[LINK] Physicist Carlo Rovelli on Modern Physics Research

post by shminux · 2014-08-22T21:46:01.254Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 12 comments

A blog post in Scientific American, well worth reading. Rovelli is a researcher in Loop Quantum Gravity.

Some quotes:

Horgan: Do multiverse theories and quantum gravity theories deserve to be taken seriously if they cannot be falsified?

Rovelli: No.

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.

Horgan: Can science attain absolute truth?


Rovelli: I have no idea what “absolute truth” means. I think that science is the attitude of those who find funny the people saying they know something is absolute truth.  Science is the awareness that our knowledge is constantly uncertain.  What I know is that there are plenty of things that science does not understand yet. And science is the best tool found so far for reaching reasonably reliable knowledge.

Horgan: Do you believe in God?

Rovelli: No.  But perhaps I should qualify the answer, because like this it is bit too rude and simplistic. I do not understand what “to believe in God” means. The people that “believe in God” seem like Martians to me.  I do not understand them.  I suppose this means that I “do not believe in God”. If the question is whether I think that there is a person who has created Heavens and Earth, and responds to our prayers, then definitely my answer is no, with much certainty.

Horgan: Are science and religion compatible?

Rovelli: Of course yes: you can be great in solving Maxwell’s equations and pray to God in the evening.  But there is an unavoidable clash between science and certain religions, especially some forms of Christianity and Islam, those that pretend to be repositories of “absolute Truths.”



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comment by Daniel_Burfoot · 2014-08-23T18:59:37.853Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Does anyone have links to articles in which Hawking, Krauss, and Tyson engage in philosophy-bashing?

My guess is that they are simply bashing bad philosophy, which is almost as important as promoting good philosophy. Analogously, I would say that bashing bad science is almost as important as promoting good science.

comment by scientism · 2014-08-24T00:49:43.141Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hawking's philosophy-bashing was at Google Zeitgeist:


Tyson's comments were in this podcast:


Transcript of the comments here:


Krauss set things off in this interview:


comment by Viliam_Bur · 2014-08-25T17:10:13.345Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.


the 1920s come in, we learn about the expanding universe in the same decade as we learn about quantum physics, each of which falls so far out of what you can deduce from your armchair that the whole community of philosophers that previously had added materially to the thinking of the physical scientists was rendered essentially obsolete, and that point, and I have yet to see a contribution

philosophy has basically parted ways from the frontier of the physical sciences, when there was a day when they were one and the same. Isaac Newton was a natural philosopher, the word physicist didn’t even exist in any important way back then. So, I’m disappointed because there is a lot of brainpower there, that might have otherwise contributed mightily, but today simply does not. It’s not that there can’t be other philosophical subjects, there is religious philosophy, and ethical philosophy, and political philosophy, plenty of stuff for the philosophers to do, but the frontier of the physical sciences does not appear to be among them.

Seems to me they are saying that inferential distance between philosophers and modern physics is too big, so unless philosophers start seriously studying physics, they will no longer be able to contribute meaningfully using their intuition only. (Of course they can still provide some Deep Wisdom, or post-facto explanations.)

comment by pragmatist · 2014-08-26T04:49:51.300Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, but they were saying this without actually considering the available evidence. There are many philosophers out there who do seriously study physics, and Hawking and Tyson were swiftly corrected on this point by other physicists who do in fact actively engage with philosophical work (Sean Carroll and Carlo Rovelli, for instance).

Neither Hawking nor Tyson seems to be even passingly familiar with contemporary philosophy of science. For instance, in The Grand Design, Hawking first declares that philosophy of science is dead, then goes on to defend a view he calls "model-dependent realism", which he evidently regards as his innovation, but which philosophers of science have actually been writing about for decades.

comment by advancedatheist · 2014-08-24T15:19:02.500Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If philosophy had actually converged onto an agreed upon view of the world, today's physicists might regard it differently.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2014-08-24T16:40:42.862Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"If this hammer were better at soldering joints, electricians would appreciate it better"

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2014-08-25T17:17:33.347Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is philosophy supposed to be "about the real world" or not?

If yes, then we can debate whether it is successful in this attempt.

If no, fair enough. But then I ask why should anyone care about philosophy at all?

Because this seems to me like conveniently shifting definitions (by defenders of philosophy in general). If I decide not to care about philosophy, I am told that philosophy is important for understanding the world, or human thinking, or whatever. But when I start examining how useful philosophy actually is for understanding the world or human thinking, then suddenly no, philosophy is about something else (ability to ask creative questions, or some unspecific noble spiritual activity).

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2014-08-27T15:06:24.228Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's a little more complicated than about the real world or not. Truth about the real world requires empirical confirmation of theories: theories require concepts, ways of expressing concepts, and so on. Science specialises in some of those areas, philosophy in others.

To look at it another way, is this site about reality? Is Clippie real? Are utility functions?

comment by shminux · 2014-08-25T16:38:46.728Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

advancedatheist provided a reasonable argument and you mocked him/her in return instead of engaging it. And several people upvoted you. I expected better from this forum.

comment by Vulture · 2014-08-25T21:16:54.148Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's a difference between unproductive mockery and making a good point with a snarky analogy.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2014-08-24T16:38:08.130Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

bashing bad philosophy

They are qualified to do that?

comment by advancedatheist · 2014-08-24T15:17:27.599Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The people that “believe in God” seem like Martians to me. I do not understand them.

I can appreciate that feeling. I remember as a child that it gave me the creeps to see people praying. I always dreaded that part of Sunday school and worship services when my parents took me to a Southern Baptist church in Tulsa in the 1960's and early 1970's.