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Using Philosophy to Understand Physics

Question: Why do you think it's valuable to link the study of philosophy to the study of physics?

Tim Maudlin: Well, I think if you think about the history of philosophy, you would have a hard time making a distinction between the two.  If you go back, Aristotle has book called "The Physics." In fact one of the reasons we call a big chunk of philosophy metaphysics is it was the sort of stuff Aristotle thought you should study after studying physics.  

Plato has an account of the physical world, Descartes, obviously did a lot of physics, Liebnitz did a lot of physics.  So it’s more the question, "How did they come apart?" than "Why you should put them together?"

And part of the reason they came apart is that the physicists got too good at what they were doing and too specialized.  I mean, they became... mathematical physics became such a power independent tool that you had to devote yourself to it and probably had less time for doing what we would recognize as general metaphysics, general philosophy, talking about how you arrive at the conclusions that you arrive at, what the evidence is, what is really the nature of the physical world is, that lies behind the equations that you are using and things like that.  

So I think of philosophers who are interested in physics as addressing the traditional philosophical question, if you will, what exists in the particular case of the physical world because you can ask about mathematics, what kind of existence mathematical objects have?  For example, you can worry about the mind/body problem and you can worry about the kind of existence minds have, which tends not to come up so much in physics.  But just the issue of the nature of space and time, the nature of matter, the nature of physical law.  All of these are recognizably philosophical questions that obviously depend upon understanding physics.

Question:
What do physics and philosophy contribute to each other?

Tim Maudlin: I guess the physics – the way things are set up now, physics provides you with a mathematical formalism that has been tested in various ways and seems to be extremely powerful at allowing you to make certain kinds of predictions.  But the mathematical formalism is not self-interpreting.  You can study the mathematics as mathematics in great detail and still not be at all sure what in the physical world is represented by this mathematics, even questions like, which parts of the mathematics represent anything in the physical world, and which parts are just artifacts of having set up the system in a certain way.  

And those kinds of questions are more in the province, I think of philosophers or people trained in philosophy.  They’re sort of conceptual questions, questions about evidence, questions about how you sort out, in any kind of representation of the world, which part corresponds to the world in a certain way and which part doesn’t.  

So there’s kind of that division of labor, but it’s very artificial to suggest, quite honestly, that there is a strong division.  As it turns out, there’s a general unified community doing foundations of physics, worried about the fundamental conceptual problems rather than worrying about running particular experiments or calculating constants to more degrees of accuracy or doing engineering and lots of interesting things you can do.  

But if you ask the very basic conceptual questions, what we call foundations of physics, there’s a community.  And that community is about equally divided between physicists, mathematicians, or mathematical physicists and philosophers and the people live in these different departments in universities, but any of the meetings will have all of them together, all of them talking about the same issues from slightly different angles, maybe, but able to communicate usually quite effectively.  

Question:
What other disciplines in science could benefit from a philosophical perspective?

Tim Maudlin: We are just beginning to tackle questions in cosmology; I’ll just give you one example because I happen to be thinking about it recently.  And cosmology is, on the one hand, kind of the application of physics, but on the other hand involves particular problems about thinking of the universe as a whole and what it would mean to explain the universe as a whole.  Those are obviously philosophical questions.  You can go back to Cont worrying a lot about what it would mean, or what could it mean to have an explanation of the totality of the universe rather than an explanation of one piece of the universe given in terms of another piece.  So, there are particular conceptual problems that come up in that context that are, I think, people are only beginning to look at.

More recent new sciences are probably too young yet to have clearing of content for a lot of philosophical input.  I mean, you need to have a fairly stable discipline up and running with some very stable principles before, as a philosopher, you go in and have the subject matter you need to try and analyze.

Recorded September 17, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

When they ask the very basic conceptual questions about the physical world, mathematicians, physicists and philosophers are addressing many of the same issues.

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