Philosophy is a strange pastime. Scientists measure and weigh. Mathematicians wrangle axioms and logical steps. All other disciplines draw on these two fields, which are probably linked at deep level, but philosophy draws from nothing except thoughts and the philosopher’s view of the Universe.
Well, that’s not completely accurate because philosophy has to be about something and the only something we have is the universe. But philosophy does not have to be about the universe as we know it. What if there was no such thing as electrical charge, or, the prudent philosopher thinks, what if there was no such thing as the thing we call electrical charge. At a more basic level, what is electrical charge.
Philosophers are always getting pushed back by scientists as scientists figure what they think is the case. If there is a scientific consensus on what comprises an electric charge then that question no longer interest philosophers to any great extent. Philosophers mentally travel through the lands marked “Here be dragons”.
Philosophy is also interested in less “physical” things like ethics and morals, what comprises identity, predestination or free will, what can we know and what knowing is all about. How did the Universe come to exist, or more basically, why is there something rather than nothing?
If you look at this list it comprises extensions to or extrapolations from physics, psychology, physiology, medicine, biology, and other fields of science. Philosophy doesn’t use mathematics (usually), but it uses logical argument or should. It not (usually) built on axioms, so doesn’t have the rigid formality of mathematics.
Philosophers are big users of metaphor, such as Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. A metaphor of the expansion of a balloon was used as a philosophical explanation of the expansion of the Universe discovered by Edwin Hubble. Philosophers also imagine physical machines which do not yet exist and which may never exist, such as the ‘teleporter’ which makes a material object at point A disappear and reappear at point B.
Quantum physicists have teleported quantum information from one point to another, but this is not the same as teleporting atoms. So far as I can gather from the Wikipedia article, what is teleported is information about the state of an atom, so the same atoms must already be at point B before the teleportation event, and the event is a sort of imprinting on the target atoms. It sounds like the atoms at point A remain in situ, so it is more of a tele-duplication process really. However I don’t really understand the Wikipedia article so I may be wrong.
The philosopher is not interested in the quantum nuts and bolts though. He or she would be interested in the process – is a person walks in to the teleporter at point A the same person as the person who walks out of the transporter at point B? Unless his actual atoms are transported by the process, which seems an unlikely implementation, the person at point A shares nothing with the person at point B except a configuration of a second set of atoms. Is the person at point A destroyed by the machine and recreated at point B? What if something goes wrong and the person at point A does not disappear when the button is pressed? Then we have two instances of the person. Which is the real instance?
Notice that the philosopher takes a physical situation of travel from point A to point B and considers a special case, that of travelling between the two point without travelling the old slow way of travelling between all the intervening points and doing it quickly. There is no physics which can currently perform this task, but as usual, scientists are working to, one might say, fill in the gaps.
Many times the scientist is also a philosopher – he may have at the back of his mind the concept of teleportation when he creates his hypotheses and does his experiments, but he probably doesn’t concern himself with identity. That is still the realm of the philosopher at present, but if a teleportation device were ever created, it would stop being a philosophical matter, and become a matter of law and psychology and maybe some field that does not exist yet, just as the field of psychology did not exist at one time.
I’m trying to paint a picture of the area that a philosopher is interested in. If the whole of human knowledge is a planet, then physics and maths are part of the outer most layers of the atmosphere, the exosphere, and this merges with the depths of space are the domain of philosophy. At lower levels are things like chemistry, biology, psychology and other more applied sciences. Don’t look too closely at this analogy because I can see two or three things wrong with it, and I’m not even trying.
But the main point I am making is that philosophy purposefully pokes and prods the areas beyond the domain of current mathematics and physics. Of course the line is not a definite line and there is a grey area. Some physical hypotheses verge into philosophy and some philosophical ideas are one step from becoming physical hypotheses. The suggestion that there be many universe like and unlike ours is one such suggestion that physicists are taking seriously these days.
Many of these ideas are not new and many have been used in what has been called “science fiction” for many years, especially the parallel universe theory. Time travel is another common science fiction theme. Although these ideas are used and developed by authors of fiction, physicists have adopted such ideas to advance science, though I don’t mean to suggest that scientists have directly borrowed the ideas of science fiction authors. It is probable that many ideas actually travelled in the opposite direction, from science to fiction.
Since philosophy is at heart discursive and not rigidly analytical (in most cases), there is more freedom to expand on ideas that are not what is called “mainstream”. Because of this freedom it is likely that (like economists) no two philosophers will agree on anything, but they will have fun arguing about it.