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A Question of Opinion

  1. Jan 13, 2008 #1

    I'm beginning to be worried, I have a passion for theoretical and mathematical physics as well as pure mathematics. Some teachers suggest i should "get into" some philosophy, when im doing some research on philosophy, to get an idea of what it is and branches of study, there is a good part and a bad part, for example, when i look at the list of book in metaphysics on amazon.com, there is stuff saying "this book is for the spiritual reader", and being passionate with theoretical physics and knowing a bit about string theory, i worry that im venturing to far away from mathematical theories of the universe and into plain crap.

    My Question is; should i continue to do philosophy, is it to spiritual and stuff, and will i be laughed at by the scientific community?

    I would really appreciate all and every comment pleaase!!!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 13, 2008 #2
    Have you asked these teachers why they think you should "get into" some philosophy?

    If you are actually and truly interested in physics- I would stay away from philosophy. Not to say that philosophy is bad- I studied it in some depth as an undergrad. Other than logic (which can be learned in most math departments), I really do not feel it will be of any help in your formal studies of physics.
  4. Jan 13, 2008 #3


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    Well, you do sound rather young, so I'll assume you're probably not yet in university, or in the first year. Go pick up a few physics textbooks from a library and study them as though you are a physics major. Studying means not just reading but also doing as many problems as possible. You could probably get some recommended texts around here. If you still like physics, then maybe it's for you.

    Stay away from philosophy. Read it as a hobby if you must, but otherwise don't bother majoring in it. It doesn't mix with physics.
  5. Jan 13, 2008 #4


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    i recommend you study what you find interesting, not with a view to being popular or a goal of not being laughed at.
  6. Jan 13, 2008 #5
    I graduated from from math department and are also interested in theoretical physics. Nevertheless I find philosophy interesting and have also studied some philosophy in university. If you want to read more about philosophy, don't just read online or buy any random metaphysics books (there are many other branches of philosophy besides metaphysics anyway...). Perhaps read some serious philosophy textbooks (and avoid the cranks books. In philosophy, as in physics, there are cranks out there), something like "Introduction to Philosophy" that will give you broad overview of philosophy as a subject.

    But it is important to choose subjects you want to study. It makes no sense to study philosophy just because your teachers think that you should (why do they think so?) Do it for the love of the subject. Good luck.
  7. Jan 13, 2008 #6
    I don't know about philosophy myself, but I have a one piece of knowledge related to this. The rector of our university (this man: http://www.helsinki.fi/filosofia/filo/henk/niiniluoto.htm [Broken]), is a philosopher, but besides this, he is also a mathematician! Or at least he has mathematical background. Looks like he started with mathematics, but then started leaning more into philosophy. So I must mention, that it is possible, that even if you are interested in philosophy, studying mathematics could help you on that direction too.

    Absolutely. Be careful with the internet and the spiritual stuff. I don't know precisely what Niiniluoto does, but I'm quite sure it is not closely related to anything of spiritual metaphysics. It is more like something about the logic and the truth concept (edit: now when I look at the web page, there seems to be philosophy of culture and technology mentioned too).
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  8. Jan 13, 2008 #7


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    life is more complicated than just mathematics or physics. We all have aspects of ourselves which are mental, spiritual, physical, etc... and we need to keep them all in balance in order to do justice to any of them.

    Obviously one cannot do physics if one is completely physically sick. Similarly, it helps to be in balance psychologically, mentally, spiritually, philosophically, etc... in order to be happy doing what one enjoys.

    So a well rounded education is recommended for everyone. Basic human psychology is needed to interact with other scientists profitably. Ethics also come into play in science.
  9. Jan 13, 2008 #8

    Ben Niehoff

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    I've studied a lot of philosophy, but only because I found it interesting. It's had a big impact on my life. However, the greatest cause of that impact has been the realization that most philosophy is indeed crap. Metaphysics and ontology are the crappiest crap there is. The only branches of philosophy that are possibly useful are ethics and sociology (if that be considered philosophy). Philosophy of mind is entertaining, but ultimately can't answer any useful questions. Philosophy of science might be slightly useful in that it can give you insights into the context of science and the true force of theory statements; however, it is easy to get bogged down in defending science against philosophers. It is better to just take a little bit of knowledge from it, and then focus on doing science.
  10. Jan 13, 2008 #9
    Thanks for all your support/posts. The only philosophy i have read so far was "The Dream of Reason" or to be more specific, the first 5 chapters. First it started with Thales of Miletus in 585 BC where his theory was made out of water, then it went on to Anaximander, where his theory was about the universe, the next was Anaximenes, whose theory was of the universe, then it was pythagoras who believed the universe had something to do with numbers, then Hericlitus whose theory was about opposite forces bringing the universe apart and pulling it back together (cyclic universe) and thats where im at, maybe my interest is just with the prospect of how this developed into modern day physics and physical pictures of the universe. But from what i've read philosophy is about polical Philo, ethics and free will and reality and all of thats crap, boring and doesnt have anything to do with the "real" world.

    I think i will write a court order;

    philosophy, religion and spiritually must be 100,000 km away from each other till death do them part.

    I think i will stick with theoretical physics and mathematics as im more interested.

    My history and english teacher have both done philosophy at uni and they realise that im intelegent because im an "accelerated" student so they said i should try it because i would probably be able to comprehend it.

    Yes, im in year 9 this year (2008) and also an accelerated student into advanced yr 10 maths and at the start of term 4 im accelerating into advanced yr 12 maths, year 12 maths extension 1, and year 12 maths extension 2 (which is university maths for year 12).

    I have also been reading a lot of physics and physics textbooks and intend to accelerate in that to.

    I would pick up as many Uni physics & Mathematics textbooks as i could but currently im in Coffs Harbour and all they have is Coffs Library, where there is no Uni Physics textbook (but there is 1 Uni maths book, which i got, called "Applied Calculus, third edition) and the University there has nothing!, it doesnt have any University courses in mathematics, physics, biology... pretty much every science or English is not taught there.

    Anyway, Bon Voyage Philosophy

    Thanks everyone
  11. Jan 14, 2008 #10


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    FWIW, I think you should form your own quetions and allow the quest for answers guide you.

    "The Dream of Reason" seems from the description more like a book on the old history of philosophy. Probably more interesting for historical reflection than to cutting edge science? I wouldn't dismiss the field based on that kind of book.

    I think the kind of philsophy that IS relevant to physics is books called "theory" or "philosophy" of science, which is closely related to logic of reasoning. This also relates to probability theory and statistics.

    (for example ET. Jaynes has elaborated on"the logic of science" and the physics/philosophy of reasoning and informationhttp://bayes.wustl.edu/etj/etj.html, see unpublished work and bibliography. One may not need to agree on everything, but his style of reasoning is to me the kind of philosophy of relevance to physics that can be fruitful and constructive, to take an example. But perhaps that is hard to appreciate without a prior basic background in basic probability theory and basic physics. so perhaps this is best left for AFTER, so you can reflect upon the standard physics presentations, when reasonig, otherwise one does not have anything to reflect upon so to speak.)

  12. Jan 14, 2008 #11
    Philosophy is where physics, and indeed all the sciences originally began. Many of the major figures in early physics and mathematics were also philosophers, such as Descartes and Leibniz. That being said, a lot of philosophy is crap. Philosophy is not generally held to the same empirical standards as the sciences. Anything involving metaphysics is generally useless conjecture, most of the views held by one philosopher conflict with the next that comes along.
    If you are interested in studying philosophy, you should be more than able to do it in your spare time. One book I can recommend is The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. One philosophy course that you might benefit from is a course in formal logic, which helps develop critical thinking skills, helpful in any "left-brain" endeavor.
  13. Jan 14, 2008 #12
    Analytical philosophy (the analogue of mathematical logic) is very rigorous in terms of its methods. Some of its adherents draw some wacky conclusions based on it, but I digress.

    In terms of the other branches of philosophy, I'll leave it to Gauss: "If a philosopher says something true, it's trivial. If he says something non-trivial, it's false."
  14. Jan 14, 2008 #13


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    :) That can offer basis for very interesting reflections.

    This relates to the famous idea that the biggest problem is, asking the right questions. What is true and what is false, depends on the question posed. Perhaps sometimes the problem is to find a formulation of the problem, where the question posed has an obvious answer. To then note that the question/answer is trivial, is underestimating the process of posing the question.

  15. Jan 14, 2008 #14
    I liked that quote from gauss
    Edna Krabappel's (From Simpsons) "Ha"

    Anyway, yeh, i think that philosophy is just a waist of time, i mean, for example, "reality", philosophers like to make it sound complex and mystical, like something out of the matrix, where as physics says reality is just "everything" i.e. Particles and the like, but admittedly we are perplexed about what lies beyond or our universe or in the view of string theory, what lies beyond the multiverse of brains, as that old granny puts it, the universe is a flat circle which is held up by a giant turtle. And as the scientist (cant remember who, though it is mentioned in "A brief history of time" i think near the end) as i was saying, the scientist replyed "and what is the turtle standing on".

    But when these questions like "what lies "beyond our universe" are asked, one reduces the answer, if you like, to, that question is quite philosophical. So what are the ramifications of this answer, is philosophy all about questions one can ponder and make ridiculous claims in the name of philosophy? (rhetorical question)

    This is where physics succeeds, physics address the question with either of the following

    1) Mathematical reason
    2) Physical tests and experiments

    So this is why i shall drop philosophy, or, as i put it, jabbing in the dark with a knife and hoping to kill something (metaphorically speaking of course) and adhere to doing calculations and test before i jab and accurately kill the something

    My conclusion, however childish it may seem, Maths and Physics rule whilst philosophy drules (slobbering).

    Thanks for pointing me in the right direction
  16. Jan 14, 2008 #15


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    You mention string theory, here is a paper that IMO contains alot of philosophywritten by a the former string theorist Smolin.

    "The case for background independence"
    -- http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/hep-th/pdf/0507/0507235v1.pdf

    It's fairly easy reading and from your posts I think it might induce interesting reflections, and why mathematical reasoning along doesn't solve everything, because any deductions starts with a premise. You may call them axioms or definitions, but the question is to choose the axioms and definitions that helps us understand nature, and to understand what choice of mathematical reasoning that corresponds to natures way of reasoning.

    If you don't like this fuzzy stuff, maybe pure mathematics is a better option? You can still work and focus on the mathematics of physical models. I personally think both kind of efforts are needed. There are mathematicians that study physical theories from a pure mathematical point, and the internal consistency an implications of the formalism - this corresponds then to physical predictions by means of the supposed mapping between model and reality. But the validity of thte physical predctions depends not only on the mathematical deduction, but also the validity of the mapping to reality.

    But there are different formalisms, and the question which one corresponds to nature, is the physical question, not a mathematical one IMO.

    To find out one makes "physical tests and experiments", but there is more than one way to choose this too. To formualate an experiment, is the analogy to formulating a question. Which experiments should be make? How does one motivate the investments needed to probe for answers to particular questions?

    These things are philosophical questions, that are also of relevance to science.

  17. Jan 20, 2008 #16
    The early Greek philosophers make for entertaining and 'quaint' reading...their science is off the charts and it trips me out.( Ca. 400-500 BC ) It is fun if you have the time. hg
  18. Jan 20, 2008 #17
    I majored in philosophy along with mathematics as an undergrad.

    I'd say stay away from most of it. It's useful if you're looking into areas like law, the social sciences, or maybe even business but it won't be much help to your physics and math studies. But I will say courses in logic, ethics, and political philosophy are very intriguing. Especially if your university forces you to fulfill general humanities requirements.

    I will say that I found studying math was very beneficial for my philosophy though. Because math forces you to apply formal logic to problems it carries over nicely into the realm of philosophy.
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