Why are (some) physicists so bad at philosophy?

In his book of reminiscences “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”, Richard Feynman tells the story of a painter who assured him that he could make yellow paint by mixing together red paint and white paint.  Feynman was incredulous.  As an expert in the physics of light, he knew this should not be possible.  But the guy was an expert painter, with years of practical experience.  So, ready to learn something new, Feynman went and got some red paint and white paint.  He watched the painter mix them, but as Feynman expected, all that came out was pink.  Then the painter said that all he needed now was a little yellow paint to “sharpen it up a bit” and then it would be yellow.

I was reminded of this story when I read this foray into philosophy by physics professor Ethan Siegel, which a reader sent me, asking for my reaction.  Do give it a read, though I’ll summarize it for you:  

Arguments for God as cause of the universe rest on the assumption that something can’t come from nothing.  But given the laws of physics, it turns out that something can come from nothing. 

Here was my reaction:

Is this guy serious?  The laws of physics aren’t “nothing.”  Ergo, this isn’t even a prima facie counterexample to the principle that ex nihilo, nihil fit.  That’s just blindingly obvious.  Is this guy serious? 

(Actually, that was not my reaction.  My actual reaction cannot be printed on a family-friendly blog.  This is the cleaned up version.)

Feynman’s painter insisted that you can get yellow paint from red paint and white paint.  All you need to do is add some yellow paint.  Similarly, Siegel assures us that we can get something from nothing.  All we need to do is to add a little something, viz. the laws of physics.  I’ll bet Siegel has read Feynman’s book and had a chuckle at the painter’s expense.  Little does he realize that the joke’s on him.

Notice that the point has nothing to do with the further question “Where do the laws of physics come from?”  It has nothing to do with the debate between atheism and theism.  It has nothing to do with whether Siegel’s purely scientific claims are otherwise correct.  I’m not addressing any of that here.  Let the operation of the laws of physics be a brute fact if you like; let atheism be true, if you insist; let Siegel be a whiz-bang crackerjack physicist, if you must.  The point is that as a philosopher, he’s utterly incompetent, incapable of seeing the most blatant of fallacies staring him square in the face.

Siegel is in good company, if that’s the right way to put it.  As I showed in my review of their book The Grand Design for National Review, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow are no more philosophically competent than Siegel is.  Indeed, one of their errors is the same as Siegel’s: They tell us that “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.”  Ignore for the moment the incoherence of the notion of self-causation (which we explored recently here and here).  Put to one side the question of whether the physics of their account is correct.  Forget about where the laws of physics themselves are supposed to have come from.  Just savor the manifest contradiction: The universe comes from nothing, because a law like gravity is responsible for the universe.

For some reason this particular fallacy seems to be a favorite of physicists.  (And I mean physicists, specifically, not scientists in general – even Richard Dawkins isn’t this bad.)  Consider Oxford physicist Vlatko Vedral’s recent book Decoding Reality: The Universe as Quantum Information.  I hate to pick on Vedral.  He seems like a nice fellow, and there is in his book none of the obnoxious condescension toward philosophy and theology one finds in Hawking and Mlodinow.  Unfortunately, though, Vedral is only slightly better informed about these subjects than Hawking and Mlodinow are.  (He thinks, for example, that “What caused God?” is a serious objection to the First Cause argument.)  Worse, the argumentation is incredibly sloppy.  Epistemological and metaphysical issues are relentlessly conflated.  Murkiness abounds.  For example, Vedral suggests that information “comes from nowhere” and is “created from emptiness” but also that “there is no other information in the Universe than that generated by us as we create our own reality.”  So, is he contradicting himself – saying both that information comes from nowhere and that it comes from us?  Or is he saying instead that information causes us and we in turn cause it, but that there is nothing outside this loop – which would entail a vicious explanatory circle (for the reasons spelled out in the posts on self-causation linked to above)?  Or (seeing as either of these interpretations would sink his position) does he have some third alternative in mind?  He never tells us, and (like Hawking and Mlodinow, who say similar things) seems blithely unaware that there is even a problem here.

More to the present point, Vedral claims that “creation out of nothing” can occur even without a Creator, and offers as evidence von Neumann‘s proposal “that all numbers could be bootstrapped out of the empty set by the operations of the mind.”  We’re back to Feynman’s painter: Yellow can come from non-yellow as long as you add a little yellow to the non-yellow; and something can come from nothing as long as we add a little non-nothing – “the operations of the mind” – to the nothing.  How much cleverer these physicists are than us mere philosophers!

It is no good trying to defend Siegel, Hawking and Mlodinow, or Vedral by suggesting that perhaps they are not using “nothing” in a strict sense.  For each of them claims to be addressing the same issue that defenders of the First Cause argument for God’s existence are addressing, and the latter are using “nothing” in the strict sense.  So, these physicists can be acquitted of the charge of contradicting themselves only if they are guilty instead of sloppy thinking, and of loudly shooting off their mouths without doing their homework first.

And that is enough to merit them our scorn.  Philosophers and theologians are constantly told that they need to “learn the science” before commenting on quantum mechanics, relativity, or Darwinism.  And rightly so.  Yet too many scientists refuse to “learn the philosophy” before pontificating on the subject.  The results are predictably sophomoric.  What an arrogant and clueless amateur like Hawking or Dawkins needs to hear before putting on his philosopher’s toga is this.  And if he doesn’t get the message, this.  Instead, the reaction from equally clueless editors, journalists, and “educated” general readers is: “Gee, he’s a scientist!  He’s good at math and stuff.  He must know what he’s talking about!”  It really is no more intelligent than that. 

C. D. Broad took the view that “the nonsense written by philosophers on scientific matters is exceeded only by the nonsense written by scientists on philosophy.”  And that was in the days of scientists like Eddington, Einstein, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger, who actually knew something about philosophy.  (We’ve discussed a couple of these thinkers in earlier posts, here and here.)  Things had gotten worse by the time Paul Feyerabend wrote the following to Wallace Matson:

The younger generation of physicists, the Feynmans, the Schwingers, etc., may be very bright; they may be more intelligent than their predecessors, than Bohr, Einstein, Schrödinger, Boltzmann, Mach, and so on.  But they are uncivilized savages, they lack in philosophical depth… (Quoted in Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend, For and Against Method)

And things are even worse now.  Feynman was notoriously hostile to philosophy, but when his work on quantum mechanics brought him up against its inherent philosophical difficulties, he at least had the humility not to claim he knew how to resolve them.  Hawking and Vedral, by contrast, confidently peddle as “science” the kind of schlock you’d expect to find in the New Age section at Borders. 

What accounts for this decline?  Feyerabend blamed the “professionalization” of science, and there is much to be said for this.  We noted recently how John Heil and Stephen Mumford have decried the baneful effects “professionalization” has had on contemporary academic philosophy – hyper-specialization, smug insularity, careerist conformism, an emphasis on cleverness over depth.  Lee Smolin (who knew and respected Feyerabend) is one physicist who has argued that some of these same problems afflict contemporary physics.

One thing of which contemporary philosophers tend not to be guilty, however – scientism-whipped as they are – is ignorance of science, certainly not where science touches on their areas of philosophical specialization.  Hawking and Mlodinow assure us in The Grand Design that “philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.”  No one at all familiar with the explosion of serious work in philosophy of physics, philosophy of chemistry, and philosophy of biology over the last several decades – not to mention the work of writers like William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith in the philosophy of religion, or the Churchlands in philosophy of mind – could say such a thing.  (True, as philosophers the Churchlands are hopeless.  But one thing they do know – perhaps, one sometimes suspects, the only thing they know – is neuroscience.)

Hawking and Mlodinow are guilty of just the sort of ignorance of which they falsely accuse philosophers.  But they are unlikely ever to know it.  The Hawkings, Dawkinses, and Jerry Coynes of the world have been dancing the Myers Shuffle around their echo chamber for so long that they can only ever hear each other’s mutual congratulations shouted down the conga line.  Until this childishness is universally treated with the sort of contempt it deserves, we will not have a sane intellectual culture, one in which the deepest philosophical, theological – and, indeed, scientific – questions can be fruitfully debated. 
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