Philosophy of Science 
Mid-Term Review
Spring, 2011

The main topics we have covered so far this semester are these:

I. Demarcation.

A. General Criteria of Demarcation.

II. Explanation

A. Hempel's D-N model.

B. Ruben's causal model.

C. van Fraassen's pragmatic account.

A detailed summary of Hempel's account, and criticisms of it, along with brief accounts of Ruben and van Fraassen, are here.
A more detailed discussion of van Fraassen's view of explanation is here.

III. Realism and Antirealism

A. Maxwell's defense of realism

B. van Fraassen's defense of a version of antirealism (and description of other versions)

C. Arthur Fine's "Natural Ontological Attitude" or NOA

I have a summary of van Fraassen's view, with reference to Maxwell, here.
A summary of some of the arguments van Fraassen responds to is here.
An overview of Fine's NOA paper here.

IV. Theories

We contrasted the syntactic view associated with Hempel and the positivists with the "semantic view" associated with van Fraassen, among others. We read Giere's explanation and defense of the semantic view, and Lloyd's application of it to evolutionary theory. I have some brief notes on this topic here.

Kitcher extends this discussion in an interesting way in "Darwin's Achievement." Kitcher suggests that the theory Darwin presented in the Origin of Species is not best thought of as a set of statements, but rather "as a collection . . . of problem-solving patterns" (p. 176).

V. Confirmation

A. The Problem of Underdetermination

Duhem: ambiguity of falsification; impossibility of crucial experiment.

HUD (Humean Underdetermination): The view that for any set of observations O, there will be indefinitely many theories that deductively imply those observations.

Laudan: distinguishes between numerous different senses of "underdetermination," and argues that there is no good reason to believe any of the ones that might have relativistic consequences.

Kitcher: when a theory faces apparently conflicting evidence, there are always different possible responses (give up the theory vs. give up a view about initial conditions or auxiliary hypotheses). But it doesn't follow that these alternatives are equally reasonable. We do a kind of cost-benefit analysis to determine which responses are reasonable. The most serious worry about underdetermination is that there might be different, equally reasonable ways of evaluating costs and benefits which would lead us to different conclusions. (This may have been true, for a while, about the conflict between the Ptolemaic and Copernican views of the solar system.)

My summary of some of these issues is here.

B. Confirmation by Positive Instances

D. Falsificationism (Popper)

Popper's response to the problems with the instantial and H-D models is essentially to deny that there is any such thing as the confirmation of a theory by data. He suggests that theories can be falsified, but can never be confirmed. (However, he then introduces the notion of "corroboration" -- is this really different from confirmation?)

A few quick observations follow. For more detail, see the handouts on probability theory and (especially) on Bayesian views in the philosophy of science (in PDF format). You might also find my web overview helpful (it covers pretty much the same ground as the second pdf).

F. Kitcher's approach: "eliminative induction"

Kitcher offers a rather different approach to the relation between evidence and theory in his "Experimental Philosophy" chapter. In very general terms, his thought is that we confirm a theory or hypothesis by ruling out alternatives.

In his discussion of induction and the ravens paradox (sections 4-5), he offers a more specific version of this general idea. Suppose I want to know whether all A's are B's: specifically, let's say, whether all ravens are black. Kitcher thinks that we identify the characteristics of ravens that we know from prior research might have an effect on color: perhaps sex, maturity, climate, and vegetation. We look for examples of ravens that have every possible combination of these factors. Then we try to find ravens with every combination of these characteristics. Every time we find a black raven with a new combination of these factors, we have ruled out ("eliminated") another potential counterexample.

The general idea of eliminating alternatives is addressed in a more general way in the sections leading up to his discussion of Darwin (sections 6-8). In situations of underdetermination, where evidence plus deductive logic do not determine a unique theory, we can nevertheless try to eliminate some of the alternatives by showing that they are unreasonable (Kitcher tries to cash this out in terms of a kind of cost-benefit analysis: we could hang on to a theory despite apparently conflicting evidence, but the cost of doing so would be too high). Kitcher tries to show that Darwin essentially takes this approach in responding to creationism, trying to show that despite the fact that creationism is a logically possible view, it is not reasonable to hold onto it in the face of the available evidence.

Last update: March 2, 2011
Curtis Brown | Philosophy of Science | Philosophy Department | Trinity University