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November 06, 2004

Philosophy of Science

Yet another excellent entrant in the Very Short Introduction series from the Oxford University Press (check them out: http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/series/VeryShortIntroductions/?view=usa).  Samir Okasha, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of York, gives a well-organized quick tour of the main topics in the Philosophy of Science.

Starting with an introductory chapter on “What is Science”, he takes the reader on a tour of “Scientific Reasoning”, “Explanation in Science”, “Realism and anti-Realism”, “Scientific Change and Revolutions”.  He then adds a chapter on three specific historical philosophical disputes in the Philosophy of Science:  (1) the dispute between Newton and Leibniz about the nature of space (absolute or relative), (2) the dispute among three different schools of taxonomic classification in biology and (3) the dispute among psychologists about the ‘modularity’ of the human mind.  He then ends with a wrap up chapter on some of the disputes about science (‘Scientism’, or an over-reliance on ‘science’ as a model for all of (or the only legitimate kind of) ‘knowledge; Science and Religion; and the debate around whether Science is ‘value-free’).

In each case, he gives a very clear, even-handed overview of the arguments that have raged (since the 16th Century) about these topics.  He is quite good at giving analogies or examples that make otherwise abstract propositions understandable.  He deftly lays out (which is difficult to do) the reasons why philosophical questions about science are not resolvable by science itself, and thus why disputes over these topics continue even today   (e.g., all ‘empirical’ scientific theories ultimately rest on concepts that are more or less ‘metaphysical’ – which doesn’t mean that choosing among fundamental principals is simply a matter of taste, belief or faith (e.g., Creation Science is clearly not just as good a ‘scientific’ theory as Evolution), but it does help clarify the nature of the assumptions that serve as the foundations of our scientific beliefs.  In Okasha’s descriptions of the debates over these topics, I often couldn’t tell from his writing anything about his own – one of the marks of a good introductory work.

Given the importance of science to modern life, understanding the debates around the core concepts on which modern science rests (and the enormously broad reach (as well as the limits) of science as a way of generating knowledge), is something every educated modern person should do at some level.   This little book is an excellent way to get started.

November 6, 2004 in Books | Permalink

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