Philosophy of Science

Week of: 
January 24, 2006
What is it: 

Is philosophy the queen of the sciences, with the job of synthesizing, interpreting and evaluating the results of the particular sciences? Or should we adopt John Locke's conception of philosophy as a handmaiden to science: clarifying concepts, definitions and assumptions? During the twentieth century the discipline of the philosophy of science emerged as a central part of philosophy. Ken and John discuss some of the leading ideas and projects involved in this branch of philosophy.

Listening Notes: 

Ken and John begin the show by discussing the interplay between philosophy and science.

Peter Godfrey-Smith, professor of philosophy at Harvard, joins the show. Godfrey-Smith tries to distinguish science and non-science. Almost all definitions of science capture either too much or too little. For instance, if science is anything that involves observation and empirical data, then it is too broad and almost everything counts as science. If it is the particular product of a specific culture, then it is too narrow. On Godfrey-Smith's view, science is a strategy for organizing our investigation of the world. An important component of science is data collection.

Physics had a breakthrough when it emphasized quantitative data in the 20th century. This isn't the only way science can work though. Darwin, for instance, had a very qualitative approach and his contribution wasn't mathematical at all.

Can the contents of a statement determine whether it is scientific or not? Godfrey-Smith argues that it isn't so much a statement per se but the content, or handling, of ideas determines what counts as science.

Karl Popper thought that falsifiability, the idea whether a statement can be falsified by empirical observation, is the criterion of science. Godfrey-Smith thinks that Popper gave a simplistic picture, although Popper was along the right lines. Ideas can be given a scientific treatment or a non-scientific treatment. An individual statement can't tell us much about whether an idea is scientific or not.

A listener calls in and comments that the intersection of philosophy and science occurs mainly in the sphere of ethics. Science is a double-edged sword in the sense that while its discoveries make life easier, they also have sometimes cataclysmic ethical consequences. John thinks that science itself is a neutral endeavor and moral burden should lie on those who abuse science. The entanglement of morality and science is unpredictable. Decades ago, no one would think the chemistry of certain substances that lead to global warming would have an ethical component.

Science and philosophy share similarities in their methodology but the scopes of their questions differ. Whereas philosophy tackles huge, unwieldy questions, science tackles narrower, more empirically-amenable questions.

Does science explain nature or is it merely a descriptive device? Is quantum physics just a complex, calculation tool that doesn't have any ontological commitment about the way world really "is" ? Godfrey-Smith replies that he can accept this view of science for quantum mechanics but not for virus.

What are the effects of science on our lives and social structures? What other knowledge science entails besides scientific knowledge? Many people think that Darwin's ideas decisively refute religion. However, people still hold onto religion. Whereas religion is a source of hope and meaning, there is very little as meaning that evolution offers. People who choose to adhere religion accept a "package" of religious ideas. They can not reject some components of this "package" yet accept others. Godfrey-Smith explains that John Dewey's big project was to come up with a naturalistic package that people would pursue in the same way that they pursue religion.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:34): Polly Striker interviews Jim Grays, technical fellow at Microsoft Bay Area Research Center, a Buddhist monk and Robert Proctor, Stanford Historian of Science.
  • 60-Second- Philosopher (Seek to 49:19): Ian Shoales explores the scientific spirit of 17th Century.

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John Perry and Ken Taylor

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