Using phenomenology to understand physics

How can the philosophical school of phenomenology help us to understand physics? The edited volume Phenomenological Approaches to Physics seeks to answer this question. The book examines the role of phenomenology in the philosophy of physics and offers perspectives on how to understand and discuss the practice of physical theorizing.

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Philosophy of science is necessary to unravel the implications of physical theories and to understand how subjects make sense of the world with the help of these theories. Much has been written on the relationship between philosophy and physics. However, the role of phenomenology in the development and philosophical interpretation of 20th century physics is still very much understudied, says Harald Wiltsche, professor in philosophy. Together with Philipp Berghofer from the University of Graz, he is editor of Phenomenological Approaches to Physics.  Photo credit Peter Modin

“There are some traces of phenomenological thinking in 20th century physics, but it is under-explored. For instance, Hermann Weyl, one of the premier mathematicians and theoretical physicist in the 20th century, was strongly influenced by phenomenology, but his phenomenological work is not as well-known as his scientific writings. Some of the book chapters discuss the contributions of Hermann Weyl”, Wiltsche says. 

Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. It was developed in the early years of the 20th century by the mathematician and philosopher Edmund Husserl.

Phenomenology focuses on the practice of science, on what is actually going on when cognizing subjects use theories to understand, explain, and change the world.

“Theories are not seen as objective ‘mirrors’ of reality, but rather as instruments with which it becomes possible to let reality manifest itself in a particular, typically perspectival way”, explains Harald Wiltsche.

Philosophical and technical perspectives

Phenomenological Approaches to Physics offers philosophical, mathemathical and scientific perspectives.

The contributing authors give an introduction to phenomenology and examine a broad spectrum of questions - from the origins and value of phenomenological approaches to physics and the physical interpretations of quantum mechanics. Other topics include the measurement problem – the problem to make sense of the wave function collapse - and how phenomenology can be used in solving what is known as “Wigner’s puzzle” – the puzzle as to why mathematical methods and models are so successful in physics.

“Such questions as ‘What does this piece of mathematics tell me about the world I live in?’ are, for me, the essence of the philosophy of science. And it does not matter if you are a philosopher or a physicist. If you are not satisfied with a “Shut up and calculate!” attitude but want also to understand what mathematics tells us about the world, you are already philosophizing”, says Harald Wiltsche.

Interaction between phenomenology and physics

Book cover. Phenomenological Approaches to Physics.Phenomenological Approaches to Physics is part of a larger research program that aims to intensify the cooperation between phenomenology and physics. Harald Wiltsche is the principal investigator of a multi-year research project on Hermann Weyl which is financed by the Austrian Research Fund and which is carried out at Linköping University, the University of Graz and Stanford University. Asked about important characteristics of his research, Wiltsche emphasizes its interdisciplinary nature:

“Good philosophy of physics requires close interaction between both disciplines. Although truly interdisciplinary research is not an easy thing to do, it is definitely the way to go.”

Book: Phenomenological Approaches to Physics. Harald A Wiltsche, Philipp Berghofer (Eds.). Springer (2020).

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