Tag Archives: William James

Temperamental Physicists

The other day I was surfing on Chris Fuchs’ website, looking for a journal reference to one of his papers. I noticed that there is a new addition to his compendia of emails about the foundations of quantum mechanics. Now, depending on your temperament, you either love or hate reading such things. Certainly, the ideas are not as carefully formulated as they would be in a scientific paper, and some might find this annoying. Also, if you get annoyed by reading things that you don’t agree with, and you are bound to find at least something you don’t agree with unless your name is Chris Fuchs, then this is not for you. On the other hand, it does give some insight into how a fellow thinker about foundations formulates, develops and changes his ideas, which is something that most scientists go to great lengths to hide from public view. It also gives you an idea of his influences, and it is the reactions of other people to the emails and the quotes from philosophers that I will never be motivated to read myself, that really bring the thing to life. Speaking of the latter, I liked this quotation from William James – if anyone knows the source then please let me know:

The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human
temperaments. Undignified as such a treatment may seem to some of my colleagues,
I shall have to take account of this clash and explain a good many of the divergencies
of philosophies by it. Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries,
when philosophizing, to sink the fact of his temperament. Temperament is no conventionally
recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusions. Yet
his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective
premises. It loads the evidence for him one way or the other, making a more sentimental
or more hard-hearted view of the universe, just as this fact or that principle would. He
trusts his temperament. Wanting a universe that suits it, he believes in any representation
of the universe that does suit it. He feels men of opposite temper to be out of key
with the world’s character, and in his heart considers them incompetent and ‘not in it,’
in the philosophic business, even though they may far excel him in dialectical ability.
Yet in the forum he can make no claim, on the bare ground of his temperament,
to superior discernment or authority. There arises thus a certain insincerity in our
philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned. I am
sure it would contribute to clearness if in these lectures we should break this rule and
mention it, and I accordingly feel free to do so.

It seems to me that the quote would still make sense if one replaced “philosophy” by “theoretical physics”. Now, before I get accused of being on the loony left of postmodernism and sociology of science, let me clarify that I do believe that the role of experiment is a big difference between the two subjects, and it is capable of resolving issues much more conclusively than argument alone. However, each physicist has to choose what topic to work on and which ideas and methods are most likely to lead to success. Despite the successes of the great edifice of modern theoretical physics, there are still dozens of possible views on which aspects of it are the most important and on why it all works in the first place. The temperament of the physicist plays a large role in coloring her/his attitude to such issues. For example, something as simple as the level of respect for authority can play an enormous role. This is evident in the currently ongoing debate about the success/failure of string theory (which I don’t claim to have enough expertise to say anything sensible about by the way) and in differing attitudes to whether the foundations of quantum mechanics is an important subject for a physicist to understand, or a load of metaphysical hogwash.

It takes all types to make the subject go forward, and it would be a boring life if we all agreed exactly what needed doing and how to go about doin it. However, I do think that if we paid greater attention to the fact that there need not be entirely scientific reasoning behind our differing points of view, and that this is OK – even normal – then that would help to diffuse some of the great controversies of modern science.