There’s a spat brewing between some theoretical physicists and philosophers of science recently, and NPR’s Adam Frank has all the details. It started when one philosopher of science, David Albert, questioned the notion that the universe came “from nothing,” as the title of Laurence Krauss’ new book claims. This quickly escalated into a debate over whether philosophy of science was even a worthwhile endeavor, or just a distraction from the hard, nuts-and-bolts work of figuring out the nature of the universe.
Frank has a great explanation of just why these physicists are wrong to dismiss philosophy out of hand:
Richard Feynman was famously scornful of the philosophy of science. He thought it was immune to finding relevant results or making real progress. But the problem is that we aren’t living in Richard Feynman’s age of physics anymore. Something strange happened on the way to the modern intersection of cosmology and foundational physics. Some measure of philosophical sophistication seems helpful, if nothing else, in confronting this new landscape.
Its one thing for physicists exploring carbon nanotubes to say they have no use for philosophy. Their work lives or dies by experimental data that can be collected tomorrow. But over the last few decades, cosmology and foundational physics have become dominated by ideas that that appear to take a page from science fiction and, more importantly, remain firmly untethered to data.
Concepts like hidden dimensions of reality (string theory) or hidden infinite possible parallel universes (the multiverse) are radical revisions of the very concept of reality. Since detailed contact with experimental data might be decades away, theorists have relied mainly on mathematical consistency and “aesthetics” to guide their explorations. In light of these developments, it seems absurd to dismiss philosophy as having nothing to do with their endeavors.