Avoiding Philosophical Philistinism

Scientific American has a wide-ranging and candid interview with physicist Carlo Rovelli. From the interview,

Horgan: What’s your opinion of the recent philosophy-bashing by Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson?

Rovelli: Seriously: I think they are stupid in this. I have admiration for them in other things, but here they have gone really wrong. Look: Einstein, Heisenberg, Newton, Bohr…. and many many others of the greatest scientists of all times, much greater than the names you mention, of course, read philosophy, learned from philosophy, and could have never done the great science they did without the input they got from philosophy, as they claimed repeatedly. You see: the scientists that talk philosophy down are simply superficial: they have a philosophy (usually some ill-digested mixture of Popper and Kuhn) and think that this is the “true” philosophy, and do not realize that this has limitations.

Here is an example: theoretical physics has not done great in the last decades. Why? Well, one of the reasons, I think, is that it got trapped in a wrong philosophy: the idea that you can make progress by guessing new theory and disregarding the qualitative content of previous theories. This is the physics of the “why not?” Why not studying this theory, or the other? Why not another dimension, another field, another universe? Science has never advanced in this manner in the past. Science does not advance by guessing. It advances by new data or by a deep investigation of the content and the apparent contradictions of previous empirically successful theories. Quite remarkably, the best piece of physics done by the three people you mention is Hawking’s black-hole radiation, which is exactly this. But most of current theoretical physics is not of this sort. Why? Largely because of the philosophical superficiality of the current bunch of scientists.

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