Philosophy of Science – Overview and Coursework

Broadly speaking, Philosophy of Science is concerned with the concepts and methods of science, including the principles underlying science. Philosophers of science do not do science (that’s what scientists do.) Philosophers of science talk about the process and meaning of doing science. This course focuses on scientific theories, models, and methods, concepts that are among the main concerns of Philosophy of Science. This branch of philosophy is wide-ranging, and intersects with various other philosophical concerns, including ethics, logic, and epistemology.

We concluded the Epistemology unit with topics centering around the concept of causality, a topic of strong interest to both Epistemology and Philosophy of Science. Can we acquire knowledge about the world using the principles of cause and effect? Based on event correlations we have seen in the past, can we make inductive claims about what will happen in the future?

  • David Hume’s answer to this question was “no,” that we have no rational basis to suppose any event to be a cause or effect of some other event, and further, that we cannot rely on causal reasoning to gain certainty about the world as it is now or will be in the future.
  • In our brief introduction to Immanuel Kant, we met a philosopher who believed that he had successfully proved Hume to be wrong, that causal reasoning is a valid source of knowledge. For Kant, a principle such as cause and effect is a category of our understanding that we bring to experience, and we can acquire new (synthetic) knowledge of the world that has necessary (a priori) truth. Kant’s “solution” hardly settled the matter nor has it been well understood in terms of exactly how it succeeds, logically or practically, in removing uncertainty from causal relationships. Still, Kant’s recognition of both experience and reason as critical elements for knowledge of the world was a step forward!

Philosophy of Science is concerned with questions similar to those we encountered with Epistemology. Indeed, both are concerned with how we know; the names of both are derived from words that mean “knowledge”:

  • Epistemology: from Greek, epistēmē, knowledge, and epistasthai, to know or know how to
  • Science: from Latin scientia, knowledge, and scire, to know.

In fact, “science” as we know it today was formerly “done” within the discipline of philosophy. The following short video explains how use of the term “science” emerged as the descriptor for the former discipline known as “natural philosophy.” What philosophers do now is “meta-science;” that is, they speak about science, they do not do science.


Video

The Philosophical Breakfast Club [CC-BY-NC-ND]


Objectives

Successful completion this unit will enable you to understand and discuss:

  • Aristotle’s use of causes for explaining the natural world
  • The development of the scientific method; proceeding from observations to theory, and from theory to observations
  • The nature and importance of falsifiability in confirming theories.
  • How shifting paradigms relate to scientific revolutions

Coursework

The Course Content for this unit provides the primary reading material, links to any additional assigned reading or viewing resources, and assigned coursework. The unit concludes with a test. Material is presented in these subsections:

3.1 Explaining the Natural World
3.2 Characterizing Scientific Progress

Dates for completing all assigned work are in the Schedule of Work.


Philosophers We Will Meet

In our investigation and readings for Philosophy of Science, we will encounter the work of these philosophers. You may select a name here to link to a short biography, or you may link to the same information at your first encounter the philosopher’s name in the Course Content sections:

Aristotle 
Francis Bacon
Karl Popper

Thomas Kuhn


Key Terms

It is important to understand the meaning and use of these terms.

Axiom: A statement held to be self-evidently true and so neither requiring nor capable of proof.
Causation: The relationship between two events such that the first (the cause) brings about the second (the effect.)
Falsifiability: The ability of a hypothesis or theory to be tested and thereby shown to be false by observable means.
Generalization: An argument that proceeds from knowledge about particular/selected members of a group or class to a claim about the entire group or class.
Hypothesis: A general principle, tentatively put forward for the purposes of scientific explanation, and subject to refutation by empirical evidence.
Ockham’s Razor: “It is pointless to do with more what can be done with less” – an often quoted statement on the merits of simplicity, by William of Ockham (1285 – 1349), an English philosopher who defended the work of Aristotle.
Paradigm: A central model or template, along with its background assumptions, within which science works.
Scientific Revolution: A period of transition in scientific progress when a new paradigm replaces an old.