The Meaning of Science: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science

The Meaning of Science: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science

Language: English

Pages: 272

ISBN: 0465097480

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

Science has produced explanations for everything from the mechanisms of insect navigation to the formation of black holes and the workings of black markets. But how much can we trust science, and can we actually know the world through it? How does science work and how does it fail? And how can the work of scientists help—or hurt—everyday people? These are not questions that science can answer on its own. This is where philosophy of science comes in. Studying science without philosophy is, to quote Einstein, to be “like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest.” Cambridge philosopher Tim Lewens shows us the forest. He walks us through the theories of seminal philosophers of science Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn and considers what science is, how far it can and should reach, and how we can determine the nature of its truths and myths.

These philosophical issues have consequences that stretch far beyond the laboratory. For instance: What role should scientists have in policy discussions on environmental issues such as fracking? What are the biases at play in the search for a biological function of the female orgasm? If brain scans can be used to demonstrate that a decision was made several seconds before a person actually makes a conscious choice, what does that tell us about the possibility of free will?

By examining science through this philosophical lens, Lewens reveals what physics can teach us about reality, what biology teaches us about human nature, and what cognitive science teaches us about human freedom. A masterful analysis of the biggest scientific and ethical issues of our age, The Meaning of Science forces us to confront the practical, personal, and political purposes of science—and why it matters to all of us.

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those expectations. Under these circumstances, even a sugar pill can do harm.30 It is, of course, entirely irresponsible for homeopathic practitioners to discourage patients with serious conditions from taking medicines that are known to have significant positive effects on those conditions, or to discourage patients from seeking diagnoses from mainstream doctors. Either of these approaches can result in significant harms to patients, even death. But consider a condition like mild or moderate

2000). For discussion between Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos, and others on matters covered in this chapter, see: Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, eds., Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970). Two very helpful books devoted to understanding Kuhn are: Alexander Bird, Thomas Kuhn (London: Acumen, 2001). Paul Hoyningen-Huene, Reconstructing Scientific Revolutions: Thomas S. Kuhn’s Philosophy of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). For a

related bacteria can exchange genes with each other. There are now indications that the phenomena of horizontal gene transfer are not confined to the microbial world. We have evidence that the genomes of several complex multicellular organisms—including worms and insects—have also acquired genes directly from bacteria, and that these processes may be responsible for the acquisition of important adaptations in the animals in question.20 One study from 2008 has suggested that three different

similar one. This might sound easy, but the puzzle of how imitation is achieved is especially acute when one’s own bodily movements are hard to observe. If my young son Sam sees me contorting my face in a certain way, how is he able to copy that action? He cannot easily look at his own face to check on whether it is moving in a similar way to mine. What is more, the internal feel of his own face moving does not resemble the look of my own face when it moves in the same way. There is no clear

challenged. So, if our theory tells us that nothing travels faster than light, and if our experiment indicates that something does travel faster than light, the only thing we are entitled to conclude as a matter of deductive certainty is that somewhere or another at least one mistake has been made. Deduction cannot tell us where that mistake is, and so deduction cannot tell us, by itself, whether our theory is wrong, whether one of our myriad experimental assumptions is wrong, or whether the

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