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the Complete Review
the complete review - philosophy/science

Philosophical Concepts in Physics

James T. Cushing

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To purchase Philosophical Concepts in Physics

Title: Philosophical Concepts in Physics
Author: James T. Cushing
Genre: Philosophy/Science
Written: 1998
Length: 377 pages
Availability: Philosophical Concepts in Physics - US
Philosophical Concepts in Physics - UK
Philosophical Concepts in Physics - Canada
  • The Historical Relation between Philosophy and Scientific Theories

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a clear, useful overview of the connections between philosophy and physics.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Contemporary Physics . 5/1999 J. Barbour
Erkenntnis . 1/2000 Stephan Hartmann
Isis . 12/2000 Jeffrey A. Barrett
Physics Today . 7/1999 Sunny Auyang

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The complete review's Review:

       James Cushing's book provides a broad overview of the history of science and specifically the connections between philosophy and science. Beginning with the influence of Aristotle, Cushing leads the reader through most of the major advances and paradigm shifts in physics, from the transition to a heliocentric world view and the acceptance of Newtonian mechanics to Einstein and quantum mechanics. Fundamental philosophical issues that guide these questions (and are, in turn, influenced by them), are also discussed extensively:
       The first part of the book deals with the general approaches to "the scientific enterprise." Building up from the question of what the "ways of knowing" are Cushing moves on to the separate approaches of Aristotle and Francis Bacon as well as addressing more general questions of scientific method.
       Part two deals with "Ancient and modern models of the universe." Turning to specific scientific questions, Cushing provides an excellent explanation of the Ptolemaic model of the universe (and the reasons for its success), as well as then showing the inevitable transition to a heliocentric model in light of the observations and theories of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo. Here, as throughout the book, Cushing is careful in pointing out the reasons for the success and the failure of the theories at issue, and the often complex transition from one theory to another. As he points out, as late as the Renaissance the Ptolemaic system "fit past observational data and predicted fairly well the future positions of the then known planets." Copernicus' valid objections to the theory are weighed against what seemed obvious evidence against a heliocentric universe at the time. Copernicus' suggestion that the universe is, in fact, far larger than believed at the time (a necessary condition to resolve the stellar parallax question in a heliocentric model) was one of many huge leaps necessary for the one view of the world to replace the other.
       Part three addresses the Newtonian revolution, and is particularly useful in showing how Newton arrived at his law of universal gravitation. Here and elsewhere Cushing avoids presenting science as a series of theories superseding one another. Instead, where possible, he tries to show all aspects that play a role in scientific discovery, and so, rather than merely presenting Newton's law as the result of an apple-on-the-head eureka moment, Cushing goes to pains to explain what Newton's own philosophy and world view was, and how that played a role in his coming up with this particular law.
       (In fact, however, Newton is the one scientist where Cushing falls a bit short of his aim and goal: While he teases the reader with the statement that "it may come as a surprise to learn that Newton had serious and long-standing interests in certain unorthodox theological subjects and in alchemy," Cushing never adequately explains or ties in these beliefs with Newton's scientific thought. Forthright and willing to look farther under the covers elsewhere here he continues the long-standing tradition of politely ignoring Newton's wacky obsessions. While these may, in fact, have had no direct influence on his science (a dubious proposition), they should at least be presented (even if only to be dismissed as irrelevant).)
       Part four offers an excellent brief survey of Galileo's difficulties, showing it to be a more complex problem than the mere clash with the Catholic Church that it is often reduced to. This section also discusses the consequences of the Newtonian world view, as well as addressing the question of determinism, which continues to be an issue in almost all of the questions of science that are discussed in the book.
       Part five contrasts the mechanical and the electrodynamical world views, while part six turns to relativity. In both cases, Cushing again carefully shows how the various theories came about, essays on scientific discovery that are distinctly more useful than the usual textbook presentation of such advances.
       Parts seven and eight then turn to quantum mechanics, material which allows for more striking examples of the ties between philosophy and physics, and the consequences of certain world views. As there are still many open questions here it is in many ways the most interesting part of the book. Cushing explains the issues well, and offers a broader perspective than usual.
       Cushing is particularly strong in his examples (a number of which he has written about before). His explanation of the results and consequences of the Kaufmann experiments (which initially seemed to undermine the special theory of relativity, only in fact to confirm it) is exemplary in providing the background for an historical event that is usually described in far more (and far too) simple terms. Similarly, the discussion of the Copenhagen interpretation and David Bohm's rival theory (more fully discussed in Cushing's Quantum Mechanics: Historical Contingency and the Copenhagen Hegemony) clearly explains an important (but too little discussed) issue in quantum mechanics, Bohm's theory being a viable alternative to the Copenhagen interpretation that, for a variety of reasons, is basically ignored.

       The presentation of the book is very well done. Each section, and each chapter begins with extensive quotes which Cushing reminds the reader "form integral parts of the presentation and are meant to be read." Each chapter also ends with suggestions as to "further reading," useful lists, well presented. The book clearly can be used as a textbook, and while there are sections which might be a bit plodding Cushing generally manages to present the many complex facts and issues in a thoroughly engaging manner.
       Cushing is especially to be commended for his extensive quotes, particularly within the text, offering an authentic historic voice that lends his arguments support (and are often in and of themselves fascinating).
       "The reader is assumed to haves some knowledge of elementary classical physics." There are many examples and equations in the book, and while most of the concepts should be comprehensible to readers with "some knowledge" the mathematics does get fairly intimidating, especially in the chapters on quantum mechanics. (More detailed mathematical explanations are provided with regards to a few of the issues, but these are appended to the end of the relevant chapters, "in order to make the main body of the text suitable for a wider audience.") Nevertheless, the gist of Cushing's arguments and illustrations is presented fairly clearly and comprehensibly throughout.
       A physicist, rather than a philosopher or historian of science, Cushing offers a very useful broad overview of the connection between philosophy and physics -- one that goes both ways. An interesting book, it is certainly recommended for all those interested in broader questions of scientific discovery and the philosophy of science.

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Philosophical Concepts in Physics: Other Books under Review that might be of interest:

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About the Author:

       American physicist and philosopher James T. Cushing lived 1937 to 2002.

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