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The Unreasonable Ineffectiveness of Philosophy

Richard Mason finds a saint to help a scientist.

Steven Weinberg won the Nobel Prize in 1979 for his work in theoretical physics. He is the author of The First Three Minutes, one of the clearest popular expositions of cosmology. His more recent book, Dreams of a Final Theory considers the possibility of a final, comprehensive physical theory. More mundanely, it also presses the case for particle physics in hard financial terms, in support of US government funding of the Superconducting Supercollider planned for Ellis County, Texas.

Congress have not accepted Weinberg’s financial case: the Supercollider remains on ice. So, for the time being at least, another element in Dreams of a Final Theory may be of more interest to readers of Philosophy Now. The book contains a chapter ‘Against Philosophy’ where the insights of philosophers are seen as “ murky and inconsequential compared with the dazzling success of physics and mathematics.” “ Can philosophy give us any guidance toward a final theory?” asks Weinberg. No: “ The insights of philosophers have occasionally benefited physicists, but generally in a negative fashion – by protecting them from the preconceptions of other philosophers.” For good measure he throws in his verdict on “ the unreasonable ineffectiveness of philosophy.”

This is disturbing, and should be taken seriously. Weinberg is far from ignorant about the philosophy of science. His claim that he knows of “ no one who has participated actively in the advance of physics in the postwar period whose research has been significantly helped by the work of philosophers” is not based on nothing. He has known the best physicists of our time, and he knows a lot of philosophers.

It would be easy to carp at some of his arguments. He wields a rhetorical blunderbuss rather than a logical scalpel. To start, the idea that philosophy should be ‘helpful’ to particle physicists is not one which many philosophers would share; so maybe it’s not fair to blame them for not being helpful. He tells us, rightly, that outdated philosophy has done a good deal of harm, and not just in science, citing an attachment to ‘mechanism’ which undeniably went on a couple of centuries too long. But then he also complains about the unhelpfulness of what he calls ‘positivism’, blaming it for misconceptions in physics right up to the 1960s. Yet he would surely have trouble in finding any philosophers in the past half century who would own up to being positivists. (The view, for example, that “ every aspect of our theories must at every point refer to observable quantities” is held by no one.) Some of his points are routine abuse: ‘philosophical jargon’ is impenetrable, and so on. And some of his arguments seem strangely offbeam. As part of a case against antiquated “metaphysical presuppositions,” he mentions St. Augustine’s view that God created time along with the universe; but, leaving aside the theological angle, that view seems to be far more interestingly consistent with contemporary physics than several possible alternatives.

So we could snipe at his case and then think we had done a good job in rebutting it. Yet the effect of the whole is more than the force of the parts. Surely it matters if someone like Weinberg says what he does? We should care about his opinion.

He tells us, no doubt correctly, that “ Physicists do of course carry around with them a working philosophy. For most of us, it is a rough-and-ready realism, a belief in the objective reality of the ingredients of our scientific theories ; ” He finds philosophy unhelpful where it impugns such working realism. As he says: ;"It certainly feels to me that we are discovering something real in physics, something that is what it is without any regard to the social or historical conditions that allowed us to discover it.” His particular disapproval is kept for “ philosophical relativists” who “ deny the claim of science to the discovery of objective truth; they see it as merely another social phenomenon ; ” This seems a touchy point: “ Relativism is only one aspect of a wider, radical attack on science itself.”

Once again, we could carp or snipe. Many philosophers of science are ‘realists , many are not and many have reservations. Some even admit to being relativists. But very few would expect their views on the status of scientific statements or theories to affect the feelings of scientists about their research. If Weinberg does not like philosophy because he wants help or support from a realist philosophy of science, then he ought to find that help somewhere.

Or maybe not – because it depends on what he wants from his ‘realism’. In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, he says: “ To put it simply, if scientists are talking about something real, then what they say is either true or false. If it is true, then how can it depend on the social environment of the scientist?” We don’t need to nitpick about that. But apparently we need to go further. The real issue – “ precisely what divides me and many other scientists from cultural and historical relativists” – “ is not the belief in objective reality itself, but the belief in the reality of the laws of nature.” Now we get into deep water: “ What I mean when I say that the laws of physics are real is that they are real in much the same sense (whatever that is) as the rocks in the field, and not in the same sense ; as the laws of baseball ; ” Would Weinberg rather drop a law of physics on his toe or a rock? There seems to be some problem here: a kind of ontological overkill. What scientists talk about is real, what they say is true, so the laws which say it must be as real as the objects they talk about.

Well, as Weinberg suggests himself, it doesn’t matter so much what we tag as ‘real’ as long as we know what we are doing. That sounds more like pragmatism – not a surprising view for an American physicist – than realism. We could say that he has a philosophy without admitting to it: though he could say that his ‘rough-and-ready realism’ is as much philosophy as he needs or wants, and that the details make no difference.

In practical terms, what does matter here? What matters is what happens, not what we say about it. What we have to understand is nature – what is so, how the world is – not what we say about nature.

Weinberg wants to understand nature and to say something about it. Philosophers may also try to understand what he says, and he may be less interested in that. This division of labour sounds like the old idea, popular in the 1950s and 60s, of philosophy as a ‘second-order’, ‘conceptual’ study: scientists study nature, philosophers study what scientists say about nature. So they will always be one step behind, which explains why they can be harmfully or stupidly out of date.

Much of that diagnosis bears no relation to the philosophy of science today, but some awkward thoughts are buried in it.

Consider for example, from Weinberg’s own field, some remarks by Richard Feynman about understanding, at the beginning of his popular lectures, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter: “Why are you going to sit here all this time, when you won’t be able to understand what I say? ; You see, my physics students don’t understand it either. That is because I don’t understand it. Nobody does.” He gave an explanation: “ while I am describing to you how Nature works, you won’t understand why Nature works in that way. But you see, nobody understands that. I can’t explain why Nature behaves in this peculiar way.”

Feynman’s paradox that he couldn’t understand his own lecture was the kind of joke that he liked. Obviously he could understand his subject, but he may have had some trouble in understanding what he was understanding. As he went on to say himself, this was partly because a notion of understanding as common-sense-picturing does not get you far in quantum electrodynamics. More interestingly, he mixed up understanding what is said about nature with what is so in nature. Which was it he thought he could not understand? Going back to Weinberg, if scientific results are real truths about nature how could they be unintelligible?

Weinberg is good-humoured about philosophers, so we could try and offer some help from an outrageously irrelevant-looking source, from the thirteenth century. St. Thomas Aquinas thought that we can hold beliefs without even being able to explain the meaning of the sentences in which those beliefs might be inadequately expressed. He had in mind beliefs in theology, at that time the Queen of the Sciences. I am supposed to be able to believe that God became man without being able to explain the meaning of the sentence “ God became man” (or, if you prefer the idiom, the proposition that God became man). Using his own example, the Christian creed does not deal with propositions or statements (enuntiabilia) but with things or reality (res). It does not say that God is almighty, but instead I believe in almighty God. With his characteristic shrewdness St. Thomas commented that just as in science, so in matters of faith we express ourselves through propositions or statements for no other reason than to possess a knowledge of things or reality.

How is that relevant? St. Thomas thought that the belief comes first and our expression or formulation of it comes second. The order was important. He felt sure that God was almighty; maybe not so sure of the sense of an assertion that God is almighty (perhaps the full sense was intelligible only to God). Although the framework of thought was theological, the important point is not a specifically theological one. The notion that our beliefs in any field are formulated in transparently exact terms is a logicians’ fantasy (“ he believes that the sun will rise tomorrow” – what exactly does he believe?). This applies as well to twentieth century physics as to thirteenth century theology. I accept, for instance, that a particle can act like a wave, and can conduct a good deal of fruitful inquiry on that basis. But that doesn’t mean that I have to ‘understand’ any particular statement or proposition – a statement such as “ a particle can act like a wave”. And conversely, the fact that I may not ‘understand’ that proposition means nothing at all about my capacity to pursue my inquiries in physics. I just get on with them. The apparent lack of ‘understanding’ is irrelevant not because it doesn’t matter for pragmatic reasons – the science works anyway – but because it is misdirected. I do understand what matters – how particles or waves act as they do. What I don’t understand is not ‘why’ they act as they do, as Feynman says, but the senses of some statements about particles or waves.

And that takes us back to Weinberg’s complaints. Philosophers of science have spent a lot of effort on the nature, force and status of scientific laws. Do laws determine or only describe how things happen? Are they universally true? Why and how? And necessarily true? What is the difference between laws of mathematical physics and mathematical rules? And so on. The hint we take from St. Thomas is that we could use our time better than in worrying about how to understand statements like “ a particle can act like a wave” – for example in discovering how far a particle does act like a wave. What happens in nature is not just more interesting than what is said about it: we need to look in the right direction to see anything useful or rather, in Weinberg’s terms, helpful.

So what follows? Mixed news for Weinberg. He can’t have it all ways. He wants to get on with his physics without dabbling in philosophy, which is fair enough, but he also wants to tell us that a physical law is real in the same sense as a rock – which suggests that he may have trouble in keeping out of squabbles with philosophers. Where he would or could be right is that attention to the scope or status of scientific laws could be misguided. It could be that the “ unreasonable ineffectiveness of philosophy” might stem from too much of that. In the end it does not matter why or how some statements about nature are true or necessary (or indeed ‘real’). What matters is how things are and how they act.

Is that ‘help’ to Weinberg from a philosopher?

© Dr R. Mason 1997

Richard Mason is Tutor in Philosophy at Madingley Hall, Cambridge and a Fellow of Wolfson College. His book, The God of Spinoza: A Philosophical Study, is being published in April.


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