Thursday, 25 March 2010

Does Physics Answer Metaphysical Questions?

Podcast 010. James Ladyman's inaugural lecture. There is no doubt that in the history of physics there has been great progress in finding increasingly accurate descriptions of the phenomena we observe, and in the manipulation of physical systems in experiment and technology. Physics is often thought also to tell us about the most fundamental nature of reality, for example, about the true nature of material things and the unobservable causes of the phenomena, space and time, causation and the laws that govern the universe. However, there are grounds for scepticism about whether current physics should be trusted to answer metaphysical questions. There have been very successful theories in the past, such as Newtonian mechanics, optical ether theories of light, classical electromagnetism and others that are according to our best current theories largely wrong in their metaphysical implications despite being approximately empirically adequate to an excellent degree. Sir James Jeans said in 1942, "physics and philosophy are at most a few thousand years old, but probably have lives of thousands of millions of years stretching away in front of them. They are only just beginning to get under way, and we are still, in Newton’s words, like children playing with pebbles on the sea-shore, while the great ocean of truth rolls, unexplored, beyond our reach." Do we have reason to be more confident now than he was then? (Download this podcast directly from here or subscribe by following the instructions on the right.)