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RS127 - Elise Crull on Philosophy of Physics

Release date: February 8, 2015

Elise Crull Feynman famously said that a philosopher of science is as much use to scientists as an ornithologist is to birds. This episode of Rationally Speaking features philosopher of physics Elise Crull, who explains why Feynman is misguided, and what philosophers have to say about important issues in physics -- like quantum mechanics, physical laws, and whether anything "really" exists at all.

Errata. Prof. Crull noticed some inaccuracies in the taped version of the podcast, which she wished to correct -- She talks about The Copenhagen Hegemony but mistakenly attributes it to Ernan McMullin when in fact it was written by Jim Cushing


Elise's picks:  "Albert Einstein as a Philosopher of Science" and "The Myths We Live By"

References (4)

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Reader Comments (12)

Your guest refusal to define anything or to commit to any particular point of view was extremely frustrating.

February 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

Elise Crull seems like a delightful person with a great sense of humor, but if I had her for a teacher, I'd drop the course after the first day. The reason is as Paul stated above: she didn't answer a single question during the interview, but seemed to tap dance around them, either restating the question or talking in vague generalities. My guess is that she's a new teacher and hasn't fully digested everything that she knows about the field. Greater experience will probably solve this problem.

February 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Esres

A few months ago, I attended a panel discussion at Stanford titled, “How did the universe begin, and how will we know?”

I went because I wanted to hear from two extremely prominent theoretical physicists who sat on the panel. One of the two ("the cosmologist") is famous for proposing a model called “Chaotic Inflation” (or “Eternal Inflation”) that posits an infinity of “pocket universes” most of which have properties very different from our own. I found him a very entertaining and engaging speaker.

The panel didn’t discuss questions like the ontological status on non-observables. But the theorists both seemed to be Platonic Realists to the degree that they seemed to believe that their mathematical models represented a deeper reality than the world in front of their eyes.

Given the infinite number– and nearly infinite variety– of universes that could exist when you couple Chaotic Inflation with string theory, it is almost impossible to propose an experiment that could not be plausibly explained by “Well, our pocket universe is very unusual.” The cosmologist in fact seemed proud of his mathematical prowess and ability to develop a coherent mathematical models that could explain away any experimental result.

At one point, he said with an impish grin, “Yes, I know chaotic inflation can’t be proven, but it can’t be disproven either.”

I have studied evolution education and creationism in some depth. I have heard exactly the same argument made by creationists. The cosmologist didn’t seem aware that a “claim” about unobservable entities that can neither be demonstrated as true or false can hardly be considered a “claim”– especially when phrases like “meaningless babble” are available.

February 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLen

To the disappointed listener looking for substantial philosophy of physics: you might like reading Looking for a quantum ontology.

February 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

I am a professional theoretical physicist who is interested in philosophy, so an ideal audience for this episode. However, like Paul above, I was extremely frustrated by the guest's responses, finding Massimo's and Julia's comments much more interesting and prone for discussion. I have met Guido (the guest's co-author), and don't remember him being so elusive and unsure as the guest (referring listeners to the Stanford encyclopedia??).

For example, physicists don't usually talk about causality because they generally take it (at least locally) to be implicit in Lorentz invariance (more generally, we take it to emerge from hyperbolic differential equations). Now, I don't know if this actually fulfills the philosophical demands of the concept, and it would have been great to see some discussion on the possible difference.

Anyway, the whole topic of the podcast is immensely interesting, and it was a pity to see it disserviced.

February 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHenrique Gomes

It's funny to hear the philosopher's unwitting scepticism about the Higgs boson. The signal from the Higgs resonance in the detector is no less tangible ("real") than observation of viruses in a microscope. [The Large Hadron Collider IS a big microscope.]

February 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPavel Nadolsky

Massimo and Julia,

Thanks so much for producing another great podcast with another great guest, especially on such a great topic! I was able to follow your discussion despite the fact that I am neither a professional philosopher nor a scientist.

I too struggle with the issue of realism vs. instrumentalism and I too find myself in the realist camp (mostly); but I feel like there is so much more I need to read before I would have a deeper conviction about this. Your podcast helped me toward that goal.

I am a little frustrated that while some commenters seemed to object to the guest’s scholarly approach of resisting a request to distill complex ideas into a few sentences, a subsequent commenter criticized her for doing exactly that with regard to her instrumentalist-like approach to the Higgs boson.

Clearly her argument rests on the long intellectual history between the realists and anti-realists—which is hard to distill in a few sentences—so the claim that the LHC really IS like a microscope more than likely would not really answer her point. (As I said, I personally find myself with that commenter in the realist camp (mostly), but I still find the arguments of Kyle Stanford and Bas van Fraassen (whom your guest also mentioned) difficult to adequately answer.)

In closing, I also really appreciated the cogent objections Julia raised which I hear all the time in the skeptic community. The answers you all gave were much better than mine!

February 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGregg

I'm astounded that there's essentially no intellectual material in this discussion at all. This discussion is pure drivel and continental philosophy masquerading as skepticism and "philosophy of science".

This blog is supposedly about critical thinking for skeptics, but I'm skeptical about that! This blog has now delved into pseudoskepticism with this podcast. You can't claim to be a skeptic without at least trying to follow the scientific method!

The postmodernist/poststructuralist nonsense really is solipsistic. Anti-realist philosophy shouldn't parade itself as "philosophy of science". This is as far away from science as academic culture can get without being theology!

If you "explore the borderlands between reason & nonsense", then you should consider not spreading pure nonsense! Physics shouldn't be used as a prop to make anti-realism seem profound. Pepper your nonsense with reason at least.

This podcast could be an example of "Schrödinger's bullshit". Here's a philosophical question for everyone: Was the podcast nonsense only after unsubstantiated claims were made, or was it nonsense before the talking even started?

"Mehh... what are scientific laws?" ..."Uhh... other people wrote books about that! I don't know. Some people say they're social constructs!"

Richard Feynman was right!

February 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGG

The Philosophy of Physics guest reminded me of someone trying to bluff their way through a job interview. If you don't know anything about the topic, do not display your ignorance by trying to explain it, but instead bob and weave by doing the old Rope-A-Dope sidestep until you are saved by the bell.

M pressed a little (didn't want to be seen as Bullying the Woman), but I think J really saw through the BS and sought clarity, so if not for the necessity of putting out something for the podcast, and basic human decency, I suspect J would have given the Vacuous Expert the Bums-Rush off the show.

Affirmative action gone awry!

February 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBen

Ben wrote:

"Affirmative action gone awry!"

Very tacky and unworthy of a Rationally Speaking listener.

February 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Esres
pseudo-intellectualism at its finest
July 31, 2015 | Unregistered Commenternewton
I know very Little about physics and philosophy of physics, so I cant really comment on the interview competently.
Reading the comments however, gives me the impression that the phycisists and the physics interested audience are an extremely critical and blunt community. Some comments on this thread were quite funny.
March 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJannik

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