Why does physics need philosophy?

Some months ago the well-known physicist Carlo Rovelli held an intellectually stimulating conference at the London School of Economics and Political Science concerning the intriguing relation between physics and philosophy. The lecture was the natural conclusion of a cycle of conferences held at LSE on the occasion of the Science Philosophy Congress.

Professor Rovelli is not only a leading theoretical physicist, but a very prolific writer as well since he is the author of both several international papers and books, some of which are strictly related to the interesting world of philosophy. As a consequence, Rovelli – who held positions in several universities, namely Yale University, University of Pittsburgh and eventually settled in Marseille, where he is full professor of theoretical physics – is not known only for his esoteric and theoretical knowledge of physics, but he is considered also a distinguish intellectual for two main reasons: the former is related to his interest in philosophy, whilst the latter is his exceptional communication skill. His transversal studies demonstrate that he is very keen on sharing his knowledge and his enthusiasm for both philosophy and science. In fact, Carlo Rovelli is a tenacious and obstinate defender of philosophy, arguing that it plays a vital role in everyday life, even if it is often underrated.

My deep interest in Rovelli's works is not at all a piece of news: as far as I am concerned, his books represent a sort of cultural paradigms. Because Rovelli is incredibly able to arouse powerful emotions: he seeks the unforeseen links between philosophy and physics and the results achieved are simply extraordinary and exceptional. The physicist always finds the ultimate essence of philosophy in everyday life, stressing its importance and highlighting its final goal: the desire of knowledge. And Rovelli's work is strongly soaked of this valuable and high ideal. 

The starting point of Rovelli’s lecture is a simple question. An appealing question. A question capable of arousing passionate reactions. “In which sense is philosophy useful to physics?”.Probably, asking it to some philosopher the most common reaction would be “is it?”. In parallel, on the other side of the river, several physicists argue that philosophy is completely useless. The discussion seems to be near the end. But obviously, it would be too easy. Because we all need philosophy. We all need physics in everyday life, even if we are not always aware of it. Our laptop, our washing machines and, our cars as well, are expressions of physics. Because physics is everywhere and in 2017, we could not live without physics or, in general, without science. But, at the same time, we could not live without philosophy: the ability of reasoning, the chance of being able to merge different parts of our culture in only one context is incredible. And we can do it. We have to do it. And Rovelli knows it.

The aversion for philosophy is widely common amongst scientists and plenty of physicists clearly stated their indifference towards it. For instance, the astrophysicist Neil deGrass Tyson wrote:

And so what happens is, the 1920s come in, we learn about the expanding universe in the same decade as we learn about quantum physics, each of which falls so far out of what you can deduce from your armchair that the whole community of philosophers that previously had added materially to the thinking of the physical scientists was rendered essentially obsolete.

Another example of the antipathy towards philosophy is given by a recent book Steven Weinberg - who got a Nobel Prize for his contributions to the Standard Model - a chapter of which has a strange title: “Against philosophy”. Finally, there is another distinguish icon of physics who recently talked about philosophy: Steven Hawking. The physicist argues that “Philosophy is completely dead”, simply because physics has replaced it: doubts about the origin of the universe, as well as nature of things, are now concerned by physics, rather than by philosophy.

Nonetheless, it is useful to make a few comments in the opposite direction. In order to do it, we have to come back in the IV century before Christ, specifically in Greece, in the ancient Athens. At that time, in the school founded by Plato – known as Accademia – there was the majority of the wealthy children of Athens. Plato aimed to study with his pupils the foundations of the main activities of women and men: justice, arts, beauty, etc… But Plato’s Accademia was not the only school in Athens: in fact, there was a sort of competition with the school founded by Isocrates. A competition that resembles the "historical fight" between Politecnico of Milan and Bocconi University. In fact, their points of views were basically opposite. They have different ideas and different methodologies. While Plato was a supporter of philosophy – intended as an educational approach based on a continuous search for the bases of knowledge – Isocrates considered that approach completely fruitless. He used to say that:

those who do philosophy even if they are capable of handling something, they automatically do it worse than those who are directly involved in practical activities. Whereas, those who have no knowledge of the arguments of philosophers, if they are trained in practical activities, are all together superior for all practical purposes. Hence, philosophy is entirely useless”.

So, the discussion aforementioned is a little bit old.
However, in the school of Plato there was a brilliant young student who wrote a little text, trying to reply to the arguments argued by Isocrates. The text is “Protrepticus”, which is mainly a dialogue in which the young student replies to the negative comments of Isocrates. The young student was Aristotle. This text was considered lost, but recently a couple of Aristotle's scholars collected all the information related to this book and put them all together in “Aristotle’s Protrepticus”. This exceptional book mentions three arguments about the utility (or not) of the possible relation between physics and philosophy.

Looking forward to telling them ...

This is half the entire article. Due to its length, we decided to divide it into two different parts. Moreover, it's our first post in English, so let us know in the comment section below if you like it!