Companion to the Philosophy of Science

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Philosophy offers a more global but not absolute perspective on reality—for seeing the whole picture.

Oxford Companion to Philosophy - Oxford Reference

Can you give a sense of the type of questions that the philosophy of science is concerned with? Broadly speaking, there are four kinds of questions that philosophy of science deals with: metaphysical, epistemic, conceptual, and practical.

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On the metaphysical front, the key issue is the implications of the scientific image of the world about the basic ontological categories of the natural and social world. For instance, are there laws of nature? What does causation consist of? Are there natural kinds and properties? Do things in the world happen by necessity? Do worldly objects possess causal powers? Are there mechanisms that generate or support various functions and behaviours? On the epistemic front, the key issue is the epistemic credentials of science and in particular the status of scientific knowledge. Science relies on theories, hypotheses, and principles which typically but not invariably go beyond the observable aspects of the world and describe it as possessing a hidden-to-the-senses causal-explanatory structure.

How are these theories supported or licensed by the evidence? How seriously should we take the scientific image of the world as being true or true-like in order to have a just view of science? On the conceptual front, the key issue is the ways scientific theories represent the world as well as the conditions of representational success. Science represents the world via theories and theories employ a number of representational media, from language, to models, to diagrams etc.

Scientific theories employ, almost invariably, idealisations and abstractions in representing natural phenomena. How do scientific concepts acquire their content? How is it best to understand the conceptual connections between theories? How is it best to evaluate the representational content of theories? How is it best to understand the relation of theories to experience and experiment? On the practical front, there are a number of issues having to do with ethical, social, and other practical problems.

Science is far from value-free, and the investigation of the place, role and function of values in science has been an important element of our scientific thinking. Values do not function as methods do, yet they are constitutively involved in scientific judgements and in theory-choice and evaluation in science. Feminist approaches to science have played a key role in uncovering various cognitive and social biases and have promoted the image of a socially responsible science.

Issues about the ethics of science, the structure of scientific research, risk-analysis, and the role of science and of the scientists and the scientific institutions in policy-making have acquired prominence. In practice, all these fronts are intertwined. In my view, a proper engagement with philosophy of science should deal with all four kinds of issues and have a historical dimension, too.

Philosophy of science has a rich history, the understanding of which apart from the intellectual worth it has in its own right can help us have a better view of the significance of current approaches to science and of attempted solutions to perennial problems. It is occasionally remarked that the higher the complexity of any particular area of science, the more it strays into philosophical territory. Do you think this is true? What need does an individual scientist have for philosophy? I certainly think this is true.

Complexity arises, typically, when a theory is extended to cover new phenomena and the foundations upon which it was built become shaky. This incidentally is the view Einstein himself had. He famously said that in the periods of normal science, the scientist might well leave the philosophising about science to the philosopher.

ISBN 13: 9780631170242

But when the stakes at higher, that is when:. The way I read Einstein is that scientists have an important theoretical reason to be actively engaged in the philosophical scrutiny of science when science seems to be in trouble. Einstein suggests that this philosophical task requires the active engagement of scientists with philosophy: it cannot be successfully performed unless scientists are engaged in philosophy.

All this does not imply that scientists should become philosophers, or the converse. But it calls for osmosis between the two distinct perspectives. Philosophy gives scientists the conceptual tools to reflect on their theories and practices, to question entrenched assumptions and presuppositions and to defend the scientific achievements.

Ted Honderich

Can you tell me about this introduction and why have you chosen it? A good introduction is like a good appetiser in a meal. But it can also stand on its own as a substantial main course. What makes this book stand out is, on the one hand, the clarity by which it is written and, on the other hand, the in-depth coverage of issues not normally treated in general introductions to philosophy of science.

But it goes on to keep the reader up to speed with the intricate recent debates concerning scientific realism. The scientific realism debate is a key controversy concerning science in general.


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Scientific realism is the view that mature and predictively successful scientific theories are approximately true of the world; hence, the entities they posit or entities like the ones posited are part of reality. This optimistic view of science has been challenged in many ways. For instance, it is argued that empirical evidence systematically underdetermines theories, hence it is impotent in turning the evidential balance in favour of one theory. Or it is argued that the history of science is full of theories that were once empirically successful and yet were abandoned as false later on.

It is then concluded that current theories will be abandoned as false in due course, despite their empirical successes. Get the weekly Five Books newsletter. This is a hugely significant work arguing against scientific realism. An example of this might be the electron or the quark. Can you outline why van Fraassen contests scientific realism? He does not deny that unobservable entities exist. Rather, he says that one need not believe in their existence in order to have a reasonable view of science and its practice.

His anti-realism is based on the empiricist tenet that belief should be constrained by what is observable and actual and amounts to a kind of agnosticism about the existence of unobservables. His account of scientific realism is in my view somewhat idiosyncratic, since he takes scientific realism to involve two theses: one axiological and another doxastic about belief.

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The axiological thesis says that theories aim at truth; the doxastic thesis says that acceptance of a theory involves belief in its truth. Whereas, he takes Constructive Empiricism to say that theories aim at empirical adequacy , and that acceptance of a theory involves belief only in its empirical adequacy though he adds that acceptance involves more than belief, viz. I said that this way to view the realism debate is idiosyncratic, since one can be a scientific realist or a constructive empiricist without thinking that theories have achieved their respective aims.


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His key argument is that the extra risk that realists seem to take by believing in the reality of unobservable entities is illusory since the theory can only be proved wrong by showing that it is empirically inadequate. In any case, he adds, the claim that a theory is empirically adequate i. You are one of the most prominent contemporary defenders of scientific realism. Where, in your view, does van Fraassen go wrong? To see this, we have to reflect a bit more on the notion of empirical adequacy.

A theory is empirically adequate if and only if it saves all phenomena, past, present, and future.

Now, this is a no less utopian aim than proving the theory true, since at any given moment of time, scientists have only a finite amount of data available. Hence, even if these data do not refute the theory, they are far from proving that the theory is empirically adequate. But why go for belief in empirical adequacy as opposed to belief in truth? If the argument is that the former is epistemically safer than the latter, then this makes Constructive Empiricism unstable: the epistemic safety principle, if sensible at all, makes safer the even weaker belief in the claim that the theory is unrefuted as opposed to the stronger belief that the theory is empirically adequate.

acmipondtens.ga Empiricism could be stricter than constructive empiricism: it could claim that the aim of science is to produce unrefuted theories. Constructive Empiricism is more liberal than this, but in being so, it sets some boundaries to what can be known that does go beyond what a strict version of empiricism would allow, viz. But then, there is no logical obstacle in setting the boundaries a little higher, as realists demand. The issue of observability has drawn considerable attention among philosophers of science. There is a famous argument, by Grover Maxwell, to the effect that all entities are observable under suitable circumstances.

Now, van Fraassen takes it to be the case that an entity is observable if it could be observed by a suitably placed observer. To be sure, van Fraassen claims that observability concerns empirically discoverable facts about humans qua organisms in the world. What van Fraassen has failed to establish is that the boundaries of experience should include only claims about unobserved-yet-observables and that they ought to exclude all claims about unobservables.

In fact, there is a venerable empiricist tradition, exemplified by Hans Reichenbach and Wesley Salmon, according to which an empiricist epistemology can lead to accepting the reality of unobservable entities, based on suitable ampliative methods, without thereby abandoning empiricism. Constructive empiricism is not the only available anti-realist conception of science. Can you characterise the other forms of anti-realism? Which would you say gives the strongest case? The dichotomy has been by and large, vertical: there is something epistemically suspicious with the unobservable per se , or some aspects of the unobservable.

Search my Subject Specializations: Select Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. More Philosophy of science studies the methods, theories, and concepts used by scientists. Authors Affiliations are at time of print publication. Print Save Cite Email Share.

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