Ralph D, particle physics, and BS

Rahul Mahajan rahul at hagar.ph.utexas.edu
Sat Jun 17 19:12:54 MDT 1995

JS wrote:

>I'll just remark that while Kuhn is not a practicing physicist, his Ph.D
>is in theoretical physics. Also, as you remark in the context of Bohr,
>practi8caing physicists aren't necessarily distinguished philosophers of
>science--although the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics does
>better as philosophy of science than many physicists' attempts.

I'm well aware that Kuhn has a Ph.D., although that's certainly not a mark
of any great understanding of physics -- most graduate students eventually
get one, but most of them don't have any deep understanding of what they're
doing. I think the Copenhagen interpretation, especially in its standard
incarnation where only human beings are observers is absurd, but more
importantly it simply avoids the real question of what constitutes an
observation. Fundamental physics is the only place where you can _test_
epistemological axioms -- you can do philosophy of physics by doing physics
(J.S. Bell, e.g.).

> I agree
>that philosophers of science (and physics in particular) need a good
>knowledge of some scientific field and moderate competence in physics. On
>the othewr hand there is such a thing as competence in philosophy. Failure
>by some philosophically minded physicists (Penrose is an instance) to
>recognize this leads to embarassing results. I think rather better of Kuhn
>than you do--I haven't read his black-body book, but Structure is a great
>work, relativist non-sequiters and all, and the Copernican Revolution is a
>nice piece of history. His prose could be more precise. But i wouldn't
>trade greater precision for his fruitfulness.

As far as competence in philosophy goes, I think it consists simply of the
ability to be logical, to understand the difference between a conjecture
and a proof, for example. Penrose, it is true, seems incapable of realizing
the vacuity of some of his ideas, but then most philosophers of science are

>Incidentally Feyerabend is another physically competent philosopher of
>science, although even wackier than Kuhnin somw wsys. And the old logical
>positivists, many of them, had real competence in physics. Reichenbach
>knew relativity theory inside and out. Frank taught physics at Harvard.
>The positivists are underrated.

I was not aware of Feyerabend's knowledge of physics, but his philosophy of
science is irresponsible crap -- he doesn't even believe his own bullshit,
he's just throwing it out to build his rep. That the positivsts knew
physics is irrelevant. In fact, the positivist program is also, unlike much
that has come up since then, eminently reasonable. It's just that we know
as well as we can possibly know that it is not realizable.


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