Skip to main content

Is Philosophy Relevant to Physics?

Over the past few months, a controversy has erupted between members of the fields of physics and philosophy. It all started in January when Lawrence Krauss, a well-known cosmologist and science writer, published his book titled A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing. Krauss' book attempts to show how the universe could have come from "nothing," as implied by quantum field theory.

Significant hype accompanied the book. In the afterword for the book, noted atheist and biologist Richard Dawkins compares the book to Charles Darwin's most famous work:

"If On the Origin of Species was biology’s deadliest blow to supernaturalism, we may come to see A Universe from Nothing as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is devastating."

Several months after the book's publication, David Albert, a philosopher of science at Columbia University, wrote a scathing critique in the New York Times.

Quickly, the debate degenerated into personal attacks. In an interview with The Atlantic several weeks later, Krauss derided the "moronic philosophers that have written about my book."

He also said, "Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, 'those that can't do, teach, and those that can't teach, teach gym.' And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science."

He's wrong, and several famous physicists would agree that philosophy can play an important role in understanding scientific results.

In particular, Albert Einstein weighed in on the topic back in 1944 in response to a young physicist who was trying to incorporate philosophy into his modern physics course:

"I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today—and even professional scientists—seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is—in my opinion—the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth."

Einstein sincerely believed that his interest in philosophy made him a better scientist. Using his philosophical background, Einstein took a step back, realized what was wrong with the current scientific paradigm, and built a revolutionary new theory of relativity.

Throughout the rest of the 20th century, there were several other notable physicist-philosophers. Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, for instance, were credited with formulating what is now known as the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. This interpretation has sparked much debate and added to the discussion of quantum mechanics' implications.

Having a background in philosophy -- or at least engaging in philosophical questions -- has helped past physicists advance their scientific work. It's important to note that many philosophers of physics have strong backgrounds in science, and many have doctorate degrees in physics. So Krauss' argument that most philosophical contributions have been made by physicists is somewhat misleading. Physicists made these contributions, but they did so as philosophers of science.

These icons were addressing questions that physics alone could not fully answer. Furthermore, several philosophers of science have made contributions that go beyond the realm of science. Thomas Kuhn, for instance, coined the contemporary usage of the word "paradigm" while discussing scientific revolutions.

In the future, I hope to share some of the big ideas in philosophy of science and their subsequent impact on the blog, so stay tuned!

For a thorough and thoughtful look at the specific argument between Krauss and Albert, see this post by Sean Carroll over at Cosmic Variance.


  1. I think we're using two different definitions of "philosophy". One definition means, basically, "wild speculation". Theorizing about things we can never test. If we can never test it, then it's technically not science, but that doesn't mean it's not useful, and it may lead us to new science.

    For example, I remember reading once that testing string theory would require a particle accelerator the size of the solar system (!). Does that mean we should give up on string theory? No! Simply thinking about it may lead us in new directions.

    The other definition is religion. That is obviously useless to any scientist, unless it is social science, and you want to study human actions.

    Personally, I find it disingenuous that religious people try to insert their superstitions by labeling them "philosophy". They aren't philosophy. They are religion. Every "idea" takes you back to the same place. Science, and the true definition of philosophy, take you new places.

  2. Krauss has a point. I took Philosophy courses in college and found the valuable stuff in my Physics courses. I found the book "The Origin of the Universe - Case Closed" to be better than Krauss' book. It puts the case to rest in my opinion.

  3. In the 18th century Kant proposed schema: a priori principles that frame our perceptions and understanding. Given the limited empirical data available in his time, his proposal was grounded on logical argumentation.

    Two centuries later cognitive science seems to uphold his ideas.

    Philosophy is about asking and framing fundamental questions. Science is not subordinate to philosophy, but fundamental research can benefit from the conceptual framework of philosophical theory.

    And there are areas, such as society, in which a philosophical approach may be more fruitful than simple minded phenomenology.

  4. Krauss's arguement is refuted in Robert Spitzer's book "New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy"

  5. In the future, I hope to share some of the big ideas in philosophy of science and their subsequent impact on the blog, so stay tuned!

    Karl Popper? Alan Turing? I hope to both of them featured!

    -- James Ph. Kotsybar

    Our universe has things in it because
    chance quantum fluctuations enable.
    Nothing is what violates Nature’s laws --
    something is apparently more stable.
    Super-symmetry was asking for it.
    It was just too perfect to be withstood,
    and once it took the predictable hit
    it lit up the entire neighborhood,
    and in that Big Bang, the forces all split.
    Gravity, of course, was most serious
    and left, having little to do with it,
    and, to this day, remains mysterious.
    Though we still work to unify them all,
    Entropy says it’s too late for that call.

    -- James Ph. Kotsybar

    A scientist trusts in what has been proved
    through repeated experimentation.
    Assertions of faith will leave him unmoved
    until they have achieved validation.

    Religious beliefs often leave him cold
    and skeptical of professed prophecies
    based mostly on hearsay and tales twice-told,
    not carefully tested hypotheses.

    This doesn’t make him an atheist, though.
    He’s more like an investigative sleuth
    who seldom proclaims things he doesn’t know,
    since he’s a stalwart apostle of truth.

    He’ll all too gladly apply his method,
    should God allow Himself to be tested.

  8. AT ODDS
    -- James Ph. Kotsybar

    Researchers seeking solutions can’t say,
    “Things are the way they are because of God.”
    From Spirit, scientists must shy away
    or risk their labors be seen as slipshod.

    The fraction of them considered devout
    must keep their studies apart from belief,
    not daring to proselytize about
    what brings their natures comfort and relief.

    Faith remains outside their explanations,
    despite convictions which may be affirmed.
    No matter what profound implications,
    their answers must be physically termed.

    They want to know God’s thoughts, yet they resist
    even acknowledging God could exist.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts

How 4,000 Physicists Gave a Vegas Casino its Worst Week Ever

What happens when several thousand distinguished physicists, researchers, and students descend on the nation’s gambling capital for a conference? The answer is "a bad week for the casino"—but you'd never guess why.

Ask a Physicist: Phone Flash Sharpie Shock!

Lexie and Xavier, from Orlando, FL want to know: "What's going on in this video ? Our science teacher claims that the pain comes from a small electrical shock, but we believe that this is due to the absorption of light. Please help us resolve this dispute!"

The Science of Ice Cream: Part One

Even though it's been a warm couple of months already, it's officially summer. A delicious, science-filled way to beat the heat? Making homemade ice cream. (We've since updated this article to include the science behind vegan ice cream. To learn more about ice cream science, check out The Science of Ice Cream, Redux ) Image Credit: St0rmz via Flickr Over at Physics@Home there's an easy recipe for homemade ice cream. But what kind of milk should you use to make ice cream? And do you really need to chill the ice cream base before making it? Why do ice cream recipes always call for salt on ice?