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Does science provide a true integrated representation of the world, or simply a plurality of incommensurable frameworks for investigating it? What’s distinctive of the scientific method, and what’s the rational justification for taking its results at face value? This subject will address these central questions by exploring some of the major theoretical developments in the philosophy of science over the last seventy years.
In part one of the subject we will explore competing theories about the nature and justification of the scientific method. We will consider the traditional view that the method is inductive, as well as Karl Popper’s suggestion that the method of science is to test and falsify theories. We will also consider problems with the empirical basis of science, such as the theory-dependence of observation and the underdetermination of theory by data.
In part two we will consider the more recent historical turn in the philosophy of science which proposes models of scientific theory change rather than a theory of scientific method. Thomas S. Kuhn’s theory that science is characterised by a series of revolutionary transitions between paradigms will be critically examined. In addition, we will consider Paul Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchist theory that the only universal rule of method for science is “anything goes”. We will also explore Imre Lakatos’s attempt to respond to Kuhn and Feyerabend by proposing that scientists are able to rationally choose between progressive and non-progressive research programmes.
In part three we will ask whether the historical approach to the philosophy of science yields an adequate account of scientific progress. Do the historical approaches have the resources to show that science makes continuous progress toward the objective truth about the natural world? This question leads into the debate between scientific realist and anti-realist interpretations of scientific knowledge. Here we will ask whether scientific theories provide a true representation of the way the world is at both the observable and the unobservable level? Or should we instead think of science as providing us with theories that are merely empirically adequate, in the sense that they can account for experimental data?
Intended learning outcomes
Students who successfully complete this subject will:
- gain a sound general comprehension of the major recent advances in our philosophical understanding of the nature and structure of science;
- understand the roles of experience and reasoning in contributing to this structure;
- display a familiarity with some key texts on which these advances are based;
- have background in the philosophy of science on which to base further research and study in the area;
- have experience with methods of critical analysis and argument employed in the philosophy of science, leading to improved general reasoning and analytical skills.
Last updated: 20 February 2024