Ralph D, particle physics, and BS

Justin Schwartz jschwart at freenet.columbus.oh.us
Tue Jun 20 20:00:07 MDT 1995


Some physicists are good philosophers--Bridgeman comes to mind. You are
right, too, that some physics is essentially philosophical--Einstein on
relativity, Bohr and Bohm on quantum, and great philosophy at that. What I
had in mind, though, is when physicists go off the rails and start to talk
about freedom, mind, ethics, and God in the manner of Penrose.

Take my word that there's more to philosophy than clear thinking, just as
there's more to physics than math. There's such a thing in physics as
physical intuition--I ain't got it, which is one reason I went into
philosophy. But I can recognize it. Likewise with philosophy. There's a
history and a topography to the field, a sense of the texts and issues,
which you develop only by doing it for a long time. Plato discourgaed the
study of philosophy by the young--he feared they'd think it was all
technique. I think there's something to that. I accept that you recognize
that philosophy is hard, which is more than most phycisists who dabble in
it do.

BTW most philosophers are just as stupid about politics as
physicists. You have to think about politics and do it--I don't mean
political science, I mean politics. I have a joint philosophy-polisci
degree, and as an activist I was always astounded at how little of
politics political scientists understood. What they understand, insofar as
they do, is survey reserach and qwantitative analysis techniques. (And not
so well on those. They wanted me to take methods. I said, I aced quantum
and stat mech and you want me to take a baby stat course? They said, well,
OK.) To talk sense about politics you have to think hard and clearly about
it and you can do that only if you actually have some political
experience, by and large. Most academics don't do or have this.

Feyerabend, for all his wackiness, has philosophical talent as wello as
knowledge of physics and its history in spades. Against Method is actually
a really good argument that politics and religion cut deep into the
epistemology of basic physics. F's earlier papers are a brilliant
demolition of logical empiricism from whichj there is still a lot to be
learned. He also writes exceedingly well and his polemic is lovely and
very funny. I don't agree with a lot of his views, but I always learn from
engagement with them.

F doesn't believe, by the way, that the truth of scientific conclusions
should be decided by some voting procedure. He does think that science
has, politically speaking, an improperly privileged position in both
practical epistemology--I don't mean in the philosophical field but in
what we should believe as citizens--and tooon our limited
financial resources. He hates the phony scientism of ideological social
science research and of "scientific" politics (wqhich in fact isn't
science but power wearing the mask of apolitical knowledge. Read his views
on science in part as political philosophy of a libertarian (I don't mean
the propertarianism which calls itself libertarianism--sorry, Chris S.)
bent, and you get a better feel for what he means.

--Justin Schwartz


On Tue, 20 Jun 1995, Rahul Mahajan wrote:

> JS wrote:
>
> >Pardon me if, as someone who spent many years acquiring competence in
> >philosophy, I demur. There's a body of difficult literature to master.
> >There's a skill in constructing arguments, a sense of the map, a knowledge
> >of the way the argumenys go and what the options are. Physicists tend to
> >think that sinbce they do difficult maths philosophy, which needn't
> >involve that, must be easy. That's part of the reason they make such bad
> >philosophers.
>
> Why do you say that? We've already agreed that some physicists make bad
> philosophers. Do you honestly think that those physicists who have
> addressed philosophical issues were on average worse than the philosophers
> who addressed the same issues? I don't.
>
> I'm quite ready to believe Feyerabend is smart, but tell me more about why
> he's worth reading.
>
> As far as the question of philosophical competence goes, I said it is
> basically equivalent to being able to think logically and dissect your own
> ideas, but I didn't say that that's necessarily a simple thing to do, nor
> that being able to construct mathematical arguments means that you can do
> it. In fact, I am always amazed at how illogical many physicists can be
> when you talk politics with them -- although no more so than the general
> "educated" public.
>
> Rahul
>
>
>
>
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