics strikes me as a prime example of scientific findings necessitating such philosophical exploration. To suggest that while science can lead to knowledge about the workings of the world while philosophy has nothing to contribute, is tantamount to saying that there is some fixed border between those investigations that rely solely on empirical findings (as if such a thing were possible) and those that also try to figure out how to interpret such findings, what such findings mean for the understanding of other findings, what to say about the ontology (which kinds of things exist) of the subject matter given that the findings suggest the existence of some sort of phenomenon (is the phenomenon in question merely a methodological tool, only existing in the theoretical constructs, or does it actually exist as a somehow observable entity? and do such distinctions even make sense?). Trying to establish such demarcations and trying to use them to legitimize science while delegitimizing philosophy is naive, simplistic and displays a complete lack of understanding of the nature of philosophy and the necessity of philosophical analysis for the understanding of scientific findings as well as postulated phenomena not yet (or perhaps ever) under the purview of empirical investigation.

And this is nothing more than an answer to the ludicrous claim that philosophy of science (and the fields of philosophy of physics, philosophy of biology, et al.) has nothing to contribute to science. The general answer to “why do philosophy” is the same as the one given by the mathematician working on abstract algebra, category theory, the foundations of mathematics, or any other area not immediately usable for practical purposes: it’s a fun thing to explore if that’s your thing. Some people like to look at algebras as mathematical structures and prove theorems about their properties, some people enjoy trying to find out the relationship between arithmetic and logic by building a theory of the former using the latter, and some people like to work on the definitions of concepts such as truth and reference, knowledge, consciousness, values, or really any abstract concept. Exploring such things has a value in itself and anyone agreeing that these concepts name actually existing phenomena in the world has to also agree to this and can not cling to their idea of philosophy as a useless enterprise by claiming that such explorations need be thoroughly empirical, without a hint of conceptual analysis, all the way down in order to be legitimate. Guess what? Conceptual analysis and interpretation of findings is essential to understanding the mechanics of the world, and such things are under the purview of philosophy. Dismiss all conceptual analysis or accept the inevitability of philosophy. Those are your choices.


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