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Philosopher of physics to physicists: Calculate, but don’t shut up

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From Tim Maudlin at PBS Nova blog:

Many questions about the nature of reality cannot be properly pursued without contemporary physics. Inquiry into the fundamental structure of space, time and matter must take account of the theory of relativity and quantum theory. Philosophers accept this. In fact, several leading philosophers of physics hold doctorates in physics. Yet they chose to affiliate with philosophy departments rather than physics departments because so many physicists strongly discourage questions about the nature of reality. The reigning attitude in physics has been “shut up and calculate”: solve the equations, and do not ask questions about what they mean.

If your goal is only to calculate, this might be sufficient. But understanding existing theories and formulating new ones requires more. Einstein arrived at the theory of relativity by reflecting on conceptual problems rather than on empirical ones. He was primarily bothered by explanatory asymmetries in classical electromagnetic theory. Physicists before Einstein knew, for instance, that moving a magnet in or near a coil of wire would induce an electric current in the coil. But the classical explanation for this effect appeared to be entirely different when the motion was ascribed to the magnet as opposed to the coil; the reality is that the effect depends only on the relative motion of the two. Resolving the explanatory asymmetry required rethinking the notion of simultaneity and rejecting the classical account of space and time. It required the theory of relativity.

Comprehending quantum theory is an even deeper challenge. What does quantum theory imply about “the nature of reality?” Scientists do not agree about the answer; they even disagree about whether it is a sensible question.

The problems surrounding quantum theory are not mathematical. They stem instead from the unacceptable terminology that appears in presentations of the theory. …

What philosophy offers to science, then, is not mystical ideas but meticulous method. Philosophical skepticism focuses attention on the conceptual weak points in theories and in arguments. It encourages exploration of alternative explanations and new theoretical approaches. … More.

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4 Replies to “Philosopher of physics to physicists: Calculate, but don’t shut up

  1. 1
    Axel says:

    ‘Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge. —Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow.’

    Who would have thought Hawking would be in thrall to scientism, of all things barmy. Well, at least until he demonstrated his dire need of the merest trace of an innate philosophical cast of mind, by his postulation that the laws of physics could have created the universe !

  2. 2
    bornagain77 says:

    The quote, “Shut up and calculate”, has an irrational fear behind it:

    “If I were forced to sum up in one sentence what the Copenhagen interpretation says to me, it would be ‘Shut up and calculate!'”
    – What’s Wrong with this Pillow? by N. David Mermin, Cornell University, Physics Today, April 1989, page 9, doi:10.1063/1.2810963
    Misattributed to Richard Feynman,

    The irrational fear behind the ‘shut up and calculate’ quote is highlighted here

    Quantum state may be a real thing:
    Physicists summon up their courage and go after the nature of reality. by Chris Lee – Jul 2, 2014
    Excerpt: At the very heart of quantum mechanics lies a monster waiting to consume unwary minds. This monster goes by the name The Nature of Reality™. The greatest of physicists have taken one look into its mouth, saw the size of its teeth, and were consumed. Niels Bohr denied the existence of the monster after he nonchalantly (and very quietly) exited the monster’s lair muttering “shut up and calculate.” Einstein caught a glimpse of the teeth and fainted. He was reportedly rescued by Erwin Schrödinger at great personal risk, but neither really recovered from their encounter with the beast.

    Feynman, besides not saying the infamous ‘shut up and calculate’ quote, appears to have had a much ‘braver’ attitude about the situation with quantum mechanics and with facing reality head on no matter what the evidence said:

    …the “paradox” is only a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality “ought to be.”
    Richard Feynman, in The Feynman Lectures on Physics, vol III, p. 18-9 (1965)

    Ironically, it is impossible to merely ‘shut up and calculate’ with quantum mechanics because the calculations of quantum mechanics refuse to be done without the ‘weirdness’ of quantum mechanics intruding full force into your calculations:

    Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God? Stephen M. Barr – July 10, 2012
    Excerpt: Couldn’t an inanimate physical device (say, a Geiger counter) carry out a “measurement” (minus the ‘observer’ in quantum mechanics)? That would run into the very problem pointed out by von Neumann: If the “observer” were just a purely physical entity, such as a Geiger counter, one could in principle write down a bigger wavefunction that described not only the thing being measured but also the observer. And, when calculated with the Schrödinger equation, that bigger wave function would not jump! Again: as long as only purely physical entities are involved, they are governed by an equation that says that the probabilities don’t jump.
    That’s why, when Peierls was asked whether a machine could be an “observer,” he said no, explaining that “the quantum mechanical description is in terms of knowledge, and knowledge requires somebody who knows.” Not a purely physical thing, but a mind.

    The Measurement Problem in quantum mechanics – (Inspiring Philosophy) – 2014 video

    Also of note, Wigner, instead of ‘shutting up and calculating’, looked at the situation with quantum mechanics and developed a entirely new method of calculations called ‘quantum symmetries’. Here is Wigner commenting on the key experiment that led Wigner to his Nobel Prize winning work on quantum symmetries,,,

    Eugene Wigner
    Excerpt: When I returned to Berlin, the excellent crystallographer Weissenberg asked me to study: why is it that in a crystal the atoms like to sit in a symmetry plane or symmetry axis. After a short time of thinking I understood:,,,, To express this basic experience in a more direct way: the world does not have a privileged center, there is no absolute rest, preferred direction, unique origin of calendar time, even left and right seem to be rather symmetric. The interference of electrons, photons, neutrons has indicated that the state of a particle can be described by a vector possessing a certain number of components. As the observer is replaced by another observer (working elsewhere, looking at a different direction, using another clock, perhaps being left-handed), the state of the very same particle is described by another vector, obtained from the previous vector by multiplying it with a matrix. This matrix transfers from one observer to another.

    i.e. In the experiment the ‘world’ (i.e. the universe) does not have a ‘privileged center’. Yet strangely, the conscious observer does exhibit a ‘privileged center’. This is since the ‘matrix’, which determines which vector will be used to describe the particle in the experiment, is ‘observer-centric’ in its origination!
    Wigner went on to state:

    “It was not possible to formulate the laws (of quantum theory) in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.”
    Eugene Wigner (1902 -1995) from his collection of essays “Symmetries and Reflections – Scientific Essays”

    “It will remain remarkable, in whatever way our future concepts may develop, that the very study of the external world led to the scientific conclusion that the content of the consciousness is the ultimate universal reality” –
    Eugene Wigner – (Remarks on the Mind-Body Question, Eugene Wigner, in Wheeler and Zurek, p.169) 1961 – received Nobel Prize in 1963 for ‘Quantum Symmetries’

    Of supplemental note to the preceding Wigner ‘consciousness’ quotes, it is interesting to note that many of Wigner’s insights have now been experimentally verified and are also now fostering a ‘second’ revolution in quantum mechanics,,,

    Eugene Wigner – A Gedanken Pioneer of the Second Quantum Revolution – Anton Zeilinger – Sept. 2014
    It would be fascinating to know Eugene Wigner’s reaction to the fact that the gedanken experiments he discussed (in 1963 and 1970) have not only become reality, but building on his gedanken experiments, new ideas have developed which on the one hand probe the foundations of quantum mechanics even deeper, and which on the other hand also provide the foundations to the new field of quantum information technology. All these experiments pay homage to the great insight Wigner expressed in developing these gedanken experiments and in his analyses of the foundations of quantum mechanics,

    Thus, since Wigner’s insights into the foundational role of the ‘conscious observer’ in Quantum Mechanics are bearing fruit with a ‘Second Quantum Revolution’, then that is certainly very strong evidence that his ‘consciousness’ insights are indeed true for reality.

    Of personal note on Wigner. A Darwinist tried to claim that Wigner was, of all things, an atheist.
    As with so many other things that atheists claim, that claim turned out to be a false claim:

    “So the Wigners easily became Lutherans. Today I am only mildly religious. When I attend church it is with the protestants.,,,
    I found Karl Marx quite unconvincing. And Lenin was even worse.”
    Eugene Wigner – Recollections – page 39 – 1992

    of semi-related note to an observer being needed in quantum mechanics in order to complete the measurement of a system, a ‘hypothetical observer’ with a ‘distinct frame of reference’ was key to Einstein’s breakthrough insights for relativity in his thought experiments:

    Introduction to special relativity
    Excerpt: Einstein’s approach was based on thought experiments, calculations, and the principle of relativity, which is the notion that all physical laws should appear the same (that is, take the same basic form) to all inertial observers.,,,
    Each observer has a distinct “frame of reference” in which velocities are measured,,,,

    Albert Einstein – Special Relativity – Insight Into Eternity – ‘thought experiment’ video

    Einstein – General Relativity – Thought Experiment – video

  3. 3
    Jim Smith says:

    My view is that when you get to the bottom turtle, there is no physical reality to understand. There is only Mind that chose the mathematical foundation of physical reality. At that level, all you can do is calculate.

  4. 4
    daveS says:


    Of personal note on Wigner. A Darwinist tried to claim that Wigner was, of all things, an atheist.
    As with so many other things that atheists claim, that claim turned out to be a false claim:

    I wonder who that was? 🙂

    BTW, the person who made that claim was not a Darwinist.

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