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Has physics made philosophy obsolete?

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This Debate

Angie Hobbs, Lawrence Krauss, Mary Midgley. Rana Mitter hosts.

From neuroscience to cosmology, Hawking to Dawkins, many argue science can do away with philosophy. Yet science is replete with philosophical  puzzles. Should we see science as one metaphysics amongst others? Or is this to swap the megalomania of science with that of philosophy?

The Panel

Live from Australia, physicist and bestselling author Lawrence Krauss squares off against philosophers Angie Hobbs and Mary Midgley. The BBC's Rana Mitter keeps the fight fair.

Jump to what you want to see in the debate
  • Lawrence Krauss
    The Pitch
    Philosophy has it's uses but not in modern physics
  • Mary Midgley
    The Pitch
    We need philosophy to provide a framework for all subjects of study
  • Angie Hobbs
    The Pitch
    Philosophy and physics are intimately intertwined
  • The Debate
    Theme One
    Physics vs. metaphysics
  • The Debate
    Theme Two
    Can physicists learn from philosophers?
  • The Debate
    Theme Three
    The value of philosophy
Join the conversation

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AvProtestant on 02/09/2014 10:47pm

At the end of the discussion, in response to the point made by Mary Midgley, that Einstein did philosophy as an essential part of developing relativity theory, Professor Krauss says nonchalantly, in as many words, "Sure, creativity is essential to progress in science", but he does not seem to acknowledge that his concession contradicts what he is saying about the value-less-ness of philosophy to physicists.

Einstein's creativity included suspending the way of thinking that took Newton's theory as true, for which move - I believe it could be shown, if it wasn't admitted by Einstein himself - he needed the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. This was a change in philosophical outlook, and something important is failing to be registered when this is skipped-over, as if the change from the Newtonian to the Einsteinian world-view means nothing for us except greater powers of precision of prediction.

In this spirit of endorsing creativity, Professor Krauss may well concede that, yes, philosophy could be important to a physicist (a thinker concerned with physics) in some future crisis of physics, just as it was for Einstein one hundred and twenty years ago. But if that is so, his disparaging of philosophy is baffling. Unless, that is, we consider the possibility that the problems addressed by philosophy, including philosophy of science, have not occurred to him. There's no reason why they should have occurred to him, which otherwise might make philosophers interesting to him, and it is futile to try to make something interesting to someone who is determined to find it inconsequential.

Zoram Sanga on 21/08/2014 7:00am

Could Krauss be committing the 'taxi cab fallacy' here? There are some tricky issues here.

Michael Loomis on 21/08/2014 1:52am

I think you did misunderstand him. He specifically says that, with regards to modern physics, you do not need to understand or engage in philosophy. It is just a matter of fact statement about the current skills required to form new theories on this frontier, in which progress is led by science.

He also makes a secondary argument that all progress of any value to us comes about ultimately from the pursuit of science. This, as guru pointed out, is tautological.

He does not say, and repeatedly states that he doesn't want to be misinterpreted as saying, that philosophy is now obsolete. He says this multiple times in the debate. Can it be more clear that he doesn't think that philosophy is obsolete?

IKantunderstandyou on 19/08/2014 7:03pm

I'm just a novice here in full awareness of my fallibility here but Lawrence Krauss comes off as sort of naive in this short debate. His basic thesis seems to be that philosophy is obsolete in the wake of science. On what foundation does he suppose that the scientific method is constructed? The idea of falsifiability comes from a philosopher (Popper), the ideas of the very categories of study come from Aristotle, the idea of skepticism and building on a skeptical framework is partially due to Rene Decartes and his "Discourse on Method," amongst others, and what about Francis Bacon? Didn't that philosopher pretty much invent the scientific method? His thesis could be compared to the following logic: houses are good but foundations are unnecessary as soon as the house is built. It seems to me that any such house would soon fall right over.

Could it be that he is just seeing this through the lens of a worker bee and isn't looking at the bigger picture? Am I misunderstanding him?

guru.goodwin on 19/08/2014 5:52pm

First observation: Angie Hobbs in using Aristotle and asserting the idea of final cause does no service to science. Final cause in reference to questions of physics removes the observation and replaces it with speculation and religion. The ideas of causality of Aristotle are mostly useless generalizations from another era.

Second: the area of natural philosophy when it became real and driven by observation left philosophy behind and became science. When philosophy works it transcends itself and becomes science. When logic became mathematical it was removed from philosophy. When epistemology becomes rational and knowledge is defined by referential terms this reference drives us towards an empirical viewpoint.

Third: we can alway make stuff up and have fictions like Alice in Wonderland. Philosophy often mistakes its models, e.g., final cause, as references to things. They aren't. The circular and self reference of philosophy is limiting and fantastical. The ideas of knowledge in a vacuum devoid of facts and without reference makes philosophy look foolish.

When philosophy succeeds it becomes science. To ask questions at the limit of actual knowledge is one thing. To assert the significance of non-referential language is another.

branchw on 15/08/2014 2:30am

Fine comments back on 7/8 … too bad not any more have posted since then. Coming to the party late … I have to say that this is a very deep and broad topic that can hardly be canvased in this short a format. Dr Midgley and Dr Hobbs represent wisdom, but Dr Krauss represents knowledge … an important but smaller subject. Scientism is smaller than Empiricism, which is smaller than Epistemology … which itself is not self-sufficient, requiring Ontology above, and Rationalism as a cognate area under Epistemology.

Dr Krauss represents the typical journeyman view of a craft. He knows his tools, and is well able to use them to achieve an objective within his scope … a specialist, like a medical doctor. The other two in comparison are generalists, operating beyond mere craft, more like a biologist. A biologist is unclear about her scope because of its broadness, and is a researcher who is trying to invent new tools, rather than skillfully using existing tools.

A skilled craftsman is unconscious of some of the whys and wherefores, that a master is more concerned about, and can accomplish his task without general theories. Often physicists aren't very good at mathematics, it being a bag of tricks and a calculus that they are able to use when an amenable situation presents itself, but are at a loss in more difficult circumstances. So in String Theory we have a diddling with fancy Lagrangians, like the blind men in the dark with the elephant … but the whys and wherefores of any particular formula must be sought thru intuition. The job of a philosopher is to bring intuition into deduction and thus light to darkness … as Greek mathematics did for the previous Egyptian calculus. Dr Midgley was quite clear that the greater goal is to achieve a greater clarity of consciousness. Dr Hobbs on the other hand was quite clear, in a way that the limited self-consciousness of Dr Krauss could not rhetorically follow, that the history of a thing is part of a thing … that our present understanding is blinkered by our present unconscious bias, even with well developed subjects … even in the case of well controlled quantitative experiments.

Laura Kiil on 07/08/2014 7:01pm

They seem to be asking two different questions here with obviously two completely different ways of answering this.

If you ask the question: "Does a physicist need to read philosophy in order to do physics?" the answer would be no. That's not to say that said physicist will not partake in critical thinking or ask philosophical questions. It's not to say that he is unphilosophical or anti-philosophy. And I can't see many people disagreeing with this.

If, however, you ask the question: "Is science the only source of knowledge we need in the world?" then the answer will become far more muddled. There will certainly be some that will claim that only science, only empiricaln facts, bring true knowldge, but surely they would be in a minority. And there again may be people on the other side of the spectrum that view science with scepticism, but I would guess most people fall somewhere along that spectrum, with most probably saying, we need both. I think we do, but for diffent things.

Laura Kiil on 07/08/2014 6:22pm

@Sophist - You can hear Mary go "No! No! No!" in the background as well during that bit.

Sophist on 07/08/2014 4:08pm

Angie, nice strike on scientific knowledge and epistemic conditions: "if you are a scientist in 1100 AD... you would think the world was flat." He felt that.

AvProtestant on 07/08/2014 2:58pm

Didn't Popper say (or rather re-iterate Kant) to the proponents of logical empiricism that all our observations are "theory-soaked"? Our theorising is not derived only from having made observations, because those observations were themselves conditioned by earlier kinds of theory.

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