In the old days. stars of physicists like Einstein$^{[1]}$, Poincare, Heisenberg, Pauli, $^{[2]}$ Bohr and so on are quite philosophical mind, and like philosophy. $^{[3]}$

But now, it seems to me a totally different matter - physicists like Steven Weinberg, Lawrence Krauss ${^{[4]}}$ and many others have a strong disrespect for philosophy $^{[5]}$, I wonder:

When did philosophy become unpopular in the circle of physics$^{[6]}$?

I realize this question can be opinion based, so please provide a.) real major history events like my [4] below that probably increased tension between physics and philosophy, b.) any events that giving us a more complete picture (such as: I could be under a wrong impression after all!). In case of it gradually happened... well, I don't know how you can prove that, but please provide explanation and strong argument.

{1}:"I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today—and even professional scientists—seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is—in my opinion—the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth." (Einstein to Thornton, 7 December 1944, EA 61-574)

{2}: They have written different articles and books on philosophy of science, see "Physics and Philosophy" by Pauli, "Science and Hypothesis" by Poincare, "Physics and Philosophy" by Heisenberg.

{3}: The fact that they like philosophy doesn't mean their work are inspired by philosophy though, despite a few of their work does seem to be so.

{4}: see this. Also, don't get me wrong, I like Krauss and philosophy quite a lot .

{5}: The only exception I found is: Sean Carroll and Anthony Zee

{6}: To be more specific, I mean the majority of physics circle. Having said all these, this question is just based on personal observation, I could be wrong though! Given my observation samples are not board enough.

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    $\begingroup$ You left out what is probably the most famous example of references [4] and [5], Stephen Hawking. He, with Leonard Mlodinow, in the very first page of their book The Grand Design, wrote "Philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly Physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge." $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 10:33
  • $\begingroup$ @RoryDaulton Thanks for the information, now we are having a more complete picture. On the other hand, a few days ago, I have found one gradual reason that suggested by Sean Carroll-" the kind of 'philosophy of science' that gives philosophy of science a bad name. " , not sure if it is strong enough, but I am posting it here for reference's sake: twitter.com/seanmcarroll/status/617153472014761984 $\endgroup$
    – Shing
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 13:57
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    $\begingroup$ This question describes an event that never happened, and then asks when it happened. Science and philosophy started to become separate subjects around the 17th century. There was still cross-pollination between philosophy and physics, and there still is. Physicists are individuals who have a wide variety of attitudes about philosophy. A physicist could, for example, believe that philosophy is irrelevant to physics, but not to ethics. There are still people like John Norton and John Earman who straddle the two fields and do work that is recognized as valuable in both professions. $\endgroup$
    – user466
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 15:43
  • $\begingroup$ It is said that G.W.F. Hegel proved by philosophy that there can be only seven planets. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 18:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Gerald Edgar ...And Ceres was discovered the same year? This is an anecdote. Hegel was not concerned with the total number of planets, only if there is an extra planet between Mars and Jupiter. And rather than "proving" that there is one he criticized the Kepler-Bode style numerological reasoning that predicted it. He produced an equally "respectable" sequence of numbers that unlike Bode's did not have any gap to be filled adsabs.harvard.edu/full/1992JHA....23..208C $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 23:16

4 Answers 4


The modern conflict is not so much between physics and philosophy, as between physics and "half" of philosophy, the continental philosophy. Scientists, and physicists in particular, see culturally relativistic attitudes of continental philosophy as leading to ignorance and outright hostility to science. Sokal and Bricmont's Fashionable Nonsense gives an idea why, in works of some prominent continental philosophers they find "mystification, deliberately obscure language, confused thinking and the misuse of scientific concepts". The other "half", analytic philosophy, is closely associated with science and is viewed much more favorably, Karl Popper for example is quite popular among physicists.

Prominent physicists like Bohm, Penrose and Smolin wrote books philosophizing about the nature of mind and reality, Bell and Wigner wrote a number of papers. Philosophy always had the most currency with scientists working at the "frontlines", and even today according to Rickles "quantum gravity is... one of the few areas of contemporary physics where (some of) the physicists who are central figures in the field actively engage with philosophers, collaborating with them, participating in philosophy conferences, and contributing chapters to philosophical books and journals..."

The philosophical split was prompted by an exchange between Carnap and Heidegger, and solidified in 1930s according to Friedman:"But the thoroughgoing intellectual estrangement of these two traditions, their almost total lack of mutual comprehension, is a product of the National Socialist seizure of power in 1933 and the resulting intellectual migration". Many analytic philosophers (and physicists too) had to emigrate to the US, severing personal ties that held the philosophical community together. See more in the Philosophy SE thread.

But as Snow pointed out in his famous 1959 lecture The Two Cultures there is a broader cultural split: "A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?... So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had".

Snow's lecture blamed the British educational system, which overemphasized humanities at the expense of sciences since the Victorian era, and left British elites unprepared for the modern scientific world. He contrasted it with the situation in the US and Germany. As a specifically modern factor one can also point out increasingly narrow specialization in all areas, which makes it harder for scientists and non-scientists to understand each other's principles and methodologies, which is reflected in philosophical attitudes.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 for my gratitude for giving me and the others a more complete picture, thanks. $\endgroup$
    – Shing
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 14:03
  • $\begingroup$ It's a fair point, but in my experience with physicists, they have no more patience for analytic philosophy than they do for continental philosophy. One physicist I met had an attitude that I felt summarized the general scientist's feelings about philosophy: He felt that logical positivism was the one true philosophy, and the squabbling about things like "The principle that one should only believe things that are supported by empirical evidence is not supported by empirical evidence," was a tedious and unimportant point. $\endgroup$
    – Addem
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Addem This may be true but logical positivism is better than "shut up and calculate", and I am not sure that the attitude is specifically modern, although it is exacerbated by narrow specialization and the corresponding changes in higher education. Looking historically, physicists most prone to philosophizing were the new ground breakers (Newton, Einstein, Poincare, Bohr, etc.), to a degree the trend continues today, see edit. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 23:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Addem i don't understand the quote $\endgroup$
    – Ooker
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 5:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Ooker It was my one-sentence summary of the standard criticism of logical positivism. Here is the more elaborate criticism, "Critics have argued that Logical Positivism's insistence on the strict adoption of the verifiability criterion of meaning (the requirement for a non-analytic, meaningful sentence to be either verifiable or falsifiable) is problematic, as the criterion itself is unverifiable, especially for negative existential claims and positive universal claims." from philosophybasics.com/branch_logical_positivism.html $\endgroup$
    – Addem
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 16:52

On my opinion, this is related to the shift of the centers of research in mathematics and physics from Germany to the English-speaking world. The British and American physicists and mathematicians in most cases looked at philosophical speculation with contempt. (Bertrand Rusell is an exception). This is an old tradition, going back at least to 17 century, and it influenced education.

If you look at the most famous physicists of the first half of the 20s century, many of them were writing on philosophical questions. And mathematicians too (Hermann Weyl, for example). But most of them were educated in Germany (Switzerland, Austria, etc.)

In the recent times there was one famous mathematician (Rene Thom, French) who switched from mathematics to philosophy, but this case is an exception.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 for my gratitude for giving a more complete picture, thank you. $\endgroup$
    – Shing
    Commented Aug 15, 2015 at 4:07

Is it really the case that English speaking physicists are less philosophically inclined?? I know of some statements which let me doubt.

Steven Weinberg said: "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." That is certainly a strong philosophical statement. This one and many others can be found in Wikiquote.

Richard Feyman said in "The Meaning of It All": "... the theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man's struggle for good and evil seems inadequate." And Conifold showed in an answer to the question Richard Feynman’s Philosophy of Science that Feynman philosophized quite a lot.

Or take J.A. Wheeler: "It from bit symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom — at a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the resistering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe." (Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links" in "Complexity, Entropy and the Physics of Information" (1990)).

I think that most good physicists can be called philosophers too.

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    $\begingroup$ This doesn't really seem like an answer, but +1 in any case for the Weinberg quote. $\endgroup$
    – user466
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 21:05

This is of course not a question with a final answer, but from my point of view one of the main reasons is the increasing specialization of the different fields in physics combined with the difficult-to-grasp mathematical overhead. As a result, traditional philosophers often have little to no idea about what is happening at the forefront of research in physics since this would involve concepts of enormous complexity that cannot be understood without the mathematical overhead (e.g. Quantum Field Theories, AdS/CFT-Correspondence or Supersymmetry just to name a few). Popular explanations of the modern theories are almost always imprecise with respect to some crucial details. This makes any attempt of a philosophical discussion among non-experts very difficult - even if a non-expert makes a valid argument, it can be easily dismissed due to possible misinterpretations of the theory. In contrast to this, many of the great philosophers of the past had an extensive understanding of the physics they were talking about - Kant had a number of important publications in celestial mechanics, many of the philosophers around logical positivism were also accomplished scientists themselves (Mach, Hertz, Gödel or Russel just to name a few), Popper repeatedly demonstrated his solid knowledge of Quantum Mechanics. Those who did not have a background in physics or maths often had close ties to those who did - the Vienna Circle is a classic example of this.

Another point that is probably related to the one I just made is the increasing self-imposed distance to falsifiability in the philosophy of science. While there are certainly valid points to be made in this regard, this does not sit well with most physicists - the gold-standard for scientific theories is still considered to be their falsifiability, hence the philosophical trend towards "anything goes" in the sense of Feyerabend and others is either ignored or immediately dismissed since it does not relate to everyday scientific work.

tl;dr: Physics is too complicated and philosophy is completely disconnected from the forefront of research.


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