On the Foundations of Physics


Richard Marshall interviews Tim Maudlin in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: You’re working in the area of philosophy of physics and science. This hasn’t been an altogether happy relationship and recent spats have broken out that suggest that physicists don’t think they need to heed philosophy and philosophers think physicists are inept at interpreting their own theories. You tend to be in this latter camp don’t you, and have been pretty vociferous in arguing that there is a role for philosophy in understanding physics. How do you diagnose the problem – and how come it is philosophy that tends to be sober in their interpretations and the scientists who seem more content with paradoxes and contradictions and expensive ontologies like multiverses?

TM: I don’t think that the spats between physicists and philosophers are more heated, or of a different kind, then the spats that break out among philosophers or among physicists; they just get more public attention. Disputes in foundations of physics typically cannot be settled by observation or experiment, so argumentation has to come to the fore. And the analysis and evaluation of arguments requires a certain fastidiousness about terms and concepts that can be fostered by a background in philosophy.

That said, though, I do not see any deep fissure that runs between the two fields. In my view, the greatest philosopher of physics in the first half of the 20th century was Einstein and in the second half was John Stewart Bell. So physicists who say that professional philosophers have not made the greatest contributions to foundations of physics are correct. But both Einstein and Bell had philosophical temperaments, and Einstein explicitly complained about physicists who had no grounding in philosophy. The community of people who work in foundations of physics is about evenly divided between members of philosophy departments, members of physics departments and members of math departments. Many of us on all sides are trying to open and broaden channels of communication across disciplinary boundaries. And I don’t see that there is much correlation between disciplinary affiliation and sobriety: no one is more sober than Bell and Einstein were, or more cavalier (at times) than Bohr or John Wheeler. A more salient division in contemporary foundations is between those, like myself, who judge that Bell was basically correct in almost everything he wrote and those who think that his theorem does not show much of interest and his complaints about the unprofessional vagueness that infects quantum theory are misplaced.