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Laziness, Lack of Motivation, Neither, or Both?

  1. Sep 16, 2010 #1
    I majored in physics and astronomy as an undergrad, and my interest has been monotonically waning ever since. As a college freshman I was very motivated, focused, and over-achieving; in high school I spent my summers reading about these subjects. Throughout college I worked enthusiastically on several research projects. Now, after having left a master's degree program midway, taught high school for awhile, and returned as a non-degree-seeking student studying physics, I keep thinking I am simply not trying hard enough, yet physics keeps seeming more and more to be drudgery to me. It seems like it is because it is not taught philosophically enough. Philosophy of physics in general has been interesting me more than physics itself, and I have been reading more on it than on physics proper. Does this mean I should change majors? It seems totally silly that I'm in a PhD program and wondering in what I should major as though I were an undergrad freshman... I guess I just don't understand those who can find a particular project on which to specialize and stick with it, which I have not been able to do. It also probably doesn't help that I am at the same university at which I did my undergrad, due to being able to receive a scholarship there. Has anyone else had similar intellectual/academic issues? Is it a passing phase in intellectual maturity or a red flag that one should jump ship and change majors? Thanks
  2. jcsd
  3. May 13, 2011 #2
    I can fully understand you, since my situation is very similar in nature to yours. I, like you, started out with an extreme interest and passion for Physics, Mathematics and, generally, fundamental science. I then entered an Engineering department at university. The reasons for not going to a Physics department are pretty complicated, and I had serious regrets about this, since it was not really what I wanted and what I was good at, although it has an overlap. So, I planned to do Theoretical Physics in my graduate studies. But up to now, I have been realising more and more that even Theoretical Physics does not appeal to my true interests, which have always included (but are not limited to) a deep understanding of the meaning of the theories, their interconnections, their interpretations... When I was at school, I was under the impression that the theoretical physicist was the one who investigated those things to the maximum possible depth. This was because I had not come across Philosophy of Physics as a separate discipline. This impression would be true only for the times when Physics was in fact "Natural Philosophy". The main body of a physicist's work, i.e. pure Physics, as it is done nowadays is too scarcely concerned with these questions. And furthermore, I now believe that I am not ever going to be satisfied enough if the main purpose of my work is confined to finding and investigating theories merely explaining the phenomena we observe in the physical world. Because there is always beyond, and I am certain that one can achieve the feeling of a real, fundamental understanding and an integrated education only by approaching the full spectrum of questions, including a perspective of other disciplines apart from fundamental Physics (ranging from social sciences, language and history to biology and the human mind), the nature of the knowledge itself (something that lies not outside of Metaphysics and Epistemology), the abstract laws of the laws themselves... One reason I was so much focused on Physics was a kind of thinking according to which all other "physical" (i.e. regarding the physical world) questions can be reduced to Physics, which might be true theoretically, but a perspective from another, "higher" (i.e. less fundamental) level is necessary for an efficient understanding of these areas most of the time, while of course never forgetting about the fundamental level, and the beyond. I think that one was a passing phase, during which one cannot see the partiality of something, however important it might be and however deep into it they might be. One has to think on levels lying in both directions, "higher" and "lower", the "inside" and the "beyond", if they want to get a big picture. As Descartes said, all of knowledge ("philosophy") is like a tree. The roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches are all the other sciences.

    So, in my opinion, all specific fields might make you lose your interest, with the least appealing to your personality and your real mental needs and wishes coming first. The main reason of losing your interest is specialisation. That's why I'm in favour of choosing a field that is essence-seeking, all-encompassing, and deep at the same time as much as possible. And I cannot think of something other than Philosophy that better suits this description (in fact, it does so "by definition"). Of course there will be some special focus, e.g. Philosophy of Science, Metaphysics, Ethics etc., but these basic traits still remain, since they are characteristic of all Philosophy.

    However, while I am considering entering Philosophy myself (more likely Philosophy of Science or something related), I do not really know what's going on in the field regarding positions etc. And I do not know when it will be better to do this (I mean, after getting another PhD and/or Master's first, or straight away), but since it's certain that things out there are tight (which is the case with all really great things that go beyond our practical needs), I would advise you to do your best in Philosophy, definitely study it and not let it go, but especially if your are close to finishing your PhD, definitely do not abandon it! I don't think you have to major in Philosophy; you may go straight for a PhD or, possibly, a Master's first. But even for majoring, the PhD will help you do that easier and faster, and in any case will give you a better status as a philosopher of Physics, while offering you better opportunities in Physics-related or other jobs, which might be useful. Besides, don't leave out the possibility to do philosophical work as a theoretical physicist (as it was said in the other thread), i.e. to switch the focus in your research interests, something that doesn't seem unobtainable to me. But in this case, you will have to do an amount of pure Physics work too.

    So, in any case, don't let it go, do your best at it, but also keep a watchful eye! Good luck!
    Last edited: May 14, 2011
  4. May 14, 2011 #3
    In order to do science research you need to focus on an almost stiflilingly narrow area. I think this can bother many people at one time or another, so don't think that just because everyone else is (seemingly) happily carrying out their research, they've never struggled with the big picture. The question you need to ask is, why do you think another major would be so different? Maybe the problem is more that you desire an academic course of study to address existential issues.

    If you ask me, It's worthwhile to focus your intellectual efforts on something that is interesting and fun to work on for its own sake. A PhD is a 5 year thing, and figuring out the meaning of life is a 100-year thing. There's probably no meaning to any of it anyway.
  5. May 16, 2011 #4
    The reason I went over to study optics was because the department was better than the physics one in terms of teaching quality and I wanted to work on a project to build my own telescope CMOS spectrometer array to assess star clusters' initial mass functions (IMFs), but I didn't find anybody with whom to work on such a project, so I started getting interested in quantum and BECs, but, again, all the other grad students were working on this by the time I had a switch in interests. Then I looked into transferring to physics, which my undergrad advisor told me to do in the first place but, being foolish, I didn't listen. The teaching quality was a real turn-off. So I TAed in physics as an optics engineering student, liked teaching, decided to try high school, but did not like the lack of research at the high school level. My peers who succeeded only did so by specializing very early, e.g., freshman or sophomore year of their undergrad studies. I had no clue what my specialty would be back then besides, vaguely, "cosmology," which many inexperienced undergrad astro students say, too. I did a variety of research projects, and that experience gave me an idea of how the various sub-fields relate to one another, which my hyper-specializing peers did not get, but it apparently did not make me as marketable.
    Einstein, who was himself a philosopher (see "[URL [Broken] philosopher.pdf"]this Physics Today article[/URL]) like other great physicists (Duhem, Heisenberg, Galileo, Newton, etc.), said that physicists must also be philosophers. They cannot relegate their philosophical duties to someone else. It is unfortunate there has been such a fragmentation of knowledge (see esp. this, too). A remedy to this would be not only heeding Pierre Duhem's assertion that physics is best taught historically, but that we must understand metaphysics, more accurately called Metascience, which is crucial for interdisciplinarity and combating hyper-specialization and the fragmentation of knowledge.
    Sadly, physics programs are becoming more like vocational schools than a liberal art. I would say the physics Einstein and Heisenberg did, e.g., was much more a creative, liberal art. The school at which Einstein flourished promoted free, creative though, not the rigid education of his prior school.
    Yes, phenomenalism is very poisonous to physics. It originates in Kant and his Critique of Pure Reason, which influenced Einstein, as "[URL [Broken] philosopher.pdf"]this article shows[/URL]. Is a theory merely a "free invention of the mind" imposed on the world of phenomena merely to "save appearances?" I believe physics has much more explanatory power than merely "saving appearances." Apropos this, you might be interested in this article which compares Aquinas, Galileo, and Einstein.

    Modern physics (mathematical physics) is a http://sententiaedeo.blogspot.com/2010/12/mathematics-its-importance-and.html" [Broken].)
    But we start with our senses and proceed to things less sensible. Descartes' methodological doubt locked philosophers up in their heads. He was the first modern idealist.
    Although philosophy is very poor at "essence-seeking" of the beings modern mathematical physics studies
    No, I am a beginning grad student.
    Yes, thank you for the very insightful response
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  6. May 16, 2011 #5


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    Have you tried self-studying textbooks that teach physics from a philosophical point of view? Maybe some of the older books might help (I'm not aware of any, however)
  7. May 16, 2011 #6
    Einstein, Heisenberg, Galileo, and Newton may well be wrong. Since you seem interested in philosophy you should know that anytime someone says "should" in a sentence, that you need to be prepared to justify these sorts of statements.

    One of the things that I like about physics is that there is an anti-authoritarian core in it. Einsteins says this. Well I say otherwise, and just because Einstein is Einstein doesn't really mean that much.

    But I happen to think that vocational schools are a good thing, and that separating the mind from the hand is the totally wrong way of doing things. If anything I happen to think that physics should be both "more vocational" and "more liberal." Again there is some pretty deep philosophy here. If you disagree with me about how things *should* work, I really don't think I can convince you. But what I can do is to figure out why I believe what I do, and it's usually a historical story.

    Also on thing that you do have to be careful is to get your history right. Often people will imagine a golden age that didn't exist. Also even if Einstein *did* do things in a certain way, why do you believe that this is the right way of doing things?

    I think phenomenalism is great!!!! This poses one problem with trying to create a physics based on a different philosophy. What if my philosophy is quite different than yours?

    My philosophy of science comes out of the Chinese evidential school, and it reacts very badly against "idle speculation." Which means that when I read what your have linked to, my reaction tends to be "utter non-sense."

    And people have been spending 2000 years talking about those issues, and I think they'll be spending 2000 more years without any sort of resolution. But I have to put food on the table today. What I can do to build a better mouse trap? How do I build a better tank or mortgage backed securities model?

    I'm quite curious about philosophy, but I've come up with something that "works for me" and physics is a pretty essential part of it. It's a philosophy that puts emphasis on "usefulness" and has an ethical system. We study (or at least I study) physics to build machines, so we can have robots do the work instead of slaves.

    The thing that I think you need to be careful about is that you run the risk of trading one sort of hyperspecialization for another type. The other thing that you need to be careful about is that I think you need to ask some more questions and think about some of the assumptions that you are making.
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  8. May 16, 2011 #7
    Curiously enough, the reason I find physics interesting because you can get away without too much philosophy. I have some relatives that are fundamentalist Christians, others that are devout Buddhists. These views of the world are deeply contradictory, and it's nice to think about something in which you can use "lowest common denominator epistemology."

    If you have Pope Benedict issue a papal message, I know people that think that this is the work of the devil? How do I know they are wrong?

    One thing that I like about thinking is that you come up with some interesting questions. You seen to think that it's a bad thing that physics be hyperspecialized. If you do then why do you accept the idea of "majors." It's likely because you aren't in a position to change your surroundings.

    But one of the motivations I study the things that I do is to get the power to change my surroundings.

    It's because I like to get things done. I've given up trying to understand everything. I've given up trying to understand most things. If I can spend a few decades of effort and understand *one thing* then I'm happy.

    It doesn't. One problem with staying at the same place is that a lot of the philosophy that you pick up depends on where you go to school. I went to an undergraduate school that thought that "physics was more important than football". My graduate school has a different set of priorities. One thing about being somewhere different is that you ask questions like "why *is* physics more important than football?"

    The problem with changing majors is that the issues that you are having with physics are likely to be the same as people in philosophy have. When I've read people in philosophy websites they complain that things have good too technical and political, and that they end up writing 1000 of pages on some minor issue.

    And philosophy pays less, which is important since its hard to think when you are starving.
  9. May 16, 2011 #8


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    This is just my opinion, but I think that if you want to become a philosopher you should probably be someone who has spent a very long time in a particular field of which you want to philosophize about.

    I don't think philosophers without this kind of background give as good insights as people that just "philosophize" without any knowledge.

    Also when I say background I don't mean that you need to be a complete expert (although it would certainly make a stronger case), but someone who has experience to something which is similar enough to warrant confidence in that person to speak about something that they actually know something about.

    Personally I couldn't imagine some outsider philosophize about computation without having some deep experience in related fields of mathematics, some actual programming experience, and other experience related to the field.

    Similarly I would rather a physicist who has spent a few decades building quantum computing devices or someone building optical systems to give their philosophy on quantum mechanics rather than some philosophy professor who doesn't really have a background of sufficient depth that the physicist/engineer does.
  10. May 16, 2011 #9
    so i guess the point is get a phd first then philosophize. before that, it is just pure hard work
  11. May 16, 2011 #10
    The other thing that I've found useful is to study sales, marketing, and advertising. There are people in the world whose job it is to motivate you to do something, and they are very good at it, and it's useful to study what they do, because it helps you understand your own motivations.

    There is a point of view that emotions are bad, and that you need to figure out what to do with pure thought. However, if you squeeze all of the emotion out of a subject, then it shouldn't be surprising that there is no emotion behind it.

    One final thing. Physics is useful for making better machines and maybe finding some interesting trivia about reality, but I don't think that you can discover any deep truths about human existence through physics or science. For that you need art, literature, and religion. One of my concerns is that if you mix physics and religion into a unified field of study, you not only end up with bad physics, you also end up with bad religion.
  12. May 17, 2011 #11
    I started out majoring in Physics for my freshman year as an undergraduate, but now (a junior) I've switched over to Mathematics. I found the way introductory was taught to be far to boring and problem specific (like finding the torque of a handle for instance). I enjoy theory and philosophical argument more, so maths was a better choice than physics, for me at least.
  13. May 17, 2011 #12
    Well it seems to me like you're just burnt out after having worked so hard for however many years. Take a day or two off not thinking about anything academically related (if it is permitted) and come back to it. Maybe all you need is a break, try to feel what you felt when you got into physics in the first place and maybe what reason you had.
  14. May 17, 2011 #13
    Yes, this is exactly what http://www.u.arizona.edu/~aversa/scholastic/Dictionary%20of%20Scientific%20Biography/Duhem%20(Miller).pdf" [Broken].

    Aristotle said that "it is absurd to seek at the same time knowledge and the way of attaining knowledge" (Met. 995a13). Consequently, physics cannot be itself both a philosophy ("way of attaining knowledge") and the natural science (knowledge sought) based on it.
    What is wrong with pursing metaphysics (more accurately called Metascience) and trying to unify knowledge? People like https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Aleksandr_Solzhenitsyn" [Broken]—say similar things, too.
    Well, there are some radical universities that do away with majors. Perhaps it is just me, but I would've rather had a liberal arts college education followed by specialized graduate studies. I think the liberal arts would sharpened my reading, writing, and arguing skills better, and, although they might have been more work, I think I would've been more motivated as well.
    But even about that one thing, the more you know, the more you know you don't know. If that weren't true, physics, e.g., would be a self-destructing discipline. I often wonder why Stephen Hawking thinks we're almost to a Theory of Everything (a.k.a. the "Theory that Sounds the Death Knell for Physics").
    Yes, this is part of the rationale for doing one's grad studies at a different university than one's undergrad.
    Haha, yes
    Unless you like teaching, philosophy is not good. 75% of philosophy students from my university end up teaching and only like 15-20% of physics graduates.
    Yes, I love that, too. Truth is truth regardless who discovers it.
    I agree. Physicists should know how to do experiments with their own hands. I know some (ahem...theorists...haha) who don't even have the coordination to use a screwdriver...
    Very true
    Or that there is a "right way"?
    Depends how you define "philosophy." It is quite an abused, frequently equivocal word.
    Perhaps it's out of context for you?
    Very true
    So “constructive empiricism,” “pragmatism,” or “conceptual relativism,” what the author of http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/12/philosophy-lives" [Broken] thinks their philosophy is?
    Or this could just be a sign that I need to change fields?
    Yes, that is very good advice.
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  15. May 17, 2011 #14
    I have certainly talked to professional philosophers, from those specializing in the philosophy of physics to those specializing in medieval philosophy.
    Yes, this is the path the thermodynamicist, historian, and philosopher of physics http://www.u.arizona.edu/~aversa/scholastic/Dictionary%20of%20Scientific%20Biography/Duhem%20(Miller).pdf" [Broken] took.
    Interesting... Where do I find those?
    Really? Stephen Hawking thinks he has. Why couldn't others find an alternative to Hawkings findings?
    This is true. As Galileo said, there are two books from which truths can come: Holy Scripture and Nature, so according to him, religion and natural science are two modes of discovering truth. Einstein, too, said: "science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind".
    I think my problem is that I don't know how to "[t]ake a day or two off not thinking about anything academically related." I could be on "vacation" for months and still not know how to do this...
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  16. May 18, 2011 #15
    Physics & Metaphysics (1893) by Pierre Duhem

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