On Feynman’s Contempt for the Philosophy of Science

Richard Feynman’s attitude towards philosophy was definitely narrowminded. Nowadays, one can often observe a similar attitude in programmers’ overconfident and arrogant behaviour.

However, the coin has the other side.

Feynman was an outstanding physicist. It might be the case that he never seriously met with any outstanding philosopher.

Most of the physicists are not standing out. Most of the philosophers are not standing out.

Worse. Even among professional philosophers, many people do not think and do not really discuss. They are not trained in critical thinking, while scientists are trained to check their ideas and receive feedback. So many philosophers have a grave erudition but little understanding.

Even worse. Their aim is not to find the truth or get a better understanding. On the contrary, the main objective of such scholars is to show that they are educated and wise.

So they are killing every conversation. Finally, the physicist understands that these people are obscure cocktail-party thinkers. He understands that these mambo-jumbos are hiding they do not understand the issue. Artificially, they are making you stupid. But they are even unable to understand the structure of the question’s assumptions. For example, they are, in principle, unable to understand the background mathematics.

If you do not know something, then say so.
If you do not understand something, then say so.
If you do not know any relevant good book or article to suggest, then say so.
Don’t be a usual cocktail-party scholar.

Feynman has supposedly said:

“the philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”

When talking about the internal problems of science, Feynman does not need such philosophers of science who have never studied any particular science. There are many. He does not need such general philosophy of science that discusses science in general, different branches of science or the interconnections of science and society.

Instead, what he needs is the methodology of science. Or he needs the philosophy of physics.

Again, he needs relevant things only.

Moreover, Feynman is absolutely right. The rationality rules the methodologists have invented cannot be applied automatically. Usually, only after scientific discovery, the “rules” used can be retrospectively described. What Feynman said is very similar to what has been told by such philosophers of science as Michael Polanyi or Paul Feyerabend.

However, it is untrue that the philosopher has to know everything about the given branch of science to be able to say anything relevant.

The philosopher has to know and understand the science in question sufficiently to participate in the discussion.

But it is not easy to understand modern science. Even sufficiently. For many philosophers, it is out of their intellectual reach. And concerning science, many philosophers have the views of the XIX century. For example, the way how quantum mechanics has undermined our naive picture of the world is incomprehensible to most philosophers. Niels Bohr’s texts are out of their intellectual capacities.

There is no sharp demarcation line between science and philosophy.

Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr were great philosophers. And that’s why they were great scientists.

But Feynman was right. There is cargo-cult science, and there are cocktail-party philosophers.


Published by wrestlerblower


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