People often ask me why I have two Doctorates, and what the connection is between physics and philosophy. The best I can do is tell them my story.
In high school, like any teenager, I did not have a clue about much. Nonetheless in Italy, where I grew up, they make you choose your future career from the first day of college: you pick a major, they pick the courses for you, and then you follow suit. I was interested in too many things to easily pick out a single one, so I was very worried. Then the last year of high school, when people started asking me what I wanted to do in college, I started avoiding answering them with the name of a discipline. Rather, I would tell them what I was interest in: finding out what the world is like. And after not so much thinking I arrived to physics: physics is the study of nature, so to understand nature one should learn physics first.
But my hopes were disappointed when in my third year I took “Introduction to theoretical physics,” which is an introductory course to quantum mechanics. They teach you that after quantum mechanics, we should give up the idea that physics provides us with a picture of reality. They teach you that reality is in principle unknowable, and that the best we can do is to predict experimental results.
Since I believed what they taught me, I was devastated. I thus I decided to forget about my ‘romantic’ dream and do something useful. Therefore in my undergraduate thesis I analyzed the production of radioactive isotopes that could be used in medicine, publishing various articles with my adviser.
After graduation, while still working with my professor in nuclear physics, I began a course in scientific communication to increase my ability to write about technical material. At some point I was assigned a paper to explain quantum mechanics to the layman. As is obvious, in order to be able to explain things to others one should know them very well, and so I went back to the books. What happened to me was (maybe?) what happened to David Bohm: in 1951 he wrote a textbook on quantum mechanics, and in 1952 he developed his ‘hidden variable’ theory, which is fundamentally an attempt to make sense of quantum physics as providing a picture of reality. I did not know much about him at the time, but I realized that some of the things I took for granted were not so obviously true, and I started to regain hope that quantum mechanics was not really the ‘end of physics’ as I meant it. That is, maybe there was still hope in finding out about the world through physics, even in the quantum domain.
Hence, I decided to go to graduate school in physics: to gain more time in trying to figure out what the situation was really like. While taking my Ph. D. in the foundations of quantum mechanics, I understood that what the majority of physicists thought was an unavoidable truth was instead a blunt mistake: quantum mechanics does not force us to give up anything, and certainly not the possibility to investigate reality through physics.
In addition, during the physics Ph. D. years, I realized my place was not really in a physics department: my concerns were (and still are) more philosophical and less technical. Therefore I began to think that the natural evolution of my career would be in a philosophy department. For this reason, I started my second Ph. D. in philosophy at Rutgers, where finally I could discuss about the nature of reality using physics and metaphysics: what I wanted all along.