Philosophy of Science
Questions for the Final Examination

Curtis Brown
Fall, 2006

Part I: Short-Answer Questions

The first part will contain questions asking for brief descriptions of some of the key ideas we have discussed. Candidates for the short answer questions include the following. (Parenthetical remarks are hints to help you locate or understand the relevant material; they won't be included on the exam!)

Part II: Essay Questions

I will select two of the following questions and ask you to write on whichever one you choose. Answers to the essay question will be graded on (1) the degree of familiarity with, and understanding of, the details of the readings exhibited by your answers; (2) quality of philosophical argument, and degree to which you consider and respond to views opposed to your own; (3) clarity of organization and expression. Most of these essay questions leave you considerable latitude in deciding exactly which readings and issues to discuss. But keep in mind that a good essay will contain a reasonably in-depth discussion of the ideas and arguments in the readings that you choose to discuss!

1. Discuss the character and feasibility of feminist approaches to science.  Consider the essays by both Okruhlik, Harding, Haraway, and Ginzberg. Include discussion of the following questions:  (a) is the methodology of science purely "objective," or are there aspects of that methodology which may simply be the result of which groups have traditionally had power over the scientific establishment?  (b) if you think that scientific methodology is objective and not a matter of protecting the interests of powerful groups, explain what you think makes this objectivity possible. On the other hand, if you think that methodology is influenced by the interests of powerful groups, what characteristics do you think might change if other groups, notably women, gained more influence over the scientific establishment? (c) can sexist values distort the results of science even if our methodologies for evaluating theories are uninfluenced by contextual values? (Okruhlik argues that the answer is "yes.") (d) what should our response to feminist criticisms of science be?  Try to overcome potential biases and present a truly objective picture? (How? Is inclusion of more women in science an important part of this task?) Abandon the very idea of objectivity? Or . . . what?

2.  Discuss the relation between science and social or political values.   Include both of the following. (1) a theoretical account of the different ways in which values may affect science, whether these are helpful or harmful, and to the extent that they are harmful, whether they are avoidable.  For example, values might be held to influence (a) which issues are investigated in the first place; (b) the basic vocabulary in which the questions and their possible answers are posed; (c) how the results of scientific investigation are used; (d) which rival hypotheses are seriously considered; (e) what criteria are used in determining which hypothesis is most likely to be true.  (2) an application of your analysis to at least one case study from the latter part of the course:  the debate over evolutionary psychology, the Sokal hoax, and/or feminist critiques of science.  (With regard to (1), readings you may want to take into account include Kuhn, Okruhlik, Harding, Haraway, Ginzberg, Sokal, Latour & Woolgar, Pinker.)

3. Discuss the metaphysical issue of scientific realism in light of material we have discussed since the midterm. Relevant materials include Kuhn (especially his rejection of the idea that progress involves getting closer to the truth, and his idea that scientists before and after a revolution live in different "worlds"), Latour and Woolgar, and Mermin. You might also want to include discussion of the intelligent design controversy. One issue that is raised by that controversy is this: can we regard the issue of whether God exists as parallel to the issue of whether any other unobservable (electrons, quarks, unconscious desires) exists? (Is this essentially the approach taken by proponents of intelligent design?) If so, and if we concluded that a theistic theory is the best confirmed theory available, what would an anti-realist conclude we ought to believe about God's existence? Another topic you could address under this heading is psychoanalytic theory. Are the unconscious beliefs, desires, and drives postulated by psychoanalytic theory on the same ontological footing as quarks?

4.  What is "objectivity"?  The traditional view is that objectivity requires transcending those features of our view of the world which are determined by our personal biases, or our political ideology, or our social conditioning, so that our opinions will be determined by the world itself rather than by our particular situation.  Harding, on the other hand, while not rejecting the notion of objectivity, argues that there is no perspective-independent conception of the world, so that objectivity must be understood as viewing the world from an adequate perspective (which is likely to be the perspective of an outsider rather than that of the dominant social group). Again, the traditional view is that objectivity is only possible to the extent that our investigation of the world is "value free," but many feminist and social constructionist critics of science have argued that value freedom is impossible. Perhaps Kuhn can also be understood as arguing this. Finally, the traditional view is that objectivity involves responding to what is really in the world, rather than to our social or psychological perspective, but Latour and Woolgar suggest that "reality" in that sense is a myth. (On some interpretations, QM is also regarded as showing that some properties of the world don't have observation-independent values.) In view of all these differing positions, one may feel some confusion about just what "objectivity" might be!  In relation to the readings I've mentioned, and any others that you find relevant, offer as precise an account as you can of what you take objectivity to be.  Discuss whether your understanding of objectivity involves such notions as transcendence of particular perspectives, freedom from influence by values, etc.  Then address the issues of whether objectivity, in the sense you've defined, is possible, and whether if possible it would be a good thing.

Last update: December 4, 2006
Curtis Brown | Philosophy of Science | Philosophy Department | Trinity University