Understanding Philosophy of Science

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Newton did not ignore explanation. His Rules of Reasoning stressed that induction required one to accept that theory which is simplest and, in effect, gives the best explanation of phenomena. In other words, they take for granted one or other version of standard empiricism, the doctrine that evidence decides in science what theories are to be accepted and rejected, with the simplicity, unity or explanatory power of theories playing a role as well, but not in such a way that the world, or the phenomena, are assumed to be simple, unified or comprehensible.

The crucial point, inherited from Newton, is that no thesis about the world can be accepted as a part of scientific knowledge independently of evidence , let alone in violation of evidence. The decisive split between science and philosophy, which is one outcome, persists today.

Philosophy and the Sciences: Introduction to the Philosophy of Physical Sciences

Philosophy was profoundly impoverished as a result of this split. Instead of science being a branch of philosophy — namely natural philosophy — science became distinct from and independent of philosophy. Philosophy lost a great chunk of its body, as it were, and by far the most successful chunk to boot. Divorced from natural science, philosophy continued to dwindle in significance down to today.

Psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics, political science, linguistics, logic and cosmology all broke away from philosophy and established themselves as independent disciplines. By the early 20th century, philosophy was in a state of crisis. It was entirely unclear what was left for it to do.


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One attempted solution was Continental philosophy, conducted mainly in Europe: it could ignore science, ignore reason, and plunge into a celebration of bombast and incoherence. Another attempted solution was analytic philosophy, conducted mainly in the English-speaking parts of the world: philosophy could devote itself to conceptual analysis, serious problems buried under a sheen of esoteric, spurious analysis of concepts.

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But all this is unnecessary and absurd. The story I have told of the inevitable dwindling of philosophy, as components became, in turn, scientific, successful and independent, is a nonsense. The proper task of philosophy, even more important today, perhaps, than ever before, is to keep alive rational — that is, imaginative and critical — thinking about our most urgent and fundamental problems of thought and life. It is, above all, to keep alive such thinking about our most fundamental problem of all, which can be put like this: how can our human world, the world as it appears to us, the world we live in and see, touch, hear and smell, the world of living things, people, consciousness, free will, meaning and value — how can all of this exist and best flourish embedded as it is in the physical Universe?

This fundamental problem straddles all the more specialised and particular problems of both thought and life.

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A proper, basic task for philosophy is to ensure that this problem is actively explored at the heart of education and academic enquiry, so that rational thinking about this problem both influences, and is influenced by, the more specialised thinking that goes on in the more specialised disciplines of the natural, social and technological and formal sciences, the humanities and education, and the more particular contexts of personal, social and global life.

Keep alive rational thinking about fundamental problems as specialisation becomes rampant. Far from having its own distinctive subject matter, problems or methods, philosophy, properly conducted, has the subject matter and problems, potentially, of all the specialised disciplines, and the methods of all of enquiry, namely the methods of rational problemsolving. Far from being yet another specialised discipline, distinct from and alongside other specialised disciplines, as so much academic philosophy strives to be today, philosophy, properly pursued has, as a basic task, to counteract specialisation by keeping alive thinking about fundamental problems in a way that interacts, in both directions, with specialised research.

Again, philosophy properly pursued, is not the exclusive preserve of qualified philosophers; a basic proper task for professional philosophers is to encourage everyone to engage in some philosophy, some rational thinking about fundamental problems: non-academics as well as academics from the diverse specialised fields of academic research.

We need a name for philosophy pursued in this spirit. Let us call it Critical Fundamentalism — a rival to Continental and analytic philosophy. Critical Fundamentalism goes a long way towards recreating natural philosophy, for Critical Fundamentalism explores the fundamental problems of the diverse fields of natural science, from theoretical physics and cosmology, to neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Critical Fundamentalism, conducted in a scientifically enlightened way, would both influence, and be influenced by, scientific research. It would have the capacity to contribute to science by clarifying fundamental scientific problems and suggesting possible scientific solutions; and it would of course be influenced by the results of scientific research.

This two-way integration of Critical Fundamentalist philosophy and science would amount, in all but name, to natural philosophy!

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The above story about the inevitable decline of philosophy is thus a nonsense. The successful establishment and pursuit of the natural sciences, the social sciences, logic and linguistics does not impoverish philosophy, properly pursued as Critical Fundamentalism, at all. The vital need for rational imaginative and critical thinking about fundamental problems remains undiminished. It is needed so that science, and so that academic enquiry as a whole, can meet elementary requirements of rationality. Rationality demands that one keeps alive thinking about the fundamental problems one seeks to solve.

The self-mutilation of philosophy by the adoption of Continental philosophy or analytic philosophy — which results in philosophy failing to do what it most needs to do — is entirely unnecessary. Why, then, did it happen? In part, perhaps, because of a failure to appreciate just how vital, how necessary, it is to keep alive influential rational thinking about fundamental problems, especially as specialisation becomes more and more rampant.

Instead of seeking to counteract the evils of rampant specialisation, academic philosophy has tended, in the 20th century, to seek out eagerly, even desperately, its own specialised niche. There is, however, a far more important reason for the failure of philosophy to keep alive the spirit of Critical Fundamentalism over the decades and centuries. This failure stems from the failure of philosophy to solve one of its most fundamental problems: the problem of induction.

I began by indicating how Newton killed off natural philosophy with his false claim, in the third edition of his Principia , to have derived his law of gravitation from the phenomena by induction without appealing to metaphysical hypotheses. Subsequent natural philosophers concluded that they must follow Newton in ignoring metaphysics and philosophy, and attending only to evidence in considering what laws and theories should be accepted and rejected.

The outcome was science , decisively dissociated from philosophy. The crucial tenet of this conception is that, in science, no thesis about the Universe must be accepted as a part of scientific knowledge independent of evidence , let alone in violation of evidence. In the end it is evidence that decides what is accepted as scientific knowledge. But this Newtonian conception of science bequeathed to philosophy a fundamental problem about the nature of science that, for most philosophers, remains unsolved down to today.

It can be put like this. However much evidence we gather in support of a law or theory, it cannot verify the law or theory, or even render its probability greater than zero. This is because any physical law or theory makes infinitely many predictions, not just about the past and present, but about the future too, and possible states of affairs that have not, as yet, occurred and might never occur. We must always be infinitely far away from verifying all these infinitely many predictions of the theory.

Put another way, however well-established a theory is by evidence, there will always be infinitely different theories that agree about the evidence we have gathered so far, but disagree, in different ways, about predictions for phenomena that we have not yet observed, because they are in the future, or because they concern possible states of affairs or experiments not yet created. Physics makes a big, highly problematic assumption about the nature of the Universe. Evidence cannot verify a theory. It cannot even select a theory — since infinitely many disunified rivals will always fit the available evidence equally well, or even better.

Science, in deciding what theory to accept or reject, attends not just to evidence, but to two considerations: 1 evidence, and 2 the simplicity, unity or explanatory character of the theory in question. This view has the great merit of doing better justice to what actually goes on in science. The Problem of Induction and other Problems with Inductivism 3. Falsificationism 4. Revolutions and RationalityII. Realism and Antirealism about Science5. Scientific Realism 6. Underdetermination 7.

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Induction and Inductivism | Understanding Philosophy of Science | Taylor & Francis Group

Explanation and Inference to the Best Explanation 8. Realism about What? Glossary Bibliography. Du kanske gillar. But Kitcher does not want to do this. In his book, he aims to show how scientific progress and objectivity can still be defended, even though the legend is just a legend. This is done within a thoroughly naturalistic framework in which scientists are seen, not as sole knowers, but as biological and social beings with various cognitive constraints and limitations.

Individual cognitive practices are integrated into a network of collective consensus-forming practices. One such practice aims to offer cogent unifying explanations of the worldly phenomena, where the unification consists in using the same explanatory schemata to account for diverse phenomena, like Darwin did with his explanatory pattern of natural selection. Scientific enterprise is progressive in that more and more significant truths about the world are discovered and by making more and more refined classifications of natural kinds.

On what basis has the idea of scientific objectivity been challenged in the twentieth century? The two major challenges to scientific objectivity have come from the Kuhnian notion of incommensurability and the social constructivist programme in the sociology of scientific knowledge. The notion of incommensurability was introduced by Kuhn to capture the relation between scientific paradigms before and after a scientific revolution. The pre-revolutionary and the post-revolutionary paradigms were said to be incommensurable in that there was no strict translation of the terms and predicates of the old paradigm into those of the new.

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Though Kuhn developed this notion in several distinct ways, its core is captured by the thought that two theories are incommensurable if there is no language into which both theories can be translated without residue or loss. Kuhn supplemented this notion of untranslatability with the notion of lexical structure : two theories are incommensurable if their lexical structures that is, their taxonomies of natural kinds cannot be mapped into each other.

To many philosophers, this notion threatened scientific objectivity since competing paradigms cannot be properly compared. Hence, there is no objective sense in which the new paradigm can be said to be more progressive than the old. Kuhn went to extremes by claiming that:. The proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds. Practicing in different worlds, the two groups of scientists see different things when they look from the same point of view in the same direction. This made the world well lost. But different paradigms carve up the world of appearances into different networks of natural kinds.

This programme aimed at a causal-naturalistic explanation of scientific belief and the claim was that, as David Bloor put it, the same types of cause would explain true and false, or rational and irrational, beliefs. Accordingly, the world drops out as a factor for the explanation of scientific belief. Still, there are typically good evidential reasons to prefer one theory to another.

In the extreme case of social constructivist views, the claim is that scientific entities are constructed by means of negotiations and other socially influenced consensus-making processes among scientists. As socially immersed beings, how much room does Kitcher have for social influences on scientists to impact their research and, with it, their scientific objectivity? Kitcher clearly accepts that scientists are social beings and that there are a number of social influences on their views and work.

However, he defends the view that the various social influences and biases are not so powerful that they prevent scientists from abandoning false beliefs and accepting truer ones. For Kitcher, there is conceptual, explanatory and cognitive progress as science grows. He argues that there is no significant incommensurability between competing theories, since for him, scientific expression-types are no longer associated with single putative referents.

Instead, each expression-type is endowed with a reference potential: a potential such that its tokens may refer to more than one putative entity, depending on the event that has initiated the production of each particular token. This allows him to speak of reference-preserving translation between competing theories.

For Kitcher, conceptual progress is refinement of the reference-potential of concepts.