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Monday, 18 July 2016

CARLO ROVELLI: WHY PHYSICS NEEDS PHILOSOPHY

A few months ago I started to be interested in Physics. It felt like a natural extension to the questions of the self and who we are in this life. I felt that Philosophy gave me some of the answers, but I needed a deeper understanding of what makes us how we are in an empirical way in order to reconcile the metaphysical counterpart.
A handful of books gave me a grounding on the subject, then a dear friend recommended "Seven Brief Lessons on Physics" by Carlo Rovelli. It was a revelation. Only once before a book this small has surprised me quite so much, "Novecento", a short play written by Alessandro Baricco. Baricco managed to squeeze an epic story in 62 pages, a literary feat (the book was later made into a film by Tornatore) transporting an idiosyncratic story into a journey through time and seas.

In the same way, Rovelli takes on the incredibly complex world of Physics to unravel the most salient parts in a mere 79 pages. From General Relativity to Quantum Mechanics, from the Cosmos to Particles and then Quantum Gravity, the role of Heat in Black Holes and finally our role in this universe. His delivery is direct and patient. Patient because he knows the people who will read this are people like me, at the beginning of understanding with a penchant for curiosity.
The book's message, that
"...It is part of our nature to love and to be honest. It is part of our nature to long to know more, and to continue to learn. Our knowledge of the world continues to grow..." 
reflected Rovelli's message at the London School of Economics' talk, entitled "Why Physics Needs Philosophy" (Sunday 17th July). The event was sold out. The audience was a mixture of philosophers, physicists and the curious like me.

The first thing you notice about Rovelli is his appearance: salt-and-pepper frizzy hair, sprouting outward like a representation of quantum entanglement, almost a manifestation of his thoughts escaping the mind; Socratic sandals; black polo shirt and trousers. Simplicity is key in all its aspects.
Rovelli started by quoting physicists Neil de Grasse Tyson and Steven Weinberg, the former dismissing Philosophy as useless, the latter as damaging. Even Hawking pronounced that "Philosophy is dead". This intellectual dichotomy is as old as the human thought. Isocrates argued that being trained was more conducive to discovery than philosophising.
On the opposite spectrum is Aristotle who claimed that Philosophy was useful for practical sciences as theories help to develop ideas.
Thought and observation are interconnected, after all reality is beyond the appearances and mathematics is used to see through the veil of knowledge.
Scientists and scientific ideas have been inspired by previous philosophical work: Galileo by Plato and Aristotle, Newton by Democritus, Heisenberg by Positivism, Einstein by Schopenhauer, current theoretical physics by Kuhn, Quantum Gravity by Leibniz and so on.





























So what can Philosophy offer? Quite a lot actually: conceptual analysis; attention to ambiguities; research for precision; finding gaps in arguments; spotting weak points; opening up and awareness of possibilities; looking for alternatives. In other words:
"Scientists do not do anything unless they first get permission from philosophy."
To deny the need for philosophy is in itself to do philosophy. To reflect on one's work or indeed to think at all is to do philosophy. Every time a discovery has been made in the past, then improved or disproved, a cognitive process has taken place. Conceptual frameworks affect the scientists. This in turn influences theories, which are fed by data. It's a constant interconnection and passing of information from one state to the next, from ideas to reality and back again.

Throughout history, questions about the world surrounding us have enabled discoveries.
What is space? What is time? Is physics about reality or about what we observe?

These and many more questions have shaped our knowledge and helped change our vision of the world. Metaphysical notions are necessary for empirical evidence to succeed. Whether we specialise or have an interest in the economy, arts, medicine, science or anything else, we make use of cognitive processes loaded with past experiences from predecessors. We need Physics to comprehend the world around us but the very need stems from an acceptance that the mind is inquisitive. The complexity of our knowledge has fragmented the natural, social, formal sciences and the various branches of humanities. This separation, due to specialisation of disciplines, has in last few decades formed a duality of purpose. Now we seem to be going towards a new convergence of ideas and a closer collaboration. Current theories are so elaborate, impenetrable and outlandish that they require the help of philosophy in order to understand whether we should even be going in certain directions.

Carlo Rovelli's concluded his talk by summarising it in four points:
1. Philosophy has de facto far more influence on Physics than it is commonly assumed.
2. A main part of Physics is continuous conceptual, including methodological, reorganisation.
3. Philosophy is particularly relevant for the current open questions on the nature of space, time, quantum events, in quantum gravity.
4. A philosophical uninformed science is shallow. Equally, a philosophy that disregard or discounts scientific knowledge is silly and pretentious.

We need philosophy in order to ask the right questions. Culture is integral and organic.




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