My colleague, Lydia Patton, sent me this interesting article, “The Philosophy of the Higgs,” (from The Guardian, March 24, 2013) when I began the posts on “statistical flukes” in relation to the Higgs experiments (here and here); I held off posting it partly because of the slightly sexist attention-getter pic of Marilyn (in reference to an “irrelevant blonde”), and I was going to replace it, but with what? All the men I regard as good-looking have dark hair (or no hair). But I wanted to take up something in the article around now, so here it is, a bit dimmed. Anyway apparently MM was not the idea of the author, particle physicist Michael Krämer, but rather a group of philosophers at a meeting discussing philosophy of science and science. In the article, Krämer tells us:
For quite some time now, I have collaborated on an interdisciplinary project which explores various philosophical, historical and sociological aspects of particle physics at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). For me it has always been evident that science profits from a critical assessment of its methods. “What is knowledge?”, and “How is it acquired?” are philosophical questions that matter for science. The relationship between experiment and theory (what impact does theoretical prejudice have on empirical findings?) or the role of models (how can we assess the uncertainty of a simplified representation of reality?) are scientific issues, but also issues from the foundation of philosophy of science. In that sense they are equally important for both fields, and philosophy may add a wider and critical perspective to the scientific discussion. And while not every particle physicist may be concerned with the ontological question of whether particles or fields are the more fundamental objects, our research practice is shaped by philosophical concepts. We do, for example, demand that a physical theory can be tested experimentally and thereby falsified, a criterion that has been emphasized by the philosopher Karl Popper already in 1934. The Higgs mechanism can be falsified, because it predicts how Higgs particles are produced and how they can be detected at the Large Hadron Collider.
On the other hand, some philosophers tell us that falsification is strictly speaking not possible: What if a Higgs property does not agree with the standard theory of particle physics? How do we know it is not influenced by some unknown and thus unaccounted factor, like a mysterious blonde walking past the LHC experiments and triggering the Higgs to decay? (This was an actual argument given in the meeting!) Many interesting aspects of falsification have been discussed in the philosophical literature. “Mysterious blonde”-type arguments, however, are philosophical quibbles and irrelevant for scientific practice, and they may contribute to the fact that scientists do not listen to philosophers.
I entirely agree that philosophers have wasted a good deal of energy maintaining that it is impossible to solve Duhemian problems of where to lay the blame for anomalies. They misrepresent the very problem by supposing there is a need to string together a tremendously long conjunction consisting of a hypothesis H and a bunch of auxiliaries Ai which are presumed to entail observation e. But neither scientists nor ordinary people would go about things in this manner. The mere ability to distinguish the effects of different sources suffices to pinpoint blame for an anomaly. For some posts on falsification, see here and here*.
The question of why scientists do not listen to philosophers was also a central theme of the recent inaugural conference of the German Society for Philosophy of Science. I attended the conference to present some of the results of our interdisciplinary research group on the philosophy of the Higgs. I found the meeting very exciting and enjoyable, but was also surprised by the amount of critical self-reflection. Continue reading