Steven Weinberg: “Against Philosophy” (from “Dreams of a Final Theory”).

Steven Weinberg “Against Philosophy”

Great text. The beginning:

Physicists get so much help from subjective and often vague aesthetic judgments that it might be
expected that we would be helped also by philosophy, out of which after all our science evolved.
Can philosophy give us any guidance toward a final theory? The value today of philosophy to
physics seems to me to be something like the value of early nation-states to their peoples. It is only
a small exaggeration to say that, until the introduction of the post office, the chief service of nation-
states was to protect their peoples from other nation-states. The insights of philosophers have
occasionally benefited physicists, but generally in a negative fashion—by protecting them from the
preconceptions of other philosophers. I do not want to draw the lesson here that physics is best done
without preconceptions. At any one moment there are so many things that might be done, so many
accepted principles that might be challenged, that without some guidance from our preconceptions
one could do nothing at all. It is just that philosophical principles have not generally provided us
with the right preconceptions. In our hunt for the final theory, physicists are more like hounds than
hawks; we have become good at sniffing around on the ground for traces of the beauty we expect in
the laws of nature, but we do not seem to be able to see the path to the truth from the heights of
philosophy. Physicists do of course carry around with them a working philosophy. For most of us, it
is a rough-and-ready realism, a belief in the objective reality of the ingredients of our scientific
theories. But this has been learned through the experience of scientific research and rarely from the
teachings of philosophers. This is not to deny all value to philosophy, much of which has nothing to
do with science. I do not even mean to deny all value to the philosophy of science, which at its best
seems to me a pleasing gloss on the history and discoveries of science. But we should not expect it
to provide today’s scientists with any useful guidance about how to go about their work or about
what they are likely to find. I should acknowledge that this is understood by many of the
philosophers themselves. After surveying three decades of professional writings in the philosophy
of science, the philosopher George Gale concludes that “these almost arcane discussions, verging on
the scholastic, could have interested only the smallest number of practicing scientists.” Wittgenstein
remarked that “nothing seems to me less likely than that a scientist or mathematician who reads me
should be seriously influenced in the way he works.”

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