Does Physics need Philosophy (and vice versa)?

There’s a new paper on the arXiv by Carlo Rovelli entitled Physics Needs Philosophy. Philosophy Needs Physics. Here is the abstract:

Contrary to claims about the irrelevance of philosophy for science, I argue that philosophy has had, and still has, far more influence on physics than is commonly assumed. I maintain that the current anti-philosophical ideology has had damaging effects on the fertility of science. I also suggest that recent important empirical results, such as the detection of the Higgs particle and gravitational waves, and the failure to detect supersymmetry where many expected to find it, question the validity of certain philosophical assumptions common among theoretical physicists, inviting us to engage in a clearer philosophical reflection on scientific method.

Read and discuss.

58 Responses to “Does Physics need Philosophy (and vice versa)?”

  1. Opinionated Moron Says:

    Psychology e.g. can be thought of a molecular physics of the brain, and, physics can be thought of a result of our psychology,
    which may have some evolutionary advantage, of trying to
    understand everything in a unified way so that some future
    predictions can be made which is needed for long term survival
    of our species.

    Similarly, it’s not a question of whether or not physics needs philosophy but physics or any other science for that matter is a special branch of philosophy.

    Also, if philosophy has to do with all possible coherent human thoughts it’s a product of only those molecular processes in our brain that are allowed by the rules of physics.

    It’s a question of perspective. If we dig deeper all subjects are
    inter related. The whole debate of which is more fundamental
    than other is completely childish.

  2. I thought it was an excellent paper, with one caveat. I thought Carlo’s criticism of writers like Weinberg, Hawking and Krauss was slightly straw-mannish. In my view, WHK aren’t actually saying that the field of philosophy per se has no role in modern science. Their argument is that extremely little of what is currently done in philosophy departments in universities is of use to scientists, i.e, in understanding the world about us- which is actually not unlike what Carlo says in the last section of the paper.
    But overall, I think he is absolutely right about the way philosophers could be of great help to physicists (and some are)

    • Opinionated Moron Says:

      Likewise, many engineers tend to think that extremely little of what is being done in many physics departments is of any use to them.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Well, Yes and No. Peter Higgs’ explanation of elementary particle mass is of no use to them. But the machine it took to verify the theory was a superlative example of engineering.

      • Dark Matter Says:

        Of course. In an exactly similar manner everytime a physicist
        use logic and axioms and tries to deduce some abstract
        concept from their experiment it relies on the validity of logic
        and abstract reasoning that is very much part of philosophical
        debate. Philosophers probably understood the limitation of
        login but physicists are peeling an onion which has got
        infinite layers and sucking up billions of public funds in the process.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Feel free to change the subject to how science is funded. There have been many good discussions of that on this blog, but I am going to stick with the original subject.

        You know that the onion has infinite layers how?

      • Dark Matter Says:

        Just as you are confident that every question that can be
        asked has an answer. Just as you know the word “How” is a meaningful word and not an artefact of human reasoning. May be reality doesn’t have an answer to “how”. Maybe we first
        resolve these debates first and then answer other questions.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        That’s not an accurate analogy. Progress in physics has been driven by limits within theories (eg, parameter values estimated from data rather than from a deeper theoretical rationale), by mismatch between prediction and observation, and by unexpected inexplicable observations. Someday we might have a theory which predicts all of the fundamental constants to within experimental accuracy and has no ‘floating’ parameters. One would continue to test that theory as improvements in technology allow greater accuracy in testing, but you obviously cannot say a priori that the position I have just described is not the end of the game.

      • Dark Matter Says:

        I completely disagree. The task of an experimental science
        like Physics is not simply measuring some constants.
        It’s about understanding the interaction of consciousness
        and what it perceives as reality. Measuring Planck’s
        constant to very high accuracy doesn’t help to understand fundamental questions of quantum reality.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Ah, you are a quantum mystic. When you can define consciousness using words that correspond to terms in equations, you will have made progress down that route. I’m not holding my breath, though.

      • Dark Matter Says:

        No I am not a quantum mystic. But, I am not a plumber
        trying to compress physics in error bars either.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        What did you mean about consciousness?

      • Dark Matter Says:

        You should ask experts i.e. who are philosophers,
        neurologists, linguists and likes. I never claimed
        I understand. I too would like to know.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        You said, The task of an experimental science like Physics is… about understanding the interaction of consciousness and what it perceives as reality.

        The doing of physics is about generating more accurate predictions of the physical world and testing them. Importing discussion about consciousness does nothing whatsoever to further that process, although I agree that consciousness is a fascinating phenomenon.

      • Dark Matter Says:

        How do you define “”physical world””.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I don’t worry too much about it! I prefer just to get on with physics.

      • Dark Matter Says:

        Why do you think that your “physical world” and its rules
        has a real existence outside your imagination?

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Differing people can and do give differing answers to that question according to differing worldviews they have while still doing cutting-edge physics. If you want to know about my own answer then I’ll tell you, but my preceding sentence shows that it isn’t the point.

      • Dark Matter Says:

        I don’t think that is true. Physicists like all other experimental
        philosophers believe in objective nature of reality. The rules
        of the “physical world” just like the physical world itself
        exists in the absence of any observer. In any case, these
        questions are as important as making accurate measurements.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        A belief in what you call objective reality *motivates* people to do science, but it has no consequence for the findings of science.

      • Dark Matter Says:

        If you restrict science to error-bars then you are correct.
        However, physics is not just error-bars.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you, but please tell me what you think physics is, rather than what you think it isn’t.

      • Dark Matter Says:

        Please tell me what you mean by “I think” or “my thought”.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Thank you for the exchange.

  3. One other minor criticism: I very much agree with Carlo on the importance of continuity, but I wonder if he underestimates its use by others. In particular, I would argue that the hypothesis of supersymmetry was an example of continuity, and not discontinuity, in theoretical physics (Carlo claims the latter). Following the spectacular success of the use of simpler gauge symmetries in the world of particle physics, the hypothesis of supersymmetry was based on the premise of one last possible symmetry of the Poincare group. Indeed, the theory could have been called Ultimate Gauge Symmetry, to emphasise that the idea was a continuation of earlier gauge symmetry considerations.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    If the prominent names in the philosophy of science of the last 200 years had never existed, would physics be any bit retarded today?



    • Opinionated Moron Says:

      The fact that you are using logic/reasoning to prove your statement is related to the area of philosophy.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        No more or less than a 5-year-old who uses elementary logic correctly.

      • Dark Matter Says:

        The question is not about 5yr and 50yr, but to stress
        that concept of logic is a deeply philosophical

        The whole point here is
        that Physicists think they understand philosophy or
        any other area of science/social science better than
        experts in that field. They should stick to their own area
        of research.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        No we don’t. We think that philosophers have very little useful to say about physics. The opinions of physicists are diverse on whether philosophers have anything useful to say about anything else.

    • Dark Matter Says:

      Many if not most engineers have an exactly similar opinion about physicists.

  5. Dark Matter Says:

    Physicists have a superiority complex and have a very negative attitude towards both engineers and philosophers. Not to mention
    social scientists. This is why many physics departments
    are finding themselves at the centre of many controversies that are often related to women and minorities. Many subjects
    are market driven e.g. Engineering depts nor fundamental physics similarly social scientists
    actually study gender issues outside the dept. so they are more
    socially conscious. Physicists can get away by staring at the
    stars and thinking rest of us are all in the gutters. This attitude needs to change.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Tosh. Engineering is a fine subject, and the biological sciences are majestic, and mature physicists understand this. Philosophy has not helped its case by being anti-inductivist in the 20th century when induction aka probabilistic hypothesis testing is exactly what you need to decide between physical theories in the light of the data – the disingenuities of Karl Popper on this subject are rife.

      There may be sociology but there is no such thing as “social science” even if there are departments of it.

      • Dark Matter Says:

        If Philosophers can’t solve any problem it is probably
        because there is something fundamentally wrong in asking fundamental questions. Physicists are also
        proving the same fact but in a different way. Every time a
        physics problem get “solved” many more problems
        arise. At some stage, we need to stop and think where
        to stop.

        About sociology/social science you are of course entitled
        to your personal views.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Nihil tam absurde dici potest quod non dicatur ab aliquo philosophorum – Cicero.

      • “Nihil tam absurde dici potest quod non dicatur ab aliquo philosophorum”

        Nothing is so absurd that it has not been said by some philosopher.

    • Dark Matter Says:

      Impressed with your Latin. I have heard a similar saying:
      “” There has never been or will be a Physicist who will
      eventually be proven wrong” – Opinionated Moron.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        There is LD Landau on cosmologists, of course, but politeness prevents me from posting it on this blog.

  6. Michel C. Says:

    Physics is a part of philosophy, in theory. What is questionable is the actual practical qualities of each category and their people. It is always easier to see the flaws in the others than in yourself or your own group. Then there are the business and the competition aspects of the system which undermines the search for truth…

    The mainstream has way too much inertia to be moved. On the other hand, as an interactive media, the internet has produced a lot of background noise.

    There is nothing wrong with philosophy or physics but there are wrong philosophers and there are wrong physicists. The future will tell who are the right ones, relatively speaking…

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Physics *was* a part of philosophy. But the dialectic between theory and interventionist experiment (beyond even enhanced observation via specialist instruments) was new to the Renaissance. You can *subsume* it into philosophy if you like, but it had not been thought of before.

  7. Physics seems to be about examining reality in the largest and smallest scales, or the most abstract, because that seems to be where order is most apparent. Philosophy should be about stepping back and asking whether anything is being missed.
    For instance, the issue of time. Human civilization is based on the narrative, as we can think and communicate about past and future, while most of life lives in the present. Yet does that mean time is the point of the present, “flowing” past to future, which was reduced to measures of duration and correlated to measures of distance, or could it simply be change turning future to past? As in tomorrow becomes yesterday, because the earth turns.
    That is a philosophic question and it opens new avenues of thought, rather then retracing the old. For instance, could it be that different clocks can run at different rates simply because they are separate actions and every action is its own clock? That time is asymmetric because it is a measure of action and action is inertial? The earth turns one direction, not both.
    Then when you try to encompass all of reality into this point of the present, things can get really interesting, as the present consumes the past, while the past feeds the present. It’s all feedback loops, building and breaking.
    As Alan Watts described it, the wake doesn’t steer the boat, the boat creates the wake.
    The future cannot be pre-determined, because the past is determined by the calculations occurring as the present. The input is computed as it is entered.
    These are the ideas philosophy provides. Think on them.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      But we learnt a lot more about time from Einstein than from the thousand years of philosophical introspection that preceded him. The thing he didn’t do is resolve why, unlike space, time *passes*.

      • What Einstein did was to reduce time to measures of duration and then correlate them to measures of distance, using light.
        Which still assumes time is some scalar dimension, but just frozen in place, as an eternalist model and that creates all sorts of other issues, that have been swept under the rug, because the math works. Keep in mind the math worked for epicycles as well.
        Duration though, is the present, as events coalesce and dissolve, i.e. go future to past. What is measured is a specific action, aka frequency.
        Temperature is also an effect of action and we could correlate it to measures of volume, using ideal gas laws, but temperature is only foundational to our emotions and bodily functions, not our cognitive, sequential thought process, so we can be more objective about it.
        Temperature is also the basis of thermodynamic convection cycles, aka feedback loops.
        Consider that galaxies, as radiation expanding out, as mass gravitates in, are cosmic convection cycles.

      • Dark Matter Says:

        A plumber may think he has learnt a lot by fixing many
        cisterns and has made huge progress. But, it’s completely
        bogus to conclude that physicists who formulated hydrodynamics never contributed much to its design.

  8. Anton Garrett Says:

    Rovelli needs to read David Stove on Popper and Kuhn, for it is not popular misunderstanding of their work that is the trouble, but their work itself. They reject inductive logic. Inductive logic, done correctly, is identical with probability theory done correctly. (Both can be done incorrectly.) Probability theory is what you need to compare theories in the light of inevitably noisy data; it is an Olympian example of hypothesis testing, eg Galilean vs relativistic mechanics, and hypothesis testing is recognised as probabilistic.

    The fact that science progresses, and theory matches data ever more closely, is due to the fact that the number of theories available to test increases monotonically with time, due to human imagination. It is not due to the asymmetry between falsifiability (Popper’s criterion – he is correct that theories never come back from the dead) and verifiability (the best theory today may be deposed tomorrow).

    Kuhn argued that ‘paradigms’ in physics come and go as arbitrarily as fashions in clothing. For him as an anti-inductivist the better fit of Einsteinian than Galilean mechanics to the data means nothing. He was a decent historian of science but a lousy philosopher of it.

    Popper and Kuhn are ultimately incoherent because they accept probability but deny inductive logic. It can be hard to argue with an incoherent opponent.

    • Israfel Sivad Says:

      I appreciate your arguments on this page. However, I’m curious how you assume a new model for data to be introduced into science without the aid of something like philosophy. It seems to me that experiment and inductive reasoning are excellent tools, but they don’t allow for the creative theorizing necessary to produce a new interpretation of data. Not that philosophical theorizing produces models, but it seems to me that some sort of anti-inductivist experience must take place in order to reform models to more correctly conform to results. Personally, I’m not a scientist, so I know I may be ignorant about this subject matter. And of course, I’m aware that these sorts of “paradigm shifts” (sorry for the Kuhn reference) are perfectly capable of taking place within the confines of inductive science itself. I simply wonder how one allows for science to rethink its models if science is “only” concerned with inductive reasoning. I admit, I may have missed something in your argument; however, even if philosophy has no truthful value, it seems to me that the study of it (and the type of thought it engenders) could tremendously assist in the creativity of science.

  9. “Rovelli needs to read David Stove on Popper and Kuhn, for it is not popular misunderstanding of their work that is the trouble, but their work itself.”

    “Kuhn argued that ‘paradigms’ in physics come and go as arbitrarily as fashions in clothing. For him as an anti-inductivist the better fit of Einsteinian than Galilean mechanics to the data means nothing. He was a decent historian of science but a lousy philosopher of it.”

    I’m glad that we agree on (the lack of worth of) Kuhn. In his book on Anaximander, Carlo devotes several pages to showing how Kuhn’s idea of the paradigm shift is not reflected in the actual history of science.

  10. I read the paper yesterday in the sunshine. 🙂

    I recommend Carlo’s book on Anaximander; he is somewhat more critical of Kuhn there. I agree that it is not so much that Kuhn has been misunderstood but that he is wrong. Like Freud with respect to psychology, it would be better to forget Kuhn in such discussions; his ideas have not been shown to be useful. (He is also hoist by his own petard: if his theory is not scientific, we don’t need to worry about it; if it is, then, by his own logic, it is just a social construct which will be replaced by a new paradigm.)

    With regard to falsification, while it is not true that all theories which have not (yet) been falsified are equally valid, I’m not sure how much this is a problem in practice. Do people really have theories such that, to paraphrase Sabine Hossenfelder, tomorrow it will rain peas—totally falsifiable, but also totally useless?

    In his Anaximander book, Carlo makes a good case for the fact that, when developing special relativity, Einstein was actually extremely conservative, and that this—one of many examples—is pretty much the opposite of Kuhn’s idea of the paradigm shift. (Einstein also said that the only time he had been really radical was in his photoelectric-effect paper.)

    • Think of it as a natural cycle of expansion and consolidation, like spring and fall. Yet they are opposing dynamics. For example, energy expands, like light radiating out, while mass gravitates in. Look at galaxies. Mass falls in, as radiation expands out.
      So old orders are all about consolidating further, but when this structure breaks, it releases energy, which expands.
      So while the degree of change might be incremental to someone from the outside, from the perspective of those of the old order, it shakes the ground under their feet.

      • Dark Matter Says:

        Completely agree. This also proves what I said before.
        (a-b)^2 = (b-a)^2 for any a and b.
        Thus a=b for all a and b.

      • Dark Matter Says:

        This also proves that there is only one number which
        is unity and hence we can deduce that there is one and
        only god. This I think is the first mathematical derivation
        of God.

      • The problem I see with monotheism is the absolute, universal state beyond which there is nothing, would be an essential, not an ideal. So a spiritual absolute would the essence of sentience, from which we rise, not an ideal of information, knowledge and wisdom from which we fell.

        More the new born baby, than the wise old man. The light shining through the frames, not the images on them.

        It is that religion evolved as social framing, so it is necessary to focus it on order, rather than the consciousness seeking it. As with the Ten Commandments, divine right of kings, etc.

        The problem, as a social frame, is when people assume their ideals are absolutes, it leads to extremism. Christianity, for instance, moderates it with the Trinity.

        Ideals are projections, but nature is cyclical and reciprocal.
        For instance, efficiency is to do more with less, so the ideal of efficiency would be to do everything with nothing. Not even Jeff Bezos can do that.

      • Physics certainly doesn’t need this philosophy. 😐

      • Keeping in mind physics still incorporates time as a linear dimension, rather than as effect of activity.
        The measure of duration is being assumed to be more fundamental than what is actually being measured, a particular action.
        This is because the narrative is believed to be fundamental. Thus we are supposed to believe in block time, with the present as subjective reference.
        Not only can’t it explain how activity occurs and is always and only present, it can only explain why time is asymmetric by appealing to entropy. Action is inertial. The earth only turns one direction. That’s why time is asymmetric. Which also corresponds to the conservation of energy. It is always and only present.
        The simultanity of the present is dismissed by the fact different observers will see events in different order from different locations, but that is no more consequential than seeing the moon as it was a moment ago, simultaneous with seeing stars as they were years ago. It’s the energy being conserved and thus present, not the information.
        Spacetime is a bit like the crystalline spheres of epicycles. We are the center of our point of view, so it can be mathematically modeled, just as we explain change as a sequence of events, rather than the process creating them.
        Yet there is only this physical state we refer to as the present.

      • Thank you. brodix, for your multiple comments here. I also touched on some similar issues in my multipronged discussions on process philosophy (also known as processism, philosophy of organism, or ontology of becoming) in relation to change, causality, (in)determinism, metaphysical reality, stoic philosophy as well as the philosophy of space and time, in the concluding section of an extensive post at

  11. […] Does Physics need Philosophy (and vice versa)? — Read on […]

  12. I’ve studied both Physics and Philosophy at university and so this is a question I often think about. In my experience, although a lot of general philosophy is quite disconnected from scientific thought and purely speculative, there is a significant amount of philosophy that is extremely relevant to the development of physics.
    Within the confines of established physics and science, I agree that philosophy is largely redundant.
    On the frontiers of physical research however, philosophy is a key guide to he development of new theories. If you focus on mathematical elegance in your theory, you are adopting a philosophy that the true theory is mathematically elegant.
    Philosophy is and has always been from Aristotle to Newton to Einstein the guide to the development of new theories.
    It is critical then that physicists on the frontier have a good think about their philosophies.

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