Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things about Philosophy (Preposterous Universe)This defense isn't surprising because Sean Carroll is an eminent example of a physics crackpot who uses philosophy and his personal links with philosophers to suggest that he is something else than a physics crackpot.
He lists three valid criticisms that physicists sometimes raise against philosophy and attempts to disagree with them:
“Philosophy tries to understand the universe by pure thought, without collecting experimental data.”These criticisms – in one way or another articulated by folks like Weinberg, Hawking, Krauss, Tyson, and others – are true even though Weinberg in particular has stated the problems with philosophy much more crisply and accurately.
“Philosophy is completely useless to the everyday job of a working physicist.”
“Philosophers care too much about deep-sounding meta-questions, instead of sticking to what can be observed and calculated.”
But let me write down my own – related but not identical – objections against philosophy as a method to learn how the world works.
Philosophy is a wrong way to learn how the world works especially because
Most importantly, philosophical prejudices and dogmas are always more important than new empirical evidence and solid calculations and argumentation.To express the last point differently, philosophy has turned into a social movement where one can hide if his ideas have been falsified – killed by a procedure that is the most important building block of the scientific method. Because philosophy as an institution is a hideaway for people who are wrong, it is a factor that isn't just neutral. Instead, it reduces the efficiency of the scientific method.
The authority is ultimately not derived from the impersonal evidence but from the predetermined "wisdom" of the philosophers that ultimately boils down to their popularity among the folks who are even less competent than themselves.
The philosophical approach remains tightly linked with the human language which has been getting, is getting, and will be getting increasingly inadequate as a language to accurately describe Nature. Philosophers almost always fail to appreciate that their language is rooted in assumptions that have been proven wrong which has made almost all their questions ill-defined and almost all their answers misguided.
This whole octopus may sometimes accidentally agree with the scientific evidence but much more often, it is used to redirect the progress of science in a different direction than the direction indicated by the evidence, typically in the direction of people's wishes how Nature "should" look, and it is being used as a justification for crackpot physics in general.
When Carroll tries to disagree with the claim that philosophy doesn't derive its authority from the empirical data, he says it is a "dopey" claim because philosophers sometimes care about the empirical data, too. Well, maybe, some of them, sometimes – it's hard to summarize the attitude of thousands or millions of people who call themselves "philosophers" to thousands or millions of scientific questions by such a simple-minded slogan.
The point is that the partial evidence and even the rock-solid evidence just doesn't have the ultimate power to decide and beat other arguments. The ultimate power comes from people who describe themselves as the philosophers. To a large extent, they treat themselves as infallible and their authority as permanent. This intrinsic dependence on the highly imperfect humans – humans that are not subject to any mechanism that would guarantee that they improve themselves or converge closer to the truth – is the real #1 reason why science works and philosophy doesn't. Carroll writes:
Philosophers do, indeed, tend to think a lot. This is not a bad thing. All of scientific practice involves some degree of “pure thought.”Well, philosophers are obviously not thinking enough. It's the good theoretical physicists who are practicing "pure thoughts" well.
Philosophers are, by their nature, more interested in foundational questions where the latest wrinkle in the data is of less importance than it would be to a model-building phenomenologist.The theoretical physicists, like string theorists, are also interested in foundational questions and they are much less affected by the latest experiments or fads. The only difference is that they are doing it right while philosophers are not.
And some amount of rigorous thought is necessary to make any progress on them. Shutting up and calculating isn’t good enough.This comment is completely wrong. Shutting up and calculating – at least what this phrase is meant to denote when it's used favorably by sensible physicists – is not only enough. It is absolutely necessary for modern physics to operate well. It encodes the attitude that one has to use the superior language of mathematics to learn and decide about things; and one must always be able to forget about complaints produced in an inferior language – especially the human language – i.e. to shut up whenever one learns something using the language of mathematics.
The principle is about the priority of tools and it's the calculations that are treated as more powerful in physics than verbal arguments. It is an extremely important principle necessary for physics to work. Carroll really, not just seemingly, contradicts it. Note that he uses the adjective "rigorous" for the philosophers' thoughts. But one adjective that is completely wrong for the approach that denies the importance of "shut up and calculate" is "rigorous". One may only be rigorous if he uses the language of mathematics. One may only be rigorous if he shuts up and calculates. The language may be used as a rough summary of something that has been nailed down in the language of mathematics – but not the other way around!
In particular, the phrase "shut up and calculate" has been used in the context of the foundations of quantum mechanics. Virtually all the philosophers misunderstand the quantum revolution – the very fact that the quantum revolution has forced us to describe Nature in a way that is fundamentally incompatible with the most general assumptions of classical physics and "common sense". They talk a lot and almost everything they say about these problems is pure junk.
Quantum mechanics brought us a new framework for physics and science and it is rather simple to summarize it. Only the results of observations – perceptions by observers – are facts that may be talked about; and the laws of Nature can only calculate probabilities of the individual outcomes from squared absolute values of the probability amplitudes – using the mathematical formulae that apply in every single context of the real world and that are easy to summarize.
The previous sentence summarizes everything that is scientifically meaningful according to the new (well, 90 years old) framework of physics. Every question about Nature that doesn't respect this general template is scientifically meaningless. Every claim about Nature's inner workings that disagrees with the general postulates of quantum mechanics – postulates that render most classical assumptions about the world incorrect and most classical questions about "reality" meaningless – is wrong.
"Shut up and calculate" isn't supposed to mean that we don't talk at all. It is supposed to say that except for (usually long) calculations, the only foundational insight we should understand and keep in mind is the sentence that I repeat because it's so important:
Only the results of observations – perceptions by observers – are facts that may be talked about; and the laws of Nature can only calculate probabilities of the individual outcomes from squared absolute values of the probability amplitudes – using the mathematical formulae that apply in every single context of the real world and that are easy to summarize.Everything else – I mean everything fundamentally different – that people say about the foundations of Nature or quantum mechanics is wrong. Everything else is a violation of the "shut up and calculate" rule and inevitably ends up being wrong. Sometimes people produce dozens or hundreds or thousands of pages of fantasies that slightly or heavily disagree with the principles of modern physics as we have learned them. And these dozens or hundreds or thousands of pages are just wrong. They're not just "pure thought"; they're "pure šit".
Everything that Sean Carroll has ever said about the foundations of quantum mechanics is pure šit, too. That's why he's defending other crackpots who are doing the same and who love to mask their medieval dogmatism and stupidity by pompous labels such as "philosophers". The very same comments apply to his hardcore crackpottery about the cosmological origin of the arrow of time, his Boltzmann Brain psychopathological seizures, and others.
In the second segment, Carroll criticizes the statement
Philosophy is completely useless to the everyday job of a working physicist.by conjecturing that physicists who decide about the value of ideas from the perspective of their work only are "leading a fairly intellectually impoverished existence." Except that it isn't necessarily so. Physicists who are studying the foundations of quantum gravity, taking not only general postulates of quantum mechanics but also all other modern insights of physics into account, are leading an intellectually omnifarious, omnicompetent, and omnicorporeal existence. They're avoiding everything else related to the nature of being because they know that (and why) everything else attempting to say something about these matters is bullšit.
Philosophy is interesting because of its intrinsic interest, not because it’s a handmaiden to physics.Great but the real problem is that the results of the philosophical (unscientific) method are wrong. What is particularly ironic – and hypocritical – about Carroll's attitude is that he is one of the loudest critics of religions and everything associated with them. Nevertheless, he frantically defends "philosophy" as a way to learn about Nature. It's insane because philosophy is exactly as unscientific as religion. Every religion may be called just another philosophy and pretty much all philosophies and religions are equally deficient when it comes to their basic flaw – the violation of the rules of the scientific method.
But if I were going to choose Carroll's sentences in which aggressive stupidity shows up most clearly, it would probably be the following ones:
Foundational questions, such as the quantum measurement problem, the arrow of time, the nature of probability, and so on. Again, a huge majority of working physicists don’t ever worry about these problems.A huge majority of working physicists do care about these questions. Indeed, the measurements in quantum mechanics, the nature of probability, and the second law of thermodynamics influence virtually everything they're working on.
Their real difference from Sean Carroll isn't that they "don't worry" or "don't think" about these matters, or that they "lead an intellectually impoverished existence". Their real difference from the likes of Sean Carroll is that they have understood the answers to all these simple enough questions that have been found by the scientific method. That's the real reason why they avoid writing idiotic crackpot would-be "philosophical" blog posts and indeed whole books about the "alternative" answers concerning these basic questions.
Unlike Carroll, they are not cranks!
The sentences by Carroll above show why it is so important to point out as often as possible that the likes of Carroll and Smolin are deluded, sloppy cranks. As soon as you fail to emphasize this fact once, the likes of Carroll and Smolin will abuse this weakness of yours, and they will actually place themselves above you. They will label you as an unthinking, intellectually impoverished machine. In reality, your only "sin" is that you have understood some undergraduate basics of modern physics while they have not. Spoiled brats like Carroll need to be beaten, beaten, beaten.
Finally, Carroll claims that the criticism of philosophy
“Philosophers care too much about deep-sounding meta-questions, instead of sticking to what can be observed and calculated.”is frustrating. He writes, for example:
The idea is apparently that developing a new technique for calculating a certain wave function is an honorable enterprise worthy of support, while trying to understand what wave functions actually are and how they capture reality is a boring waste of time. I suspect that a substantial majority of physicists who use quantum mechanics in their everyday work are uninterested in or downright hostile to attempts to understand the quantum measurement problem.Intelligent physicists are more or less hostile towards this philosophical movement for a simple reason. It is wrong. It is based on fundamentally misguided tenets. Modern physics actually understands what the wave function is and especially what it's not very well. I have already written the sentence that says everything that matters. Wave functions are just collections of mathematical data that encode the observer's knowledge about the system and that may be used to probabilistically predict additional knowledge. That's it.
What the people trying "to understand what wave functions actually are" are doing nothing else than trying to promote a different, i.e. wrong, answer to this question. They are trying to force physics to return to the narrow realm compatible with their extremely limited brains, to the realm of classical physics. They are trying to promote childish metaphors and to force everyone to believe that these metaphors are true.
Wave functions are "actually" nothing because they don't exist in any classical, "actual" sense. The very rhetorical trick of using words like "actually" is nothing else than another example of the methods how deluded and intellectually limited people are trying to "authoritatively assert" that good science is "obliged" to become compatible with their uninformed, obsolete, falsified, and downright idiotic ideas about the way how the world "should" work.
But the world just doesn't work like that. The incompatibility of the laws of physics with their preconception boils down to two things. One of them is the empirically rooted evidence that has simply falsified classical physics in the most general sense as a framework for all of physics. The other fact underlying the incompatibility is the "philosophers'" inability to understand the new framework that is extremely beautiful, natural, and that has been known since 1925.
In his text, Carroll also slings mud at the beautiful picture of Nature as developed by modern physics. He finds it "sad" that physics could reduce the problems to calculations – and could have eliminated the need for long, would-be intelligent monologues and dialogues. But that's exactly what makes the modern physics beautiful and powerful. There may be many complicated formulae and calculations and their applications are numerous but the basic framework of quantum physics may be summarized in the single sentence I have already written down – plus a few simple mathematically formulated postulates of quantum mechanics that specify what we mean. This ability of the humans to unify all of their knowledge in this crisp way is stunningly inspiring. People like Carroll who are "sad" if they see concise foundations of physics that leave no room for babbling just hate science – and they don't belong to science. Philosophers may prefer a world where the foundations of physics require 500 pages of rhetorical babbling. But our world isn't like that. The "verbal", conceptual foundations may be summarized in one sentence or two and all the other "details" are a matter of calculations. This conciseness of the foundations is pretty and people who actually like theoretical physics have been attracted by this conciseness (and the expectation that they would unify the foundations even more than that – make them even more concise) – exactly the aspect that repels physics-haters like Carroll.
An ordinary layman could be simply said to be deluded, intellectually insufficient to grasp the true foundations of modern physics. However, people like Carroll are pompous fools, aggressive self-confident idiots who try to paint their intellectual defects in rosy colors and decorations such as the word "philosophy". They won't hesitate to claim – and look into people's eyes while doing so – that their misunderstandings of modern physics makes them intellectually superior while those who dare to understand the basics of modern physics are intellectually impoverished.
The correct term for these people is "arrogant cranks" and the more other philosophers fail to protect their trademark "philosophy" against parasites like Carroll, the more accurately the words "philosophy" and "crackpottery" will be turning into synonyma.