Physics and Philosophy

I’ve developed quite a love of philosophy. It comes, surprisingly enough, not from my interest in Theology but from my background in Physics. To tell the truth, my interest in Theology grew out of my interest in Philosophy.

I first really encountered the joys of Philosophy when my graduate school advisor challenged a group of us who were complaining about the imprecision in the Heisenberg Inequality to tackle the question of measurement in more rigorous way. Being too young to know better a small group of us began discussing what might be needed. It fell to me to see what we could discover about what it meant to “know” something.

I asked around and was told that I might want to start by reading some Plato. So I did. And that was the beginning. That journey ended with my ordination.

Years later I was teaching an intro Physics course at Lehigh. I decided that rather than try to teach the basics of calculation to non-majors, I’d try to show them how a physicist thinks and emphasize the philosophy of Physics in the course rather than the doing of it. That introduced me to people such as Karl Popper and reintroduced me to Kuhn’s works. I taught that class for five years and I expect I learned much more in the effort than any of my students. That experience led to this blog and hopefully to a book, and to a renewed interest in the dialogue between science, philosophy and theology.

All this is written, I hope, to whet your appetite to read this lovely post over on Scientific American “A Physicist Flirts with Philosophy (and Lives to Tell the Tale)”.

The author points out that much of modern Physics grew out of the philosophical inquiries of the latter 19th century. Einstein, Heisenberg, et al, were merely using their own language (mathematics) to express the ideas that were being discussed in the salons of Europe. The astounding thing was that these mathematical expressions worked, and worked well.

Science is ultimately an attempt to understand Nature in terms of the paradigmatic models of the day (to borrow from Kuhn). There’s a fundamental question of which comes first, science or paradigm, but either way you look at it the two are dancing cheek to cheek.

Do read the post. I’m going to try to find more of the same.

Author: Nick Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

4 thoughts on “Physics and Philosophy”

  1. Glad to hear your story – I’ve had that feeling for many years. When I first returned to Phoenix I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I did some sub teaching in the high schools. The sub coordinators call you at the crack of dawn to take a job, this particullar morning I didn’t pay close attention to what they wanted a teacher for and I said yes. In the shower I came to my seances and realized I had just said yes to subbing for Physics, which I knew practically nothing about. I had recently finished studying with Matt Fox in his institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality – maybe there was something there I could use. Well I dressed up my conversation and rolled in a bit of philosophy and the students ate it up. That’s what they get for having no lesson plan – I got some great comments from the students too. Philosophy, Psychology, Theology and Physics are much the same only explaning our presence here in different ways.

    1. I had a number of my students at Lehigh become so fascinated with Physics that they subsequently changed their major as a result. A couple of them graduated and went on to grad school.

      I’ve often wondered if we do a disservice to the undergrads by trying to teach them the techniques of physics without spending more time on the underlying structure of scientific philosophy. What they experience is more like hazing, just something to get through. They don’t get exposed to the wonder of a scientific world view, and they have no chance of integrating that into a classical liberal education as a result.

  2. I’d forgotten this nodal aspect of your biography, and I’m nodding. Indeed, you bring a philosophical POV to both science and your calling of faith. A translator/teacher using philosophy’s tools (most especially its critical-thinking-to-metaphorical/evocative/invocative-language pathways). It’s a wonderful thing, these days. Much needed.

  3. My question is WHY, aren’t more peeps talking about this…why aren’t there specific classes that can be taken, etc….?!

Comments are closed.