An Interview with Jeremy Butterfield: At the Crossroads Between Physics and Philosophy

An Interview with Jeremy Butterfield: At the Crossroads Between Physics and Philosophy

In a recent interview, Jeremy Butterfield, a prominent philosopher of science, shared his analysis of the evolution of this discipline over the decades. Butterfield highlighted the emergence of the philosophy of physics, thanks notably to revolutionary developments such as Bell’s theorem. This theorem, formulated in the 1960s by physicist John Bell, marked a major turning point in the understanding of quantum physics.

As Butterfield mentioned – by highlighting the phenomena of non-locality and quantum entanglement – this theorem has challenged traditional conceptions of physical reality, thus opening up new perspectives for the philosophy of science. This advance has sparked intense philosophical debates and stimulated reflection on the fundamental nature of reality.

Butterfield also emphasized the importance of logic in the philosophy of science, thus highlighting the crucial role of conceptual and analytical approaches to understanding scientific theories.

As for his own expertise, Butterfield primarily focuses on relativity and quantum physics, less so on quantum gravity. He pointed out that quantum gravity is a relatively recent and unsettled area in physics, and that philosophers should not invent new philosophical theories without a solid foundation in physics. He suggested as an analogy that philosophers are like music critics: they help us to understand and appreciate music, but they are not the composers themselves.

Butterfield also discussed important contrasts between classical physical theories such as Newtonian physics, and quantum physics. Furthermore, he noted the differences of outlook among individual physicists, emphasizing that at the frontiers of research, physical theories are controversial.

Finally, Butterfield mentioned Sabine Hossenfelder’s book, “Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray,”[1]which argued that physicists should stay focused on the fundamentals of science, rather than being seduced by aesthetic notions. He suggested that the philosophy of physics can also contribute to this discussion.

In the final section of his review of this book[2], Butterfield agreed with Hossenfelder on the urgent need to recognize and prevent social and cognitive biases in the physics community. These reflections provide food for thought on how to guide the practice of physics towards a more rigorous and ethical path, thus underscoring the importance of a thoughtful and critical approach to science in general.

Carole Stora-Calte



[1] Sabine Hossenfelder, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray (Basic Books, New York USA, 2018). ISBN: 978-0-465-09425-7, 304 pages, $17.99 (hardcover)

[2] Jeremy Butterfield, Lost in Math? A Review for Physics in Perspective of: Lost in Math (Physics in Perspective 2019, pp. 1-19)