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Lately, there has been a war between physicists and philosophers. Some of the exchanges can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/10/opinion/sunday/what-physics-learns-from-philosophy.html?bl, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/10/can-physics-and-philosophy-get-along/?ref=sunday and www.3ammagazine.com/3am/time-lord/. are physics and philosophy compatible? Does physics need philosophy?

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Nope to both subquestions ... :-P –  Dilaton Jun 13 '12 at 12:34
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+1 for the links. I don't generally read the NYT, since the installation of the quasi-paywall. Thanks for the Craig Callender link, particularly, because I would likely not have come across it otherwise and to me it's very copacetic. –  Peter Morgan Jun 13 '12 at 13:15
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This isn't the type of question that is appropriate for this site. For one thing, there is no physics involved in the question, but also, it's not specific. It's possible that this sort of thing might be appropriate on Philosophy. –  David Z Jun 13 '12 at 14:45
    
The physicists do their own philosophy, and it is logical positivism, which was formulated in part by physicist Ernst Mach. The positivism was abandoned by philosophers, dooming them to irrelevance. It is discussed in several questions here, just search for positivism. –  Ron Maimon Jun 14 '12 at 0:52
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closed as off topic by David Z Jun 13 '12 at 14:42

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4 Answers

In general, philosophy is the mother of the sciences, and is needed whenever concepts are born in the sense of gradually getting their proper meaning until the yare ready for truly scientific use.

Thus philosophy is (or was) needed in physics in contexts (and at times) where some concepts are too vague to have a clear mathematical description. So it was very important in the early days of relativity and of quantum mechanics.

Today its relevance has much diminished as most of physics is very well understood conceptually. It is still relevant in the foundations of physics - part of the mysteries there are due to a lack of conceptual clarity, so philosophical positions play there a significant role.

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I don't understand your first question.

Are physics and philosophy compatible?

Physics and philosophy have two very separate aims, thought it depends on what u call philosophy. Physics was called natural philosophy some centuries ago, and physics would have been a sub branch of philosophy.

Does physics need philosophy?

Not in the truest sense. I mean even if philosophy was not there, Physics could still continue, it is not like the relationship between Physics and Maths. But philosophy does provide a more fundamental understanding of Physics. The philosophy of science and maths are itself fields, which are directly related to how science and maths should be done. Some of the branches such as the phiosophy of quantum mechanics, try to delve deeper into the meaning of these theories, with direct repercussions to the Physics.Lastly, branches of philosophy like epistemology are concerned with questions of knowledge, and reason. Philosophers like Hume and Kant, have written about what knowledge Science essentially gives us. Hume gave an argument- how the inductive reasoning and laws of cause and effect we use, are based on empirical data and lead to a circular fallacy. Hence, he said we cannot really claim that we know anything.

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Of course this is a soft question and, thus, very difficult to answer in any difinitive way. My personal opinion is that physics benefits from philosophy at a very fundamental level. When most physicists reject an objective collapse theory, they do so based on an argument of parsimony. Without strong philosophic underpinnings, no such argument could be made. Even the seemingly objective basis of existence in physics is not without philosophical antecedents.

There are many popular authors who discuss the meeting point of these two fields, but there are incredibly few who are competently educated in both.

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It's in part a war $o\!f\ words$. Any Physicist who is thinking about how to adapt or replace the concepts and mathematics that they use in their work as a Physicist could be said to be doing Philosophy. They might not want to use the word, but a Philosopher likely would. One cannot easily say that the inspiration for all successful adaptations come solely from experiment.

Alternatively, we can call it a demarcation question, or a matter of the source of one's funding or of the journals that publish one's work. Despite the real-world background, with the implication that one must worry about questions of meaning, just words. In the end, however, like Maxwell's vortices or Newton's alchemy, the philosophical predilections of successful authors are a matter of curiosity for everyone but, for a Physicist, take second place to the apparent empirical success of the mathematical predictions of a theory, although I think Craig Callender hits the mark pretty well when he says that we look for "the theory that best balances the various theoretical and empirical virtues", which (together with his context) makes clear that it isn't just about the data. [I also like his rather pragmatic "Build the models and let’s see what work they do for us" and rather a lot else, but a discussion of his interview would take us quite far from your OP.]

Cosmic Variance had quite a nicely measured response to the earlier debate, http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2012/04/28/a-universe-from-nothing/, which seems to me to be a Physicist saying something quite close to what is being said in the two NYT articles and the Craig Callender article that you cite. Certainly the balance is comparable, and the 170 comments give a sense that much of the Cosmic Variance readership thinks he hits the mark; there's considerably less contention than is aroused in the NYT comments on the Gutting post (where there's a more general readership).

Short of an extended piece that I'm not going to take the time to write, nor you to read, this was bound to be "me too". Craig Callender's piece doesn't need me to improve it.

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