Philosophy and Science

A while ago I recommended Ulrich Mohrhoff’s recent book The World According to Quantum Mechnics. This is a mathematical text book yet also a philosophical statement, since a specific philosophical interpretation of the mathematics is endorsed, namely that of Sri Aurbindo and the Hindu Upanishads. It can be read, therefore, as an attempt to reconcile science and philosophy. This extract presents the view of Smolin and Einstein on the relationship between these areas of knowledge and study. It seems a correct view to me.

‘Lee Smolin, in his “The Trouble with Physics” laments the loss of a generation for theoretical physics, the first one since the late 19th century to pass without a major theoretical breakthrough that has been empirically verified. Smolin blames this sorry state of affairs on a variety of factors, including the sociology of a discipline where funding and hiring priorities are set by a small number of intellectually inbred practitioners. Ironically, one of Smolin’s culprits is the dearth of interest in and appreciation of philosophy among contemporary physicists. This quote is from Smolin’s book:

“I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today — and even professional scientists — seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historical and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is — in my opinion — the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.” (Albert Einstein)’

It seems odd that Einstein is so widely admired in physics and so seldom emulated. It must be at least possible that any lack of progress is connected with this failure to examine the bigger picture. The generation that included the quantum pioneers were able to think broadly and independently of their prejudices, and with considerable courage, but somehow this ability has, on average, withered away over time.

I wonder if this is because the philosophy department has been so hopeless at dealing with quantum theory. If I were a physicist perhaps I would likewise despair at the failure of the philosophy of the Western universities to deal with the discoveries of physics, and likewise make the hasty assumption that there would be nothing to be learnt from the philosophers. It would be an easy mistake to make.

But it would definitely be a mistake. The failure of one philosophy is a proof by abduction of the philosophy that remains. Mohrhoff and others have shown that a philosophy of nonduality would be capable of interpreting quantum theory for a fundamental theory, just as Schrodinger long ago proposed. What physicists usually miss, or so it seems to me, is that the failure of Western academic philosophy is an important result of analysis, and one that guides us like an arrow to the only viable alternative.

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7 Responses to Philosophy and Science

  1. whitefrozen says:

    Maybe part of the problem is that physics has pretty much unhinged itself from, oddly enough, the physical, and in a sense from reality. Russell thought that physics only gave a kind of skeletal structure to the world, or revealed its mathematical structure, and didn’t give a picture of reality as a *whole*. By mistaking the structure for the world, physics seems to have, as you note, has a real lack of progress. To be fair, however, there still is an empirical aspect to physics – think of the confirmation of the Higgs boson, or the work being done with/on neutrinos.

  2. whitefrozen says:

    To add a bit more to my comment: another part of the problem RE philosophy is the failure to ‘get with the times’, not in Hawkings ‘philosophy hasn’t kept up with science LOL’, but in the sense that we’re discovering things in the world that really demand a rethinking of some very closely held traditions. Logic comes to mind – a lot of classical logic (Aristotelean, for example) just isn’t equipped for the quantum world (T.F. Torrance notes aspects of this in ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’). There are steps being taken (you hear about quantum logic every once in a while) but for the most part, it’s a slow, painstaking process. Most people are comfortable in the old ways, and don’t want their modes of thinking changed/broken by a reality greater than themselves.

    I’ll end my rambling now.

  3. guymax says:

    Interesting ramblings wf. Mostly I agree.

    However, my view would be that Aristotelian logic is perfectly adequate for quantum mechanics. The reason it may often seems inadequate (as Heisenberg argued it was) is a failure to pay attention to the rules that Aristotle laid down for its use. If these rules are taken into account then his logic works fine with QM (and with mysticism, where the same structural problems arise).

    I would agree that Smolin is maybe a touch unfair on his peers, and share Hawkings’ frustration at philosophy’s failure to keep up.

    • whitefrozen says:

      The Laval and River Forest schools of Thomism come (specifically, the writings of Charles de Konkick) come to mind as Aristotleian conceptions of quantum mechanics and modern physics. I didn’t mean to call for an outright rejection of Aristotle’s logic, only that without significant rehthinking, it’s not equipped for analyzing modern science.

      • guymax says:

        Thanks. I’ll google for those schools.to see what you mean. As it is I’m unsure what ‘Aristotelian conception’ would mean in this context.

        Perhaps you would not reject Aristotle’s logic, but a lot of people do, In what way is it not equipped for modern science? Not putting you on the spot, just wondering what you had in mind. .

      • whitefrozen says:

        Sorry for the late reply. Off the top of my head, it seems that aspects of modern physics puts a strain on, say, the law of non-contradiction, as formulated by Aristotle, who basically isolated whatever object into a particular moment in time.

  4. guymax says:

    Yes, I thought this would be the issue. People do not read Aristotle’s rules carefully, and the LNC is much misunderstood as a consequence. I know of no instance where physics calls it into question as long as Aristotle’s rules are followed rigorously. .On this issue I would want to disagree with Heisenberg et al.

    It’s an important issue for me, since if QM breaks A’s laws of thought then so does the perennial philosophy. This worry led me to do some digging into the small print of A’s laws. I discovered that neither would require any modification to those laws. He was a smart fellow, and his laws are capable of encompassing a logic of contradictory complementarity without modification.

    Perhaps modern physics would be inconsistent with his notion of objects in time, that I wouldn’t know, but I’m confident that it presents no problem for his logic.

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