I just saw an interesting post on the Bohm interpretation of quantum mechanics, arguing that it doesn’t really help explain any of the interesting facts of quantum computing. (I think the many-worlds interpretation might help, but I’m no expert.)
However, I think the discussion was particularly interesting because it shows what physicists thinking about philosophical questions think “philosophical” means:
The unfortunate word “interpretation” suggests that foundational work should never impact the ring-fenced portion of the theory and should be confined to something like “finding the right language” for talking about quantum theory in order to avoid the difficulties with measurement, etc. Indeed, many philosophers actually like this distinction, because it makes “interpretation” a purely philosophical question that they can go off and study on their own, safe in the knowledge that they won’t find themselves proved wrong by physicists.
For my own part, I would have thought that this is a distinction that philosophers would want to reject. Isn’t it more appealing to the ambitious philosopher to say that the problem of interpretation is a philosophical question that is important to the physics. Thus, physicists will have to pay attention to us, even if it does mean that on some level we run the risk of being proved wrong by them.
Now, you may regard the “ontology problem” as a pure philosophy problem, to which physics can never supply a unique answer.
Calling a question philosophical is sometimes about the same for me as calling it moot. I agree that physics answers often have philosophical strength. In that sense, the philosophical aesthetic is valuable. But if you call a question philosophical, then you may be saying that if you don’t know if there really is a question.
Again, this seems to be a physicist with misconceptions about what philosophy is. (Though perhaps the fact that I think that just means that I have misconceptions about what philosophy is too.) I would have thought that once the Quine-Duhem problem was noted, it would be clear that “physics can never supply a unique answer” doesn’t mean that a question isn’t part of physics. In fact, the existence of this sort of question, which physicists do seem to find interesting once in a while (never mind their accusations at string theorists and others of engaging in pseudo-science) seems to me to lend strong support for a naturalist position on which there is no solid distinction between philosophical and physical questions, and the answers to either can have impacts on the other.
Anyway, it does seem strange to me that there’s so much discussion of the philosophical aspects of physics on the blogosphere, and so little input from actual philosophers of physics in these debates. It would seem that many of the physicists involved don’t even know that philosophers of physics exist! Is this the sort of case where our profession needs to assert itself a little more, or is it not even worth the attempt to win the hearts and minds of physicists?
Posted by Kenny Easwaran in Uncategorized