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As a tool for making predictions about the interaction of fundamental particles it is a highly successful scientific theory. But as a description of what the world is really like, it challenges both reason and intuition.

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If you try to measure the position of a particle with a high degree of accuracy you cannot measure its momentum very precisely, and vice versa. According to the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, this indeterminancy is an inherent property of particles at the quantum level.

Had it been restricted to the realm of subatomic particles the uncertainty principle may not have made such an impact on the philosophy of science.

Suppose we devise a contraption that uses the decay of a radioactive atom as a trigger to set off a mechanism that kills a cat. Since the state of the atom determines the state of the cat — whether it is dead or alive — the cat is also in an indefinite state. It seems that inherent uncertainty can be a property exhibited by macroscopic objects as well as quantum particles. The idea of a cat in a state of limbo is, of course, rather counterintuitive.

Philosophers and physicists have been trying since the s to interpret quantum mechanics in a way that brings it in harmony with common sense. One alternative to the Copenhagen Interpretation is the Many- Worlds Interpretation, which postulates the existence of countless parallel universes, one for each possible quantum state.


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According to this view, the cat in our thought experiment is alive in some universes and dead in others, without any uncertainty. Which is good and well if you like the number of your universes to be big.

Not surprisingly, the search continues for a reasonable solution to the philosophical problems of quantum mechanics. The explanation of biological traits such as the greenness of plants or the stripes of a tiger seem to differ essentially from explanations in other sciences. Likewise, a tiger has stripes because stripes act as camouflage and help the animal hunt its prey. In general, explanations in biology have a form whereby the consequences of a trait account for the presence of that trait. The Universe is such, in other words, that there can be something like positive feedback between improving knowledge, and improving knowledge about how to improve knowledge.

Successive theories in physics have brought ever-greater unity to ever-wider ranges of phenomena. Next down there is the assumption that the Universe is comprehensible in some way or other. There is something , inherent in all phenomena, that is responsible for the way that events occur, in terms of which everything can, in principle, be explained and understood. This ubiquitous something might be God, or a cosmic purpose one that all events occur in order to fulfil , or a unified pattern of physical law.

Granted meta-knowability, comprehensibility is a good assumption to adopt since, if true, it makes it possible for us to hone in on that version of comprehensibility that leads to the greatest success in improving knowledge. We put forward various sorts of explanatory theories; if one sort proves to meet with particular empirical success, meta-knowability justifies us in concentrating on theories that are explanatory in this particular sort of way.

Next down is the assumption that the Universe is physically comprehensible ; a unified pattern of physical law runs through all phenomena, in terms of which all physical phenomena can, in principle, be explained and understood.

Scientific Discovery

This assumption of physical comprehensibility has played an astonishingly fruitful role in science ever since Galileo. Granted meta-knowability we are, in these circumstances, justified in accepting physical comprehensibility until something better turns up. Next down in the hierarchy of assumptions we have that specific version of physical comprehensibility that does the best justice to current theoretical knowledge in physics, and gives the best promise of future progress.

This assumption can, today, be said to be string theory : everything is made up of tiny quantum strings in or dimensional spacetime. Next down we have our best accepted fundamental theories of physics — at present general relativity and the so-called standard model the quantum field theory of fundamental particles and the forces between them. And next down, at the bottom of the hierarchy, we have empirical phenomena — low-level empirical laws established by experiment. T his hierarchy of assumptions and associated methods facilitates the improvement of metaphysical presuppositions of physics, in part by concentrating imaginative exploration and critical scrutiny where it is most likely to be fruitful for scientific progress, low down in the hierarchy of assumptions.

It does so also by ensuring that new possible assumptions, worth considering, low down in the hierarchy, are fruitfully constrained, partly by assumptions higher up in the hierarchy, partly by physical theories that have met with the greatest empirical success. Those metaphysical assumptions, low down in the hierarchy, are chosen that stimulate, or are associated with, the most empirically progressive research programmes in physics, or hold out the greatest hope of that.

In these ways, the hierarchical framework of aim-oriented empiricism facilitates improvement in metaphysical theses that are accepted low down in the hierarchy, but are most likely to be false. As theoretical knowledge in physics improves, metaphysical presuppositions improve, and even lead the way. There is something like positive feedback between improving metaphysical assumptions and associated methods, and improving theoretical knowledge in physics. As we improve our scientific knowledge and understanding about the Universe, we correspondingly improve the nature of science itself.

Philosophy of physics

We improve methods for the improvement of scientific knowledge. We can learn from scientific progress how to achieve social progress. The outcome is natural philosophy, a synthesis of physics and metaphysics, science and philosophy. Metaphysics, methodology, even epistemology, traditionally subjects of philosophy, have become an integral, fruitful part of science.

Formal and empirical methods in philosophy of science — Tilburg University Research Portal

The Critical Fundamentalist conception of philosophy is massively endorsed. Within the framework of aim-oriented empiricist natural philosophy, science has almost become a specialised part of philosophy! The divorce between science and philosophy, so harmful for the latter, is at an end. Philosophy has a fruitful, indeed vital, role to play for science; some of its problems are at the leading edge of scientific research.


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There are further, even more important implications. Aim-oriented empiricism can be generalised, to form a conception of rationality — aim-oriented rationality — that is fruitfully applicable to any worthwhile human endeavour with problematic aims. All too often in life — personal, social, institutional, global — the real aims of our actions are problematic, either because they conflict with other desirable aims, or because they are unrealisable, or both.

This is all too apparent in connection with the profoundly problematic aim of humanity to attain a good, civilised world. All too many past efforts to create civilisation, whether of the Left or Right, have produced exactly the opposite, various kinds of hell on Earth. Here, above all, we need to put aim-oriented rationality into practice, arrived at by generalising the progress-achieving methods of aim-oriented empiricism. We need to represent the aim of civilisation in the form of a hierarchy of aims, these becoming less and less specific, and so less and less problematic, as we go up the hierarchy.

In this way, we provide ourselves with a framework of relatively unproblematic aims and methods high up in the hierarchy within which much more specific, problematic and controversial aims, and associated methods low down in the hierarchy , can be improved as we act, as we live. We can, in short, learn from scientific progress how to achieve social progress towards a good, civilised world. As a result of getting progress-achieving methods generalised from those of science, into social life, we can begin to achieve real social progress towards a civilised world akin, to some extent, to the intellectual progress achieved by science.

There would be some hope that we can begin to solve the grave global problems that threaten our future: climate change, destruction of the natural world, population growth, the menace of nuclear weapons, and the rest. So vital is this task of tackling our problems exploiting aim-oriented rationality that we urgently need all the resources of universities to help us learn how to do it. Academia needs to be transformed so that its basic task becomes to help humanity resolve those conflicts and problems of living that need to be solved if we are to make progress towards a genuinely civilised world.

Kate Kirkpatrick. David Spiegelhalter. Become a Friend of Aeon to save articles and enjoy other exclusive benefits Make a donation. Nicholas Maxwell is emeritus reader in philosophy of science at University College London. Aeon for Friends Find out more. In this philosophy, particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena, and afterwards rendered general by induction.

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Thus it was that … the laws of motion and of gravitation were discovered. Keep alive rational thinking about fundamental problems as specialisation becomes rampant Far from having its own distinctive subject matter, problems or methods, philosophy, properly conducted, has the subject matter and problems, potentially, of all the specialised disciplines, and the methods of all of enquiry, namely the methods of rational problemsolving. Physics makes a big, highly problematic assumption about the nature of the Universe Evidence cannot verify a theory.

Fig 1. Aim-orientated empiricism. Successive theories in physics have brought ever-greater unity to ever-wider ranges of phenomena Next down there is the assumption that the Universe is comprehensible in some way or other. We can learn from scientific progress how to achieve social progress The outcome is natural philosophy, a synthesis of physics and metaphysics, science and philosophy.

History of science Philosophy of science Metaphysics. Get Aeon straight to your inbox. This is opposed to the cognitivist view that claims ethical sentences are capable of being objectively true. Like Christine Korsgaard, Gibbard is concerned with normativity. In his major book Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgement Gibbard has argued for the significance of the role that feelings play in our development and understanding of moral norms.

In his view, if we perceive someone's actions as rational, then we are endorsing the actions, and so, accepting them and the norms that they represent and enforce. Feelings like acceptance, guilt, and resentment, then, significantly affect our sense of moral norms. Ethical statements cannot be objective, and so, neither are neither true nor false.

Web resource: Allan Gibbard's Home Page. Susan Haack received her Ph. Haack's work can be primarily described as pragmatic philosophy, and she has written on logic, philosophy of language, epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of law, philosophy of science, feminism, and literature. Much of her later work has been concerned with defending science and scientific inquiry against skepticism and faulty epistemologies, with religious doctrine being a primary obstacle.

Web resource: Susan Haack's Home Page. After some disagreements, Habermas finished his education studying political science at the University of Marburg under notable Marxist Wolfgang Abendroth. Habermas would also teach at the Frankfurt school, retiring in Habermas works in the traditions of critical theory and pragmatism, and has been very influential to philosophy and sociology. Habermas has placed a great deal of emphasis on the power of rational discourse.

In what is perhaps his most important work, Theory of Communicative Action , Habermas expressed criticism of modern society for the development of the welfare state, corporate capitalism, and its demand for mass consumption. Habermas argued that with the development of modern industrial society since the start of the 19th century, democracy shifted from being participatory to representative, and the body of the public lost its voice in the democratic discourse, as public life became rationalized and quantified. With some controversy, Habermas has called for the need to shift from representative democracy to a deliberative one, in which discourse is made equal again among citizens and government.

John Haldane studied art before pursuing philosophy, earning a B. Haldane is currently a University Professor at the University of St. Andrews, holds the title of J. Newton Rayzor Sr. Haldane is not just a notable analytical philosopher, but is recognizable in the mainstream; he has published articles in art magazines, and contributed to numerous television programs. Haldane is a catholic, he and is a papal adviser to the Vatican. Haldane is most notable for his work on Thomas Aquinas. Analytical Thomism seeks to merge the ideas of contemporary analytical philosophy with the ideas of 13th century thinker and saint Thomas Aquinas.

Through his work, Haldane has been influential in developing a space for Catholic philosophy in the modern analytical landscape.