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Do you need to study philosophy to be a great physicist?

  1. Jan 29, 2012 #1
    do you need to know much more than the rudimentary basics, such as the distinction between idealism and materialism?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 29, 2012 #2


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    Hey zheng89120.

    In my limited personal experience of reading philosophy, I find that some of the better philosophers were people that had a lot of experience in a particular area.

    For example Godel was a mathematician, just as Bohm was a physicist. They both did work in a particular discipline which gave them real insight to the stuff that they were talking (or philosophizing) about.

    It's probably better if you learn and become proficient at something before you consider 'philosophizing'. There are a lot of arguments for this, but my simple arguments are:

    a) You know what you are talking about and you can put things into perspective and say more specific things if need be instead of using way too many generalizations and fluff

    b) You will have a practical approach which allows you get away from some of the overly idealistic approaches and tendencies that some philosophers have

    c) You will be able to offer things that a philosopher not well versed in the subject could not most likely offer, which in turns makes indirectly your thoughts more valuable.

    Now I'm not saying there aren't philosophers that have made good contributions that are only practitioners in certain fields: there is some great ideas from philosophers that can be applied in daily life without having to think about something for ten or twenty years which may end up to be rather unhelpful.

    The point I'm making is that if you want to do the three things mentioned above, it would be in your best interest to make statements that are based on 'getting your hands dirty' whether that be through a more physical endeavor (like doing physical experiments, building things, and so on) or through a more mental endeavor (doing mathematical work).

    No matter what the avenue you pursue, it will make you a better philosopher in the end IMO.
  4. Jan 30, 2012 #3
    I don't think studying any specific area is crucial, and in fact, there is something philosophical about any field which asks "big questions" - like chiro said, many different avenues get you to being more philosophical. I think his advice about getting deep into something specific is very good.

    I'll try to add a little of my own reasoning: I think to some extent, the simple reason is that the very act of going deep into a matter really helps prepare you for tackling "big questions." It takes a lot of stamina, subtlety of intellect, etc to appreciate those questions, and your ability to do so will be with you every single time you try.

    AFTER you gather such ability, you can start surveying different big questions.

    How you gather such ability is a largely personal thing.
  5. Jan 30, 2012 #4
    The big questions can be asked about anything. Subjectivity is a trait that all humans share. All who read the words that i am typing will understand them differently, based on an individual subjective interpretation. Idealism and materialism can be reduced down to two separate notions: subjectivity and objectivity. Objectivity is the concrete reality of anything, while subjectivity is the interpretation of what is set in stone.

    Some of the beauty of physics and mathematics rests within the world of abstract. They govern the physical universe and are undeniable; they are not idealistic. However, the subjective minds of mankind may ponder them as they wish, making more out of what is. But that is our nature.

    So no, i do not believe that one has to study philosophy to become a great physicist. I am by no means putting down philosophy, as i think that it is important for personal gain. But in the end, physics is just that...physics. It is the physical laws of existence. The rest is what you make of it.
  6. Jan 30, 2012 #5
    You do not need ANY philosophy to become a great physicist. Physicists like Feynmann even used to laugh with philosophy as unnecessary. So no, it's not needed at all.

    However, if you find it interesting, then by all means study it.
  7. Jan 31, 2012 #6
    Sometimes being able to conceptualize your work out side of the normality of it is necessary for a deeper understanding of it. Some people philosophize without even knowing it, and Feynmann is no excuse to that when seeing much of his work. A little ironic of him to say, eh?

    @OP: How am I to know what 'greatness' entails? I am not great by any standard and those giving you pointers might not be great or might not know how to achieve such a standard. Don't look for advice on how to be a great physicist. Study what you like and understand it for yourself, whether you become great as a result or not will be up to your brain and how much of its limit you are able to drive it to.
  8. Jan 31, 2012 #7
    Philosophy really isn't something you 'study'. Philosophy is the love of wisdom (philo-sophia). Wisdom comes with one's own dalliances in the art of inquiry. I firmly believe that every human being has the capacity to be a philosopher, without a single shred of formal 'training' in the subject. You don't need to read Kant and Nietzsche and Plato; however, their ideas are interesting, and it does help. But that should come at your own behest, not as part of a rigid study program.

    And lest we all forget, not knowing the definitions of "idealism" and "materialism" does not necessarily mean we do not understand the concepts. I'm an idealist, and I've always been an idealist. But I sure didn't know I was an idealist (or rather, that I could call myself an idealist) for a long time.
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