PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE

Last Updated 28/04/05

BACK TO LPSG CONTENTS

  1. The Paper
  2. General Reading
  3. Topics

1. The Paper

This course will present some core subject areas of analytical philosophy of science. No in-depth knowledge of any science is presupposed for this course, nor are any mathematics beyond basic algebra. The bulk of the course is concerned with ‘general' philosophy of science rather than with the philosophies of specific sciences (such as the philosophy of quantum mechanics or biology). There will however be one lecture on the philosophy of space and time at the end of the course in order to convey the main idea of what the philosophy of a special science amounts to. The first term covers the problem of induction, theories of confirmation, probabilities, the nature of scientific theories, laws of nature, and scientific explanation. The second term covers reductionism, the realism antirealism debate, social constructivism, feminism, causation, and the philosophy of space and time.

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2. General Reading

Main Texts (students should buy these)

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Contemporary Introductions to Philosophy of Science

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Classical Textbooks

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Some Classical Texts

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Companions and Encyclopaedias

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3. Topics

The readings listed below are the compulsory readings of the course; a list with additional readings will be made available at the beginning of the course.

Theory and Observation

It is commonly believed that scientific knowledge is special because it bears a particular relation to empirical evidence. What, if anything, is this particular relation? Can we be sure, on the bases of empirical evidence, that theories are true? If not, can we at least be sure that certain theories are false? Does the inevitable involvement of so-called auxiliary assumptions in the testing of a theory imply that we can never definitely refute a theory? Do the notions of simplicity and avoidance of ad hoc assumptions play a major (and defensible) role in deciding how to modify a set of theoretical assumptions in the face of a negative experimental result?

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Theories and Laws

A central aim of science is to develop theories and to discover laws around which these theories centre. What are theories? Are theoris linguistic or non-linguistic objects? How do they represent their subject matter? What is a law of nature? Is there an objective distinction between a law of nature and a generalization that is merely universally true? Can laws be explained in terms of relations between universals? Have philosophers misrepresented science's concern with laws?

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Scientific Explanation and Reductionism

Many believe that science does not only state facts; it also explains these facts. What qualifies as a scientific explanation? Does any generalisation that entails an experimental outcome explain it? Or does the generalisation need to be a law of nature? Are real explanations inevitably causal ? Is explanation achieved through (or even ohly through) unification? What, if anything, is the difference between explanation and understanding? Closely related to these questions is the issue of reductionism, as there is a prevailing intuition that we explain occurrences at a certain level by reducing them to something more fundamental. What is reduction? Does reduction really explain? Are some theories more fundamental than others? Can some theories be reduced to others? Is science a unity?

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Scientific Realism Versus Antirealism

Scientific theories seem, if taken literally, to describe an unobservable reality underlying the phenomena. Are there good reasons for interpreting theories in this way and for holding that they are true, or at any rate approximately true? Would the success of science be a miracle without this interpretation of theories? Or should we instead think of theories as merely instruments for codifying and predicting phenomena? Does the fact that any given set of data can be accommodated within an infinite number of possible scientific theories mean that there are never good reasons to accept any particular scientific theory on the basis of given data? Does the existence of scientific revolutions (and the possibility of further revolutions in the future) imply that there is no good reason to think our present theories even approximately true? Is there even an objective notion of what it takes for a claim to be false, but approximately true?

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Socio-historical and Feminist Approaches to Science

Science is practised in a social context. What influence does this context have on the outcomes of scientific investigations? Does the fact that science operates in a certain context threaten the objectivity of scientific knowledge? Does science describe mind-independent facts or are the claims of science social constructions? What role do gender and gender relations play in science? Does science have a male bias; i.e. is science based on male values? If so, how would a ‘ female science ' look like?

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Causation

Causal Claims are ubiquitous in science as well as in every-day contexts. ‘Smoking causes lung cancer', ‘ Aspirins relieve headaches', ‘Seatbelts save lives', ‘asteroids killed the dinosaurs', ‘the second world war was caused by German imperialism', and ‘in 79 AD, the eruption of the Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii' are just some well-known examples. But what is causation? Is causation reducible to spatio-temporal contiguity, succession and constant conjunction? Or does causation involve relations between properties? How is causation related to counterfactual conditionals? How can we ‘read off' causal claims from empirical data or from equations describing these data?

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Philosophy a Special Science: Space-Time Theories

Over the last twenty-five years there was an ever-growing trend towards philosophies of special sciences, such as philosophy of physics, philosophy of biology and philosophy of cognitive science, to mention just a few. Even within these disciplines further specialisations have emerged; within the philosophy of physics, for instance, we find the philosophy of quantum mechanics, the philosophy of space and time, etc. In this unit we discuss the philosophy of space-time theories. The purpose of this is to convey the main idea of what the philosophy of a special science is. Question that will be addressed include the following. What are space and time? Are they absolute or constructions out of objects and events? In what ways does modern physics (especially Relativity Theory) require us to change our conceptions of space and time?

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