Physics and philosophy

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  1. M.A. in Philosophical Foundations of Physics | Department of Philosophy
  2. Essentials
  3. Yale College Programs of Study 12222–2020

On the other hand, philosophy of science has advanced since Carnap, Popper and Kuhn, recognizing that the way science effectively works is richer and more subtle than the way it was portrayed in the analysis of these thinkers. The weakness of their position is the lack of awareness of its frail historical contingency. They present science as a discipline with an obvious and uncontroversial methodology, as if this had been the same from Bacon to the detection of gravitational waves, or as if it was completely obvious what we should be doing and how we should be doing it when we do science.

Reality is different. Science has repeatedly redefined its own understanding of itself, along with its goals, its methods, and its tools. This flexibility has played a major role in its success. Let us consider a few examples from physics and astronomy.

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Contrary to expectations, it turned out that Earth was itself one of the heavenly bodies. After Copernicus, the goal appeared to be to find the right combination of moving spheres that would reproduce the motion of the planets around the Sun. Contrary to expectations, it turned out that abstract elliptical trajectories were better than spheres. After Newton, it seemed clear that the aim of physics was to find the forces acting on bodies. Contrary to this, it turned out that the world could be better described by dynamical fields rather than bodies.

After Faraday and Maxwell, it was clear that physics had to find laws of motion in space, as time passes. Contrary to assumptions, it turned out that space and time are themselves dynamical. After Einstein, it became clear that physics must only search for the deterministic laws of Nature. But it turned out that we can at best give probabilistic laws.

And so on. Here are some sliding definitions for what scientists have thought science to be: deduction of general laws from observed phenomena, finding out the ultimate constituents of Nature, accounting for regularities in empirical observations, finding provisional conceptual schemes for making sense of the world. The last one is the one I like. Science is not a project with a methodology written in stone, or a fixed conceptual structure. It is our ever-evolving endeavor to better understand the world. In the course of its development, it has repeatedly violated its own rules and its own stated methodological assumptions.

A currently common description of what scientists do is collecting data and making sense of them in the form of theories. As time goes by, new data are acquired and theories evolve. In this picture scientists are depicted as rational beings who play this game using their intelligence, a specific language, and a well-established cultural and conceptual structure.

The problem with this picture is that conceptual structures evolve as well. Science is not simply an increasing body of empirical information and a sequence of changing theories. It is also the evolution of our own conceptual structure.

M.A. in Philosophical Foundations of Physics | Department of Philosophy

It is the continuous search for the best conceptual structure for grasping the world, at a given level of knowledge. The modification of the conceptual structure needs to be achieved from within our own thinking, rather as a sailor must rebuild his own boat while sailing, to use the beautiful simile of Otto Neurath so often quoted by Quine. This intertwining of learning and conceptual change and this evolution of methodology and objectives have developed historically in a constant dialogue between practical science and philosophical reflection.

The views of scientists, whether they like it or not, are impregnated by philosophy. And here we come back to Aristotle: Philosophy provides guidance how research must be done. Not because philosophy can offer a final word about the right methodology of science contrary to the philosophical stance of Weinberg and Hawking. But because the scientists who deny the role of philosophy in the advancement of science are those who think they have already found the final methodology, they have already exhausted and answered all methodological questions.

They are consequently less open to the conceptual flexibility needed to go ahead. They are the ones trapped in the ideology of their time. One reason for the relative sterility of theoretical physics over the last few decades may well be precisely that the wrong philosophy of science is held dear today by many physicists. Popper and Kuhn, popular among theoretical physicists, have shed light on important aspects of the way good science works, but their picture of science is incomplete and I suspect that, taken prescriptively and uncritically, their insights have ended up misleading research.

The combination of the two has given rise to disastrous methodological confusion: the idea that past knowledge is irrelevant when searching for new theories, that all unproven ideas are equally interesting and all unmeasured effects are equally likely to occur, and that the work of a theoretician consists in pulling arbitrary possibilities out of the blue and developing them, since anything that has not yet been falsified might in fact be right.

I think that this methodological philosophy has given rise to much useless theoretical work in physics and many useless experimental investments. Arbitrary jumps in the unbounded space of possibilities have never been an effective way to do science. The reason is twofold: first, there are too many possibilities, and the probability of stumbling on a good one by pure chance is negligible; more importantly, nature always surprises us and we, limited critters, are far less creative and imaginative than we may think.

The radical conceptual shifts and the most unconventional ideas that have actually worked have indeed been always historically motivated, almost forced, either by the overwhelming weight of new data, or by a well-informed analysis of the internal contradictions within existing, successful theories.

Science works through continuity, not discontinuity. He was using ellipses as an approximation for the deferent-epicycle motion of Mars and was astonished to find that the approximation worked better than his model. In both instances, the important new idea was forced by data. Neither Copernicus nor Einstein relied significantly on new data. But neither did their ideas come out of the blue either.

They both started from an insightful analysis of successful well-established theories: Ptolemaic astronomy, Newtonian gravity and special relativity. The contradictions and unexplained coincidences they found in these would open the way to a new conceptualization. It is not fishing out un-falsified theories, and testing them, that brings results.

Rather, it is a sophisticated use of induction, building upon a vast and ever growing accumulation of empirical and theoretical knowledge, that provides the hints we need to move ahead. It is by focusing on empirically successful insights that we move ahead. There was no discontinuity: in fact it was continuity at its best. I think this lesson is missed by much contemporary theoretical physics, where plenty of research directions are too quick to discard what we have already found out about Nature.

Three major empirical results have marked recent fundamental physics: gravitational waves, the Higgs, and the absence of super-symmetry at LHC. All three are confirmations of old physics and disconfirmations of widespread speculation. In all three cases, Nature is telling us: do not speculate so freely. The detection of gravitational waves, rewarded by the last Nobel Prize in fundamental physics, has been a radical confirmation of century-old general relativity. The recent nearly simultaneous detection of gravitational and electromagnetic signals from the merging of two neutron stars GW has improved our knowledge of the ratio between the speeds of propagation of gravity and electromagnetism by something like 14 orders of magnitude in a single stroke.

The well-publicized detection of the Higgs particle at CERN has confirmed the Standard Model as the best current theory for high-energy physics, against scores of later alternatives that have long been receiving much attention. But CERN's emphasis on the discovery of the Higgs when the Large Hadron Collider became operational has also served to hide the true surprise: the absence of super-symmetric particles where a generation of theoretical physicists had been expecting to find them.

Despite rivers of ink and flights of fancy, the minimal super-symmetric model suddenly finds itself in difficulty. So once again, Nature has seriously rebuffed the free speculations of a large community of theoretical physicists who ended up firmly believing them. Nature's repeated snub of the current methodology in theoretical physics should encourage a certain humility, rather than arrogance, in our philosophical attitude. Part of the problem is precisely that the dominant ideas of Popper and Kuhn perhaps not even fully digested have misled current theoretical investigations.

Physicists have been too casual in dismissing the insights of successful established theories. Similarly, the emphasis on falsifiability has made physicists blind to a fundamental aspect of scientific knowledge: the fact that credibility has degrees and that reliability can be extremely high, even when it is not absolute certainty. The scientific enterprise is founded on degrees of credibility, which are constantly updated on the basis of new data or new theoretical developments. Recent attention to Bayesian accounts of confirmation in science is common in the philosophy of science, but largely ignored in the theoretical physics community, with negative effects, in my opinion.

What I intend here is not a criticism of Popper and Kuhn, whose writings are articulate and obviously insightful. What I am pointing out is that a simple-minded version of their outlooks has been taken casually by many physicists as the ultimate word on the methodology of science. Far from being immune from philosophy, current physics is deeply affected by philosophy.

But the lack of philosophical awareness needed to recognize this influence, and the refusal to listen to philosophers who try to make amends for it, is a source of weakness for physics. Here is one last argument from Aristotle: More in need of philosophy are the sciences where perplexities are greater. This is why some scientists, including myself, working as I do on quantum gravity, are more acutely aware of the importance of philosophy for physics.

Here is a list of topics currently discussed in theoretical physics: What is space? What is time? Is the world deterministic? Do we need to take the observer into account to describe nature? What is the quantum wave function?


Does a theory of the totality of the universe make sense? Does it make sense to think that physical laws themselves might evolve? It is clear to me that input from past and current philosophical thinking cannot be disregarded in addressing these topics. In loop quantum gravity, my own technical area, Newtonian space and time are reinterpreted as a manifestation of something which is granular, probabilistic and fluctuating in a quantum sense. Space, time, particles and fields get fused into a single entity: a quantum field that does not live in space or time.

The variables of this field acquire definiteness only in interactions between subsystems. The fundamental equations of the theory have no explicit space or time variables. Geometry appears only in approximations. Objects exist within approximations. Realism is tempered by a strong dose of relationalism. I think we physicists need to discuss with philosophers, because I think we need help in making sense of all this.

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Yale College Programs of Study 12222–2020

In addition, you are required to take one module from a range of optional modules, which may typically include:. In addition, you are required to take two modules from at least two of the following groups which offer a range of optional modules, which may typically include:. In addition, you are required to take up to a maximum of two modules from a range of optional modules, which may typically include:. You may select your remaining credits from either Level 6 Year 3 or Level 5 Year 2 optional modules.

The range of optional Level 6 modules may typically include:. For the list of Level 5 optional modules, see Year 2. The groups do not apply in your final year. However, if offered the grade achieved may be taken into account when considering whether or not to accept a candidate who has just fallen short of the conditions of their offer. Applicants having studied Maths and Further Maths but not Physics, may be considered on a case-by-case basis following an interview with the admissions tutor.

NOTE: If you are taking linear A levels in England, you will be required to pass the practical endorsement in all science subjects. NOTE: In order to satisfy the physics requirement if you have BTECs, you would need to offer the following modules at Distinction: 6, 7, 8, 9 and one of 14, 17, 20 or We do not count the Higher and Advanced Higher in the same subject.

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Philosophy of Physics

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