Physicists, Stop the Churlishness

Jim Holt in the New York Times:

David_Albert-greyscale-192x192A kerfuffle has broken out between philosophy and physics. It began earlier this spring when a philosopher (David Albert) gave a sharply negative review in this paper to a book by a physicist (Lawrence Krauss) that purported to solve, by purely scientific means, the mystery of the universe’s existence. The physicist responded to the review by calling the philosopher who wrote it “moronic” and arguing that philosophy, unlike physics, makes no progress and is rather boring, if not totally useless. And then the kerfuffle was joined on both sides.

This is hardly the first occasion on which physicists have made disobliging comments about philosophy. Last year at a Google “Zeitgeist conference” in England, Stephen Hawking declared that philosophy was “dead.” Another great physicist, the Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, has written that he finds philosophy “murky and inconsequential” and of no value to him as a working scientist. And Richard Feynman, in his famous lectures on physics, complained that “philosophers are always with us, struggling in the periphery to try to tell us something, but they never really understand the subtleties and depths of the problem.”

Why do physicists have to be so churlish toward philosophy? Philosophers, on the whole, have been much nicer about science. “Philosophy consists in stopping when the torch of science fails us,” Voltaire wrote back in the 18th century. And in the last few decades, philosophers have come to see their enterprise as continuous with that of science. It is noteworthy that the “moronic” philosopher who kicked up the recent shindy by dismissing the physicist’s book himself holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics.

More here. [Photo shows David Albert.]

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