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PhilSci - Getting Started

Paul Grobstein's picture
Welcome to the public on-line forum area for Phil 310 = Bio 310 at Bryn Mawr College. This is not a required part of the course. It is, though, a way to keep course conversations going between meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our course conversations available to others who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them. I'll be posting my thoughts in progress here throughout the course, and would be delighted to have others join in. Here's some background about me. To get started, perhaps a few words about who you are, why you're interested in philosophy of science, what you bring to the conversation that you think is probably different from others, and where you hope to get to by the end of the semester? And/or what you think of the demarcation problem as a significant contemporary social/politial issue?
Allison Fink's picture

Philosophy of Science

         Why I'm interested in philosophy of science: I'm interested in both physics and philosophy, which are related I think because they try to answer what reality is. I have a lot of questions about philosophy of science: questions of infinity and whether something can be infinitely divisible, questions about what probability is, questions about the relationship between the empirical world and mathematics and what mathematics is, questions about how do we know that we’re making any progress in science, questions about how religion influences science and why we believe that the best theory is the most simple, questions about the relationship between science and the information we get from the senses that influence our often mistaken conception of how the world should work, and questions of whether there is such thing as possible absolute truth. Einstein said that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. But is there such a thing as a Theory of Everything? If there is, can we know it? If not, is it because of the limitations of our intellect?

       It certainly seems like we can’t prove scientific theories for certain, so things are very interesting and we get to decide, but I find it kind of disturbing that we’re just making up theories by trial and error without any firm foundations. I’m interested in physics and a friend of my family told me that physicists in our modern era will be influential in answering philosophical questions about space and time. It’s kind of interesting how in order to make any “progress” a scientist must make assumptions (such as, for example, the idea of absolute space and time) and then eventually the assumptions are usually disproved. And the theories are wrong, only serving as approximations until a new theory comes along that explains more stuff in a better and more precise way, perhaps in a way that overthrows the assumptions of the old theory but does not deny the validity of the observations that the old theory used. But often the old theory’s observations were not precise enough. Is it possible to get infinitely precise measurements? Does the universe consist of infinite levels, as the physicist David Bohm believed? It seems like mathematics is more reliable than physics because it relies on logic, whereas physics is about finding patterns. But geometry, a branch of mathematics, is closely related to physics, and my philosophy teacher last semester told me that geometry too relies on some assumptions about the nature of space (such as the assumption that parallel lines never cross that could not be proved with logic) that were later disconfirmed with physics. So we need observations as well as logic to do science, but the observations are misleading or false, and sometimes we may be imposing an order that isn’t really there, but only exists as an approximation on a macroscopic scale that fits what we can observe… 

       I also wanted to discuss something from the reading that I thought was interesting but that I didn’t quite get. Earlier philosophers tried to explain why things have common essences. Popper says that the way this can be explained is through their obeying scientific laws which describe properties or behavior of things as not being inherent to the things themselves but to the the relationship between things, I guess because the property, such as gravity, to take a common example, can’t exist if it weren’t for more than one thing interacting? This seems like a very comprehensive way of viewing the universe as a whole, not in terms of properties of objects but of properties of “our world itself” as he says on p. 167, or reality. Or in terms of reality itself. Perhaps it’s false to think that you can treat properties as separate to objects, inherent to the objects. You can only treat properties as belonging to the whole interrelated system. What else could explain why the properties of objects are similar?

       There are the laws and the various manifestations of the laws, which show similar behavior in objects, but the reality is in the law, which describes the relationships between things. But doesn’t a relationship such as gravity depend on the nature of the things themselves, such as having mass, etc, and why doesn’t this depend on the nature inherent in things? I’m still really confused about this.'s picture

motivation, objectivity, science/non-science

I remember discussing in class how motivation might be a factor in determining objectivity and the science/non-science distinction. It seems to me that there are only two possibilites of motivation: knowledge for knowledge sake, or knowledge for other purposes. Though some may deem knowledge for knowledge sake as the more noble pursuit, both categories are perfectly legitimate. Medicine, engineering are both examples of knowledge for other purposes and goals--practical or otherwise.

I think this relates to one of the axes we had on the board- edification and elucidation. Edification being knowledge for the sake of humans, for our lives, for better lives; elucidation being knowledge for knowledge sake, truth for truth sake, regardless of whether it makes our lives better or makes us feel better. Let me know if I'm off.

Complications arise when people (scientists) are out looking for knowledge to prove a conclusion they've already decided on--which could then affect the objectivity of their search. Christians believing earth to be the moral center of the universe automatically assumed earth to be the cosmological center of the universe. In this case it is not science. If however this conclusion was based on the observation that earth seems to be fixed and the sun seems to move from one end of the earth to the other, is the process not scientific, despite the error?

Scientists have the right to hold a tentative conclusion while researching, like the sun revolving around the earth, which is the same thing as holding a hypothesis I think. As long as scientists are willing to let evidence convince them that they may be wrong, objectivity is preserved.

Paul Grobstein's picture

PhilSci - Week 1

Very rich conversation today, on multiple levels. Its nice to have empirical support for Micheal's philosophical argument that constructivism does not entail multiplism (Krausz, "Interpretation and its Objects: A Synoptic View"), that one can perfectly well be a constructivist and a singularist, as per student 16 in the image on the right (click on it for enlargement). Interesting too that we have more people with starting positions as constructivists than as realists, and a more bimodal distribution on the multiplism/singularism axis than on the constructivist/realist axis. And a bias towards elucidation as opposed to edification (Krausz, "Mapping Relativisms"). It looks to me like one's position along any of the three dimensions can be independent of position along the other two. It would be interesting to add some more dimensions (cultural individualist/collectivist? political indivdualist/collectivist?) and see what correlations do/do not show up. One needs though to be careful about the referent. In the three cases illustrated, the dimensions refer specifically to one's perspective on scientific inquiry. Things could quickly get quite complicated if one created dimensions that referred to other things, including others of the dimensions. In any case, it is nice to have this map as a record of starting place, one that we can refer to at the end of the semester to see what, if anything, has changed.

Interesting issues raised as well about the demarcation problem, not unrelated to the question of an additional dimension related to culture/politics. Its an intriguing idea that the science/non-science distinction is actually not makeable solely on the grounds of "objectivity" but in instead also dependent on context, where context includes motivation and future impact. And that there are both assets and hazards in the replacement of "positivism" by "negativism", as well as in "univeralism". Maybe philosophy of science should move from a fundamentlaly descriptive activity to a more prescriptive one? And from a less insular position (primarily concerned with issues of ontology, epistemology, and logic) to a more encompassing one (involving intersections with esthetics and morality as well)? Along these lines, a recent book by George A. Reisch, How the Cold War Tranformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic, is relevant. It suggests that a broader conception of science existed earlier in the last century and was vitiated by social/political forces. A related but historically earlier argument about pragmatism is hinted at in Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club.

Lots of initial grist for the mill. Looking forward to hearing what other people heard/saw in our first conversation, and where we can with it all during the semester.