History & Philosophy of Science

Is there a general coherent way to assess the claims of truth of scientific results in the light of scientific progress? If a theory is shown to be “falsified” in the sense of Karl Popper, could there still be elements of truth to the theory? Is only the current state of science “true?” Is it true even though we know it to be tentative? Are the elements of a theory that are modeled by simplifying assumptions true or merely useful conceptual tools? Do we have need of a general coherent concept of truth or is commonsense practical reasoning sufficient. 

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Please download the following group of articles from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the subjects of realism, anti-realism and scientific revolutions. From this point of the course onward, you are to read these articles and comment on them on an ongoing basis, relating the content of these articles to the material in the Student Lecture Material and in the books by Kuhn and by Firestein. At least four separate page length comments should be submitted.



Read these articles carefully. To reiterate: I do not expect anyone to understand all of the details. I want you to have a basic grasp of them. I encourage everyone to search for additional articles on these topics that are simpler to read and understand. One goal of this course is to accustom you to examining very difficult material and to assess the basic concept even when you will not be able understand every detail. This is something that scientists reading publications in other fields have to do all of the time and very often even in their own fields. 

Questions to address: 

What is realism and anti-realism in the philosophy of science? 

Discuss these very basic issues relevant to this Forum that are raised by the above articles: What is the status of entities that are used in scientific explanations. Do they represent real things that simply exist. Alternatively, are they abstractions or concepts that are useful for prediction but do not actually represent objective existing entities. Do scientific theories mix together some real things that exist and some useful representations that are not objectively real, or that cannot be independently shown to exist. If there are scientific revolutions, do they concern objective reality or representations of reality or both.  If the conventions of scientific communities determine what ‘science’ is at any given time, can we ever use the word ‘true,’ as ordinarily understood, in describing scientific theories and results or are we confined to use the word ‘true’ to mean ‘accepted by the scientific community as of now.’   

Present detailed reasoning and arguments of at least four distinct views on whether we can properly say that there are scientific revolutions. Present Kuhn’s evidence for scientific revolutions and explain in detail how some others support his view and how some others oppose his view. 

Present and summarize a current scientific topic of interest to you. Discuss whether realism and anti-realism philosophical positions are relevant to that scientific topic. Discuss whether the concept of scientific revolutions is relevant to that scientific topic. .

Present and summarize a SECOND current scientific topic of interest to you. Discuss whether realism and anti-realism philosophical positions are relevant to that scientific topic. Discuss whether the concept of scientific revolutions is relevant to that SECOND scientific topic. 

As an example of the type of issue to address, consider whether Newton’s theory of gravity is “true” in any sense. Einstein’s gravitation theory is a more profound theory because it makes correct predictions that have been tested against experiment and observation for which Newton’s theory fails. Furthermore, Einstein’s theory examines concepts of space, time and simultaneity and, by making correct predictions, show that the assumptions that Newton made about simultaneity are untenable. Nonetheless, for many ordinary purposes, such as predicting the trajectory of a football, we can use Newton’s theory to calculate useful results. Einstein’s theory would yield only very minor differences that might be difficult to measure, and would be of no practical interest. On the other hand, to account for the orbit of the planet Mercury about the sun or even to accurately track cell phones using GPS satellites, Newton’s theory is inadequate and Einstein’s theory is our only tool to obtain accuracy.  In the future, Einstein’s theory might prove to be limited and a better theory might be invented. If this is the case, why should one use the concept of “truth” at all? Why not talk about what is useful? Why not just use concepts such as the following. “It works!” “It is the best we have come up with so far!” “No one has disproven this theory yet!” Is there actually a difference between truth and utility? Are our ordinary commonsense concepts of truth inadequate and unjustifiable in any context? Perhaps our ordinary commonsense concept of truth has developed because of carelessness in establishing criteria of verification. Perhaps the concept of ‘truth’ can be dispensed with as it is only in scientific endeavor that rigorous measurement and deduction is performed. If so, do we actually “know” anything?

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