Lawrence Krauss, Philosophy and the Demands of Physicists

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

‘You have to listen to me, but I don’t have to listen to you!’

When physicist Lawrence Krauss and philosopher of religion William Lane Craig debated each other in Australia in August 2013, I think it would be fair to say that they didn’t see eye-to-eye. For a feel for how much they didn’t read these interviews which both men gave before the event.

One of the interesting remarks which Krauss makes in his interview is:

With honest philosophers I have interesting arguments … It’s always interesting to hear people’s thoughts. It is true that scientists and philosophers tend to talk past each other, and theologians are one step down from philosophers (or 100 steps down) but that’s what I want to point out.

I was at the Vatican, invited to the Pontifical Academy, and I said to them something that sounded facetious but it wasn’t. I was amongst theologians and philosophers and I said, ‘Look you have to listen to me, but I don’t have to listen to you’. I wasn’t being pompous, although it sounds like it.

But scientists don’t have to understand, or know anything about what philosophers write. They don’t; the proof of the pudding is that they don’t. They don’t read philosophers, they don’t think about what philosophers have to say. But a philosopher who wants to talk about the world has to know what science is talking about.

In passing I would have to say that if that is Krauss when he thinks he is not being pompous, I would love to hear him when he thinks he is. I’ll also bypass what seems to be his outright dismissal of theologians. However, I think his views on philosophers, given in the third paragraph,  are worth considering. I guess he could mean these remarks  in two ways.

The first, stronger interpretation, is that scientists don’t need to listen to philosopher’s views on any topic, scientific or otherwise.  On this view, science is not only the dominant language for modern discourse, it is ultimately the only language. Science, as the Oxford Physical Chemist Peter Atkins says, is omnipotent. Ethics, morality and right political governance are all, or ultimately will be, to be determined by scientists.  However, this appears to be at best wildly optimistic, and at worst a simple category error.

As another  Oxford professor-the mathematician John Lennox -quips, science can tell you that if you put strychnine in your grandmother’s tea it will kill her. But science can’t tell you whether it is moral or immoral to do so.  To think about issues of morality, I think members of the science faculty really are advised to go and listen to their philosopher colleagues. I would also argue that the theologians might also have some interesting views on the matter… but given Lawrence Krauss’s lack of regard for them, I’ll rather gallantly not press the point.

The second, weaker way, in which Krauss could mean his remarks,  is that scientists don’t need to listen to philosophers views on any scientific topic.  I expect that this is probably what he was getting at. Though this may be Krauss’s view, it must be said that it is not the view of all scientists (irrespective of whether they are theists or atheists).  Krauss is right in the sense that many a physicist has no interests in the philosophical aspects of his or her discipline.

I remember as a student being met with indifference by one of my professors when I expressed an interest in the foundations of quantum mechanics (a topic with very definite philosophical aspects). His view was that we have the Schrödinger equation  – let’s just get on with solving it! However, many physicists are both interested in the philosophical aspects of their subject, and what philosophers have to say about it. Two examples of such interactions from the last 150 years of physics  are quantum mechanics and another towering edifice of modern physics; electromagnetism.

From the very beginning, the role  of philosophy in the interpretation of quantum mechanics has been recognized as important; modern interpreters of quantum mechanics are well aware that it needs both physics and philosophy to do it justice. What is likely to become the standard defense of the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics (The Emergent Multiverse, OUP, 2012- an increasingly popular interpretation to which I, by the by do not subscribe ) was written by a man with PhDs in both physics and philosophy. Further, it is also not for nothing that he works in a large philosophy of physics group at the University of Oxford, populated by academics with cross disciplinary expertise.

The second, perhaps less obvious example is the development of the theory of electromagnetism. This was probably the single most important breakthrough in physics in the nineteenth century, and the man who did it was James Clerk Maxwell. Interestingly one of Maxwell’s twentieth century biographers  states that Maxwell’s ability to move from a mechanical to a more abstract mathematical model (a significant move in the development of the theory) was facilitated by the fact that he studied philosophy at the University of Edinburgh.  It would seem that  Maxwell listening to philosophers was a help rather than a hindrance to the development of science.

Ultimately, scientists demanding our attention,  insisting that  we have to listen to them, and they don’t have to listen to us is … well, sorry Lawrence, but it is just a little bit pompous. And that is true whether it is meant in either the weaker or the stronger sense above.  Science is very important and very useful , but it is not omnipotent.  Lawrence Krauss doesn’t ‘ have to understand, or know anything about what philosophers write’ if he doesn’t want to , and for much scientific research I’m sure that is perfectly reasonable.

But to blanket out philosophy’s  totally and refuse to say it is of any help or relevance seems – how should I put it –  just a little unwise.  As  someone who also works in science, (though not, I freely admit,  at the level of Professor Krauss) I find the views of philosophers and theologians, and people who work at the interface between all three  areas of knowledge, fascinating. I might not always agree with them, but I certainly want to listen. Why?  Because I simply don’t believe that science can say all that needs to be said.

This entry was posted in Quick Thoughts, Science and Christianity and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.