In what way can philosophy, or philosophical thinking contribute to the physical sciences?


Richard P. Feynman

Physicist hero and Nobel laureate, Richard Feynman, was known for not being particularily fond of philosophy. In his Auckland lecture on Quantum Mechanics, he addresses philosophy with the polemic challenge that “if you don’t like the universe as it is, go somewhere else, to another universe where the rules are simpler” [1]. As much as this statement reflects a clear-cut scientific realism, criticizing what he disdained as wishful thinking, this essay takes a more differentiated approach. It is trying to investigate the question how much philosophy, from which physics had emanated, can make contributions to the physical sciences. In trying to argue that science without philosophy runs the risk of being disoriented, it investigates the following question: How could philosophical thinking help avoid physical sciences drifting off into the wrong direction?

Albeit it is the obvious objection that science has to be free to investigate in whatever direction curiosity drives it, there has to be at least one indispensable caveat: that of possessing a method of making its theories falsifiable in Karl Popper’s terms. [2] Introducing at least one deductive component is the safeguard against an otherwise all-inductive paradigm, which might bring science into the danger of churning out conjectures as pseudo-sciences like astrology does. The issue with pseudo-science is probably most trenchantly expressed with Carl Sagan’s quote that “in twenty minutes, esoterism is able to make more claims than science can refute in twenty years”.

Therefore, if science wants to demarcate itself from disciplines which shortcomings it strives to overcome, it depends on logical-philosophical concepts like deductivism, a rigorous tool which has already governed physics. If an empirical case is observed in which classical Newtonian mechanics does not hold, like the constant rotation speed of galaxies at their outskirts [3], science either confines its general validity to special cases, or preserves it by making a deductive argument valid, For the latter, it incorporates another, so far unnoticed premise: Dark Matter both explains the observation and preserves the generality of Newton’s laws of gravity. Hence, philosophical thinking in form of deductivism has already been employed in the physical science, corroborating the evidence of prevalent physical theories.

Making a foray into moral philosophy, it appears unforeseeable what the impacts are of pursuing a scientific endeavor in terms of how much it will harm or benefit humankind. Per default, making scientific inquiry is free from moral questioning. Enrico Fermi’s first successful nuclear bombardment, a precursor for the first nuclear fission by Hahn and Strassmann, was intrinsically driven by the same scientific curiosity as was Newton’s law or Einstein’s relativity, rather than by thinking about how to harness the source of nuclear power.

Las 3 fases de la ciencia thomas kuhn

Thomas Kuhn – the three phases according to science

Along the same lines, one could argue that what those scientists mustered for the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos in 1942 did to develop the first atomic bomb was essentially what Thomas Kuhn calls “normal science”, “puzzle solving”, sheltered under a prevalent paradigm [4]. In case of the atomic bomb, the process was indeed justified by the moral relativism view that what harms the war enemy is ethically warranted. In face of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, that even appeared to have a universal ethical justification.

However, after the bomb had been employed in Japan, and the previous paradigm had come to an end, the ethical question what empowering humankind with such a gigantically destructive potential means came to the fore. Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman suffered deeply through a moral crisis. Obviously, doing “normal science” can pull somebody into something more than just innocent inquisitiveness, and moral relativism can at best overwrite something more substantial encoded in human nature. Could that something be harnessed as a moral compass?

An adopted anthropic principle may come as an aid. It is overwhelmingly more likely that we observe conditions that were conducive to our evolution [5]. Transferred to the question of how much there is a moral compass able to guide what should be done or avoided in science, it may be worthwhile to investigate the following argument: even though science is considered a means of overcoming the boundaries of (human) nature, if we consider the inborn moral compass as part of the natural conditions we observe, according that principle, it seems more likely that natural something is conducive to our well-being rather than adverse to it.

Even though the objection could be that this is about technology rather than physical science, it was predominantly puzzle-solving science who did the decisive work in Los Alamos. The question whether humankind is mature enough to be equipped with the power physical science entails, and which scientific endeavour had better be abandoned remains a philosophical question. Philosophy has a long experience in thinking about what should be done as opposed to what can be done.

Klemens Großmann, July 2014


[1] Richard Feynman on Quantum Mechanics Part 1 – Photons Corpuscles of Light

[2] Poper, Karl. 1902-1994. Lecture 1.2. What is Science?

Falsification, Contra Inductivism : “It is too inclusive. Even pseudo-scientific theorizing (e.g. astrology) could employ inductive reference.

[3] Peacock, John. Transcript for Lecture 3.2. Dark Matter and Dark Energy, page 5

[… ] Where the velocity declines once you reach the edge of the visible galaxy, and you’ve run out of matter. Now, you’re just further away from what matter there is. But the data actually tend to stay flat, so this is the visible matter, and so the difference is dark. So, apparently the outskirts of galaxies are dominated by dark matter. And that’s one of the most direct pieces of evidence that we have for its existence. […]

[4] Kuhn, Thomas S. . The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition (S.36). University of Chicago Press. Kindle-Version.

[…] Bringing a normal research problem to a conclusion is achieving the anticipated in a new way, and it requires the solution of all sorts of complex instrumental, conceptual, and mathematical puzzles. The man who succeeds proves himself an expert puzzle-solver, and the challenge of the puzzle is an important part of what usually drives him on. […]

[5] Richmond, Alasdair. Transcript. The Anthropic Principle and Philosophy, page 6

[…] The weak anthropic principle is the one that’s closest to Brandon Carter’s original formulation. And as I’ve kept saying, Carter’s original formulation says the kind of observers we are will set restraints on the kind of conditions that we are likely to observe. We are overwhelming more likely to observe the sorts of conditions conducive to our evolution. […]

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