Rutgers professor connects physics, quantum mechanics with philosophy
Physics and philosophy seem to be two fundamentally different fields, with physics using equations and formulas to explain matter and motion, and philosophy being the study of fundamental questions on existence and reason.
Currently working at the intersection of these two disciplines, though, is Barry Loewer, a professor in the Department of Philosophy.
His involvement in philosophy began during his undergraduate years at Amherst College, where he majored in philosophy and mathematics. When taking a history course on the causes of World War I, he asked what exactly was meant by cause, which was a question his professor said was one better answered by the Department of Philosophy.
He then took a course on the philosophy of science. When he later taught at the University of South Carolina, he became especially focused on quantum mechanics.
“I was always interested in physics and became very interested in (the) philosophy of physics, especially quantum mechanics, when I was teaching at the University of South Carolina,” he said.
So what exactly is quantum mechanics?
"It would take a book to answer this question," Loewer said.
To put it briefly, quantum mechanics is a formalism — or description, in mathematical terms — that physicists use to predict the outcome of experiments, he said. The issue was that scientists in the past typically provided confusing and inadequate accounts of quantum mechanics, such as the Copenhagen interpretation, which was the first attempt to understand the meaning of the formalism.
Loewer said science should not only predict, but also give a concise explanation of what quantum mechanics say about elementary particles, fields and other concepts in physics, as well as the laws that govern their behavior.
When asked about the connection between physics and philosophy, Loewer explained how the focus of physics is developing, testing and applying theories. Physicists, though, are not often clear about what the concepts in these theories mean or what reality could be like if they were correct. These issues are addressed by philosophers of physics.
Regarding quantum mechanics, Loewer said philosophers often collaborate with physicists in order to investigate alternative ways of interpreting it.
“Quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics are probabilistic theories. Physicists know how to use notions of probability in formulating and testing theories, but typically they don't pay much attention to what in reality makes a probability claim true or false,” he said. “Philosophers interested in probability devise various accounts of probability and investigate how they apply to these theories.”
Some other properties of physics that require a philosophical aspect include what space and time exactly is, if time has an intrinsic direction and what the laws of nature are, he said. A relatively new area of study in philosophy is its relation to cosmology, which is the science of the origin of the universe.
Previously, Loewer worked on the Rutgers Templeton Project, in which the philosophy of cosmology was its focus. The project, which was co-directed by Loewer along with other philosophers and physicists, brought together people from Rutgers and other universities to conduct research on issues in the field. The project “team” consisted of three Rutgers faculty, including Loewer, as well as cosmologists and philosophers from Yale, Columbia and New York University.
“(The goal was to) bring together philosophers and physicists to promote philosophy of cosmology as an area of research,” he said.
Although the project itself ended several years ago, many philosophers and physicists continue to work on and write about issues of philosophy of cosmology, Loewer said. Moving forward, Loewer is also planning on teaching a course in the philosophy of cosmology in the coming Fall 2019 semester.