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 díEspagnat on QM; I havenít read them, but judging by this article Iíd expect them to be good.)

Abner Shimony, "The Reality of the Quantum World," Scientific American 258 (January, 1988): 46-53. More about the experiments which seem to show that Bell's Inequality is violated.

Van Fraassen, "The Charybdis of Realism," listed above, is a useful philosophical discussion. So is Arthur Fine, "Antinomies of Entanglement: The Puzzling Case of the Tangled Statistics," Journal of Philosophy 79 (1982): 733-747, and the relevant chapter of Fine's book cited above.

"Interview: John Bell," Omni 10 (May, 1988): 84-92, 121. Fun.

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. Although I own these books, I haven't read them, so reading selections from them would be a bit of a shot in the dark. However, they look to be quite readable, and highly relevant to philosophical issues about confirmation.


4. Creation vs. Evolution. We've discussed this to some extent already, but could do a more serious job.

A truly excellent book on evolutionary theory, with lots of material of interest to philosophers, is Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (1986; reissued with a new introduction, 1996). (There's a good section on how the eye may have developed in stages in Chapter 4.)

 An excellent explanation and defense of evolutionary theory, with particular reference to creationism, is Douglas J. Futuyma, Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution (New York: Pantheon, 1983). I know that there are more recent books in the same vein: I've seen descriptions of one that looks good by Elliott Sober. I just happen to have Futuyma on my shelves.

(See also the intelligent design topic under "Science and Religion.")

5. 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.


6. 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'm not sure what we'd read on this. I've read some interesting off-hand remarks by Paul Krugman that are relevant; I'm sure we could find more substantial discussions.


7. Does psychology show that free will is an illusion?

Some have argued that it does. A very interesting book by a psychologist, with obvious philosophical interest: Daniel Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will. (Interesting side note: although he's now a professor at Harvard, Wegner was at Trinity when I first came here in the early 80's.)

Science and Religion

8. 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 (see e.g.

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

9. 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.

10. 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

11. 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

Given the number of biologists in our class, we might want to look at feminist critiques of biology. Some possibilities, from Janet Kourany's text The Gender of Science:

Ruth Hubbard, "Have Only Men Evolved?"
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, "Empathy, Polyandry, and the Myth of the Coy Female"
Biology and Gender Study Group, "The Importance of Feminist Critique for Contemporary Cell Biology"

12. 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?

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.

13. Climate Change

A topic suggested by a member of the class. I haven't had a chance to look for literature on this, but I'm sure we could find some. Or we could read some primary stuff and do our own philosophizing about it. I've read some discussions of the "Climategate" emails, but it might be interesting to read the emails themselves, and the reports of some of the investigating committees that looked at them, and think about what this might show about the relation between science and politics, the possibility of objectivity, and perhaps whether there are special problems about confirmation in a subject like climate science.

14. Intelligence

selection from The Bell Curve
Ned Block, critical essay on The Bell Curve
selection from other criticisms and defenses (e.g. essays in The New Republic and in National Review, or from the volume The Bell Curve Debate)

also relevant: research on sex differences, below

15. Sociobiology

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

16. Research on sex differences. This became a hot topic a couple of years ago when Lawrence Summers, then the president of Harvard University (and currently [March 2011] Director of the White House National Economic Council), 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

Some further possible topics and readings (I'm guessing that these are less likely to be of interest this time around, but I could be wrong)

17. Realism and anti-realism. 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. Among the potentially helpful readings on this topic are these:

Bas C. van Fraassen, The Scientific Image, esp. Chapters 1 and 2. Defends an anti-realist view. This book doesn't have much to say about quantum physics, but an article by van Fraassen, "The Charybdis of Realism: Epistemological Implications of Bell's Inequality," Synthese 52 (1982): 25-38, argues that Bell's theorem refutes a version of realism.

Arthur Fine, The Shaky Game: Einstein, Realism, and the Quantum Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986). Chapter 6 explains the sense in which Einstein was a realist. Chapters 7 and 8 defend an alternative to both realism and anti-realism, and Chapter 9 takes up the general issue of whether scientific realism is compatible with quantum physics. (Fine says "yes.")

Nancy Cartwright, How the Laws of Physics Lie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983). Chapters 4 and 5 defend realism about theoretical entities; 5 includes a discussion of Duhem and van Fraassen. (Chapter 9, "How the Measurement Problem is an Artefact of the Mathematics," may also be of interest.)

Marshall Spector, "Mind, Matter, and Quantum Mechanics," in Patrick Grim's rather wildly misnamed collection, Philosophy of Science and the Occult, is an interesting deflationary discussion of the role of the observer in QM.

Of course there are many popular accounts of relevant material. I suppose everyone has their personal favorites; by far the clearest and most impressive presentation I've read in recent years is Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004). I'm also partial to the books of Paul Davies (e.g. Other Worlds; God and the New Physics).

18. Quantum logic. A number of writers have proposed that quantum mechanics requires us (or at least invites us) to revise the classical laws of logic. This topic should only be tackled by someone with a fairly firm grasp of classical logic. Possible readings include:

Arthur Fine, "Some Conceptual Problems of Quantum Theory," in Colodny, ed., Paradigms and Paradoxes (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972). A good first place to look.

Hilary Putnam, "The Logic of Quantum Mechanics," in Mathematics, Matter, and Method: Philosophical Papers Volume 1, Second Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979). A fairly introductory presentation, with discussion of philosophical issues about whether revising classical logic in the light of empirical facts makes any sense. Putnam returns to the issue of quantum logic in "Quantum Mechanics and the Observer," in Realism and Reason: Philosophical Papers Volume 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

R.I.G. Hughes, The Structure and Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), especially Chapter 7. Too hard for me, but might be useful for someone with a good mathematical background.

Bas C. van Fraassen, Quantum Mechanics: An Empiricist View (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991). Parts of this are also almost certainly too hard for me, but other parts look accessible; thought I'd mention it since it is by an author we are becoming somewhat familiar with.

19. More on Evolutionary Psychology

In addition to Pinker and Fodor, which are already on our syllabus:

Steven Jay Gould, two-part essay in New York Review of Books
responses to Gould from Dennett, Pinker
Cosmides and Tooby, eds., The Adapted Mind
critical essay by Richard Lewontin in Invitation to Cognitive Science, vol. 4


Last update: March 19, 2011
Curtis Brown | Philosophy of Science | Philosophy Department | Trinity University