Philosophy of Science (PHIL 150)

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Instructor: Jason Rheins. This class meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:00 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. in Bingham 103.

Among the many spheres of human thought and activity, science – especially natural science– is often singled out as being uniquely and remarkably successful at discovering and explaining truths about the world.   Modern natural science has built its reputation upon more than three hundred years of continuous, rapid, and often momentous technological innovations as well as a strong record of accurate and increasingly precise predictions.

Even granting these points (which some have contested) a number of important questions immediately arise. First, what kinds of inquiry properly count as science and which do not? Is science equally well equipped and successful at answering every kind of important question, or are their meaningful and significant issues that inherently fall outside of its purview?

Again, granting some things that we can with minimal controversy call legitimate and successful scientific inquiry, what is it about them that makes them ‘uniquely and remarkably successful at discovering and explaining truths about the world’?  In answer to this question, one is typically told that science follows a method of meticulously gathering data through observation and deriving its conclusions solely on that basis.  But is there a unique “scientific method” that makes science successful, and if so, what is it?  Is the gathering of data something entirely innocent of prior assumptions, or do meaningful observations presuppose significant theoretical assumptions on the part of their observers?

Furthermore, does science really tell us the way that the world “really is”, or does it only give us effective ways of coping with apparent phenomena?  Moreover, even if it tells us truthful things about the world, does science explain them?   What is a scientific explanation, and what kinds of accounts are legitimate grounds for scientific explanation, e.g. can we only appeal to laws and mechanisms, or can we talk about natural goals and purposes, i.e. “teleology”?

Finally since science is upheld as a paradigmatic case of rationality, it is important to ask just how rational science and scientific progress really is.  Is it the case that scientific knowledge builds progressively on prior discoveries, or are there occasional, radical breaks, “paradigm shifts”, which owe more to do with a total shift in the goals, assumptions, and methods of groups of scientists, than they do with a progressive uncovering of truth.

These are the questions that we will be addressing in this course.  In discussing these topics we will look at contemporary accounts as well as influential historical theories of science (e.g. Aristotle, Bacon), and we will take real and important cases from the history of science as our examples (e.g. the Copernican revolution, Darwin’s theory of Evolution by natural and sexual selection, etc.)

Jason Rheins’s webpage