Author Topic: "Just a philosophical question"  (Read 879 times)

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Offline Ħ

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"Just a philosophical question"
« on: October 03, 2012, 02:31:59 PM »
The deeper I go into the program for my science degree, the more and more I've encountered this phrase (see topic title), especially when studying issues like quantum mechanics and special/general relativity. We interpret the world around us by using models. We have conceptual understanding of things like electrons and orbitals, but is it folly to continue trying to understand the world in ways that fit into our current scientific framework? It is discouraging to me to see that in many of my physics and chemistry classes, the attitude is to "shut up and do the math". Because the math works. Because the math gives us surefire predictions. So do we need to really know what's going on?


As you might tell from my tone, I think it's ridiculous to throw our hands in the air and surrender in the face of complexity. No, the world won't conform to the way we want to understand things. But that doesn't mean we should give up on our pursuit of understanding. I think that science and math is that it ought to be regarded as a type of philosophy, as subsets. They are avenues to truth, yes, but we should not be so quick to regard them as the only avenues to truth.


It is sad to see the philosophical questions of "Why does this happen?" or "What is going on here?" scoffed at by professors and researchers that are content exchanging the pursuit of answers for number-crunching. To me, these questions that are "merely philosophical" are the most important kinds of questions we can ask.
"All great works are prepared in the desert, including the redemption of the world. The precursors, the followers, the Master Himself, all obeyed or have to obey one and the same law. Prophets, apostles, preachers, martyrs, pioneers of knowledge, inspired artists in every art, ordinary men and the Man-God, all pay tribute to loneliness, to the life of silence, to the night." - A. G. Sertillanges

Offline theseoafs

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Re: "Just a philosophical question"
« Reply #1 on: October 03, 2012, 03:38:35 PM »
If anybody is telling you to do science by "just doing the math", then they are doing it wrong and are doing themselves and you a great disservice.  Science is all about understanding how things work.

Online Orbert

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Re: "Just a philosophical question"
« Reply #2 on: October 03, 2012, 04:11:26 PM »
Having an understanding of how things work and why is definitely valuable in the bigger picture, but for any given class, any given program, you have to give a large amount of weight to the numbers themselves.  Sure, it's good to know why things work the way they do, but predicting and confirming these behaviors is the basis of science.  Things must be quantified and they must be quantifiable, otherwise everything is literally open to conjecture.

Hopefully, what you're running into is not a belittlement of the philosophy behind what you're doing, but an attitude which is somewhat necessary in pursuing an advanced science degree.  Yes, it's nice to get the big picture, but strictly speaking, it's not required.  That's why the hard sciences are often thought of as being cold and calculated.  It doesn't have to be that way, and there are some who can handle it all, but most people have enough trouble just getting the numbers right; digging into the "how" and "why" is something they can't be bothered with, not with a deadline coming up.

Offline Scheavo

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Re: "Just a philosophical question"
« Reply #3 on: October 03, 2012, 04:33:29 PM »
Your problem is essentially one reason why I think I ended up in philosophy, though not exactly.

Quote
Hopefully, what you're running into is not a belittlement of the philosophy behind what you're doing, but an attitude which is somewhat necessary in pursuing an advanced science degree.

There's a lot of scientists who think philosophy is ridiculous. They just seem to define philosophy in a wrong way.


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Re: "Just a philosophical question"
« Reply #4 on: October 03, 2012, 05:50:25 PM »
They do.  Philosophy literally means "love of knowledge" or "love of wisdom".  Knowing things because it's cool to know things, understanding things because it's cool to understand things.

The connotation has evolved into something like "thinking a lot about abstract stuff because you're no good at math or science" but that's not my definition.  I think it's cool to learn as much about everything as possible.  But then I have a background in both arts and sciences.  I can see how, in focusing too much on one side of your brain, you can let the other side atrophy.  As with anything, you gotta have balance.

Offline theseoafs

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Re: "Just a philosophical question"
« Reply #5 on: October 03, 2012, 05:56:58 PM »
It doesn't have to be that way, and there are some who can handle it all, but most people have enough trouble just getting the numbers right; digging into the "how" and "why" is something they can't be bothered with, not with a deadline coming up.

This is also true.  I should make clear that there is a big difference between what science is -- the method of inquiry based around the scientific method -- and what you might be doing in a science class.  In class, it may seem like there's a lot of hand-waving, because teachers tell you how things work and more or less expect you to accept them as fact, and that may not be satisfactory for somebody like H.  But science isn't about listening to what somebody says and immediately accepting it as fact; in fact, it's about the exact opposite.

Offline j

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Re: "Just a philosophical question"
« Reply #6 on: October 03, 2012, 08:19:49 PM »
I understand H's point, and that type of thought is definitely a trend particularly in the "hard" sciences, in my experience.  The sciences tend to focus more on the "how" than the "why" (for the most part), but frankly there could never be any scientific advancement if the "why" questions were never asked or addressed.  Like many things, science and philosophy overlap, despite the fact that professionals in each field may scoff at the other.

One other thing I'd point out is that math IS a way of describing "what is going on here."  Looking at it as just number crunching (although God knows that's what it feels like to me a lot of the time) is forgetting that the math is descriptive and can help you to understand whatever processes to which it pertains.

-J

Offline rumborak

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Re: "Just a philosophical question"
« Reply #7 on: October 04, 2012, 08:51:37 AM »
When it comes to quantum mechanics, that phrase is really more an account of history. The early last century saw philosophical discussions up the wazoo about how to interpret QM, especially the wave function collapse. That's why there's something called the "Copenhagen Interpretation" that frankly is more of a philosophical statement than a physics one.
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Online Orbert

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Re: "Just a philosophical question"
« Reply #8 on: October 04, 2012, 09:00:18 AM »
Ha ha, that must drive the quantum physicists nuts, not knowing exactly how it works, not being able to define it in terms of hard numbers.  Personally, I have no problem with it.  I accept that there are some things that are just beyond our understanding, for now anyway.  But I suppose if your job is to understand it and quantify it, you'd get pretty frustrated.

Offline Scheavo

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Re: "Just a philosophical question"
« Reply #9 on: October 04, 2012, 12:37:43 PM »
When it comes to quantum mechanics, that phrase is really more an account of history. The early last century saw philosophical discussions up the wazoo about how to interpret QM, especially the wave function collapse. That's why there's something called the "Copenhagen Interpretation" that frankly is more of a philosophical statement than a physics one.

Possibly because the philosophical understanding underpinning Quantum Mechanics is German, and started hundreds of years before Quantum Mechanics came about. This is a German University System that highly regarded philosophy, and whose philosophers preached a worldview built upon the idea that we are at least partially responsible for creating our own reality. Out of this system came many of the founders of the Quantum Mechanics, Einstein, Heisenberg, etc. And the Copenhagen Interpretation is just an extenuation of the German Idealist tradition. It's really almost as if we can look back historically, and see a philosophy come about to explain the world, one which eventually get's tested, and becomes the new ruling paradigm of a science.

But I also agree with where you go. Science also does a good job of coming up with a lot of situations with beg the questions, and then philosophy jumps in and starts trying to figure out how it's possible to answer that question. Which then allows for science to start delving into something it previously couldn't. A proper Ph.D in Physics will probably do this, maybe one reason the distinctions have gotten blurred.

Offline jsem

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Re: "Just a philosophical question"
« Reply #10 on: October 06, 2012, 04:07:37 PM »
Shut up and calculate.