Philosophy of Science

Some Possible Topics
For end-of-semester classes


1. Realism and Anti-Realism: Hawking and Mlodinow.

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (Bantam, 2010). This book declares in paragraph two that "philosophy is dead." The authors proceed, in chapter 3, "What is Reality," to produce what appears to be some terrible philosophy. The book as a whole looks like a somewhat frustrating combination of interesting science and bad philosophy. It might be interesting and fun to read parts of it as a case study in the connections between philosophy and science.

2. Bell's Theorem. This fits in with the more general issues about whether a realistic conception of the world is adequate; Bell's theorem (in conjunction with experimental results) appears to show conclusively that hidden-variables interpretations of QM cannot work. This has implications that appear to be anti-realistic in some sense. More precisely, it seems to show that some facts about the world are indeterminate, not just in the sense that we can't find out what they are, but in the stronger sense that there aren't any. Some have argued that QM also leads to philosophical antirealism, perhaps even to an idealistic view according to which the world is mind-dependent. (To me, this seems to be a pretty big stretch.) I have a song-and-dance I can present on this topic if people are interested. (Not a literal song and dance, just a presentation on the topic.)

David Mermin, "Is the Moon There When Nobody Looks? Reality and the Quantum Theory," Physics Today 38 (April, 1985): 38-47; letters and a response from Mermin in 38 (November, 1985), 9ff. A humorous and enjoyable piece, with historical as well as substantive discussion.

Bernard d'Espagnat, "The Quantum Theory and Reality," Scientific American CCXL (November, 1979): 158-181. My favorite introduction; careful and philosophically sensitive. (The library has several books by d'Espagnat on QM; I haven't read them, but judging by this article I'd expect them to be good.)

3. String Theory and Problems of Confirmation. There has apparently been an interesting flap in recent years over the status of string theory. There's an apparent problem: string theory by itself doesn't seem to make any testable predictions. Steven Weinberg and others have (I gather) suggested that we should accept the theory for aesthetic reasons, reasons of overall theoretical coherence, etc., even if there isn't any way to test it directly. On the other hand, there are fairly recent, controversial books criticizing string theory (and the culture of contemporary physics departments more generally): Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics, and Peter Woit, Not Even Wrong, both published 2006. Both books are very readable, and relevant to issues about confirmation. Last I checked, there were also a lot of YouTube videos of debates between people supporting or criticizing string theory, including Smolin (con) and Brian Greene (pro), another very good writer.


4. Evolutionary Theory and Ethics. Does evolutionary theory have ethical implications? Some biologists have argued that evolutionary theory makes possible a scientifically based ethics. Most philosophers have their doubts. Defenses include Alexander, The Biology of Moral Systems, and E. O. Wilson, On Human Nature. A clear and well-written philosophical critique is Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle. These books date back to the 80s, though they're still of interest. More recently there's a growing literature on "evolutionary ethics." I haven't kept up with this, but we could sample some if people would like to take up this topic.


5. Economics. Is economics a science? How is it influenced by political considerations, and does this affect its status as science? It's very common for economists to talk about "models" of how the economic world works: does this suggest that the semantic view of theories is a helpful way to think about theories in economics?

I've read some interesting off-hand remarks by Paul Krugman that are relevant; I'm sure we could find more substantial discussions. A good place to start might be the SEP article on the philosophy of economics. Section 4 in particular looks like it has lots of interesting material on the relations between economics and the philosophy of science.

Science and Religion

6. Intelligent Design. The current incarnation of the creation/evolution debate, with perhaps a few new twists and angles. We could look at Darwin's Black Box, which may be the most influential defense of intelligent design, and some of the literature critical of its theses. The string theory flap mentioned above turns out to be relevant: one of the main arguments for intelligent design has been that otherwise it's hard to explain why some of the fundamental physical constants, notably the "cosmological constant," seem to be "fine-tuned for life." String theory apparently can be construed to offer an alternative, entirely natural explanation (last time I included this topic I gave the following link, but unfortunately it's now behind a paywall:

Possible readings include (selections from):

Michael Behe, Darwin's Black Box
various writings of William Dembski (many of his writings are online at
Niall Shanks, God, the Devil, and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory (Oxford, 2004)
essays by Elliott Sober

7. Science and religion: non-overlapping? Obviously some of the other topics are relevant to the relation between science and religion. But we could also take this up more directly. Stephen Jay Gould has argued that science and religion should be regarded as "non-overlapping magisteria," each of which gets into trouble when it tries to encroach on the other's territory.

8. Science and the "new atheism."

Some (e.g. Richard Dawkins) have argued that science should make us skeptical of the truth of religious claims. (Not all of the arguments and issues surrounding the new atheism are directly relevant to science, but some are.) We could take a look at some of this literature, in particular Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), chapter 4 ("Why There Almost Certainly Is No God"), which gives more or less scientific arguments that the probability that there is a god is very low, and chapter 5 ("The Roots of Religion") which tries to give a scientific explanation of why religion is so prevalent given that, on his view, it is false.

Critiques of Science

9. Feminist critiques of science. Is the very notion of objectivity, or at least our current understanding of it, sexist?

possible readings include: Okruhlik, in Curd & Cover text
Ginzberg, "Uncovering Gynocentric Science" -- provocative suggestions about how feminist science might be different

10. Social Studies of Science.

Some philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists have argued that a social-scientific understanding of science can lead to a fairly radical critique of the conception of science held by many scientists. In particular, it has been suggested that social studies of science can reveal that science does not discover an independently existing reality, but rather constructs a reality of its own.

There's a vast literature here. An influential book that I find provocative and interesting to discuss (although frankly I think it's crazy) is Bruno Latour and Larry Woolgar, Laboratory Life. A philosophical critique that I haven't read but looks interesting is Andre Kukla, Social Constructivism and the Philosophy of Science. A book I haven't seen but would like to get hold of is Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What? (1999). An overview essay that may provide some ideas for more recent literature is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article "The Social Dimensions of Scientific Knowledge."

Science and Ideology: Case Studies

All of the following topics concern areas where scientific research and ideological issues get tangled up. Each involves both scientific claims that certain scientific results have politically sensitive consequences, and critics who claim that the work isn't really scientific at all but is ideologically driven. In the case of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, we even have debates about whether the purported science is scientific at all, or is really a form of pseudoscience.

11. Sociobiology

selection from Wilson, On Human Nature
selection from Kitcher, Abusing Science

12. Research on sex differences. This became a hot topic a few years ago when Lawrence Summers, then the president of Harvard University, made some off-the-cuff remarks at a conference in which he suggested that it was worth considering whether the relatively small numbers of women in science and engineering had to do with innate sex differences.

selection from Longino, Science as Social Knowledge
maybe some stuff about the Summers flap
Anne Fausto-Sterling, "A Question of Genius: Are Men Really Smarter than Women?" -- detailed overview of a lot of research on supposed sex differences in intelligence, from a feminist perspective

13. Realism and anti-realism in physics. There are at least two distinguishable issues here. (1) Realistic vs. instrumentalistic interpretations of quantum theory. One dispute over quantum mechanics is really a special case of a general dispute over whether theoretical entities in science should be regarded realistically or not. The special interest of quantum mechanics in this regard is that its picture of the subatomic world is so weird and difficult to interpret that it is especially tempting to regard it as just a collection of helpful mathematical tools, without taking seriously the idea that all aspects of those tools correspond to real phenomena. (2) Realism vs. anti-realism about the nature of the world. Supposing we construe quantum theory realistically, as making genuine claims about the world, there is a further issue about what sort of view of the world it forces us to have. (This is where debates about the "interpretation" of QM enter the picture; one could regard instrumentalism as making the claim that it doesn't need an interpretation at all.) Two related questions are especially relevant, namely (a) is "determinism" compatible with QM? (Writers on QM typically mean by "determinism" the view that certain quantities have determinate values, not the view that later states are determined by earlier ones.) (b) Are there properties of the world which are observer-dependent? Some writers suggest that certain states take on definite values only when observed, so that observation doesn't just record what is already there but in some sense determines the make-up of the world. This can be made to sound a lot like the idealism of Berkeley or perhaps Hegel.

14. Evolutionary Psychology

Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
Jerry Fodor, The Mind Doesn't Work That Way

Steven Jay Gould, two-part essay in New York Review of Books
responses to Gould from Dennett, Pinker


Last update: October 19, 2016
Curtis Brown | Philosophy of Science | Philosophy Department | Trinity University