Philosophy of science

Philosophy of science

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The philosophy of science is concerned with the assumptions, foundations, methods
Scientific method
Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of...

 and implications of science
Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe...

. It is also concerned with the use and merit of science and sometimes overlaps metaphysics
Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms:...

 and epistemology by exploring whether scientific results are actually a study of truth. In addition to these central problems of science as a whole, many philosophers of science also consider problems that apply to particular sciences (e.g. philosophy of biology
Philosophy of biology
The philosophy of biology is a subfield of philosophy of science, which deals with epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical issues in the biological and biomedical sciences...

 or philosophy of physics
Philosophy of physics
In philosophy, the philosophy of physics studies the fundamental philosophical questions underlying modern physics, the study of matter and energy and how they interact. The philosophy of physics begins by reflecting on the basic metaphysical and epistemological questions posed by physics:...

). Some philosophers of science also use contemporary results in science to reach conclusions about philosophy.

Philosophy of science has historically been met with mixed response from the scientific community. Though scientists often contribute to the field, many prominent scientists have felt that the practical effect on their work is limited: “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds,” according to physicist Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman
Richard Phillips Feynman was an American physicist known for his work in the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics and the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, as well as in particle physics...

. In response to Feynman's quip, some philosophers (e.g. Jonathan Schaffer
Jonathan Schaffer
Jonathan Schaffer is an American philosopher specializing in Metaphysics and Epistemology.Since earning his PhD. from Rutgers in 1999, Schaffer has published 37 papers. He wrote his dissertation - "Causation and the Probabilities of Processes" - under Brian McLaughin. David Lewis served as...

) have pointed out that it is likely that ornithological knowledge would be of great benefit to birds, were it possible for them to possess it.


Karl Popper
Karl Popper
Sir Karl Raimund Popper, CH FRS FBA was an Austro-British philosopher and a professor at the London School of Economics...

 contended that the central question in the philosophy of science was distinguishing science from non-science.

Early attempts by the logical positivists grounded science in observation while non-science was non-observational and hence nonsense. Popper argued that the central feature of science was that science aims at falsifiable
Falsifiability or refutability of an assertion, hypothesis or theory is the logical possibility that it can be contradicted by an observation or the outcome of a physical experiment...

 claims (i.e. claims that can be proven false, at least in principle).

No single unified account of the difference between science and non-science has been widely accepted by philosophers, and some regard the problem as unsolvable or uninteresting.

This problem has taken center stage in the debate regarding evolution
Evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations. Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organisation, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins.Life on Earth...

 and creationism
Creationism is the religious beliefthat humanity, life, the Earth, and the universe are the creation of a supernatural being, most often referring to the Abrahamic god. As science developed from the 18th century onwards, various views developed which aimed to reconcile science with the Genesis...

. Scientists say that creationism does not meet the criteria of science and should thus not be treated on equal footing as evolution.

Scientific realism and instrumentalism

Two central questions about science are (1) what are the aims of science and (2) how should one interpret the results of science? Scientific realists claim that science aims at truth and that one ought to regard scientific theories as true, approximately true, or likely true. Conversely, a scientific antirealist or instrumentalist argues that science does not aim (or at least does not succeed) at truth and that we should not regard scientific theories as true. Some antirealists claim that scientific theories aim at being instrumentally useful and should only be regarded as useful, but not true, descriptions of the world.

Realists often point to the success of recent scientific theories as evidence for the truth (or near truth) of our current theories. Antirealists point to either the history of science, epistemic morals, the success of false model
Scientific modelling
Scientific modelling is the process of generating abstract, conceptual, graphical and/or mathematical models. Science offers a growing collection of methods, techniques and theory about all kinds of specialized scientific modelling...

ing assumptions, or widely termed postmodern criticisms of objectivity as evidence against scientific realisms. Some antirealists attempt to explain the success of scientific theories without reference to truth.

Scientific explanation

In addition to providing predictions about future events, we often take scientific theories to offer explanations for those that occur regularly or have already occurred. Philosophers have investigated the criteria by which a scientific theory can be said to have successfully explained a phenomenon, as well as what gives a scientific theory explanatory power
Explanatory power
Explanatory power is the ability of a theory to effectively explain the subject matter it pertains to. One theory is sometimes said to have more explanatory power than another theory about the same subject matter if it offers greater predictive power...

. One early and influential theory of scientific explanation was put forward by Carl G. Hempel
Carl Gustav Hempel
Carl Gustav "Peter" Hempel was a philosopher of science and a major figure in 20th-century logical empiricism...

 and Paul Oppenheim in 1948. Their Deductive-Nomological
The deductive-nomological model is a formalized view of scientific explanation in natural language. It characterizes scientific explanations primarily as deductive arguments with at least one natural law statement among its premises...

(D-N) model of explanation says that a scientific explanation succeeds by subsuming a phenomenon under a general law. Although ignored for a decade, this view was subjected to substantial criticism, resulting in several widely believed counter examples to the theory.

In addition to their D-N model, Hempel and Oppenheim offered other statistical models of explanation which would account for statistical sciences. These theories have received criticism as well. Salmon attempted to provide an alternative account for some of the problems with Hempel and Oppenheim's model by developing his statistical relevance model. In addition to Salmon's model, others have suggested that explanation is primarily motivated by unifying disparate phenomena or primarily motivated by providing the causal or mechanical histories leading up to the phenomenon (or phenomena of that type).