Philosophy of Science
Review Material for the Final Examination

Curtis Brown
Fall, 2006

This overview attempts to provide a framework for much of the material we have discussed since the midterm examination. Of course, it is not a substitute for a thorough understanding of the readings on these various topics! But we have looked at a significant number of "case studies" concerning the interaction between philosophy and the sciences in the latter part of the semester, and it may be useful to observe some interconnections between these topics. The following overview organizes these case studies around three major topics: values and objectivity; metaphysical issues; and the scope and limits of science.

I. Historical Change

Kuhn's views. An overview of some of Kuhn's views is here. (We began talking about Kuhn prior to the midterm, but finished discussing his work afterward.)

Laudan's criticism. Laudan does two main things. First, he distinguishes between several different components of what Kuhn calls "paradigms": ontology (a view of what kinds of things there are, particularly the entities a theory requires that are not directly observable), methodology (views about how to decide between scientific theories), and axiology (or more general values). Laudan argues that, while Kuhn appears to believe that all the components fit together in a mutually reinforcing way, and can be changed only in an all-or-nothing fashion, in fact any of the three components can change independently of the other two. (He calls this a "reticulational model" as opposed to Kuhn's "hierarchical" model, which we could also call "holistic." --The point of the "hierarchical" label is that Laudan attributes to Kuhn the idea that there is a hierarchy from axiology to methodology to ontology, with higher-level components determining lower-level components, so that if one component changes the others must also.)

The second main thing Laudan does is to directly address some of Kuhn's arguments that such values as accuracy, consistency, simplicity, scope, and fruitfulness do not suffice to uniquely determine which theory one should adopt. Laudan seems to take Kuhn to hold that theory choice can never be entirely determined by rational means, so that non-rational factors must play a role and in some sense it is arbitrary what the outcome is. Would Kuhn agree with this representation of his views?

II. Values and Objectivity

Kathleen Okruhlik argues that several familiar views in the philosophy of science open up the possibility for nonscientific values (including bias, prejudice, androcentrism, etc.) to determine the outcome of a choice between theories. She particularly emphasizes (1) the "theory-ladenness of observation," (2) the underdetermination of theory by data, and (3) the "Duhem-Quine thesis," i.e. the idea of the ambiguity of falsification.

Okruhlik goes on to argue that, even if theory choice were entirely objective, it is nevertheless the case that if nonscientific values partly determine what theories get proposed in the first place, they will indirectly play a role in determining which theories are adopted. This is because in general we evaluate theories, not against all possible competitors, but against a small number of rival possibilities. If bias or prejudice has prevented some possibilities from being considered at all, then the theory that is apparently well-confirmed may just be the best of a bad lot.

D. Influence of Values on Particular Sciences

We have looked at least briefly at some specific examples in which moral, social, or political values may have influenced either or both of the development of a scientific theory and the sort of criticism it receives. Okruhlik discusses biological theories of sex-related differences, suggesting that the presuppositions behind many theories in this area depend on sexist background values. And we also looked at possible influences of social and political values in relation to evolutionary psychology, whose critics often maintain that EP is due more to conservative or reactionary values than to sound evidence (and whose criticism sometimes seems itself to be based more on the supposed social consequences of accepting EP than on its evidential demerits). The end of Pinker's chapter is particularly relevant here. He argues that much of the criticism of EP is due to three supposed implications: (1) If there are innate explanations for capacities that all humans share, then there may also be innate explanations for differences in capacity between individuals or groups, and this could be used to justify discrimination. Response: (a) the first implication is incorrect; just because there is a genetic explanation of a trait doesn't show that there is a genetic explanation of differences in that trait. (b) the second implication is also unsound: even if there are genetic explanations of differences in capacity, this need not justify discrimination. (2) Whatever is natural is good, so if we think that our aggressive impulses, for instance, are rational, then we won't be able to morally criticize exercising them. Response: this is an instance of the "naturalistic fallacy." Just because something is natural doesn't mean it's good. There is an important difference between what is good for our genes, which is what determines evolutionary explanations, and what is good for us, which is what's relevant to morality. (3) Whatever has a genetic explanation is determined rather than free, so we can't be blamed. (Dennett: the "Specter of Creeping Exculpation.") Response: (a) any kind of explanation raises this problem. Environmental explanations can seem just as exculpatory as genetic ones. (b) Determinism and freedom aren't necessarily incompatible. (Pinker doesn't put his point this way, but seems to be defending a compatibilist view.)

Many other areas of science would raise similar issues, for example: sociobiology; research on intelligence, and especially on the heritability of intelligence (the Bell Curve debate); and research on race and racial differences.

III. The Scope and Limits of Science: Are there some truths science cannot discover?

A. Evolutionary Psychology.

Are there some empirical matters that neither science nor any other discipline can resolve? Some critics of evolutionary psychology, e.g. Richard Lewontin, appear to hold this view. Lewontin concedes that some aspects of human psychology may have developed as a result of evolutionary pressures (though he also insists that the evidence does not establish this conclusively), but he holds that we can never know for certain that this is true, far less exactly which aspects have been so selected and how.

B. Intelligent Design.

Could there be scientific evidence for supernatural truths? In particular, could empirical investigation of the natural world give us reason to believe in the existence of an intelligent designer who brought the world into being and/or shapes it? Defenders of intelligent design, like Dembski, argue that the answer is "yes." Dembski offers a detailed account of how probabilistic considerations might lead us to think that the existence of complexity can only be explained by the existence of an intelligent designer.

Sober, by contrast, apparently holds that empirical considerations could not lead us to conclude that such a designer exists. Part of the problem is that we cannot compare the predictions of empirical science with the predictions of the design hypothesis, because the design hypothesis makes no specific predictions without auxiliary assumptions about the designer's nature and aims, and we have no way to provide independent support to such assumptions. This is the problem Sober emphasizes in connection with design arguments based on complexity in living organisms. A second problem does not afflict the argument from biological organisms, but does affect the argument from the "fine-tuning" of the physical constants. This problem is that there is an "observer selection effect," related to the weak anthropic principle: we couldn't observe any universe in which the constants were significantly different than they in fact are (since life could never have developed in the first place), therefore we can't say that the likelihood of intelligent design given the physical constants,  relative to the background information that we are around to make observations, i.e. P(Constants | ID & Observations), is any higher or lower than the likelihood of chance (or any other hypothesis) given those same observations, P(Constants | Chance & Observations). The fact that we're making observations guarantees that the constants have to have their actual values, so both the above probabilities are 1. Or so the argument goes.

IV. Science and Metaphysics

We have explored a few connections between science and metaphysics. In particular, we have discussed the impact of modern physics on our understanding of  scientific realism (is it challenged by QM?), determinism (challenged by QM), and determinacy (challenged by QM). I have a couple of notes on these topics here.

In addition, many of the pieces we have read recently has implications for the metaphysical debate over realism vs. antirealism. Kuhn's discussions of incommensurability often make it at least appear that he accepts some form of antirealism (perhaps more Kantian than Berkeleyan). Similarly, some of the feminist writings we have discussed seem to reject metaphysical realism; for instance, Haraway seems to think that realism incoherently requires the "God-trick" of thinking that there is such a thing as a view of the world from no point of view. Finally, Latour and Woolgar seem quite explicitly to reject realism with their insistence that science first creates facts, and then systematically covers up the fact that they were created, creating a fictional reality in which facts come before their discovery.


Last update: November 30, 2006
Curtis Brown | Philosophy of Science | Philosophy Department | Trinity University