For the past generation or so, more and more physicists have been asking and speculating on questions traditionally thought of as philosophical. Much of that is summed up in journalist Jim Holt’s witty, absorbing book Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (2013).

However, a certain subset of those physicists—the best-known being Stephen Hawking—dismisses philosophy as basically over. Yet even that claim involves some philosophical assumptions that not all scientists, let alone philosophers, would share.

Trained in philosophy myself, I’ve long been puzzled and irritated by physicists making philosophical claims and arguments without being aware they’re doing so. Now, apparently, at least one prominent physicist is, too.

In a Scientific American Blogs interview with science writer John Horgan, prominent physicist and polymath George F. R. Ellis critiques peer Lawrence Krauss’ assertion that philosophy is no longer necessary:

“Horgan: Lawrence Krauss, in A Universe from Nothing, claims that physics has basically solved the mystery of why there is something rather than nothing. Do you agree?

Ellis: Certainly not. He is presenting untested speculative theories of how things came into existence out of a pre-existing complex of entities…He does not explain in what way these entities could have pre-existed the coming into being of the universe, why they should have existed at all, or why they should have had the form they did. And he gives no experimental or observational process whereby we could test these vivid speculations of the supposed universe-generation mechanism. How indeed can you test what existed before the universe existed? You can’t.

Thus what he is presenting is not tested science. It’s a philosophical speculation, which he apparently believes is so compelling he does not have to give any specification of evidence that would confirm it is true. Well, you can’t get any evidence about what existed before space and time came into being. Above all he believes that these mathematically based speculations solve thousand year old philosophical conundrums, without seriously engaging those philosophical issues. The belief that all of reality can be fully comprehended in terms of physics and the equations of physics is a fantasy. As pointed out so well by Eddington in his Gifford lectures, they are partial and incomplete representations of physical, biological, psychological, and social reality.

And above all Krauss does not address why the laws of physics exist, why they have the form they have, or in what kind of manifestation they existed before the universe existed (which he must believe if he believes they brought the universe into existence)….

It’s very ironic when he says philosophy is bunk and then himself engages in this kind of attempt at philosophy. It seems that science education should include some basic modules on Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hume, and the other great philosophers, as well as writings of more recent philosophers such as Tim Maudlin and David Albert.”

It’s worth asking why some physicists seem to think they can solve, or dissolve, philosophical problems by calling their speculations “science” and dissing philosophy. And the answer, at least in my experience, is that they are victims of prejudice who, like most academics, won’t admit they are.

The backstory is that, over the past several centuries, issues once thought of as philosophical have been addressed effectively by the empirical methods of science. It seems that philosophy has had less and less subject matter to address, and what’s left for it to address is, at least in the Anglosphere, addressed in an increasingly technical and science-like way. This disposes many people in and out of academia to believe that science has replaced philosophy, or soon will. It is accordingly natural that scientists themselves would believe that. 

The problem is that it isn’t true. And the problem is compounded by the irony of philosophizing while proclaiming philosophy irrelevant.