Deep Science Is Always Born Philosophical


Philosophy, and science have the same longing, truth. They go at it in, roughly, the same way. However, the data set philosophy uses, even in its mature form, is much more general. This makes philosophy more “meta”, and thus indispensable to create anything really new in science, be it even a new lab method.

So the debate “Philosophers and Physicists” in Scientia Salon is tongue in cheek.

Einstein offered philosophical considerations in domains far from physics. Yet, if one knows him well, one can see how his general philosophy positively impacted his scientific work.

Epistemology, the study of how we come to have knowledge, is a meta-discipline.

Newton: Mathematician, Physicist, “Natural” Philosopher

Newton: Mathematician, Physicist, “Natural” Philosopher

Yet, epistemology is essential to establish new methods in science. A recent example is datation using genetic material: the practice became more precise, because how we came to the previous knowledge was questioned, and then modified into better knowledge.

Edge science is nearly always entangled with practical epistemology. This makes scientists at the edge of science philosophers of science in a practical sense.

Whether the philosophical method has been useful in Twentieth Century science should not be a debate: Frege, Russell, Poincare’, etc., were also full blown philosophers. Many, if not all, of the top, fundamental physicists, used the philosophical method. The Foundational debates were all deeply philosophical always (as early as Aristotle, Averroes, Tycho, Bruno, Galileo, Newton, Laplace, Gauss, Riemann, Maxwell, Mach, Cantor, etc.).

The fight between Einstein and his sponsor Planck about the photoelectric effect was philosophical.

Bohr defended (his view of) Quantum Mechanics with philosophy (thanks to Born’s interpretation it became permanent).

Better: Karl Popper engaged in a correspondence with Einstein about Non-Locality. Out of that came the Popper experiment and the EPR.’s_experiment

Can philosophy be practical? In science? Sure. Even in mathematics: for philosophical reasons, the Dutch topologist Brouwer rejected some infinite methods in mathematics. This brought, half a century later, mathematics that could be used in ATMs and other machines.

Science is after truth. Philosophy is also after truth. Both are also after defining what truth could be, and what propositions may be formulated and which ones may be provable.

Introducing only observables in physics was attributed to Einstein by Heisenberg, in a heated exchange about the Copenhagen Interpretation, where Heisenberg accused Einstein to have taught him that way.

But Einstein had got the notion from Poincare’. As found in Henri’s “La Science et L’Hypothese” plus Poincare’ papers on what Poincare’ called the “Principle of Relativity”, complete with the constancy of the speed of light, which, latest news, is not really constant (as I expected).

Philosophy is also after truth.

Even the truth that there are no truths about some matters.

Science also excels at the truth that there are sometimes no truth about some matters… and science has learned to overcome that: for example there is no definition, stricto sensu, of elementary particle. Elementary, yes, particle, no… But that does not prevent physicists of discovering them, at least in Feynman diagrams.

The difference between the notion of truth in philosophy and in science is just a matter of degree.

Buridanus established the erroneous labeled “Newton’s First Law” in a treaty he wrote about Aristotle. That same Buridan taught students, and established with them the basic idea of graphs, and what became the Oxford Computing School.

Aristotle, fully admirable and experimentally oriented in biology, was spectacularly wrong about inertia. That became a big deal as his students Antipater, Craterus and Alexander established a fascist political paradigm that was to reign until, well, Buridan’s time.

Thus truth in philosophy, politics, society and science are entangled.

This stays true to this day: “High Energy Physics” was long well financed, in part because the leaders of the military-industrial complex cannot fail to have noticed that they need “high energy”.

So why all the recent aggressivity of second, third, of even lower order physicists against “philosophy”? Simply because incoherent Quantum Field Theory and complete flight of fancy (SUSY, Strings, Inflation Now, etc.) have ruled physics, under the chimp like mood “shut up and calculate”, in recent decades.

Many philosophers of science have directed sharp critiques at this contemporary elite thinking in physics, and their judiciousness has made physicists furious (because they feel threatened, they remember the cancellation of the SSC).

Some insist upon labels. So and so was employed officially as a philosopher: ‘what did he do, I did not read him, I can’t read him, so why does it matter to scientists?’

Feynman was a practical philosopher. He needed his philosophy for his physics. Actually some of his “proofs” in physics use a special, Feynman-made notion of “truth”. According to Feynman-truth, Feynman discovered some things. But somebody with a different notion of truth would view physics differently (Feynman would agree with what I just wrote; actually he basically wrote this, in particular cases, say about E = mc^2, or “virtual””particles”).

French philosophers of science such as Bachelard and then his successor, Canguighelm, were actually scientists: the former as a physicist, the second was a Medical Doctor.

In turn, the one some would view as a glorified parrot, Thomas S. Kuhn, used Bachelard’s notion of “epistemological rupture” (coupure or rupture épistémologique) as re-interpreted by Alexandre Koyré to develop his theory of paradigm changes.

Wikipedia lists nearly 1,000 French philosophers (and they miss quite a few!) Many of these were of a scientific or mathematical background.


Here is an example: I claim the Multiverse error is based in a philosophical subtlety, which was missed by everybody. I feel that Planck nearly spotted explicitly the nature of the error, and it’s Einstein, his protégé’, who instigated it (this is rather ironical, as, in the end, without realizing it, Einstein came to be opposed to himself in the debate on the Foundations of Quantum Physics).

A lot of the progress in science, and even technology, has to do with questioning how we know what we think we know. That’s essentially philosophical. The more fundamental the scientific questions, the more one has to question how it is that we got to these conclusions.


Here is another example: the end of Cretaceous mass extinction. Alvarez, the geologist son of Alvarez the Nobel in physics, asked his dad how one could prove that there was an impact. The dad answered: Iridium, it’s rare on Earth, but found on asteroids. So Alvarez went to look for Iridium, and found it, thus demonstrating there was an impact.

However, I scoffed. I knew there had been other impacts. I also knew there was the Deccan Traps hyper-volcanism at the same time. The numbers, about the magnitudes did not fit. So, philosophical question: how sure were we that the Iridium did not come from the center of the Earth? I did not see the Alvarez and their followers even consider the question.

Yet, it was impossible they were not aware of it. So this was fishy scientific logic.

Science is about certain knowledge. How do we get there? By making alternatives impossible. The asteroid extinction conclusion cannot pretend to be science, because a (more probable!) alternative was not excluded.


By the way, latest news show that my point of view is winning: yes Iridium can come from the core, yes the extinction’s chronology seems volcanically driven.

In other news, Coel, one of the scientist-professors-commenters and writers at Scientia Salon, said, basically, that scientist are practical epistemologists.

Coel also made a broadside against those who are ravaged by superstition to the point they demand respect for their superstitions, by confusing respect and tolerance (a point I long made).

Should we entertain those fanatics (= those who come from the fanum, the temple), we would have to respect Abraham the would-be child killer, because we are tolerant? Of what? The veneration for those who bind children to offer them to gods, or dogs?

Knowledge, and the search thereof, is more united than it looks.

Knowledge died in Antiquity because epistemology died. And that died, because fascism (“Hellenistic Kingdoms) blossomed.

Patrice Ayme’



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4 Responses to “Deep Science Is Always Born Philosophical”

  1. ianmillerblog Says:

    You imply, by writing [complete with the constancy of the speed of light, which, latest news, is not really constant (as I expected)] the velocity of light is not constant. Have you any reference to show evidence of where it is not? I ask because this is of extreme fundamental importance.

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