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History of Twentieth-Century Philosophy of Science

History of Twentieth-Century Philosophy of Science

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Published by Deepak Salunke
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Published by: Deepak Salunke on Jul 12, 2011
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he aim of philosophy of science is to understand what scientists didand how they did it, where history of science shows that they performedbasic research very well. Therefore to achieve this aim, philosophers look back to the great achievements in the evolution of modern science thatstarted with the Copernicus with greater emphasis given to more recentaccomplishments.The earliest philosophy of science in the last two hundred years isRomanticism, which started as a humanities discipline and was later adaptedto science as a humanities specialty. The Romantics view the aim of scienceas interpretative understanding, which is a mentalistic ontology acquired byintrospection. They call language containing this ontology “theory”. Themost successful science sharing in the humanities aim is economics, butsince the development of econometrics that enables forecasting and policy,the humanities aim is mixed with the natural science aim of prediction andcontrol. Often, however, econometricians have found that successfulforecasting by econometric models must be purchased at the price of rejecting equation specifications based on the interpretative understandingsupplied by neoclassical macroeconomic and microeconomic theory. In thiscontext the term “economic theory” means precisely such neoclassicalequation specifications. Aside from economics Romanticism has littlerelevance to the great accomplishments in the history of science, because itsconcept of the aim of science has severed it from the benefits of theexamination of the history of science. The Romantic philosophy of socialscience is still resolutely practiced in immature sciences such as sociology,where mentalistic description prevails, where quantification and predictionare seldom attempted, and where implementation in social policy is seldomeffective and often counterproductive.Positivism followed Romanticism. Many Positivists were physicists,who took physics as the paradigm of the empirical sciences, and severalwrote histories of physics. Positivism is practiced in behavioristCopyright 2005 by Thomas J. Hickey
psychology, but has negligible representation in any of the social sciences.The term “theory” in the Positivist philosophy of science means languagereferring to entities or phenomena that are not directly observable. On thismeaning the term includes the Romantic concept of “theory”, which refers tothe covert and introspectively acquired mental experience rejected bybehaviorists. Theory is also defined in opposition to observation language,which serves as the logical reduction basis that enables theory language tobe both empirically acceptable and semantically meaningful. Positivismoriginated as a reaction against Romanticism, and purported to be moreadequate to the history of science, even if its reductionism agenda made itremote from the practice of basic research.Pragmatism followed Positivism. The contemporary Pragmatism’sascendancy over Positivism was occasioned by philosophers’ reflection onthe modern quantum theory in microphysics. There have been numerousrevolutionary developments in science, but none since Newton’s mechanicshas had an impact on philosophy of science comparable to the developmentof quantum theory. Its impact on philosophy has been even greater thanEinstein’s relativity theory, which occasioned Popper’s effective critique of Positivism. Initially several of the essential insights of contemporaryPragmatism were articulated by one of the originators of the quantumtheory, Heisenberg, who reinterpreted the observed tracks of the electron inthe Wilson cloud chamber, and who also practiced scientific realism.Many years later Heisenberg’s ideas were taken up and furtherdeveloped by academic philosophers in several leading Americanuniversities, and it is now the ascendant philosophy of science in the UnitedStates. Contemporary Pragmatism contains several new ideas. Firstly byintroducing reciprocity between truth and meaning the Pragmatistsphilosophers, following the physicists Einstein and Heisenberg, dispensedwith the naturalistic observation-theory semantics, thereby undercutting theobservation-language reduction base essential to Positivism. Pragmatistssubstituted a relativistic semantics for the Positivists’ naturalistic primitiveobservation semantics, thereby revising the meanings of “theory” and“observation”, to recognize their functions in basic research science.Secondly by relativizing semantics, they also relativized ontology therebyremoving it from the criteria for scientific criticism. The intended outcomeof this development was recognition of the absolute priority of empiricalcriteria in scientific criticism, in order to account for physicists’ acceptanceof quantum theory with its distinctively counterintuitive ontology of duality.A related outcome was a new philosophy of science with which toreexamine retrospectively the previous great achievements in the history of Copyright 2005 by Thomas J. Hickey 2
science. Feyerabend for example found that Galileo had revised hisobservation language when defending the Copernican heliocentric theory,something unthinkable to the Positivists.The implications of ontological relativity are fundamentallydevastating for both Romanticism and Positivism, both of which are definedin terms of prior ontological commitments. For the Pragmatist no ontologymay function as a criterion for scientific criticism, because ontologicalcommitment is consequent upon empirical testing, and is produced by anonfalsifying test outcome that warrants belief in the tested theory. Neither“theory”, “law” nor “explanation” are defined in terms of any priorontology, semantics, or subject matter, but rather are defined in terms of their functioning in basic research: “theory” is any universally quantifiedstatement proposed for empirical testing; “scientific law” is any empiricallytested and currently nonfalsified theory; “explanation” is a deductionconcluding to either a description of particular events or to another universallaw statement. Thus the Pragmatist can accept but does not require theRomantic’s mentalistic description, and he can accept but does not requirethe Positivist’s nonmentalist description.As the contemporary Pragmatism has been achieving its ascendancy, anew approach – computational philosophy of science – has emerged as aspecialty in a new school of psychology called “cognitive psychology.”Computational philosophy of science is less a new philosophy and more anew analytical technique enabled by the computer, and its appearance wasnot occasioned by a new revolutionary development in science; quantumtheory is still the touchstone for contemporary philosophy of science.Cognitive psychology considers its subject to be conceptual representations,and there emerged a psychologistic turn, which was occasioned in part byrejection of the nominalist philosophy of language that some philosopherssuch as Quine have carried forward from Positivism into Pragmatism. Butnominalism is not integral to Pragmatism; conceptualism is perfectlyconsistent with the contemporary Pragmatism. The computational approachis a new analytical technique occasioned by the emergence of computertechnology compatible with the contemporary Pragmatism, much as thesymbolic logic was once a new analytical technique compatible withPositivism and produced Logical Positivism. The computational analyticaltechnique has already yielded many interesting re-examinations of pastrevolutionary episodes in the history of science. Its promise for the future –already realized in a few cases – is fruitful contributions to the advancementof contemporary science. A computational Pragmatist philosophy of scienceclearly seems destined to be the agenda for the twenty-first century.Copyright 2005 by Thomas J. Hickey 3

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