Philosophy of Science, a very short introduction (and review)

When visiting the bookstore on the campus of the University of Warwick two weeks ago, I spotted this book, Philosophy of Science, a very short introduction, by Samir Okasha, and the “bargain” offer of getting two books for £10 enticed me to buy it along with a Friedrich Nietzsche, a very short introduction… (Maybe with the irrational hope that my daughter would take a look at those for her philosophy course this year!)

Popper’s attempt to show that science can get by without induction does not succeed.” (p.23)

Since this is [unsusrprisingly!] a very short introduction, I did not get much added value from the book. Nonetheless, it was an easy read for short trips in the metro and short waits here and there. And would be a good [very short] introduction to any one newly interested in the philosophy of sciences. The first chapter tries to define what science is, with reference to the authority of Popper (and a mere mention of Wittgenstein), and concludes that there is no clear-cut demarcation between science and pseudo-science. (Mathematics apparently does not constitute a science: “Physics is the most fundamental science of all”, p.55) I would have liked to see the quote from Friedrich Nietzsche

“It is perhaps just dawning on five or six minds that physics, too, is only an interpretation and exegesis of the world (to suit us, if I may say so!) and not a world-explanation.”

in Beyond Good and Evil. as it illustrates the main point of the chapter and maybe the book that scientific theories can never be proven true, Plus, it is often misinterpreted as a anti-science statement by Nietzsche. (Plus, it links both books I bought!)

“The concept of probability is philosophically puzzling.” (p.33)

The second chapter is centred on Hume‘s induction problem (the very Hume that would somehow induce Thomas Bayes to study conditional probability in order to reply to his arguments against miracles!). A chapter that introduces almost inevitably probability as an answer to this induction problem. The author opposes the frequency based probability to the subjective version to the logical version. He quotes J.M. Keynes as a proponent of the logical interpretation, but fails to mention Bayes or de Finetti or Savage.

“The concept of causality, although philosophically problematic, is indispensable to how we understand the world.” (p.57)

Chapter 3 is about explanation, another missed opportunity for quoting Nietzsche. It centres around Hempel’s covering law, which belongs to empiricism,  then debates of the link with causality. Not very convincingly.

“There are always multiple explanations of our data, we have no way of knowing which is true, so knowledge of unobservable reality cannot be had.” (p.74)

The next chapter may be my favourite. It discusses realism and anti-realism, and finds me siding more with anti-realism than with realism. (Again, the quote from Nietzsche would have come handy!) I actually find some of the arguments against anti-realism a wee bit on the weak side: when considering that some objects are observable through powerful enough instruments, it is missing the difficulty that those instruments are interpreted through the lenses of a given theory, so are less likely to bring a rejection of this theory.

“The facts about the world are paradigm relative, and thus change when paradigms change.” (p.85)

Somehow, Chapter 5 supports this perspective with the above quote. It is above scientific discovery and Kuhn’s concept of scientific revolutions. The discussion is fairly interesting, pointing out the shortcomings of Kuhn’s theory, but it could have gone further with the approaches of Lakatos and Feyerabend.

“Cladistic classifications constitute hypotheses about the phylogenetic relations between species, and are thus inherently conjectural.” (p.111)

Chapter 6 gives entries on subject specific philosophical issues, from Newton versus Leibniz, to cladists versus pheneticists, to neuropsychology and cognitive sciences. While Chapter 7 discusses topics more at the margin like Science and Society, and Science and Religion. It uses creationism to show how philosophical arguments can be turned on their head (to a limited extent!) to justify teaching religious explanations alongside Darwin‘s theory of evolution.

One Response to “Philosophy of Science, a very short introduction (and review)”

  1. I have read the equally very short introduction to Nietzsche in the plane back from B’ham to Paris but did not get enough insight to write a post about it. The central point was that he was dreading rather than exulting in the forecast disappearance of moral values due to the end of religious societies.

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