HISTORY OF PHYSICS:
Today, we’re taking a trip down memory lane to explore the historical roots of physics as a discipline. It may surprise you to learn that physics was once considered a branch of philosophy!
In ancient Greece, philosophers like Aristotle and Plato pondered the nature of matter and motion, positing that everything in the world was made up of four basic elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Fast forward a few centuries, and the Renaissance brought experimentation and observation to philosophical inquiries. This led to scientists like Galileo and Descartes using rigorous methods to test their philosophical ideas, eventually laying the foundation for modern physics.
But wait, there’s more! Physics continued to be closely linked to philosophy for centuries to come, with philosophers exploring questions related to space, time, and the nature of reality. It wasn’t until the 20th century that physics emerged as a separate discipline, with the development of quantum mechanics and relativity transforming our understanding of the universe.
So what does this all mean in today’s day and age? While physics has come a long way from its philosophical roots, it still remains an interdisciplinary field that draws on insights from philosophy, mathematics, and other areas of science. And yet, in our current era of fake news and anti-science sentiment, it’s more important than ever to remember the rigorous methods and critical thinking that led to the development of modern physics.
LIMITATION OF SCIENCE
Science has undoubtedly transformed our understanding of the universe and helped us make sense of the world around us. But in our quest for knowledge, we must also acknowledge the limits of science and our own understanding of the universe. One area where this becomes especially apparent is in the relationship between science and religion, particularly when it comes to the question of deities.
Many people today use science to justify the belief that there are no deities. They point to the scientific method, empirical evidence, and the lack of a need for a supernatural explanation for natural phenomena. And yet, at the heart of physics lie fundamental constants – values that are thought to be unchanging and universal. These constants, such as the speed of light and the gravitational constant, govern the behavior of the universe and the laws of physics as we know them.
The existence of these fundamental constants raises important questions about the nature of the universe and our own limitations in understanding it. We have no explanation for why these constants take the values that they do, or why they are even necessary in the first place. Some have argued that the existence of these constants points towards a divine creator – an explanation that science cannot disprove or verify.
But this does not mean that science and religion are irreconcilable. In fact, many scientists and religious individuals alike acknowledge the limits of science and the importance of faith and spirituality in their own lives. And to paraphrase the physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne, science cannot tell us why the universe exists, but it can tell us how it works. In other words, science and religion can both offer valuable insights into the universe and our place in it.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
But as our understanding of the universe continues to evolve, how will the relationship between physics and philosophy change going forward?
One area where physics and philosophy have traditionally overlapped is in the exploration of fundamental questions about the universe – questions that may be beyond the scope of empirical observation and experimentation. For example, questions about the nature of time, space, and causation have long fascinated both physicists and philosophers, and may require a combination of both disciplines to fully understand.
Another area where physics and philosophy may continue to intersect is in the realm of ethics and morality. As we develop new technologies and push the boundaries of what is possible, we must also grapple with the ethical implications of our actions. Philosophers have long pondered questions of morality and the nature of the good life, and their insights may be valuable in guiding us as we navigate the ethical dilemmas posed by advances in physics and technology.
But as physics becomes increasingly specialized and technical, there may be a growing divide between the two disciplines. Physicists may be more focused on empirical observation and mathematical models, while philosophers may be more focused on conceptual analysis and ethical considerations. Bridging this divide may require a renewed emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration and a willingness to learn from each other’s perspectives.
SHOULD WE FAVOUR SEPARATION?
There is a growing debate about whether physics and philosophy should remain closely linked or whether they should be allowed to diverge.
On the one hand, some argue that the separation of physics and philosophy would be a bad thing. They argue that philosophy provides a critical lens through which we can view scientific discoveries and their implications. For example, questions about the ethical implications of new technologies or the nature of scientific inquiry itself may require philosophical inquiry in addition to empirical observation.
Moreover, philosophy provides a broader perspective on the human condition and our place in the universe. Philosophers have long pondered questions of meaning, purpose, and morality, and their insights can help guide us as we navigate the complex world of science and technology.
On the other hand, others argue that the separation of physics and philosophy may be a necessary step towards progress. As physics becomes increasingly developed, it may require a more focused approach that emphasizes empirical observation and mathematical models over conceptual analysis and ethical considerations. In this view, philosophy may be seen as a distraction or even an obstacle to scientific progress.
To a quote Albert Einstein:
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.“
So, as we continue to push the boundaries of human knowledge, it is important to remember that physics and philosophy are not mutually exclusive, but rather complementary fields of inquiry. By embracing interdisciplinary collaboration and open-minded inquiry, we can continue to make new discoveries about the universe and our place in it, while also grappling with the ethical and existential questions that have fascinated philosophers for centuries.
Albert, D.Z. (2003) Time and chance. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press.
Kant, I. and D., M.J.M. (2020) The critique of pure reason. S.I.: Duke Classics.
Polkinghorne, J.C. (2016) Faith of a physicist – reflections of a bottom-up thinker. Princeton University Press.