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Out of place in physics?

  1. Dec 17, 2012 #1
    I am currently applying to graduate programs in physics. I have a strong application: solid grades, high physics gre, research experience, and good recommendations, so I think I have some pretty good chances of getting in. But when looking at grad programs, I am continually finding myself feeling frustrated and am beginning to wonder whether physics might be the wrong choice.

    When I study physics, I cannot go 2 minutes without thinking about math, and when I think about math I cannot go 2 minutes without thinking about what it is (and yes, I have taken upper level math, analysis, grad level abstract algebra etc, so I am familiar with the modern formulation of math, but this still does not answer my questions). For instance, why are geometrical notions so closely related to the world, but not truly present in it? Is this a result of our minds imputing a rational order onto the world in terms of the concepts in which we think?

    Or take the notion of 'object.' This notion is central to math -- numbers count objects -- and to physics -- fundamental particles. But it is not clear to me that 'objects' exist in the world. A cup, for instance, only exists subjectively as an object within our minds, not objectively as an object in the external world -- our mind has categorized it as a single entity probably because it consists of components that move together. Do objects exist anywhere in nature then? Well, you could say that though the cup is not an object, it is still composed of fundamental objects like electrons, quarks, etc. But really, all we can say is that those things are a model for the world. Since our minds think in terms of objects, it is no coincidence that our models of the world have been formulated in such terms.

    These are the types of questions I wrestle with pretty much all the time -- and that I, believe it or not, hope to make progress on. And it will not due to simply put them off -- I have tried it.

    But it just seems like all this type of stuff (which is very important to me) is of very little interest to those in physics and makes me doubt that I should go into a physics program. Should I be pursuing philosophy? Philosophy of physics? Philosophy of math?

    Also, please do not respond by trying to refute anything I said above, or by giving me your view on the nature of math and physics; you will not convince me in a brief forum posting, and that is not the primary thing I am interested in at the moment. What I am interested in getting is getting feedback on the question:
    given that about 50% of my interests lie in questions like those listed above, should I be pursuing a PhD program in physics, or something else?​
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 17, 2012 #2
    Why can't you pursue something like while getting a PhD in physics?

    It seems like some mix of philosophy and cognitive science. A PhD in either one would be plausible.

    It also seems like your questioning the very notion of what we believe to be true and this is something that every scientist should "think" about. Do you want to make a career out of this thinking? Or do you want to think about it on the side? Do you want to change EVERYONE'S view of reality? Or do you want to further advance current attempts at modeling our reality? These are questions you must ask yourself.

    Philosophy does not tell you the truth and does not make discoveries like physics does, but it does help you "think" about discoveries in terms like you are describing. My question to you is, why can you not do that on the side?
  4. Dec 17, 2012 #3
    It indeed seems that you are interested in philosophy. It is correct that physics and mathematics care very little or not at all about philosophy. There is the "shut up and calculate" attitude of many scientists.

    If you go on and study mathematics or physics in grad school, then you will likely not study the questions you ask yourself. And you will not find an answer in school. This is something you have to realize before choosing to go to grad school.

    On the other hand, you can go into philosophy where you study exactly those types of questions. You will not learn an answer necessarily, but you will find the opportunity and the means to think further. However, you will not do actual science. If you actually want to do physics and mathematics, then philosophy might not be for you.

    So I'm afraid there is not immediately a good place for you. Physics and mathematics grad school won't care about philosophy. And the philosophy courses will be very light in actual science. Which course you take is up to you.
  5. Dec 17, 2012 #4
    I have am speaking not from life experience with math, philosophy, and physics, but from my own resolution of this issue. (I do not have a PhD., but I would like to get one in physics, and I have considered this problem)

    It sounds to me like you ought to think about what you need to learn about that most pertains to your personal research interests. If you think that the questions you ask are tackled in a particular area (it sounds to me like philosophy) then perhaps that is what you ought to pursue.

    I think your conflict stems from the fact that there is a great deal of overlap between the three disciplines. They all pursue in different ways a greater understanding of the nature of reality. I have similar interests to you, and my solution is to pursue cosmology. Mathematics doesn't seem to offer "meaning." And the study of philosophy simply entails reading to many philosophers that I don't particularly care about. Not to mention I personally prefer the scientific method (which as I understand it is being used in "experimental philosophy" but I know nothing about that, so you might look it up).

    Physics offers real problems for our philosophical understanding of the way the world works. I sort of think that any philosopher who could consider himself remotely curious about the nature of existence would have to be trained in QM. I think the resources available in school are simply more important for the study of physics than for philosophy or even for mathematics (I guess I'm referring to the lab). I suppose that if you're exclusively studying theory that may not be the case.

    But I would also offer that only a physicist may speak with any authority about our physical reality. Physicists often enjoy (perhaps undeserved) authority when drawing philosophical conclusions about that reality. To be an authority on math or physics, one must be a mathematician of physicist. To be an authority on any philosophy derived from mathematical or physical understanding of the world, one greatly benefits from an education in math and physics. Given that your philosophical questions are focused on mathematical and physical subjects, I would advise you to find an area in one of them that directly pertains to your other curiosities.

    I don't think that studying physics or math would cost you as much philosophical understanding as studying philosophy would cost you mathematical or physical understanding.

    Hope that helps.
  6. Dec 17, 2012 #5
    I have to disagree with this... Again, not speaking from personal experience, but I don't think physicists are universally dismissive of the philosophical implications of their work. For me personally, my interest in both math and physics stems from philosophical interests. I.e., the big "why"s of the mathematical horn of Gabriel, or the Big Bang. That stuff blows my mind, and is full of philosophical implications. There are fundamental philosophical implications of a mathematical object with finite volume but infinite surface area that you can't question or think about if you don't understand the math. Or how does one contemplate the philosophical implications of QM without understanding it... and why do we care about QM except for it's philosophical implications? Just the aesthetics of the theory? Not me.
  7. Dec 17, 2012 #6
    Certainly, many physicists are interested in philosophy. I never said that they weren't.
    What I did say is that pursuing philosophical questions is not something you do in grad school. Your advisor might be interested in philosophy, but I'm sure he won't be happy if you think about philosophy all day. Students in grad school are being funded to produce physics, not philosophy. Furthermore, research and courses in grad school are far too time-consuming to additionally do very much philosophy.

    Certainly, you can always do philosophy on the side, but don't expect to do this in grad school as your actual occupation. You have to do it as a hobby. And I don't think you will have much time to do it as a hobby either.

    Again, I'm not claiming that physicists or mathematicians are not interested in philosophy. I'm just saying that you probably won't have the opportunity to pursue philosophical questions in physics grad school.
  8. Dec 17, 2012 #7
    That is probably what I would say to cytochrome about pursuing it on the side. I can pursue it on the side, but I will be scratching the bottom of the barrel for time. It is also somewhat depressing when none of your colleagues are very interested in the same questions as you.
    This is a good point.

    When I think about it, I realize I really want to take a whole ton of physics and math courses, but I don't know how interested I am in actual research. I wonder if there is a program that allows me to take the same courses a PhD student in math & physics would take, but then write my dissertation in philosophy.
    That is one of my main concerns in pursuing philosophy.
  9. Dec 18, 2012 #8
    It is very difficult to acquire the knowledge this person will need without going through grad school. They might consider a PhD in mathematical physics, keeping an eye on math department specialties while choosing physics grad schools, but in general choosing a school that will allow them to take classes in both fields. An advisor from the math department, and getting a PhD minor in math while finishing a PhD in physics could be one solution. I just don't see how one addresses the fundamental issues without the complete grad level sequence in QM, GR and stat mech, i.e., the core of a physics PhD.
  10. Dec 18, 2012 #9
    Perhaps you should formulate the question in terms of what you want to do after you finish grad school and how is the job market for whatever that is.

    Have you considered Artificial Intelligence as a field?
  11. Dec 19, 2012 #10
    I will look into this. You might have a point.

    Also, I was looking around a bit and found that the university of pittsburgh has a program I might be interested in. So I figured I would post it here for future reference for others who find themselves in a similar position to myself:


    They also allow you to pursue a masters in physics while doing your PhD in philosophy of physics, which helps with not totally losing touch with actual science.
  12. Dec 23, 2012 #11
    There are physicists, somewhat difficult to find, who work in Philosophy of physics and as long as your physics application is good it might be possible to work with them on philosophy of physics. I know there are some guys at various UK schools, not sure where they exist in the US.
  13. Dec 25, 2012 #12
    I somehow ended up double majoring in physics and philosophy. Chance did not let me become an engineer. What's up with that?
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