Sean Carroll defends philosophy

Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist, has a post up on his blog telling his fellow physicists to “stop saying silly things about philosophy”.

The last few years have seen a number of prominent scientists step up to microphones and belittle the value of philosophy. Stephen HawkingLawrence Krauss, and Neil deGrasse Tyson are well-known examples. To redress the balance a bit, philosopher of physics Wayne Myrvold has asked some physicists to explain why talking to philosophers has actually been useful to them. I was one of the respondents, and you can read my entry at the Rotman Institute blog. I was going to cross-post my response here, but instead let me try to say the same thing in different words.

Roughly speaking, physicists tend to have three different kinds of lazy critiques of philosophy: one that is totally dopey, one that is frustratingly annoying, and one that is deeply depressing.

I’ve already written at length about this multiple times, so I’ll just recommend reading Sean’s post in full, and perhaps check out Myrvold’s as well.

Pseudophysics: The New High Priesthood

Wow.  Somewhat in balance to yesterday’s reblog of part one of Coel Hellier’s post defending multiverse theories as scientific, here’s Amir Aczel skewering many of the proponents of multiverses and other untestable cosmological theories.  He takes aim at Brian Greene, Max Tegmark, Lawrence Krauss, and others, for presenting metaphysical assertions as science.

The universe is a marvelous place to live in. Well, it’s the only place we know — and we know a very tiny part of it. Telescopes reveal to us farther parts of this wondrous cosmos, and through them we learn about fascinating objects and phenomena such as neutron stars, black holes, supernovas, and exoplanets. Equally, high-energy particle accelerators and other experiments reveal to us the workings of the very small — which always have a strong bearing on the nature of the universe as a whole. And of course theories are equally important. There is absolutely nothing wrong with speculation in physics — and the correct theories are eventually confirmed by experiment and observation. But it is definitely wrong — misleading and dishonest — to preach to an unsuspecting public, mostly uninitiated in science, mere hypotheses as if they were confirmed facts. This isn’t science, and it isn’t honest scientific reporting. Physicists should be the purveyors of facts, not dreams.

via Pseudophysics: The New High Priesthood | Amir Aczel.

As I commented on Hellier’s piece, I actually have no problem with speculation on things like multiverses or on how the universe began, as long as it’s labeled as speculation.  In truth, in Greene’s and Termark’s books, they are usually careful to delineate and label the more speculative aspects of their subject matter (I haven’t read Krauss’s book), but it doesn’t always seem to happen in their articles and commentary.

I think this speculation lies on the border between science and metaphysics.  That doesn’t bother me.  I mean it as no insult to those engaged in it.  A lot of what I post about here is metaphysics.  But I do find it ironic that many of the same people who dump on philosophy are effectively engaging in philosophy, and are so touchy about having that pointed out to them.

Lawrence Krauss on the relationship between science and science fiction

What is the connection between science and science fiction? Are television shows like “Battlestar Galactica” and “Dr. Who” inspiring the next generation of scientists? Professor Lawrence Krauss explored these issues at the 2014 Annual Meeting in his talk, “Physics of the Future,” which was part of the symposium titled, “Where’s My Flying Car? Science, Science Fiction, and a Changing Vision of the Future” on Friday Feb. 14.

via 2014 Annual Meeting: Exploring science fiction and science | AAAS MemberCentral.

I have to admit that I’ve always had mixed feelings about Krauss.  He often says intelligent and insightful things, but he’s also prone to obnoxious and ignorant statements.

Still, I have to agree with him on this:

The realities of space travel have proven that the science fiction’s vision of traveling throughout the galaxy, or even within the solar system, is probably not possible. Humans just aren’t made for space. We’re hundred-pound bags of water that do much better on Earth. If we send anything throughout the galaxy, at best it will be robots with instructions on how to make humans.

I’ve made this point myself a few times.  I’m a big fan of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who, but none of them give a view of what the future of space exploration is actually likely to be like.  Of course, Star Trek is the only one of those series that is really trying to any extent to make predictions, and its vision is by necessity compromised by the realities of TV shows, and by the fact that that vision of the future is now 50 years old.

That’s not to say that those shows aren’t inspiring.  I find them all inspiring to one degree or another, and I’m sure many scientists and engineers ended up in their fields based on the spark these shows initially planted in them.