The philosophy of physics

“Resemblance, contiguity and causation form the cement of the universe,” Robert Cohen said when referring to Scottish philosopher David Hume at a lecture on Friday. “These things formulate the title I’m talking about what exactly it is that formulates the universe,” he said, speaking of The Law of Causality and Its Limits by Philipp Frank. Cohen, a professor emeritus of physics and philosophy at Boston University, gave an hour-long lecture on Frank and his book as part of the Department of Philosophy Lecture Series.

According to Boston University’s Department of Philosophy Web site, Cohen joined the university in the fall of 1957. He served as the chairman of the Department of Physics and helped foster the overall growth of the department. Cohen also taught many courses in the Department of Philosophy that focused on philosopher David Hume, physicist Ernst Mach, the Vienna Circle and the philosophy of Marxism as well as the connection of the history of science to various themes in philosophy.

Frank, who was personally known by Cohen, was a physicist turned philosopher. He wrote essays concerning causal explanation and its strengths and weaknesses, which were discussed in the lecture by Cohen. Frank, who studied physics at the University of Vienna, followed physicist Ernst Mach’s idea of pushing the need for the acceptance of scientific theories.

“Mach found it necessary to find out why ideas came about and why some ideas are debatable and why some are not. He wanted to find the reason for why it was that some ideas continue to persist in history and others do not,” Cohen said.

The idea of pushing scientific theories was a different way of thinking compared to his colleagues, who were committed to the logical analysis of theory. Frank was said to be quite the opposite in that he wanted to debate facts with scientists. According to Cohen, he believed that the history of science provided a crucial check for the philosophy of science. “Take science for granted, take it as your starting point. Don’t approach science to analyze it, approach science to clarify it,” Cohen said.

The Law of Causality and Its Limits, which was written by Frank in 1931, is primarily directed at those interested in the physics of the history of science and its relations to philosophy.