Philosophy from the Preposterous Universe


Richard Marshall interviews Sean Carroll in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: I thought we’d start by getting your overview of the situation as you see it regarding the relationship between physics and philosophy. There have been some high profile and rather bad tempered disagreements recently between the two camps – I’m thinking of theKraus vs Albert recently which led to an invitation for Albert to share a platform with Krauss at an event being pulled, and Hawking and Mlodinow who start off their book ‘The Grand Design’ by announcing the death of philosophy – so I wondered if there was any general points that such cases helped illustrate for you about the relationship, in particular, whether there is some truth in the thought that physics has such an elevated status in the general culture reflected (as reflected in both popular culture eg The Big Bang Theory and funding eg it gets LHC machines built) that it feels itself impervious to criticism?

SC: From inside physics, it hardly seems like we are impervious to criticism! Funding is being cut, our ability to do big projects is running up against problems of finance and international cooperation, and it’s a struggle to explain the importance of increasingly abstract basic research. Much of this feeling is a matter of historical context, of course; fifty years ago physicists were at the top of the heap, a position that is increasingly occupied by biologists (or maybe economists?). But anyone paying attention can tell that there is still immense public interest in discoveries like dark energy and the Higgs boson, and a great deal of respect for physics as a profession.

The public spat between physics and philosophy is just silly, more a matter of selling books or being lazy than any principled intellectual position. Most physicists know very little about philosophy, which is hardly surprising; most experts in any one academic field don’t know very much about many other fields. This ignorance manifests itself in a couple of ways. First, a lot of scientists are quite comfortable with simplistic philosophy of science. This usually doesn’t matter, but there are cases where good philosophy has something to offer, and scientists rarely put in the work necessary to understand what that good philosophy has to say. Second, scientists tend to think of philosophy as a service discipline – what good does it do for my practice of science? The answer is almost always “no good at all,” which they then translate into thinking that philosophy has no real purpose. The truth is that almost all scientific work can proceed quite happily without philosophy – you can be very good at driving a car without knowing how an engine works. But when it’s important, philosophy very important indeed.

Very few philosophers, by contrast, are going to accuse science of being worthless. Nevertheless, it’s no surprise that there are problems of appreciation and understanding flowing in that direction as well. The only remedy, if one is interested in finding one, is constant interaction and communication.