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Are Physics and Philosophy at Odds?

July 4, 2012, 12:00 AM

Scientists working with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN have found strong evidence for the Higgs Boson. The Higgs has been postulated for its power to explain the existence of matter in the universe. In other words, its discovery is at least a step towards explaining the biggest of big questions: Why is there something rather than nothing?

This raises an issue. If the sort of question that usually is answered (or at least puzzled over for a few millennia) by philosophers becomes the domain of science, then philosophy would seem to have no real place as a discipline.  

Many philosophers feel that one of the primary tasks of philosophy is to provide a foundation and justification for science. Others, though, feel that science and philosophy are two different channels for getting to the same thing. Still others believe that the two are both entirely separate and at odds with one another.

Modern scientists have about as broad a spectrum of beliefs about philosophy and science as philosophers do, but the prevailing opinion appears to be that philosophy is rendered at best redundant and at worst defunct by science. Stephen Hawking went so far as to declare last year that philosophy is dead.

It is important to note that science and philosophy used to be indistinct. Like nearly every other academic discipline, science was a part of philosophy but split off at some point in history. Indeed, the very first philosopher, Thales, made a scientific claim, that all things are water - it is likely that he wasn't postulating that all things were literally water, but rather, that change was inherent in and definitive of all things - when he did philosophy.

What conclusions, then, can we draw about the philosophy of science and the science of philosophy? Well, primarily, it seems easy enough to agree that we want to make sure we are not barking up the wrong tree with science. We therefore need to answer questions about what is and is not science's place, whether scientific methods of finding things out about the world are valid ways of gaining knowledge, and, most importantly, what is and is not science. All of these are philosophical questions, so science cannot be without philosophy. 

By the way, the predominant view in the philosophy of science now comes from Karl Popper's landmark essay Conjectures and Refutations. Without theories which have the explanatory power of Popper's, science has no way other than insisting to hold up, for example, astronomy over astrology. Given this necessity, it seems that the two disciplines will be able to go on coexisting without killing one another over turf wars for the foreseeable future.

What does this mean for the announcement of the Higgs Boson? Philosophy should not be threatened, but, rather, excited. It should thank science, and, to prove Stephen Hawking wrong, start reading up on it


Are Physics and Philosophy ...

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