Friday, May 27, 2011

Why are Physicists Such Bad Philosophers?

This is a tangent to my post Discipline Fundamentalism. Here is the physicist Sean Carroll making an example of my point. I’m not interested in refuting his, well, sheer bluster, since it definitely isn’t an argument. You don’t even need to know any philosophy of science to see how the article is basically a huge red herring. I’m just pointing it out as an example.

But I wish to ask a question; why is it that physicists are often such bad philosophers? Other scientific fields have their own philistines as well (i.e. Richard Dawkins, a biologist), but it is physicists who are always rearing their head to speak on matters outside their own field.

First, why is it that physicists feel obliged to speak on metaphysical matters? I think this is largely an inevitable result of modernism, with its insistence on mechanicism. Of course, no modern philosopher is necessarily such a dullard as Carroll proved himself to be (in fact, usually quite the opposite), but the strand of thought begun by Descartes, interpreted through Hume and then Ayer and the logical positivists and their verificationism are who I will blame for producing such a bowdlerized metaphysics. Metaphysics has been reduced to physics; if you look at the projects of reductionism and eliminativism you see the common streak of immediately identifying the immediately apparent physical reality with the totality of reality. “Reality,” “the world,” and such things that used to refer to a vast amount of possible objects under Platonism and Scholasticism, from ideas to angels and intentions, is assumed to be only coextensive with the physical world. Seeing as physics is the study of the physical world, and it is assumed there is only the physical world, then physics is super-posited to be metaphysics, so now whatever physics cannot find or give evidence for, there would simply exist no evidence for in any possible way. This is why physicists raise their heads when the God question comes about, and they blithely assume that their methods used to study the physical world are complete to study the complete world.

So physicists don’t really have many views within philosophy helping them out to understand that the study of physics won’t help to ascertain the existence of the immortal soul. In fact, many philosophers seem to be simply cheering them on to their doom.

Second, I think physics as a scientific discipline has long been void of scientists with a decent grasp of philosophy. I think this is seen in the resulting confusion over quantum physics, which I would guess stems from an inability to give any meaning to the data observed which goes to support quantum physics. This is why you have not disagreements about the data or the formulas, but disagreements about how to interpret them; but most don’t know that the act of interpretation is a primarily philosophical, not physical, pursuit.

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