PHIL 150.001 – Theory, Evidence, and Understanding in Science
Instructor: Marc Lange. This course meets MW 10:10 – 11:00 a.m. via synchronous remote instruction, with a synchronous remote instruction recitation on Fridays.
The discoveries that scientists make and the methods by which they make them raise a host of interesting philosophical questions, some of which we will explore in this course. These questions included: Are scientific theories distinguished from pseudoscience by being testable against our observations? If so, precisely how is this distinction to be drawn? By what logic do our observations support or disconfirm various scientific theories? Can we prove our best scientific theories to be true? Or are they “merely theories”? (Or is this a false choice?) Are we justified in making predictions about the future on the basis of observations drawn exclusively from the past? If so, why? What does it mean for one event (for instance, the collision of the Earth with some large rocky body millions of years ago) to be responsible for causing the occurrence of another event (such as the extinction of the dinosaurs) and for explaining why it occurred? What makes a given regular pattern that we might notice (such as the fact that every piece of copper is electrically conductive) not just a giant coincidence, but a law of nature? Do the wholesale revolutions in scientific thought that have occasionally occurred (such as the Copernican Revolution in astronomy) amount to rational and inevitable responses to overwhelming evidence? If not, how can they nevertheless be rational? We will look at these and other questions, settling some of them and trying to make some progress on the others. This course presupposes no background in philosophy or in science, just a willingness to think seriously about the logical foundations of scientific reasoning. The readings consist of short, self-contained bits of philosophy chosen especially for their accessibility to students new to philosophy. The principal written work consists of two short papers (2 pages each), a midterm, and an open-book final exam.