John Horgan at Scientific American asks physicist George Ellis about other leading physicists’ disparaging claims concerning the value of philosophy. Ellis’s response, in a nutshell: ignoring the philosophical side of physics doesn’t make it disappear, it just makes you do it badly.
Horgan: [Lawrence] Krauss, Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson have been bashing philosophy as a waste of time. Do you agree?
Ellis: If they really believe this they should stop indulging in low-grade philosophy in their own writings. You cannot do physics or cosmology without an assumed philosophical basis. You can choose not to think about that basis: it will still be there as an unexamined foundation of what you do. The fact you are unwilling to examine the philosophical foundations of what you do does not mean those foundations are not there; it just means they are unexamined. Actually philosophical speculations have led to a great deal of good science. Einstein’s musings on Mach’s principle played a key role in developing general relativity. Einstein’s debate with Bohr and the EPR paper have led to a great of deal of good physics testing the foundations of quantum physics. My own examination of the Copernican principle in cosmology has led to exploration of some great observational tests of spatial homogeneity that have turned an untested philosophical assumption into a testable – and indeed tested – scientific hypothesis. That’ s good science.