What's the role of "idealistic" philosophies of well-regarded scientists?


What's the role of "idealistic" philosophies of well-regarded scientists such as Max Tegmark's "Mathematical Universe Hypothesis"?


It has been accused of being a form of Platonic idealism, a concern that I fully share.

But what's the purpose of speculating about such theories? Does it serve as an hypothesis for real science, as a motivation for undergrads or as a "cool" popular scientific thing?

Why develop or read such "theories"?


Posted 2017-11-09T10:28:44.690

Reputation: 2 666

I would say it is not science but metaphysics and that the purpose of such theories is to explain the nature of Reality. Idealistic theories work a lot better than others under analysis so always have wide support, but they take us beyond empiricism so belong in philosophy rather than science, albeit there's no reason science shouldn't endorse them. It seems we will have to in order to solve, say, the 'hard';problem but again, this is a metaphysical problem and science usually ignores it. – None – 2017-11-09T13:29:32.067

PS - You might like to check out the physicist Ulrich Mohrhoff. He uses an idealistic theory to explain QM and rationalise the mathematics. – None – 2017-11-09T13:37:14.550

Why "accused"? Tegmark, like Penrose, is pretty open about it, so why is it a concern? Any scientific theory requires an interpretation to be applicable. For Penrose and Tegmark the stated goal is to generate heuristics to go beyond the existing theories, namely to quantum gravity and "theory of everything". It is as Feynman said "different views suggest different kinds of modifications which might be made and hence are not equivalent in the hypotheses one generates from them in ones attempt to understand what is not yet understood" recommending "wide range of physical viewpoints". – Conifold – 2017-11-09T21:13:18.103

1@Conifold I think absolute platonism is often a very bad idea. The rational is just one aspect of being here. – mavavilj – 2017-11-09T21:17:07.347

@Conifold Does he mean by "heuristics" philosophy that motivates thinking out of the box? – mavavilj – 2017-11-09T21:18:05.970

It depends on context, Kepler's discoveries were motivated by his platonism, so were Penrose's. The purpose of a scientist's philosophy is not to generate a balanced picture of the world but a fruitful one for their work. Feynman's quote is from his Nobel lecture (third paragraph from the bottom).

– Conifold – 2017-11-09T21:34:21.960

@Conifold Yeah of course, thought experiments and such can work. One should just avoid generalizing them. Like because Max Tegmark believes in such thing then "such thing exists". Even if it's just Max Tegmark's tool for his work. – mavavilj – 2017-11-09T21:40:17.463

Why should one avoid it if it works for them? To have scientists split their minds thinking like "yeah, for the purposes of my theory building I believe the universe is mathematical but I know that really this is just a fantasy that helps me devise a new theory" is unworkable. Designing new theories is just as legitimate a purpose as crafting "real truth". – Conifold – 2017-11-09T21:46:35.173

@Conifold However these kind of theories are not given as the tools of the scientists, but often they seem like some sort of pop. sci. – mavavilj – 2017-11-09T22:13:54.617

Because they are not tools. Calculus is a tool, experimental protocol is a tool, terminology and notation are tools, making new theories is a creative process where imagination is important and tools are of limited use. Popular science is meant, among other things, to attract funds and impressionable young people to the field, and preferably to the paradigm that the author favors, so it is hardly surprising. – Conifold – 2017-11-09T22:29:06.560

The ideas that become scientific ones originate outside science as a general rule. The notion of 'vibrations' of the elements of matter, the idea of atoms, the concept of elements, etc. are developed as metaphors in metaphysics long before they come to have decent meanings in science. So philosophy feeds the scientific process understandings that do not arise naturally out of nothing. – None – 2018-08-08T16:07:52.430



I will present a possible explanation for why the fiercest defenders of natural sciences often ended up with the most idealistic metaphysics in the history of the philosophy of science:

Science is incomplete without a metaphysical background, i.e. methodological and ontological reflections on its very possibility. Hellmuth Plessner delivers a nice argument within chapter two of his The Levels of the Organic and the Human [Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch; translation forthcoming] for the link between natural sciences and idealistic metaphysics (the only one I am aware of atm, tbh).

According to Plessner, the problem is that science (i.e. natural science, as opposed to humanities) has to methodologically rely on material reductionism, i.e. all that is scientifically accessible is that which is measurable, i.e. the physical world, and the world ends up looking like only the measurable [physical] stuff was actually existing (analoguous: If all you have as a tool is a hammer, stuff starts to look a nail).

In that mode of thought, there is a hidden Cartesian dualism underlying, a division of Being into res extensa (material world) and res cogitans (mind).

As there is no explicable transition possible between these dichotomic spheres, we end up with two basic possibilities for metaphysical foundations (without giving up the Cartesian divide and the standpoint of experience [Erfahrungsstellung] of natural sciences): Reduction of either the mental into the physical (abstracting from any qualia) or the physical into the mental (which includes both qualia and other data).

To paraphrase what this means as a matter of metaphysical consequences: Either we end up baffled, not being able to explain mental phenomena like "colour", "pain", or "intuitive understanding of other humans" at all (except as handwaving them as "epiphenomena" of some neuronal activity), or we end up with (absolute) Idealism, since the mental sphere is undoubtably existent and "nearer" to our consciousness than the outer world (the main line of argument of Descartes himself) and able to include all of this.

TL;DR: Given the Cartesian dualism that is underlying scientific methodology, reducing the physical sphere into the mental, i.e. Idealism, is effectively better capable of explaining why the two spheres (physical/mental) should converge and how they relate to each other. Hence, there is a "natural" tendency underlying all scientific endeavour to lead towards idealistic metaphysics.

Note: This is a rather rough sketch of the whole argument, but the parts that are important for the question are included.

Personal comment: The same problem occurs between data and theory in science, and lead up to Quine et al.

Philip Klöcking

Posted 2017-11-09T10:28:44.690

Reputation: 9 269

Nice answer! I believe you are right and that the scientific data favours some form of idealism even before we get into metaphysics. This seems to have been the view of many of the quantum pioneers and some held it very strongly. . – None – 2017-11-10T12:48:41.047

On re-reading I think you mean 'subjective' and not 'absolute' idealism. Absolute idealism is a reduction of Mind and Matter and all forms and categories. This is less well endorsed in the sciences and barely known there, although the early QM pioneers were enthusiastic. Scientists usually stop at subjective idealism, thus maintaining a basic dualism. . . . – None – 2017-11-13T13:08:55.523

@PeterJ I think you may be correct there, although I have problems with the term subjective idealism. The point stands, though: of course do people shy away from the metaphysical commitment absolute idealism brings, and therefore produce philosophically speaking less coherent positions. But they share the systematic intuition that finds its philosophical fulfilment in absolute idealism, hence the tendency. – Philip Klöcking – 2017-11-13T17:47:02.653

You make a good point. I tend to fight to keep Absolute Idealism distinct from the other forms because of the vast difference in the ideas, but I see what you mean about the other forms seeking fulfillment in it. I hadn't thought of it like this. – None – 2017-11-14T12:15:02.297

Your answer is fruitful, but I consider referring to Cartesian dualism to be old-fashioned. To see things in first-order logic in the 21st century to me reads that one has not studied beyond first-order logic or elementary set theory for example. That there are way more "models" than having A and its negation. What about fuzzy logics for example? There are more shades of grey. – mavavilj – 2017-11-17T09:26:53.967

You could also edit the answer to not make claims that you may not be able to demonstrate. Such as "why the fiercest defenders of natural sciences often ended up with the most idealistic metaphysics in the history of the philosophy of science". – mavavilj – 2017-11-17T09:30:48.670

@mavavilj One can clearly demonstrate this. You can look at Liebniz, Kant, and other scientifically motivated philosophers and you will observe a strong trend toward idealism. 'Often' is a measurable thing: we can count. And he has not overstated the case. – None – 2018-08-07T21:18:55.687

@jobermark Yes, but "fiercest defenders of natural sciences", "end up with", "most idealistic metaphysics", "the history of the philosophy of science" are ambiguous concepts. It does not make it objective to do counting in a context that's vague. – mavavilj – 2018-08-08T07:33:25.903

@mavavilj the fact that he used extravagant words doesn't mean he can't demonstrate his claims. These are among the fiercest defenders of natural sciences, they do hold some of the most idealistic metaphysics, and they show up throughout all of the history of the philosophy of science. – Yechiam Weiss – 2018-08-08T09:02:01.593

@mavavilj Precision and accuracy do not go hand in hand. Psychology can still say things even though its terms are necessarily vague. So can the historical analysis of a field of discipline. – None – 2018-08-08T16:04:15.900


At some point one needs a motivation to do science, and a belief that there is something underlying scientific reality. Everyone needs an underlying faith, and faith that does not directly interfere with science is always going to be metaphysical (in the broader sense that not just philosophies, but religions are also metaphysical).

Science itself requires a faith in the meaningfulness of reproducible results. And it provides no basis for this faith. The idea of rules of nature is, at its core, metaphysical. There is no reason within science itself for why the rules should not just change. So there is nothing wrong with pursuing motivation for this metaphysical necessity.

The reason to do metaphysics is that physics, and science more broadly, is a philosophical construct built on nothing in particular other than a social process. Since Logical Positivism ultimately failed to prove metaphysics is redundant and can be grounded entirely within objective reality, we can ignore this baselessness, which may be the best approach for most of us, or we can do metaphysics.

Metaphysics with no ideal content is just an elaborate denial that there is a basis. If we simply say all reality is based in physical reality and physical reality is based in itself, we have not given an explanation, we have ruled one out. Upon what basis should one rule out the possibility of an underlying explanation that might shape your role in the world? On the basis that it is not useful? How would you know unless you found it?

If you do not have a metaphysics, and you are doing science, you have a faith that cannot be explained or at least cannot be articulated. How is that better?


Posted 2017-11-09T10:28:44.690