Five Reasons I Failed as a Philosopher of Physics

Those of you who know me know that once upon a time I wanted to be a physicist. That didn’t work, because it turns out that even if you go to a really great, liberal, high-quality-of-life undergraduate institution in Texas, sometimes your math teacher will try to evangelize you and make math-learning, and therefore physics-learning, really uncomfortable.

So then I decided to be a philosopher of physics, because hey, I still liked physics; I just didn’t want to sit through more of those math classes (and labs were really boring, except when I had a cute lab partner). And the failure of that decision to come fruition is why this blog about philosophy of chemistry, not philosophy of physics. Here are five reasons why:

  1. More Math Doesn’t Make Me Believe You More. This may in fact be intimately related to the my evangelization horror above. One trope of many philosophy of physics papers is to use math. A lot of math. More math than is really necessary. I am a bit loathe to point fingers at specific papers, but those of you who have read the philosophy of physics literature have undoubtedly come across this type of argument:

    I believe that grass is green. But Philosopher VanDerKitty has said grass is blue. Let the possible worlds in which grass is blue be defined by ‹M, tab, hab, Πstuff, Φ1,, . . ., Φ1472›, where M is a four-dimensional manifold, the other things are fancy symbols for really basic assumptions about the world that should be built into any assumption about any interesting possible world being compared to our own, like that it is spatially extended and that time exists there, and all the Φs are just there to make things look more complicated and make me look smart. They’re not actually going to do any work.

    Now, because of the Awesomeness theorem I just proved in the previous section of my paper that says that M must be exactly fourteen-dimensional in all worlds where grass is blue, and because Einstein showed, with my interpretive help, that all the  kinematically and dynamically possible worlds have either 4, 7, or uncountably many dimensions, grass cannot be blue.

    I have a word for this kind of argument. It’s not a nice one. The word is mathturbation, and I realized about a year and a half into graduate school that it did not get me off.

    Not what I want to be paid to do for the rest of my life.

    I can be persuaded by a lot of things. I can be persuaded by good mathematical arguments, like that objects with different toplogies have different surface energies because there is a connection between the shape of the surface, and the number of free bonds on that surface, and the number of free bonds on the surface is one way of quantifying the surface energy. Or things Lewis Carroll said. I wanted to be persuaded by mathturbatory arguments for a long time, even though I often felt dumb or unworthy when I didn’t immediately see the brilliance of any equation anyone put up on the board. I have lately come to the realization that my failure to see brilliant philosophy in mathturbation is not because of my inadequacy as a philosopher; it is because mathturbation does not, in general, contain brilliant or even interesting philosophy.  Trusting math to make an argument sound smarter is a bit like trusting a day to go by when you surf the internet and don’t see any videos of cats. Sometimes it happens, but it takes a lot of work and planning, and often ends up being more of a pain than it’s worth.

  2. I Am A Human Being. I live in a human-being-scaled world and I think about human-being-sized problems. Most philosophy of physics is done at the quantum scale or the cosomological scale, and the outcomes of philosophy of physics’ deepest puzzles will have, let’s be honest, very little bearing on how human beings live their day-to-day lives. If a philosopher of physics ever solves the measurement problem, or figures out the geometry of the universe, what bearing is it going to have on my day to day life? Will it make my milk last longer in the fridge? Will it stop cancer from robbing my loved ones of their health, lives, and happiness? Will it remedy the terrifying decline of American secondary school education?A lot of philosophy of physics has very little to do with the world people live in, which is a shame, since that world supported the training of very smart people to think about things like the measurement problem and the reconciliation of quantum field theory with relativity. Call me a communist, but it’s always seemed a little selfish, to me, to make use of all the resources that go into training someone to be a professional philosopher (we are all at least $300,000 investments by the time we are done with undergraduate and graduate school) and not use them to help other people.
  3. Physics is Too Pretty. The transcendent architecture of the Large Hadron Collider, the weird, false-color computer images of quantum confinement, the Escher-esque twistings and turnings of non-orientable manifolds. These are immensely beautiful creations that should be the objects of museum curators’ fawnings and Keatsian odes, not staid deconstruction aimed at producing some forceful if minor philosophical conclusion.While I am certainly in favor of the idea that we can see more beauty, not

    Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought

    less, in nature by understanding how natural objects come to be and what laws govern them, there is something inescapably sad about beginning with the iconic blueprint image of particles in a cloud chamber and ending with a lame note about the how the curl of the positron shows that natural kinds can only be understood with seventeen different kinds of taxonomical restrictions, or else our fundamental particle ontology is physically ill-founded (But of course we could just go to a field ontology instead and all our problems would go away).

  4. I Don’t Memorize Catalogues. A lot of philosophy of physics has to do with either the catalogue of fundamental particles in existence, often referred to as the Standard Model, or with an ever-expanding catalogue of possible geometric configurations of the universe. I, as it turns out, am not a catalogue person. I even had this poster hanging in my bedroom all through high school, and I never read it all the way through. I would rather have a pile of books around me than the best library catalogue in the world (which is decidedly NOT Pitt’s online library catalogue), because inside the books is where the excitement happens. But systematically internalizing the catalogue of fundamental particles, or of manifolds and the universes they describe, seems to be an integral part of many philosophers of physics’ initiation rites.Now now, I know. Isn’t the periodic table a catalogue? Well sure, but here’s a dirty little secret: I haven’t memorized that one either. I have looked at individual elements to figure out how some parts go together better or worse than others, and I have observed the relationship between behavioral trends of various elemental substances and their relative locations on the table. This is the kind of information that is needed to make new things out of the elements, not a complete memorized list of all the elements there are. In other words, Harry Potter is not a chemist just because he can sing the elements song. (It’s because he can make Polyjuice Potion)

    More to the point, chemistry is about making things, not cataloguing them, and that seems like a more interesting project to me.
  5. Every Time Someone Says ‘Hamiltonian’, I Think of This. It’s a horse. A pretty famous horse. One of the founding sires of modern harness racing. And then when people talk about solving Hamiltonians I start wondering what is wrong with the horse. Then I wonder if anything is wrong with my horse. Then I have a very brief and emotionally traumatizing panic attack in which I envision my horse dying at the hands of a Snively-Whiplash-esque villain named Herr Eigenfunction. Then I have to breathe deeply, talk myself out of running out of the room to go check on things at the barn, and remind myself to pay attention to whatever is being said. And by the time all that happens, I’m hopelessly lost.
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About burstenj

Assistant Professor of Philosophy
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7 Responses to Five Reasons I Failed as a Philosopher of Physics

  1. Aarthy says:

    Thank you for sharing your perspective. I happen to be an Engineer, and the piece about the ‘Hamiltonian’ brought back funny memories. I used to think about one of the founding fathers of the USA – Alexander Hamilton every time the ‘Hamiltonian’ was brought up, and spent the rest of the class wondering about whether the US constitution was a living document or set in stone.

    I feel differently about the points regarding lack of relevance to everyday human lives, there might be applications that are not immediately apparent. However, I can see how research that is at best of ambiguous everyday relevance can be less valuable depending on your interests.

    • burstenj says:

      Aarthy,

      Thanks for your perspective! I hope I didn’t give the impression that I think physics itself is irrelevant; I do not. However, I do think there is an unwholesome amount of highly-trained intellectual energy currently turned toward solving the measurement problem, given that I am not convinced that the result of solving the problem would do much of anything for us. I realize I may be naive here though, and there may be implications for quantum information/computing in the solution of the problem, in which case, hopefully I’ll be proven wrong someday.

      • Aarthy says:

        Hi, you did not give that impression really, I thought your post on the whole was very well balanced. I just happen to be someone who hasn’t yet decided on what the basis of significance is, so I leave the door open to most things. 🙂

  2. josheisenthal says:

    Love the idea of mathturbation, and particularly the image that goes with it. Not that I enjoy mathturbating… well, not most of the time at least.

    However, I think that the idea that physics requires a lot of cataloging is unfair. A part of my own enjoyment of physics (particularly theoretical) over other areas of natural science stems from the fact that there is such a relatively small amount of rote learning /memorising etc. An introuctory textbook on special or general realtivity or quantum mechanics is refreshingly thin, I suppose partly because the ideas in it are very difficult. But compared with the vast tomes of engineering or biology (or chemistry?), there’s just LESS material, even if it takes a long time to get on top of it.

    • burstenj says:

      Josh– never said thanks for this perspective. It is a fair criticism, as you’ve put it. Though I think the cataloguing aspects of intro chem/bio courses are a poor artifact of outdated pedagogy, and I’d like to see them removed. But definitely something worth discussing more!

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