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Wikipedia: Physics

  1. Jan 3, 2008 #1

    Says the following: Theoretical physics has historically rested on philosophy and metaphysics; electromagnetism was unified this way.[20]


    20 ^ See, for example, the influence of Kant and Ritter on Oersted.

    Does anyone know of any specific articles of where this can be found. (I would have put a question mark but my keyboard is messed up)
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 3, 2008 #2


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    Another Wikipedia blind alley, since Maxwell unified E & M his way.
  4. Jan 3, 2008 #3


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    Not only that, this particular quote was attributed to Richard Feynman:

    "Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds"

    But then again, who is Feynman anyway other than a brilliant theorist who never wrote a single Wikipedia entry.

  5. Jan 3, 2008 #4

    jim mcnamara

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    Aside from the criticisms above, a general caveat: you cannot trust Wikipedia.

    If you know something about the field and want to find something general, it may be useful. There is a lot of either self-serving or testosterone-mediated behavior of posters on Wikipedia. Wiki has started to set up some barriers to the latter stupidity by marking pages like 'Evolution' as semi-protected against vandalism.
  6. Jan 3, 2008 #5
    I've never heard Professor Feynman's quote before, but I seem to have independently derived the result. This so-called "philosophy of science," has never been of any use to me. As far as electrodynamics works, it seems to be set up the way it is because the current formulation makes it a lot easier to do problems and arrive at results. Granted, my only knowledge of philosophy is limited to theology, so I really don't know anything about metaphysics. But "who cares?" would probably be my response to the question as well.
  7. Jan 3, 2008 #6


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    It's natural to emerge from a Jackson-based course with a "Shut up and calculate!" mindset.
  8. Jan 3, 2008 #7


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    That's a little unfair, Philosophy of science only has to be useful to philosophers of science!
  9. Jan 3, 2008 #8
    why is the 'word' "philosophy" so hated by physicists?
  10. Jan 3, 2008 #9


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    .. and I didn't say it isn't!

    But notice what the premise of the OP was, that somehow philosophy in fact is a necessary ingredients for theories. I've talked to many theorists. Never, at any given time, is there a question of actual philosophy issues behind what they're working on.

    It is obvious that Feynman never paid any attention to it.

    I don't know if physicists hate it, because mainly it is a non-issue and irrelevant in most, if not all, of the things they do. I don't ever recall it coming up at 2 am in the morning when I'm in the middle of collecting data, or when I'm analyzing them. I would bet that most physicists feel the same level of ambivalent towards it. It just plays an insignificant role in what we do.

    So how does one hates something that doesn't even enter into the picture?

  11. Jan 3, 2008 #10
    I agree---a lot of 'physics' is analytical, but areas where there is a choice, the philosophical attitude of the person 'choosing' this or that comes into play.

    Maybe, philosophy, as in the OP's post, is in the construction of the theory---not the application.
  12. Jan 3, 2008 #11
    LOL. Yeah, Jackson E&M really taught me to just shut up and solve the problem. I saw a few people not do as well in that class as they could have simply because they kept trying to understand the physics behind the problem, instead of just writing down the solution that the grader wanted to see.

    But I think that part of it also had to do with my quantum professor this fall. First week of class he told a story about how he and a friend started grad school together. He went into theoretical CMP, and his friend did his thesis on the philosophy of quantum mechanics. He graduated in the regular five years; his friend spent twelve years working on his thesis, and then gave up. He also resolved my issue with the whole spooky action at a distance thing (you know, two particles with opposite spin go to opposite sides of the universe, etc.). His solution: "who cares? It's not like you can do anything with the information once you have it."

    Well, it's not that we hate philosophy. In fact, I know more than one person who chose to double major in physics and philosophy for their undergrad work. When I was in undergrad, I did a second major in math, which to be honest is more like philosophy than it is like physics. It's just that philosophy doesn't have much of an application to physics. To use Zapper's analogy, scientific philosophy might be fun to debate, but when I'm up at 2 am working Jackson's E&M problems, all the philosophy in the world isn't going to get me any closer to solving for the potential. Though I admit that at such times I do ponder the philosophy of how best to punch Jackson in the face.

    I suppose that science could be of some use to philosophers, as philosophers often love to draw philosophical conclusions from scientific results. The problem is that they all draw different conclusions. The Christian theologians will likely point to the Big Bang as evidence for God as first cause, the scientific rationalists will look to evolutionary biology to portray man as self-created. The bioethicists will have endless cloning debates. And for better or worse, PETA will probably tell us why the Maxwell Displacement Current says that we should all go vegan. At the end of the day, these things don't help me put error bars on my simulated blazar spectra. While science provides fodder for the philosophers, philosophy doesn't offer anything that I as a scientist can use (though as a first year grad student, maybe I just don't have the experience and wisdom to see its usefulness yet). So to me the real issue is: why do I as a physicist care about scientific philosophy? It doesn't give me any results, and I'm no less the physicist if I choose to ignore it.

    I don't hate philosophy; on the contrary I can see why some people might enjoy studying it. I just don't have an use for it.
  13. Jan 3, 2008 #12
    I am but a lowly undergrad, not yet a physicist. And yet, somehow I think what I have to say matters. Whatever. That's philosophy, already.

    I don't hate philosophy. I just want to pull my hair out and scream when people go to a Physics Lecture for Laymen (which actually is philosophy with a teeny bit of physics for substance) and then think they know all about it, so they try to start talking phyiscs with me, but don't allow any equations to come up in the discussion --AAAAAAAAAAAAAAACK!!!
    Yes, sometimes I do give into the impulse to yank my hair out and scream. But that's psychology.
  14. Jan 3, 2008 #13


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    There is a difference between "innate instinct" or "intuition" versus adopting a particular philosophical ideology. Einstein was motivated to work on something that led to SR not because he had a particular formal philosophy, but due to the puzzling non-covariant of classical E&M.

    I'm making a guess here, but in defense of Feynman, I believe he was making a remark about the formal study of philosophy. That is why he was comparing it to a study of birds. Physicists, by training, are never required to study such things (at least not at most schools that I am aware of here in the US), and that in itself clearly tells you its lack of usefulness in the practice of physics.

    Of course, we all have some set of "ideologies" that we tend to follow. I tend to put a lot of emphasis on empirical evidence, and some learned scholar would want to categorize me as being a "solipsist" or "materialist" or other "ist". But did I learned this out of some formal set of education, or did I simply acquire such ideology based on experience, knowledge, and a formed intuition? Those birds never went to school nor even realize that there is such an area of "study" on them and what they do.

    I still want to know where such-and-such theory had "rested" on some formal philosophy and "metaphysical" foundation.

  15. Jan 3, 2008 #14
    Well, if I remember right, physics was a subset/division under Philosophy up until the 17th century. Most of the early 'physicists' were either classified as Philosophers and/or philosophers a little later, too--and this may be more of a modern idea to classify them as 'physicists' by our own standards.

    Newton was an alchemist too.

    Physics has become so diversified and specialized in the last couple hundred years, some parts of it have gotten away from its roots.
    Last edited: Jan 3, 2008
  16. Jan 3, 2008 #15


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    Sure. Science was called "Natural Philosophy" before it was called science. But the splintering off between what is now the field of study of "philosophy" and "science" appears to be a clean break. Scientists do not depend on needing to study philosophy to be scientists. I'm guessing that Philosopher do not need to study physics to be philosophers (unless they major in Philosophy of physics and go to good programs such as at Columbia that make those students take actual physics classes).

    Now this doesn't imply that there's no cross-breeding between the two. I never make such claim, nor was Feynman making such claim. But I know that what Feynman said is accurate.

  17. Jan 3, 2008 #16
    I would say that it does matter. Not so surprisingly, physics undergrads are pretty good at physics. The ones who live underneath me (the physics club is literally two floors below our grad student offices) know what they're talking about when it comes to physics. Especially the seniors.

    I tend to have the same issues with these guys. It's really tough to talk about physics with someone who doesn't actually know the formalism. At some level, you just can't understand the phenomenon without having some basic knowledge of the formalism that's used to model it. When I was in undergrad, I and a friend of mine had issues with these Buddhist guys who said that quantum mechanics validated their philosophical suppositions. My friend told me to ask these people (and I think this applies to all armchair philosophers of physics) if they know what an eigenvalue is. If they say no, then they probably shouldn't be talking about quantum physics, especially given that Schrodinger's seminal paper on the subject was titled "An Eigenvalue Problem." It's always funny to throw some math at these guys and see what they do.
  18. Jan 3, 2008 #17
    That'll show 'em! :rofl:

    Though "egenvalue" still looks funny to me. I'm taking linear this semester, and I participated in class but didn't use the book too much. I was studying for the final yesterday, and tried to look up "Eigen Value" -- then interruped my roommate's Organic Chemistry studying to tell her how funny eigenvalue and eigenvector look. (I don't think she really appreciated the humor of the situation.)
  19. Jan 3, 2008 #18
    I don't know about a 'clean break'---I think the two will be intwined forever. If you're talking about "Pure Philosophy" and/or "Pure Science", or "Pure Math", it may tend to be more separate, but that's getting away from the topic.

    "Theoretical physics has historically rested on philosophy and metaphysics;" is in OP's post, and to me 'theoretical' is the key word--distinguishing the subject from the broader 'physics' or science.
  20. Jan 3, 2008 #19


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    But that is what I want illustrated. I want to see exactly where this "resting" occurs. Pick any theory. I'll suggest the BCS theory, but I'll settle for something else. The OP seems to think that stating it as it is sufficient "proof" of its validity. Of course, all of us here on PF know that this is not the case.

  21. Jan 3, 2008 #20
    I have to disagree with you when you claim there cannot be a 'clean break' - I'm guessing a lot of people (most of the general public) have the skewed concept that philosophy has to do with how productive a physicist can be due to its 'correlation' of how some geat physicists (Einstein, Newton and Galileo, although I'm not entirely sure about the latter two)

    Just what part of philosophy is there in a equation? If any? An equation is just to work out something. Thats it. There isn't a fundamental deep reason as to why the equation works; through logical step-by-step analysis of the relevant data patterns emerge, and thus to correlate these with the data an equation is required. We don't know ''why'' it works, and more importantly, we don't *need* to for us to take the important information out of the equation.

    Kepler was called a Astrologer in his time and day, although his most important works were actually in astronomy. As you can see, the 'roots' aren't as important as you think it is, nor even actually required, but only as a formality, as in this case. So being called a natural philosopher does not mean that the 'roots' of the persons talent in physics lies within his knowledge of physics, and in the modern day, where physics is becoming more and more specialised (and less generalized as with philosophy) there is no decline in the number of physicists who have shown brilliance in their respective subject - further proving that philosophy is neither a requirement nor shown to have any influence in a persons ability to do physics.
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