Paper: The tension between scientific knowledge and common-sense philosophy

by Massimo Pigliucci

[Part of an occasional series presenting academic papers I have published but that may be of general interest. Full list with links here.]

Werner Heisenberg, one of the creators of the theory of quantum mechanics, adopted what by today’s standards would be a rather unusual position for a scientist, especially a physicist. In Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science, he wrote:

“The concepts of classical physics form the language by which we describe the arrangements of our experiments and state the results. We cannot and should not replace these concepts by any others . . . The concepts of classical physics are just a refinement of the concepts of daily life and are an essential part of the language which forms the basis of all natural science. There is no use in discussing what could be done if we were other beings than we are. At this point we have to realize, as von Weizsacker has put it, that ‘Nature is earlier than man, but man is earlier than natural science.’ The first part of the sentence justifies classical physics, with its ideal of complete objectivity. The second part tells us why we cannot escape the paradox of quantum theory, namely, the necessity of using the classical concepts.” (Heisenberg 1958: 46–56)

In these days when science in general, and physics in particular, have gotten even weirder than in Heisenberg’s time, such talk feels strange and perhaps outmoded. What could it possibly mean to remind our- selves that ‘nature is earlier than man, but man is earlier than natural science’, if natural science speaks to us of cosmic superstrings (Vachaspati et al. 2015), parallel universes (Linde 2017), and the illu- sory nature of time itself (Elmahalawy et al. 2015)? The picture of the world that science pushes on us is getting farther and farther away from our common-sense view of that same world. The desk on which I’m typing this is not ‘really’ a solid thing, according to fundamental physics, but rather a dynamic entity made possible by close-quarters interactions among tiny particles (Amoroso et al. 2013). My decision to accept to write this chapter for the book you are reading wasn’t ‘really’ mine, because according to some neuroscientists we don’t have anything remotely comparable to the sort of will that we sense, intuitively, we do have (Roskies 2012). Examples could be multiplied easily. Just open any graduate-level textbook, or even popular science book, in biology, neuroscience, or physics, and you’ll immediately get the picture. …

[From: The Cambridge Companion to Common-Sense Philosophy, edited by Rik Peels and Van Woudenberg, Cambridge University Press, 2020. You can ask for a free reprint by using this Contact Form.]

Published by Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

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