Philosophy of Science

What is science and what distinguishes it from 'pseudoscience'? What is the 'scientific method', if there is any, and on what basis can it claim to ensure the objectivity of scientific results? How does science explain our observations and experiences? Does scientific knowledge progressively grow in a linear fashion or is its evolution dominated by radical revolutions? Are the scientists' grounds for rejecting an old idea and for replacing it with a novel theory completely rational and logically reconstructible or are they substantially influenced by irrational factors? Do scientific theories give literally true accounts of the world as it is, or should we regard even the most elaborate and well-confirmed theory merely as a useful tool to systematize our experience?

These questions concerning the nature of science will be studied in this class. Our overall approach will be topic-oriented rather than historical. Occasionally, however, we will delve into pertinent episodes in the history of science or of the philosophy of science, or into a non-technical discussion of scientific theories.

Course Materials

Course materials such as lecture notes, handouts, etc will be made available as they will be used in class. Slides are almost, but not fully comprehensive.

Paper prompt:

Information concerning plagiarism and guides on how to write a smashing philosophy paper can be found in the sidebar of the top page of the teaching section. The leaflet concerning plagiarism is absolutely mandatory reading.

The following materials are mandatory for this course:

  • Book: Peter Godfrey-Smith, Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, The University of Chicago Press, 2003. This book is $29.00 (new) or $21.75 (used) and is available at the Price Center bookstore.
  • A number of readings for this course are available from e-reserves: Link to this course's e-reserves page (the password for this course is 'cw145')

The following articles are mandatory reading from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP), edited by Ed Zalta:

Concerning the Kitcher article to be read for 15 October, you should concentrate your attention to Sections 4-6, pages 80-88. The other sections are not mandatory.

Additional Readings and Materials

Note: These additional materials will not be tested in exams. They serve to give you some background or to offer some additional food for thought.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) is an excellent source for academically serious, yet relatively accessible survey articles on many, many topics in philosophy, including philosophy of science. For this course, the following articles are relevant:

An outstanding source of very accessible material to many issues covered in this class are the Philosophy Bites podcasts of top philosophers interviewed by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton. They are absolutely free. So next time you ride to school, make sure to upload some of them beforehand to your iPod! Relevant for this class are for example:

  • Edward Craig - What is Philosophy? (Edward Craig, editor of the Routledge Encylopedia of Philosophy and author of Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction gives an interesting angle on the nature of philosophy, how it relates to other kinds of thinking, and what makes good philosophy good.)
  • Helen Beebee on Laws of Nature (What is a law of nature? Just a generalisation from experience? Or something different? Helen Beebee investigates these questions in this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast.)
  • David Papineau on Scientific Realism (Do subatomic particles really exist? Or are they convenient fictions that explain observable phenomena? David Papineau discusses arguments for and against scientific realism in this episode of Philosophy Bites.)
  • More to come... (let me know if you find others!)

Grading Comments

Quiz 1: The class average was 3.57 points--roughly half the possible points, with a very bimodal distribution. Some comments concerning specific questions follow.

Question 1
  • This was not well-solved at all. Note that Hume thinks that there are in principle two ways in which induction could be justified: logically and by experience.
  • Many correctly stated that inductive inferences are not deductively valid--but that's just the starting point of the problem!
Question 2
  • Many people left this one blank--always try to say something!
  • Note also that I basically gave it away during lecture that I was going to ask this...
Question 3
  • Laudan isn't a creationist; neither did he defend 'intelligent design', as a number of you seem to believe!
  • Make sure, as always, that you respond to all parts of the question!
Question 4
  • A number of you thought that the two components were empiricism and positivism, when instead it's the deductive and nomological aspects of the model (hence the name!).
Question 6
  • Flag pole example.
  • Look it up if you didn't get them right. You should generally do that for every question you get wrong.

Quiz 2: The class average was 3.35 points--clearly too low, with again a very bimodal distribution. Some comments concerning specific questions follow.

Question 2
  • Kitcher gives a unificationist account of explanation, he doesn't propose the best-systems analysis of laws of nature, as some of you seem to believe!
Question 3
  • I expected students to mention and explain the central notions of Humean supervenience and of 'governing'.
Question 4
  • Say something about the distinction between the accidental and the lawful, and the implied idea of counterfactual support.

Midterm paper: The average was 18.03 points. A few remarks:

  • Several of you unnecessarily lost points because they submitted too late, or didn't include a word count, or went over it, or had incomplete references.
  • In many cases, it would have been better if you had concentrated on fewer criteria or arguments or points, and instead discussed those fewer points more in depth.
  • You should try not just to rehash class material, as some of you did, but instead articulate your own thoughts!
  • When you use internet sources (or really any sources), you should always ask yourself how reliable the information is, which often means that you should have some idea about the reliability of the source.

Quiz 3: The class average was 3.65 points, slightly better than on previous quizzes. Some comments concerning specific questions follow. Look up the questions you didn't get right!

Question 3
  • That's Hempel's raven paradox, of course. Some of you stated that 'All ravens are black' is equivalent to 'All non-ravens are non-black'. But that's not true: in a universe consisting just of black objects, some of which are ravens and some of which are shoes, the first statement is true, but the second isn't.

Quiz 4: The class average was 4.74 points, significantly improved over previous quizzes. Congratulations! Generally, the Kuhn questions (1-3) were well solved, the others less so. Question 5 on feminist standpoint epistemology was particularly badly solved--almost nobody got that right.