Michael Krämer of the RWTH Aachen University (Germany) muses about philosophy, the Higgs Boson, and more in a Mar. 24, 2013 posting on Jon Butterworth’s Life and Physics blog (Guardian science blogs; Note: A link has been removed),
Many of the great physicists of the 20th century have appreciated the importance of philosophy for science. Einstein, for example, wrote in a letter in 1944:
I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today—and even professional scientists—seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest.
At the same time, physics has always played a vital role in shaping ideas in modern philosophy. It appears, however, that we are now faced with the ruins of this beautiful marriage between physics and philosophy. Stephen Hawking has claimed recently that philosophy is “dead” because philosophers have not kept up with science …
Krämer is part of an interdisciplinary (physics and philosophy) project at the LHC (Large Hadron Collider at CERN [European Particle Physics Laboratory]), The Epistemology of the Large Hadron Collider. From the project home page (Note: A link has been removed),
This research collaboration works at the crossroads of physics, philosophy of science, and contemporary history of science. It aims at an epistemological analysis of the recently launched new accelerator experiment at CERN, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Central themes are (i) the mechanisms of generating the masses of the particles of the standard model, especially the Higgs-mechanism and the Higgs-particle the LHC has set out to detect; (ii) the ongoing research process with special emphasis on the interaction between a large experiment and a community of theoreticians; and (iii) the implications of an experiment that is characterized by its enormous complexity and the need to be highly selective in data gathering. With the heading “Epistemology of the LHC” the research group intends both a philosophical analysis of the theoretical structures and of the conditions of knowledge production, among them the criteria of acceptance, and a real-time monitoring of the ongoing physical development from the perspective of the history of science. Theresearch group has emerged from a collaboration between a High Energy Working group and the Interdisciplinary Centre for Science and Technology Studies and is based in Wuppertal but also involves external members and collaborators.
Krämer shares some of his ideas and the type of thinking generated when physicists and philosophers collide (I plead guilty to the word play; from Butterworth’s Guardian science blog),
… The relationship between experiment and theory (what impact does theoretical prejudice have on empirical findings?) or the role of models (how can we assess the uncertainty of a simplified representation of reality?) are scientific issues, but also issues from the foundation of philosophy of science. In that sense they are equally important for both fields, and philosophy may add a wider and critical perspective to the scientific discussion. And while not every particle physicist may be concerned with the ontological question of whether particles or fields are the more fundamental objects, our research practice is shaped by philosophical concepts. We do, for example, demand that a physical theory can be tested experimentally and thereby falsified, a criterion that has been emphasized by the philosopher Karl Popper already in 1934. The Higgs mechanism can be falsified, because it predicts how Higgs particles are produced and how they can be detected at the Large Hadron Collider.
On the other hand, some philosophers tell us that falsification is strictly speaking not possible: What if a Higgs property does not agree with the standard theory of particle physics? How do we know it is not influenced by some unknown and thus unaccounted factor, like a mysterious blonde walking past the LHC experiments and triggering the Higgs to decay? (This was an actual argument given in the meeting!)
The meeting Krämer is referring to is this one (from the meeting/conference website),
The first international conference and kick-off meeting of the German Society for Philosophy of Science/Gesellschaft für Wissenschaftsphilosophie (GWP) will take place from 11-14 March 2013 at the University of Hannover under the title:
How Much Philosophy in the Philosophy of Science?
Krämer then highlights some of the discussion that most interested in him (Note: A link has been removed),
… It is very hard for a philosopher to keep up with scientific progress, and how could one integrate various fields without having fully appreciated the essential features of the individual sciences? As Margaret Morrison from the University of Toronto pointed out in her talk, if philosophy steps back too far from the individual sciences, the account becomes too general and isolated from scientific practice. On the other hand, if philosophy is too close to an individual science, it may not be philosophy any longer.
I think philosophy of science should not consider itself primarily as a service to science, but rather identify and answer questions within its own domain. I certainly would not be concerned if my own research went unnoticed by biologists, chemists, or philosophers, as long as it advances particle physics. On the other hand, as Morrison pointed out, science does generate its own philosophical problems, and philosophy may provide some kind of broader perspective for understanding those problems.
It’s well worth reading Krämer’s full post for anyone who’s interested in how physicists (or Krämer) think about the role that philosophy could play (or not) in the field of physics.
The reference to Margaret Morrison from the University of Toronto (U of T) reminded me of the Bubble Chamber blog which is written by U of T historians and philosophers of science. Here’s a July 10, 2012 posting by Mike Thicke about the Higgs Boson and his response to philosopher Wayne Myrvold’s (University of Western Ontario) explanation of the statistics claims being made about the particle at that time,
We can all agree that reasoning and decision making in science is complicated. Scientists reason in many different contexts: in the lab, in their published papers, as career-minded professionals, as interested consumers of science, and as people going about their lives. It’s plausible to think that they reason in different ways in all of these contexts. When we’re discussing their reasoning as scientists, I believe distinguishing between the first three contexts is especially important. While Wayne’s explanation of the statistics behind the Higgs Boson discovery is very interesting, informative, and as far as I can tell correct, I think there are some confusions arising from his failure to make these distinctions.
Thicke does advise reading Myrvold’s July 4, 2012 posting before tackling his riposte.