A bit more about.....

Philosophy of science (and why it matters)

Why it matters

Philosophy often has a bad rep with actual scientists who can, of course, get along just fine without the interference of beardy thinkmeisters. This is a misunderstanding; philosophy of science is not about telling scientists how to do their job; the questions it asks are meta-scientific ones.

Here's a nice analogy for why philosophy matters in regard to science. Simon Singh wrote in the New Scientist (4th December 2004) that scientists do not need philosophers in the same way that birds do not need ornithologists.That sounds conclusive but it was then pointed out in the letters page that there is a real sense in which birds do need ornithologists, because they might notice and fight human activity which threatens avian extinction.

The analogy is that 'science' can be hijacked in various ways, by business and political interests, and scientists themselves may not spot what's going on. This represents my own opinion very succinctly.

How can you actually know anything?

This question has interested me since I was a child. If you think about it, all sorts of things could be true...I mean it's logically possible that there could be invisible, inaudible, intangible fairies at the bottom of my garden (an example of the "underdetermination of theory by fact"). Imagine arguing with someone who believed that they did - is there anything you could say to change their mind? (you and the fairy-fancier would be working with "incommensurable paradigms").

However, If you want to know how the physical world works, your best bet is to go at it using what is known as the 'scientific method'. The demonstration of this is not difficult: a few centuries after Galileo, here we all are, surrounded by powerful science-based technology (which most of us don't remotely understand).

But if you ask why the scientific method gives such good results, or if you ask for more precise details about it, the answer is not clear or definite or agreed. This question is not itself a scientific one: it is a philosophical one. Even if you say "but this doesn't really matter does it?" that is itself a philosophical assertion.

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