Science and philosophy were born together

Until recent times, there was no distinction between physics and philosophy, and indeed one can say that they were born and developed together. Thales of Miletus, who lived in the sixth century B.C., is considered the first scientist and philosopher, since he tried to give physical explanations for phenomena of Nature without alluding to mythology. Thus, for example, he departed from the explanation accepted by his contemporaries according to which the god Atlas held the world on his shoulders and Poseidon, god of the seas, made Atlas stagger, thus generating earthquakes; instead, he proposed that the Earth floated on water and that earthquakes were similar to the movement of a ship over the waves.

Kant establishes a division between science and philosophy

Science and philosophy for centuries formed a unit and their separation occurred in the times of Newton and Kant. Kant believed that philosophy should be devoted to that which goes beyond the limits of knowledge and that natural science should replace natural philosophy. The concept of science emerged with an object and method distinct from philosophy. Thus, we can consider that science deals with the understanding of natural phenomena through observation and experimentation, and the explanation of their principles and causes, while philosophy uses reason to explore issues that include the nature of reality (metaphysics), the structure of rational thinking (logic), the limits of our understanding (epistemology), the meaning implied by our thoughts (philosophy of language), the nature of the moral good (ethics) or the nature of beauty (esthetics).[1]

Since Kant, both the objectives and the methods of philosophical and scientific thought have been differentiated, but to progress in the knowledge of nature, one needs the other: the role of philosophy is to create new knowledge in the form of more or less vague ideas, whereas that of science is to extract the objective truths from those already existing ideas, using experimentation to establish exact quantitative relationships between already determined variables.[2] Thus, until today, all scientists have sought philosophical training and used philosophical reasoning as part of their scientific work.

The most revolutionary stage of science

The beginning of the 20th century saw the greatest scientific revolution in history. The theory of relativity and quantum theory changed the way we see the universe, its composition, structure and evolution. All the physicists involved in these changes — Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, Max Born and many others  — considered the philosophical consequences of the new physics in terms of existence and physical reality. Einstein lived permanently with the philosophy about which he read and wrote, exchanging views with the main philosophers of his time. He incorporated philosophical analysis directly into his theorizing in physics, introducing an authentic philosophical revolution into many of our fundamental notions such as mass, energy, time, space, causality and determinism.[3] This importance attributed to philosophy in the research process can be seen in the book written by Heisenberg at the end of his career and in which he sets out his passionate vision of the process of development of quantum theory, accurately entitled Physics and Philosophy. The Revolution in Modern Science.[4] In a recent paper, Professor Sebastian de Haro of the University of Amsterdam emphasizes this relationship between philosophy and science in these terms: “Progress in fundamental issues such as entanglement and quantum communication stemmed from physicists’ willingness to engage in debates about ontological and epistemic issues such as the role of the observer, the completeness of the mathematical description of nature, the desiderata for a good description of nature, and so on”.[5]

Antiphilosophy takes over scientific circles

Richard Feynman

In the second half of the twentieth century, however, a feeling hostile to philosophy appeared, considering philosophy to be a constraint on scientific progress. The orthodox understanding of physics has been completely separated from metaphysical and philosophical considerations and a down-to-earth pragmatic approach has been sought. The three most influential figures of physics in this period have been no strangers to this movement, which still persists: Richard Feynman, Steven Weinberg and Stephen Hawking. Feynman, the most popular of the American scientists, opened fire with a resounding statement in 1964: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics”. He was conveying the idea that no one should try to understand the theory, recommending that [his students] passively accept, without asking further questions, the way that “nature behaves”.[6]

In 1992, Steven Weinberg’s famous book, Dreams of a Final Theory, was published, with a full chapter entitled Against Philosophy, in which he argues that philosophy is more harmful than helpful for physics.[7]

In 2010, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow published The Grand Design, writing on the first page that: “Philosophy is dead” because “[p]hilosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science”, particularly physics, and “[s]cientists have become bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge”.[8]

The antiphilosophical movement been widespread in universities, reaching incomprehensible levels of authoritarianism in defense of this view.  Lee Smolin, a well-known theoretical physicist who is an expert in loop quantum gravity, expresses this situation as follows: “When I learned physics in the 1970s, it was almost as if we were being taught to look down on people who thought about foundational problems. When we asked about the foundational issues in quantum theory, we were told that no one fully understood them, but that concern with them was no longer part of science. The job was to take quantum mechanics as given and apply it to new problems. The spirit was pragmatic; ‘Shut up and calculate’ was the mantra. People who couldn’t let go of their misgivings over the meaning of quantum theory were regarded as losers who couldn’t do the job”.[9]

This radical antiphilosophical attitude stems from the belief that science can answer all the important questions. However, it is worth asking, as Laura Maguire does, what kind of empirical evidence has been provided to reach that conclusion. The reality is that by saying that philosophy is useless, they are participating in a particular philosophy of science, transmitting philosophical ideas of a specific trend.[10]

Simultaneously, in the second half of the 20th century — and although paradoxical — two concepts from the field of philosophy influenced the thinking of researchers, profoundly changing scientific behavior. On the one hand, we have the concept of falsifiability[11], whose influence is thus described by Mario Livio: “Ever since the seminal work of philosopher of science Karl Popper, for a scientific theory to be worthy of its name, it has to be falsifiable by experiments or observations. This requirement has become the foundation of the ‘scientific method’”.[12]

Discontinuity is another decisive concept introduced by Thomas Kuhn. The traditional way of understanding scientific progress is by adding new truths to the acquis of the already known ones and by correcting past errors, producing constant and cumulative progress. Kuhn’s version of how science develops differs radically: development through discontinuities, i.e., revolutionary changes that he defines as paradigm shifts; a new paradigm replaces the existing paradigm seeking to solve the anomalies that it presents.

There is no progress without philosophy

These changes in the way we deal with scientific progress, dispensing with a philosophical contrast and introducing the ideas of falsability and discontinuity into the definition of new theories do not seem to have contributed to the progress of science; quite the opposite in fact. In the opinion of Carlo Rovelli, “This combination of the two [factors] has given rise to disastrous methodological confusion: the idea that past knowledge is irrelevant when searching for new theories, that all unproven ideas are equally interesting and all unmeasured effects are equally likely to occur, and that the work of a theoretician consists in pulling arbitrary possibilities out of the blue and developing them, since anything that has not yet been falsified might in fact be right”.[13]

All this has led to a total absence of new foundational theories in the last fifty years. The scientific development that has taken place in these years — although important, especially in the experimental field — is nothing more the result of the completion of the great theories forged in the first half of the 20th century: quantum mechanics and relativity. This is the case of the confirmation that both black holes and gravitational waves are real, as predicted by relativity or detection of the Higgs boson, which culminates in verification of the standard model. Nevertheless, we have not been able to surpass either theory, responding to the fact that neither is compatible on the smaller scales.

The set of conceptual changes introduced in scientific research in the second half of the twentieth century has led to certain theories such as string theory, supersymmetry or the multiverse, which have taken up practically all of the research effort in these years. Although they have intellectual coherence, they are based on hypotheses that cannot be tested by observations. Their proponents consider them to be so good that their existence supersedes the need for data and evidence, while, on the contrary, their critics consider that, as a result, “theoretical physics risks becoming a no-man’s-land between mathematics, physics, and philosophy that does not truly meet the requirements of any”.[14]

Reality has been harsh and the lack of results, after more than fifty years, is creating a loss of confidence in the dominant conception in scientific research and with it, the change in attitudes. This allows critics like Sabine Hosenfelder to speak as follows: “At last, it seems the ‘shut up and calculate’ doctrine, which has dominated quantum mechanics for half a century, is losing its grip on the community. And that is why I am more optimistic today that we will finally make progress in the foundations of physics than I was 10 years ago”.[15]

 

Manuel Ribes

Bioethics Observatory – Institute of Life Sciences

Catholic University of Valencia

 

References

[1] Massimo Pigliucci  On the Difference Between Science and Philosophy. Psychology Today  November 19, 2009    https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/rationally-speaking/200911/the-difference-between-science-and-philosophy

[2] UKEssays. (November 2018). Relationship between philosophy and science. https://www.ukessays.com/essays/philosophy/relationship-between-philosophy-and-science.php?vref=1

[3] Friedel Weinert. Einstein, Science  and  Philosophy 2009 DOI:10.4000/philosophiascientiae.305

[4] Werner Heisenberg. Physics and Philosophy – The Revolution in Modern Science  1958  Harper & Brothers New York. https://kupdf.net/download/heisenberg-physics-and-philosophy-the-revolution-in-modern-science_59a16f79dc0d60480618496e_pdf

[5] Sebastian De Haro. Science and Philosophy: A Love–Hate Relationship  2019 DOI:10.1007/s10699-019-09619-2

[6] Christian De Ronde. Understanding Quantum Mechanics   2020  arXiv:2009.00487 [physics.hist-ph]

[7] Victor J. Stenger, James A. Lindsay, Peter Boghossian Physicists Are Philosophers, Too  2015  Scientific American https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/physicists-are-philosophers-too/

[8] Ibid

[9] Christian De Ronde Understanding Quantum Mechanics  2020  arXiv:2009.00487 [physics.hist-ph]

[10] Laura Maguire Has science replaced philosophy? 2015 Philosophy Talk  https://www.philosophytalk.org/blog/has-science-replaced-philosophy

[11] Falsifiability or refutability is the ability of a theory or hypothesis to be subjected to potential tests that contradict it. According to falsificationism, every valid scientific proposition must be susceptible to being falsified or refuted.

[12] Mano Singham. The Idea That a Scientific Theory Can Be ‘Falsified’ Is a Myth   2020 Scientific American https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-idea-that-a-scientific-theory-can-be-falsified-is-a-myth/

[13] Carlo Rovelli. Physics Needs Philosophy / Philosophy Needs Physics  2018. Scientific American https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/physics-needs-philosophy-philosophy-needs-physics/

[14] Ellis, G., Silk, J. Scientific method: Defend the integrity of physics. Nature 516, 321–323 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/516321a

[15] Sabine Hossenfelder. Who’s killing physics?  22 October 2021 Cosmos Weekly.  https://cosmosmagazine.com/science/physics/future-of-physics-killing-quantum-mechanics/

 

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