Saturday, March 23, 2013

Physicists and philosophers fight it out

I have lately spent rather too much time and effort catching up on a controversy concerning reactions to a book by physicist Lawrence Krauss (A Universe from Nothing, published last year), and, in particular, concerning a muscularly negative review of the book by philosopher David Albert.

The controversy has been recently reignited by the withdrawal of Albert's invitation to join a prestigious panel (including Krauss) for a public discussion at The American Museum of Natural History.

As Jason Streitfeld makes clear, one of the underlying issues relates to the status of philosophers vis à vis scientists (in this case physicists).

The demarcation lines and motivational factors in this disinvitation dispute are not all that clear, however. It should be noted, for instance, that David Albert, as well as being a philosopher, also has a PhD in physics, and that attitudes to religion are playing a key role.

Albert's main contention is that Krauss's 'nothing' (relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states) are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff, and therefore far from nothing as generally understood.

But Albert is particularly scathing about what he sees as Krauss's facile rejection of religion. He writes:

"When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for everything essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don't know, dumb."

Krauss called Albert's review "moronic", by the way.

Physicists have a history of disparaging philosophers. Some months ago, one of the most reflective of contemporary physicists, the (then) 88-year-old Freeman Dyson ruffled a few feathers by disparaging contemporary philosphers in an essay published in The New York Review of Books.

I read it at the time, and intended to do a piece on it, but didn't get around to it. Strangely, the expression "the fading of philosophy" – used by Dyson – must have lodged in my subconscious, and I used it as the title for a post last month without realizing its source.

I am in sympathy with much – though not all – of what Dyson says, and I am attracted by his somewhat world-weary tone and contrarian instincts.

There is something of the amateur and the dabbler about him, and he has (or had) one of those almost freakishly clever mathematical minds which can sometimes lead to a certain kind of hubris about one's own abilities and judgements as well as to an overestimation of the power of technologies to solve problems.

Dyson balances these tendencies with a genuine sort of wisdom, however. His little anecdote about a disappointing encounter with Wittgenstein, and then the story of his accidentally coming across Wittgenstein's grave in the course of a winter walk fifty years later, is quite moving.

Dyson's essay is a series of reflections on (rather than a review of) a book by Jim Holt based on interviews with various thinkers (philosophers, physicists and cosmologists) on why there is something rather than nothing. (In fact, Holt has been invited to join the panel from which Albert was disinvited. The world of public scientific intellectuals is a very small one. Even our old friend Massimo Pigliucci plays a part in the controversy.)

Dyson was not impressed with the calibre of Holt's philosopher interviewees. Dwarfs, he calls them, in stark contrast to the philosophical giants of the past. Only one, John Leslie (retired and living on Canada's west coast), gets a favorable mention.

"Philosophers became insignificant," Dyson wrote, "when philosophy became a separate academic discipline, distinct from science and history and literature and religion. The great philosophers of the past covered all these disciplines."

I too have been arguing against philosophy as a stand-alone discipline, and see philosophical thinking as being something which arises naturally in the context of the pursuit of the various sciences.

But I have to say that I find Dyson's way of expressing himself at times vague and imprecise. The last sentence quoted above, for example, could be read as suggesting that all of the great philosophers of the past covered all of these disciplines, or, alternatively, that some covered one or some disciplines and some covered other disciplines. Also, religion is not a discipline. This is just poor writing.

I have some reservations also about Dyson's view of philosophy as a literary phenomenon, and I tend to see, for example, the Book of Job more as literature with a religio-philosophical slant than as philosophy as such. But this is perhaps little more than a semantic – or definitional – question.

My more serious disagreement with Dyson relates to his obviously religious tendencies, which I don't share. But I will concede that, of all the possible religious outlooks I have considered (and rejected), Dyson's Platonic and mystical approach ranks amongst the least unappealing.

Dyson's key point about philosophers having become insignificant relates directly to the disinvitation controversy, and, though Dyson and Krauss are about as different from one another as two physicists could be, it is interesting that they are both dismissive – albeit for different reasons – of contemporary philosophy.

Perhaps the best thing I read in all the pretty wild and woolly discussion associated with the Krauss/Albert dispute was – apart from Albert's original review – a little joke in the comment thread of a blog post I didn't make a note of.

It was a brief mock-warning to scientists about the dangers of being rude to philosophers of science. They had better be careful because the philosophers might go on strike, and where would the scientists be then?


  1. Interesting squabble and a great point of entry to a very large discussion on the role and significance of modern philosophy. "Scientists vs philosophers" -- especially scientists dismissive of philosophers -- is a favorite theme for both of us. In fact I've been writing notes and reading on that subject for more than 30 years.

    I agree with the observation that scientists routinely disrespect modern philosophy / philosophers -- Steven Hawking's best selling "A Brief History of Time" contains an iconic example ("....What a comedown ...") similar to the above, in which the present state of philosophy is but a shadow of its glorious past. I also defend philosophy from swipes like that with the observation that every such statement is a philosophical statement and that a very large proportion of what scientists do (and always have done) is philosophical, when they are not in the lab.

    But I also agree with the diagnosis, very well expressed above, that philosophy's reduced reputation today reflects its self-imposed retreat into academia, roping itself off as an independent "discipline." In the scheme of things, philosophy presents itself as a fifth-wheel, washed-up, old-fashioned, largely irrelevant "profession," in the same way dousing for water would be. Practiced by specialists in nothing useful. (This is what the Vienna Circle did to us ... LOL.)

    On the other hand, reading the history of scientific methods (one cannot say the scientific method) reveals that scientists would be building slingshots and jungle drums today instead of rockets and telecom satellites, had it not been for a very robust philosophy of science which counts every contributor to scientific method as both a scientist and a philosopher. Both did both.

    So it is not Philosophy that is dissed, actually, but rather the roped-off institution calling itself the philosophical profession (and commenting on science from the sidelines).

    I am happy to see scientists "do philosophy" and it's done every day. The only danger I see in the lay of the land, as it is, attaches to the attitude that only a scientist can do valid philosophy, or that philosophy done by a scientist is necessarily valid while any other kind is questionable. Science is, after all, only a very specific way to examine the world, answering only questions it is capable of asking. It is constitutionally unable to ask certain questions, if they are not configurable as physical questions.

    I believe there are many human issues that are not totally amenable to science, even if science can go a long way towards understanding them. After all the facts are known about everything, "How should we live?" ultimately remains a philosophical question.

    So these little cup-throwing tantrums across the professions really seem to miss the point sometimes.

    1. A one liner for you, re: the above (explain later):

      The Vienna Cirlce painted philosophy into a corner.

    2. It could be said, GC, that there are all too many points of entry into this (as you put it) "very large discussion on the role and significance of modern philosophy," but all too few points of exit.

      Leaving aside implicit or explicit metaphors of mazes, circles painting themselves into corners, swamps, bogs, or quicksand, I agree with much of what you say here.

      But when we go beyond the limits of science (which philosophical thinking helps to define), when we come to those 'existential' questions about what I should do or be or care about, we move into an area where logic and reasoning and so on are not enough. I'm not sure that philosophy can help us much here, unless perhaps it becomes something else. Maybe along the lines of Dyson's more literary take on the subject (Book of Job, Nietzsche, etc.)?