Feynman as Philosopher

When a scientist is accused of scientism, the common response is a rant against philosophy charging that philosophers of science don’t know how science works.  For color, you can appeal to the authority of Richard Feynman:

“Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” – Richard Feynman

But Feynman never said that. If you have evidence, please post it here. Evidence. We’re scientists, right?

Feynman’s hostility to philosophy is often reported, but without historical basis. His comment about Spinoza’s propositions not being confirmable or falsifiable deal specifically with Spinoza and metaphysics, not epistemology. Feynman actually seems to have had a keen interest in epistemology and philosophy of science.

People cite a handful of other Feynman moments to show his hostility to philosophy of science. In his 1966 National Science Teachers Association lecture, he uses the term “philosophy of science” when he points out how Francis Bacon’s empiricism does not capture the nature of science. Not do textbooks about scientific method, he says. Beyond this sort of thing I find little evidence of Feynman’s anti-philosophy stance.

But I find substantial evidence of Feynman as philosopher of science. For example, his thoughts on multiple derivability of natural laws and his discussion of robustness of theory show him to be a philosophical methodologist. In “The Character of Physical Law”, Feynman is in line with philosophers of science of his day:

“So the first thing we have to accept is that even in mathematics you can start in different places. If all these various theorems are interconnected by reasoning there is no real way to say ‘these are the most fundamental axioms’, because if you were told something different instead you could also run the reasoning the other way.”

Further, much of his 1966 NSTA lecture deals with the relationship between theory, observation and making explanations. A tape of that talk was my first exposure to Feynman, by the way. I’ll never forget the story of him asking his father why the ball rolled to the back of wagon as the wagon lurched forward. His dad’s answer: “That, nobody knows… It’s called inertia.”

Via a twitter post, I just learned of a video clip of Feynman discussing theory choice – a staple of philosophy of science – and theory revision. Now he doesn’t use the language you’d find in Kuhn, Popper, or Lakatos; but he covers a bit of the same ground. In it, he describes two theories with deeply different ideas behind them, both of which give equally valid predictions. He says,

“Suppose we have two such theories. How are we going to describe which one is right? No way. Not by science. Because they both agree with experiment to the same extent…

“However, for psychological reasons, in order to get new theories, these two theories are very far from equivalent, because one gives a man different ideas than the other. By putting the theory in a certain kind of framework you get an idea what to change.”

Not by science alone, can theory choice be made, says the scientist Feynman. Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn caught hell for saying the same. Feynman clearly weighs explanatory power higher than predictive success in the various criteria for theory choice. He then alludes to the shut-up-and-calculate practitioners of quantum mechanics, indicating that this position makes for weak science. He does this with a tale of competing Mayan astronomy theories.

He imagines a Mayan astronomer who had a mathematical model that perfectly predicted full moons and eclipses, but with no concept of space, spheres or orbits. Feynman then supposes that a young man says to the astronomer, “I have an idea – maybe those things are going around and they’re balls of rock out there, and we can calculate how they move.” The astronomer asks the young man how accurately can his theory predict eclipses. The young man said his theory wasn’t developed sufficiently to predict that yet. The astronomer boasts, “we can calculate eclipses more accurately than you can with your model, so you must not pay any attention to your idea because obviously the mathematical scheme is better.”

Feynman again shows he values a theory’s explanatory power over predictive success. He concludes:

“So it is a problem as to whether or not to worry about philosophies behind ideas.”

So much for Feynman’s aversion to philosophy of science.


– – –

Thanks to Ardian Tola @rdntola for finding the Feynman lecture video.

  1. #1 by Ben on August 19, 2016 - 5:00 am

    Interesting. Yes, one often hears Feynman cited as an example of someone averse to philosophy, particularly philosophy of science. But when you listen to what he is actually saying, it doesn’t quite fit.

  1. No, please don't show me your model - Deflation Market

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