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Physics and philosophy?

  1. May 28, 2009 #1
    At what point does, i.e crossing the line make physics more philosophy than physics?

    i've never had any philosophical education nor been interested in anything english related, but one of my friends keeps saying that's more of a philosophy than physics when i show him some of my ideas to do with physics, and he's a media and design major or something frilly like that(not dissing the study of course) so i just thought i'd get an opinion from you fellas
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  3. May 28, 2009 #2


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    I'm not clear what you are asking here. I think I would say that if you can specify experiments to determine whether or not what you are saying is true, you are talking science (including physics). If not, you are not talking science (but not necessarily philosophy either).
  4. May 28, 2009 #3
    But isn't alot of physics like that? especially when dealing with quantum physics?
    to what degree does ideas about physics e.g things like black holes, the origin of the universe ect become Philosophy rather than physics
  5. May 28, 2009 #4
    Hi there,

    Being a physicist, and having never studied phylosophy, I can only that the development of science can very well be thought of phylosophy, or science-fiction. To progression of knowledge in science, some "crazy scientist" had to sit there and think about what is inimaginable at the moment, but could become reality in the future.

    Therefore, the line is very fine between the two. To differentiate the two, complete dreams or ideological ideas are plain and simply phylosophy, until effort is made to understand them, and make them reality. Then they become science.

  6. May 28, 2009 #5
    A friend once told me the defininition of Philosophy is:

    Self Gratification, through Over-intellectualization

    "All day circular debate"

    Physics is often easier to describe with mathematics
  7. May 28, 2009 #6
  8. May 28, 2009 #7
    Physics is a discipline that has its basis in empiricism - knowledge is gained from observation.
    Mathematics is a discipline that has its basis in rationalism - knowledge gained from logic.

    These are generalizations, of course, as theoretical physics can rely quite a lot on math, and math draws a lot of its most basic ideas from physical observations.

    But if you are looking for the essence of modern science its based on rational and empiricist philosophy.
    Understanding either often requires quite a lot of reading.
  9. May 28, 2009 #8
    I think science and philosophy differ in their modes of inquiry. This however does not mean they do not mingle with each other for instance philosophy often uses scientific concepts and vice versa as well. Although in modern ages sciences are much more popular in my opinion because they have lead to extremely rapid evolution of technology.
    Two big differences I can think about right now:

    Science is investigative and philosophy is noninvestigative.
    Science finds solutions to its problems and philosophy decides whether we should or not...
  10. May 28, 2009 #9

    Math Is Hard

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    "english related"? :confused:
  11. May 28, 2009 #10


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    No, quantum physics is one of the most explicitly experimental physics ever, and quantum mechanics is without doubt the most rigorously validated and most accurately tested of all scientific theories. I agree with HallsOfIvy, the most important distinction between science and other disciplines (including philosophy) is experiment.
  12. May 28, 2009 #11


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    QM is a formal model that works wonderfully well. But it has no generally agreed metaphysical interpretation. We can say what, but are unsure about why - because it does not fit into standard meta-physics.

    On the general question of "the line", this is like listening to catholics quarelling with protestants. Scientists like to chant experiment as their USP. But it is not really about that.

    You could say that the strong divide here is about whether you believe in looking outwards to the world, or inwards towards "revelation".

    The criticism of armchair philosophy was that it follows the revelation approach, taking the view that pure reason can answer the deep questions. This followed from greek discovery of the unreasonable effectiveness of maths and a cultural belief that men are the descendents of gods, so share some shard of that divine intelligence.

    If you study modelling theory, you will come to see that knowing the world actually involves a sharpening up of intellectual practice in both direction - the inwards and outwards view. That is, greater control exerted over both impressions and ideas.

    Hypothesis and experiment is a way to localise impressions - the making of exact and isolate (atomised) measurements of the world. So a very good thing to do.

    But equally, modelling is improved by the full and explicit formalisation of the ideas. That is where maths and logic come in. Instead of the presumption apparatus being embedded, taken for granted, and so difficult to change or test, intellectual work is done to make it "objective" - something I can pull out of my head, and in words, turn around, share, examine from many angles.

    You could call this part of the deal philosophy. Especially when you are playing around with broad contextual ideas rather than dinky little domain-specific theories and hypotheses. But it is clearly a good thing to be adept at handling your ideas in an objective and structured fashion. Not to be stuck with them as subjective, culturally-formed, prejudices.

    A well-balanced intellectual is one that is fluent in the objectification of both modelling and measurement, both ideas and impressions.

    There is then a line to be drawn between models and measurements. Here - for the truly interested - I would recomend a source like Robert Rosen (modelling relations) or Howard Pattee (the epistemic cut). Though there are many others who write on epistemology.

    We will probably never end the "philosophy is bunk/scientists are cool" nonsense. This is a group of humans establishing their ingroup/out-group boundary. Necessary for funding, prestige, control over the group.

    Of course, if you want to model and measure the boundary, posting in most parts of physics forum is a good test. If your thread gets locked, you are most definitely talking philosophy. ;-)
  13. May 28, 2009 #12

    Are you familiar with the history of western science over the past 500 years or so? Physics was first known as: natural philosophy (from Latin philosophia naturalis). Western physics as we know it today, developed out of an outgrowth of traditional philosophy as a means to provide explanations for pressing human concerns. Not just practical challenges like "how do I get from point A to point B" the fastest but in fact existential concerns.

    If one reads the autobiographies and biographies of eminent scientists over the past 5 centuries or so, one can see this as a most salient development.

    But to specifically answer your question, Rosemblum and Kuttner in their book http://quantumenigma.com" [Broken] do a great job of indirectly addressing this issue.

    Physics has to do with observations of naturally occurring phenomena - the observable facts.

    However, INTERPRETATIONS of the aforementioned ,have to to with METAphysics which is philosophical in nature.

    As you probably know, the term metaphysics comes from the name Aristotle gave his work following his scientific text Physics.

    As Rosemblum and Kuttner state quite nicely in a book I just finished reading, "When it comes to METAphysics (aka philosophy, my insertion here), non-physicists with a general understanding of the experimental facts - facts about which there is no dispute - can have an opinion with validity matching that of physicists."

    (sort of akin in my mind to a physicist observing and recording the measurement of a flower; others can interpret whether or not it is beautiful, homely, etc, all with the same equal validity, from a technical point at least...)

    Unfortunately, what I think has happened in modern times is that due to the masses' unawareness and for the most part placing the same "faith" in scientists as in priests of yesteryear, the general society accepts scientists' "interpretations" of the facts as the "facts" themselves. As if something automatically becomes true just because a scientist says it.

    This is no different than assuming aeons ago that the world was only 5,000 years old or flat because someone in the Church said it was so.....

    When it comes to questioning, one of my favorite quotes comes from the rather non-stream, iconoclastic Nobel Prize winning physicist, Brian Josephson:

    To paraphrase,
    “One of my guiding principles…has been the scientist’s motto ‘Take nobody’s word for it (nullius in verba) a corollary of which is that if scientists as a whole denounce an idea this should not necessarily be taken as proof that the said idea is absurd: rather, one should examine carefully the alleged grounds for such opinions and judge how well these stand up to detailed scrutiny”
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  14. May 28, 2009 #13
    I enjoyed reading this post - tx. BTW, which book by Rosen are you referring to as I may pick it up for a little leisure reading. Also are you referring to a book by Howrd Pattee entitled, "Hierarchy Theory; The Challenge of Complex Systems"?
  15. May 28, 2009 #14


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    Rosen's posthumous book, essays on life itself, is widely available. His earlier stuff, like Anticipatory Systems, is more focused on modelling biological systems.

    This group would also be a good resource.

    Pattee's book is also great. But that one is not about his epistemic cut. You would have to look up his papers. These don't seem to be online anymore, but I have pdfs probably if you want.

    http://ssie.binghamton.edu/faculty_pattee.html [Broken]

    Pattee was a student of von Neumann if I remember (and colleague of Rosen) so he started from the issue of QM interpretation and took it into general systems and theoretical biology territory.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  16. May 29, 2009 #15
    This is a faulty comparison. Anyone can, if they are so disposed go through a process of verification, falsification...etc.. with regards to the claims of scientists. And, science, in general, has shown itself to be the most successful tool humanity has ever had with regards to dealing with and understanding the world.

    To reduce the accomplishments of science to the level of Papal proclamations and the superstitions of religion, ignores the very observable success of science. Something religions simply cannot match.

    Science may have its limitations, but it is NOT about, nor does it bear any resemblance to, religious faith.
  17. May 29, 2009 #16
    Um, firstly, you missed the point of the comparison. In summary it was to show that ALL systems of understanding have their faults and hold an inherit danger in them if one accepts information without investigating it or questioning it....

    To your other point, you said,
    , " science, in general, has shown itself to be the most successful tool humanity has ever had with regards to dealing with and understanding the world."

    One would ask you to support your supposition above with objective evidence. First, the goal of science is to determine what IS OCCURRING. But once that is done, the next step is to understand "why". Ultimately, when things descend to the level of "why" there will ALWAYS be some level of subjectivity infused and it was to that I was referring.

    Furthermore, with regard to your claim about science's supremacy, pray tell, what does science have to say about the age old questions of man:

    What does science say about why there is evil?
    What does science say about why there is goodness?
    What does science say about why we love?
    What does science say about why we fear?
    What does science say about why we are happy?
    What does science say about the irrational behavior of a rescue worker who risks certain death to save the life of miners?
    What does science say about why people often care the most about people who treat them the worst?

    Science is A wonderful tool for understanding certain aspects of the world, but certainly, IMHO, one can't make such a statement about it being THE BEST TOOL for understanding the totality of man - ALL CASES.

    First of all, science is grounded in left-brained focused logic/reason/rationality which only represents 1/6th of the intellectual faculties of the mind (the others being: will, memory, perception, imagination and intuition).

    Einstein himself said,
    "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."

    Secondly we all know that man can and does often behave irrationally and understanding the realities of life means trying to understand this kind of behavior....

    If you have studied Maslow's hierarchy of human needs or Socrates, Plato or Aristotle you'll know that virtually every thought or major action each one of use takes in the course of our 686,4000 hours on earth (approx. hourly life expectancy for an American) is consciously or subconsciously tied to a chasing happiness, love, etc. - the questions I asked above.

    I absolutely stand by the comparison I made earlier. There's no difference at all between an individual who accepts what a scientist says without questioning and one who accepted what the priest said.
    And, the reason is quite simple. Scientists - BEING HUMANS - are every bit as guilty of being closed-minded, power-hungry and slow to accept the truth in many cases. That's why Arthur Schopenhauer said,
    "All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."

    Look at virtually every scientific breakthrough over the past 500 years and you will see how violently it was opposed before eventually being accepted as fact. Had not some brave souls had the courage to question the status quo, the world wouldn't be where it is today in the way of scientific advancement....
    Last edited: May 29, 2009
  18. May 29, 2009 #17
    Well, um, no, firstly, I was objecting to the comparison, not to your point.
    Questioning and investigating are integral parts of science. Religion is about learning and obeying. So I again object to your comparison as invalid.

    One would ask you to look at your computer monitor. The improvements and advantages science have provided humanity in the last 50 years dwarf anything religion has provided.

    And science has outstripped any other system in that regard.
    The fact that science doesn't have all the answers, or doesn't yet, doesn't mean its failed like religions have.

    Psychology, Linguistics, and Neuroscience have quite a lot to say about all of those things, and are much less subjective than the prophetic dreams, fantasies and superstitions that religions foists on people.
    We agree.
    One does not need to be irrational or advocate irrational behavior in order to understand irrational behavior.
    The psychology of Freud, was based on a scientific methodology.

    Sure there is. If a scientist is a recognized expert, that is, they have the education and experience, and what they are talking about, is within their field of expertise, expecting people who are not experts in that field to reinvent the wheel is foolish. Science is based on the idea of what is repeatable and predictable. Implying that what we get out of science is mere opinion, which is what religion amounts to, is simply wrong.
    Questioning the status quo is an integral part of science. In fact, its religion that has been one of the biggest impediments to scientific advancement, not scientists.
  19. May 29, 2009 #18
    Amen to that. I remember one time we had a thread going about 'faith in science.' At the time I argued to support that science does require faith...But it's a different level of faith completely from whats required in religion. Science is largely falsifiable and when it has non-supportive evidence to an explanation they search to fix it; by many means. Religion is ALSO falsifiable mostly, yet when non-supportive evidence arises they dismiss make excuses and turn to the wonderful workings of whichever god. How are they the same? One strives to correct itself the other strives to indoctrinate people based on incorrect idealogies.
  20. May 29, 2009 #19
    OK. You're right and I am wrong...

    Edit in an attempt to be more patient: You already have preconceived biases against religion so it's only natural that you project your internal beliefs as opinion. I accept that. I generally stay clear of any conversation that may include discussion of religion when that becomes evident, unless the person demonstrates him/herself to be a) extremely open minded and/or b) extremely intellectually curious.

    Why, because science has proven how pre-existing, deeply held thought patterns actually affect the PHYSICAL make up of the brain such that over time, it literally becomes almost impossible for a human actor to process information dis-alligned with the brain's status quo...

    But it costs nothing to try, so why not?

    Briefly, you said "religion has failed". This is not a factual statement. The definition of failure is:

    an event that does not accomplish its intended purpose

    One of the principle goals of religion is to help man/woman explore his or her spiritual depths. What evidence do you have where this goal has failed?

    If you were to argue that the goal of religion is to prove that human beings arrived here when a man named adam and a woman named eve copulated in The Garden of Eden - you have a point. With this as a goal - i.e. what most mainstream interpretations of Western Christianity preaches, I would certainly agree with you.

    You also said, "In fact, its religion that has been one of the biggest impediments to scientific advancement, not scientists."

    Again, with all do respect, your biases are coming through. What evidence do you have of this? Personal experience or information. While one can't question your personal experience, certainly there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that religion has been the impediment of science.

    You're obviously project your knowledge and perception about Western Religion onto a sweeping generalization about ALL religions.

    As an example, in the 1980s, British researchers conducted a test where they gathered some random quotes from the Vedas and other Eastern spiritual texts. Then, they gathered random quotes from a select group of highly regarded scientists.

    Interestingly, almost everyone who took the test could NOT TELL THE DIFFERENCE between the quotes that were taken from the Vedas and the ones that were taken from the scientists. That's just one example from the Indian Vedas.

    Or what about the Muslim priest-scholars and the advanced scientific work that began in the 13th century out of Timbuktu University in present day Mali. That's where the expression, "from here to Timbuktu" came from. Scholars, students and great thinkers from around the world went their to study.

    As an example, here are manuscripts done by Muslim scholars showing scientific work in the field of astronomy that Western Science had to take hundreds of years to find out:




    Obviously these are just a few examples, but evidence of this contention abounds for anyone interested in learning.

    Really dear when one makes silly statements like, "prophetic dreams, fantasies and superstitions" you close yourself off to engaging, open-minded discussion with individuals that have a different worldview from you. Perhaps you are neither open-minded nor interested in a diversity of intellectual perspectives. Here, I respect your right to set your own priorities...

    But to be frank, this sort of attitude is akin to Americans who go abroad and call every food they encounter "nasty" or say moronic things like "those people speak funny....".

    In my mind and in the minds of many well-informed individuals who value the contributions of science as A TOOL for understanding, science vs. religion is a false dichotomy we don't subscribe to.

    But in any case you are entitled to your worldview as are we all...

    And as Mssr Voltaire once wisely said, "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it..."

    Be well and prosper....
    Last edited: May 29, 2009
  21. May 29, 2009 #20
    First thing I noticed in your post was that you say that religion has not impeded scientific discovery. If you go by your definition it is clear that religion can NOT EVER impede scientific discovery; however, the definition of religion is not what you posted here is the definition from princeton:

    religious belief: a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny...

    orgranized religion: an institution to express belief in a divine power...

    Neither of these lead me to think your definition is correct (that religion is merely a means to allow humans to have deeper spiritual understandings).

    The religion now stated clearly HAS impeded with scientific discovery. It is evident everywhere we turn. I'm pretty sure it had even occured to modern day America while Bush was president??? The fear of organized religions has run so deep in history that nearly everytime you read what an important historical figure has written it included parts intended to only please what the religion at that time had wanted to hear. Even when Christians had came to America the Natives (Experience as I am mi'kmaq) had changed their stories to include random references to Christian beliefs out of FEAR.

    You speak of open-mindness in discussion however when you speak to a religious person 99% of the time the conversation is not open. No religious scripture is open to interpretation and no place of worship is to be questioned. Science on the other hand is ALWAYS open and ALWAYS being questioned. Scientists do not intend to PROVE anything correct they merely make explanations based on current evidence. It MAY change tomorrow though...

    I don't see how you're comparing these 2 as similar at all.
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