Thinking philosophically, in the physical sciences

As a consequence of the European, in particular the continental tradition, the general writings of the two discoverer’s of quantum mechanics–Werner Heisenberg from Germany and Erwin Schroedinger from Austria–show great familiarity with and interest in various philosophical systems of thought, from the Greeks onwards. While the writings of Neils Bohr and Albert Einstein also often have a philosophical bent, their references to formal systems of philosophy tend to be fewer, but nevertheless important. In contrast, when the focus of work in new physics shifted from Europe to the US around the middle of the twentieth century, this regard for general philosophical thinking among the leading professional physicists does seem to have weakened. Typical statements of Richard Feynman and Steven Weinberg, for instance, display a certain degree of disdain, or certainly a lack of sympathy, for the value of philosophical thinking in the physical sciences.

In any case, in the present account I assume that there is value in looking at the growth of modern physical science from a ‘philosophical point of view’, though it may require some degree of maturity as well as sympathy to adopt this attitude.

That is from the personal reflections of Prof. Mukunda in the latest issue of Resonance on The Philosophy of Physical Sciences (PDF).

If this kind of stuff interests you, it is a must-read piece. Here is the last paragraph of the piece:

… from a philosophical standpoint,  we see that pure empiricism and a purely deductive approach are both limited in scope. We need to combine caution, flexibility, and rigour–all at the same time. Nature is inexhaustible, and only experience hand in hand with reason can guide us to dependable knowledge. These seem to be the characteristics of a philosophy useful for the physical sciences.

Take a look!

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2 Responses to “Thinking philosophically, in the physical sciences”

  1. amelo14 Says:

    Quite interesting post. Wondering if you have ever had the chance to read Thomas Kuhn’s work?

    Andrés

  2. Guru Says:

    Dear Amelo14,

    Thanks for stopping by and the comment; I have Kuhn’s structure of scientific revolutions with me (because I once heard that nobody should be allowed to use the word paradigm shift unless he or she has read the book); but, I have not read it yet (which might explain the absence of the use of “paradigm shift” in my posts :-)

    Guru

    PS: Long back, I did try to read the book without much of success.

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