Monday, January 27, 2014

Philosophy of Science

Professor Kasser's course on the Philosophy of Science is masterfully presented. I found myself, however, wading in and out of the content. The topic is of key importance, yet is not given much respect. After all, science is its objective self. Why does it need some liberal art like philosophy. However, like life itself, we need the philosophy to truly understand the role it plays.

Science has become the "dogma" of intellectual inquiry of the day, almost on par with religion. However, it spends very little effort studying itself. The philosophical bounds of science are surprisingly week. Differentiation between science and pseudo-science often comes down to an "I know it when I see it" argument. (He gives many examples of arguments that fail to exclude astrology from the realm of pseudo-science.) Even objectivity itself can be very subjective. The concept of "statistically significant" dictates much of what is deemed reliable in science. Yet it was created by simply choosing an arbitrary threshold.

Some of the discussions of the key players in the philosophy of science movement get a little tiring. Positivists, Popper, realism, and many others are covered. On an abstract level, these don't get you very far. However, they shine when examples of their implementation are used. The final lectures in this series deal with fundamental questions and applications in specific sciences.

Biology has species. But what are species and how are they differentiated? It is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Different subfields of biology have different needs for classifications and different ways of doing it. This can have impacts outside the lab, with laws such as endangered species acts. How do we resolve this? (Should there be a separate philosophy of taxonomy? Or perhaps this is just an extension of the philosophy of language.)

Philosophy of Science is not the easiest of topics to grasp, and these lectures do a good job making it accessible. It attempts to bridge a gap between the scientists (who don't really care about philosophy) and the philosophers (who don't really know the details about science.) Some of the questions that really concern the philosophers don't concern the scientists. However, some of the questions on the philosophy of science have deep impacts on the ways that science is funded and practiced. It would benefit scientists to understand more of the philosophy and history to be able to understand why they are doing things the way they are doing them (and if it meshes with their personal philosophy.) Perhaps one day, we will have a better discipline of "meta-science" that can legitimately give an outsider's evaluation of science. Until then, we'll keep muddling through.

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