3:AM magazine has a nice interview of the physicist Sean Carroll by Richard Marshall that’s part of an ongoing series interviews, generally of philosophers, being done by the magazine. Carroll is an theoretical astrophysicist who has managed to avoid the pratfalls of physicists like Stephen Hawking who recently declared the death of philosophy. Carroll considers himself sympathetic to philosophers/ philosophical inquiry in general, mainly out of a shared desired to understand the world.
The public spat between physics and philosophy is just silly, more a matter of selling books or being lazy than any principled intellectual position. Most physicists know very little about philosophy, which is hardly surprising; most experts in any one academic field don’t know very much about many other fields. This ignorance manifests itself in a couple of ways. First, a lot of scientists are quite comfortable with simplistic philosophy of science. This usually doesn’t matter, but there are cases where good philosophy has something to offer, and scientists rarely put in the work necessary to understand what that good philosophy has to say. Second, scientists tend to think of philosophy as a service discipline – what good does it do for my practice of science? The answer is almost always “no good at all,” which they then translate into thinking that philosophy has no real purpose. The truth is that almost all scientific work can proceed quite happily without philosophy – you can be very good at driving a car without knowing how an engine works. But when it’s important, philosophy very important indeed.
Very few philosophers, by contrast, are going to accuse science of being worthless. Nevertheless, it’s no surprise that there are problems of appreciation and understanding flowing in that direction as well. The only remedy, if one is interested in finding one, is constant interaction and communication.
My own default position is that respectable people in other academic fields probably have something interesting to say, even if I don’t immediately understand it. Not always true, of course – there are pockets of nonsense within every discipline. But the less I understand about the basics of some field, the less likely I am to start declaring it to be useless and antiquated.
Probably even more interesting for PEL listeners/readers, Carroll was the motive force behind last fall’s Moving Naturalism Forward interdisciplinary workshop, which included a pretty wide range of scientists, philosophers, and other academics discussing “how to construct meaningful human lives in a world governed by the laws of nature.” The entire conference was really a roundtable discussion with each session dedicated to a specific topic — what is real?, emergence and reduction, morality, meaning, free will/determinism — all of which were recorded and are available free on the web.