Saturday, January 23, 2010

philosophy of science

Hmm, so my interest in Nancy Cartwright isn't so idiosyncratic after all perhaps.


Ponder Stibbons said...

Why did you think it was idiosyncratic?

Boaz said...

I guess I haven't met any other physicists who had read her.
I once took a graduate phil. sci. intro class at stanford, and we
talked about Cartwright (I was the only non philosophy grad student).
But there's something in the physicist
training/mindset that makes you really want to ignore what whe writes.
Like you are thinking about the foundations and basics of all physical
phenomena, and she says: "now consider gardening, for example..." So
I thought it must be something strange about me that I somehow keep
coming back to try to understand what the arguments are.

Ponder Stibbons said...

I see. But there are very few physicists who have read any philosophy of science, no?

I completely agree about the physicist mindset working against her arguments. In fact, I sense that resistance even among philosophers of physics. Philosophers of other sciences tend to be more sympathetic.

I used to be a shameless reductionist until I read "How the Laws of Physics Lie".

If you liked Cartwright, then you'll probably also like the second book on that list: Wimsatt's "Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings: Piecewise Approximations to Reality". Wimsatt also started out as a physics student and has a nice description in the epilogue to that book on how he was jolted out of the reductionist mindset.

Boaz said...

Hi, thanks the comment. I've been neglecting this blog, and thinking about some of this stuff in general, and your comment inspires me to keep reading.

Yes, perhaps not so many physicists read/think about philosophy of
science very seriously. Though I do think a fair amount have some
philosophical interest, at least initially, that brings them to the

I wouldn't say I exactly enjoy reading Nancy Cartwright. I don't
always know the literature she refers to, and sometimes I feel like
I'm entering into a discussion part of the way through and have to
reconstruct some of the context. But I feel like there's a hammering
away at some of the pillars holding up the dominant attitude that
physics takes. Sometimes after reading one of her texts, I would have
trouble for days to muster up the enthusiasm to work on physics.
I'm interested to find some kind of synthesis between these two ways
of thinking, i.e. the minimalistic interpretation where the theory only covers the specific
phenomena it explains, and the broader one in
which it applies everywhere. Maybe some of that is in "The Dappled World", as on page
181 for example in the quantum mechanics essay, with "The knowledge expressed in physics' fundamental principles
provides a very powerful tool for building models of phenomena that we
have never yet understood, and for predicting apsects of their
behavior that we have never forseen."

Thanks for the other book suggestion. I'll look into that one.

ps. I fixed the spelling of idiosyncratic...

Ponder Stibbons said...

Wow, that's a pretty strong reaction to Cartwright.

I would agree that she may be difficult to read because of how she is reacting to certain strands of thought in philosophy of science. And I guess that may be part of the reason why many physicists don't read much philosophy of science even if they are interested in the questions phil. science tries to answer --- if you pick up any philosophy of science text, it's likely either going to
1) sound ridiculously naive and out of touch with the actual practice of science, or
2) be in touch with the practice of science but contain a significant amount of philosophy of science jargon or references that (to a scientist) would seem to only unnecessarily complicate the matter.

Category (1) would be the early logical positivists and also some of the more metaphysically-oriented contemporary philosophers of science. Most philosophers of science writing today, like Cartwright, are still in part reacting to logical positivism, and to earlier reactions to logical positivism. They would fall into category (2).

Boaz said...

In the class that I audited, we read some of the logical positivists
such as Carnap and Schlick. I found it hard to engage with them. Stuff on reductionism is really interesting to me though. I want to get back to that.

Thanks for taking the time to comment. I really enjoy reading the
posts on your site.