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Philosophy of science

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Hickey, T. J: History of Twentieth – century philosophy of science. Copyright 1995, 2005: http://www.philsci.com/ - The book online


The aim of philosophy of science is to understand what scientists did and how they did it, where history of science shows that they performed basic research very well. Therefore to achieve this aim, philosophers look back to the great achievements in the evolution of modern science that started with the Copernicus with greater emphasis given to more recent accomplishments.

The earliest philosophy of science in the last two hundred years is Romanticism, which started as a humanities discipline and was later adapted to science as a humanities specialty. The Romantics view the aim of science as interpretative understanding, which is a mentalistic ontology acquired by introspection. They call language containing this ontology ”theory”. The most successful science sharing in the humanities aim is economics, but since the development of econometrics that enables forecasting and policy, the humanities aim is mixed with the natural science aim of prediction and control. Often, however, econometricians have found that successful forecasting by econometric models must be purchased at the price of rejecting equation specifications based on the interpretative understanding supplied by neoclassical macroeconomic and microeconomic theory. In this context the term ”economic theory” means precisely such neoclassical equation specifications. Aside from economics Romanticism has little relevance to the great accomplishments in the history of science, because its concept of the aim of science has severed it from the benefits of the examination of the history of science. The Romantic philosophy of social science is still resolutely practiced in immature sciences such as sociology, where mentalistic description prevails, where quantification and prediction are seldom attempted, and where implementation in social policy is seldom effective and often counterproductive.

Positivism followed Romanticism. Many Positivists were physicists, who took physics as the paradigm of the empirical sciences, and several wrote histories of physics. Positivism is practiced in behaviorist psychology, but has negligible representation in any of the social sciences. The term ”theory” in the Positivist philosophy of science means language referring to entities or phenomena that are not directly observable. On this meaning the term includes the Romantic concept of ”theory”, which refers to the covert and introspectively acquired mental experience rejected by behaviorists. Theory is also defined in opposition to observation language, which serves as the logical reduction basis that enables theory language to be both empirically acceptable and semantically meaningful. Positivism originated as a reaction against Romanticism, and purported to be more adequate to the history of science, even if its reductionism agenda made it remote from the practice of basic research.

Pragmatism followed Positivism. The contemporary Pragmatism’s ascendancy over Positivism was occasioned by philosophers’ reflection on the modern quantum theory in microphysics. There have been numerous revolutionary developments in science, but none since Newton’s mechanics has had an impact on philosophy of science comparable to the development of quantum theory. Its impact on philosophy has been even greater than Einstein’s relativity theory, which occasioned Popper’s effective critique of Positivism. Initially several of the essential insights of contemporary Pragmatism were articulated by one of the originators of the quantum theory, Heisenberg, who reinterpreted the observed tracks of the electron in the Wilson cloud chamber, and who also practiced scientific realism.

Many years later Heisenberg’s ideas were taken up and further developed by academic philosophers in several leading American universities, and it is now the ascendant philosophy of science in the United States. Contemporary Pragmatism contains several new ideas. Firstly by introducing reciprocity between truth and meaning the Pragmatists philosophers, following the physicists Einstein and Heisenberg, dispensed with the naturalistic observation-theory semantics, thereby undercutting the observation-language reduction base essential to Positivism. Pragmatists substituted a relativistic semantics for the Positivists’ naturalistic primitive observation semantics, thereby revising the meanings of ”theory” and ”observation”, to recognize their functions in basic research science. Secondly by relativizing semantics, they also relativized ontology thereby removing it from the criteria for scientific criticism. The intended outcome of this development was recognition of the absolute priority of empirical criteria in scientific criticism, in order to account for physicists’ acceptance of quantum theory with its distinctively counterintuitive ontology of duality. A related outcome was a new philosophy of science with which to reexamine retrospectively the previous great achievements in the history of science. Feyerabend for example found that Galileo had revised his observation language when defending the Copernican heliocentric theory, something unthinkable to the Positivists.

The implications of ontological relativity are fundamentally devastating for both Romanticism and Positivism, both of which are defined in terms of prior ontological commitments. For the Pragmatist no ontology may function as a criterion for scientific criticism, because ontological commitment is consequent upon empirical testing, and is produced by a nonfalsifying test outcome that warrants belief in the tested theory. Neither ”theory”, ”law” nor ”explanation” are defined in terms of any prior ontology, semantics, or subject matter, but rather are defined in terms of their functioning in basic research: ”theory” is any universally quantified statement proposed for empirical testing; ”scientific law” is any empirically tested and currently nonfalsified theory; ”explanation” is a deduction concluding to either a description of particular events or to another universal law statement. Thus the Pragmatist can accept but does not require the Romantic’s mentalistic description, and he can accept but does not require the Positivist’s nonmentalist description.

As the contemporary Pragmatism has been achieving its ascendancy, a new approach – computational philosophy of science has emerged as a specialty in a new school of psychology called ”cognitive psychology.” Computational philosophy of science is less a new philosophy and more a new analytical technique enabled by the computer, and its appearance was not occasioned by a new revolutionary development in science; quantum theory is still the touchstone for contemporary philosophy of science. Cognitive psychology considers its subject to be conceptual representations, and there emerged a psychologistic turn, which was occasioned in part by rejection of the nominalist philosophy of language that some philosophers such as Quine have carried forward from Positivism into Pragmatism. But nominalism is not integral to Pragmatism; conceptualism is perfectly consistent with the contemporary Pragmatism. The computational approach is a new analytical technique occasioned by the emergence of computer technology compatible with the contemporary Pragmatism, much as the symbolic logic was once a new analytical technique compatible with Positivism and produced Logical Positivism. The computational analytical technique has already yielded many interesting re-examinations of past revolutionary episodes in the history of science. Its promise for the future – already realized in a few cases – is fruitful contributions to the advancement of contemporary science. A computational Pragmatist philosophy of science clearly seems destined to be the agenda for the twenty-first century.

Organizational Overview

There are four basic topics in modern philosophy of science:

1. The institutionalized value system of modern science, also called the aim of science.

2. Scientific discovery, also known as new theory development.

3. Scientific criticism, especially the criteria used for the acceptance or rejection of theories.

4. Scientific explanation, the end product of basic science

Theories, laws and explanations are linguistic artifacts. Therefore philosophy of language is integral to philosophy of science. There have been several philosophical approaches to language and to science in the twentieth century: Romanticism, Positivism, contemporary Pragmatism, and psychologistic computational philosophy of science. The last is more a technique than a philosophy.

The following discussion therefore begins with a brief overview of each of the philosophical approaches, and then proceeds to the examination of the elements of philosophy of language. Finally with this background the four topics are examined in the order listed above.


The earliest of these philosophies is Romanticism, which is still widely represented today in the social sciences including neoclassical economics and sociology. This philosophy had its origins in the German Idealist philosophies of Kant and Hegel, although the Idealist philosophies are of purely antiquarian interest to philosophers of science today. But contemporary Romantics carry forward the Idealist thesis that there is a fundamental distinction between sciences of nature and sciences of culture. According to the Romantics any valid and ”causal” explanation of human behavior must describe the mental experiences – the views, values and motivations – of the human agents studied by social science. Access to these mental experiences requires introspection by the social science researcher, who if he does not share in the same culture as his subjects, at least shares in their humanity. The resulting interpretative understanding yields the ”theoretical explanation” of observed behavior. Thus in the Romantic philosophy the semantics of the terms ”theory” and ”explanation” represent culture understood as shared mental experience, and these terms mean something quite different from their meanings both in the natural sciences and in other philosophies of science.

The Romantics’ philosophy of scientific discovery is based on introspection. Furthermore some Romantics advocate Max Weber’s verstehen thesis of criticism, and require that explanations be validated by empathetic plausibility, so that they ”make sense” in the scientist’s vicarious imagination. When Romantics apply empirical criteria, it is often for survey research, where the survey responses are articulate expressions of the subject’s mental state, often including his erroneous beliefs. The verbal survey responses are subject to the researcher’s interpretative understanding. There may occur a conflict between the verstehen judgment and the empirical survey findings, and different Romantics will decide differently as to which to choose with some rejecting the empirical data out of hand. And when the empirical data are not survey data describing mental states, but instead are measurements of nonverbal behavior or demographics, then the absence of mentalistic descriptions supplying interpretative understanding will occasion the Romantics’ rejection of valid empirical findings. Romanticism has its distinctive philosophical theses in philosophy of language and therefore in the four basic topics in philosophy of science.

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