A short walk through some important ideas in the philosophy of science
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A Short Walk Through Some Important Ideas in the Philosophy of Science … . … with various meanderings and digressions. What is research?. OED: Systematic investigation to establish facts and reach new conclusions. The first day of KL ’ s research career . What is Science?.

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A Short Walk Through Some Important Ideas in the Philosophy of Science …

… with various meanderingsand digressions

What is research?

OED:Systematic investigation to establish facts and reach new conclusions.

The first day of KL’s research career ...

What is Science?

  • Science as a Community and Social Institution

  • Science as Noun: Body of Knowledge

  • Science as Verb: Process and Method

Science as Verb: Process and Method

“A systematic and verifiable process whereby ideas about the nature of the world are generated and challenged by observations.”

Paradigms -- Theories -- Hypotheses -- Data

Science as Verb: Process and Method

  • The focus is on evaluating hypotheses with carefully collected and controlled data.

  • Emphasizes that scientific knowledge is dynamic and changing as we learn more about the world around us.

Concepts Associated With the Systematization of Inquiry

  • Epistemology

  • Induction

  • Deduction

  • Hypothetico-Deductive Method

  • Hypothesis/Predictions

  • Falsification

  • Multiple Working Hypotheses

  • Strong Inference

Science, Research, Scholarship

  • Science: acquisition of reliable but not infallible knowledge of the world, including explanation of the phenomena

  • Research: process of discovery of knowledge

  • Scholarship: creative organization, criticism and reinterpretation of facts and concepts

Science, Research, Scholarship

  • Science: acquisition of reliable but not infallible knowledge of the world, including explanation of the phenomena

  • Research: process of discovery of knowledge

  • Scholarship: creative organization, criticism and reinterpretation of facts and concepts


is the application of systematic approaches to the acquisition of knowledge through intellectual inquiry.

Scholarship includes the dissemination of this knowledge through various means such as publications, presentations (verbal and audiovisual), professional practice and the application of this new knowledge to the enrichment of the life of society.

The progress of science requires more than new data; it needs novel frameworks and contexts.

And where do these fundamentally new views of the world arise? They are not simply discovered by pure observation; they require new modes of thought. And where can we find them, if old modes do not even include the right metaphors?

The nature of true genius lies in the elusive capacity to construct these new modes from apparent darkness. The basic chanciness and unpredictability of science must also reside in the inherent difficulty of such a task.

S.J. Gould. 1985. The Flamingo’s Smile, Ch. 8.

Disclaimer: Important Things Not Addressed

  • Historical challenges between religion and science (e.g. Gallileo; see Gould for a modern take).

  • More formal philosophical movements (not phil of “science”per se) – e.g. Hegel, positivism more generally, etc.

  • Roles of empiricism vs theory

  • Interesting biology-specific things (e.g. essentialism)

  • Post-modernism, post-positivism, modern social science theory

Prominent philosophers who proposed theories about the nature of science:

  • Descartes

  • Francis Bacon

  • Karl Popper

  • Thomas Kuhn

  • Paul Feyerabend

  • and many others not discussed here… Lakatos, Mayr, Gould, Lewontin & Levins

"My discoveries have satisfied me that it is possible to reach knowledge that will be of much utility in this life; and that .... knowing the nature and behavior of fire, water, air, stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies which surround us ... we can employ these entities for all the purposes for which they are suited, and so make ourselves masters and possessors of nature.“ Discourse on Method - Rene Descartes 1637

René Descartes


Cartesian Rationalism, Cartesian Reduction

  • The union of these philosophies with rational, analytical techniques during the Age of Enlightenment set forth a framework of perceiving the earth known as "Cartesian rationalism": the notion that all aspects of the Universe (including Homo sapiens) can be understood through analytic deduction and mathematically correct, logical, universal principles.

  • Modern science is based on Cartesian rationalism. It carries with it an underlying assumption that only that part of the Universe which can be objectively measured, described, or predicted, is important, and thus, useful (Bowers). Cartesian rationalism is so prevalent today, that many ecologists and other scientists do not even conceive of the possibility of any approach other than the Cartesian approach (Capra 1982), and problems that cannot be framed in Cartesian terms are considered unworthy of study.

Francis Bacon


Francis Bacon’s view of science

  • According to Bacon there is a complete segregation (separation) of science with theology (religion). They are concerned with different spheres – science with the natural phenomena and theology with the supernatural.

  • Bacon said that science proceeds through:Empirical observation → experiment → induction of general laws → prediction.

  • This inference from what happens in a limited number of particular gasses to a general statement about what happens in all gasses is called induction.

  • This method made science different from other types of knowledge.

  • Induction - Observations leading to generalizations (i.e., going from the particular to the general). Sir Francis Bacon (died 1626) championed this over deduction, because it was driven by the data not the investigator (though more modern views question this).

  • Deduction - Beginning with axioms or assumptions and using logic to reach conclusions about particular situations (general to particular)

  • Which of these do you use most?

  • Is one “better” than the other?

Sir Karl Popper


Karl Popper

  • One of the most prominent philosophers of science of the 20th century. He sought to define science by distinguishing it from non-science. In the latter category he included such things as logic, metaphysics, and Freudian psychoanalysis.

  • Although Francis Bacon asserted that the distinguishing feature of science is its inductive approach, Popper questions whether pure induction is ever really used by scientists.

  • He suggests "all observation is selective and theory-laden - there are no pure or theory-free observations". He concludes that "there is no specific methodology unique to science", but that science consists mainly of problem solving.

  • If science has no unique specific methods, does it have some distinguishing features?

Falsifiability is the criterion of demarcation between science and non-science.-- Popper

Other important contributions of Popper:

  • Strongly asserted the now widely accepted view that hypotheses can never be conclusively proved, only disproved.

  • One consequence of this is that the most useful hypotheses should be as specific and as unexpected as possible. Failure of experiments to disprove such hypotheses is then more supportive than if the hypotheses had been general and expected.

Verification vs Falsification

  • Positivism: if a hypothesis is empirically confirmed, then it is verified.

  • Difficulty: but even after verifying 10,000 observations, it is possible that the 10,001st will produce a contradiction

  • Thus, hypotheses can only be conclusively falsified, and they must be falsifiable.

  • Falsification: is the only guaranteed approachVerification: can never be guaranteed

Popper’s view of science

Popper realized that science advances instead by deductive falsification through a process of “conjectures and refutations”

According to Popper, it is imagination and creativity, not induction, that generates real scientific theories -- how Einstein could study the universe with only a piece of chalk.

The crucial feature of the scientific method is not that it seeks to confirm generalisations by collecting particular instances which confirm those generalisations, but rather that it seeks to falsify and refute the conjectures or hypotheses put up to explain phenomena.

Arguments against Popper’s view

1. Popper says that it is possible to falsify or refute a scientific generalization conclusively by a single observation.

2. Popper’s theory fails to account for the actual historical practice of science, since falsification or refutation has not in fact been seen as essential by many scientists.

These approaches have had a huge impact on thinking over the past 50 years.

  • e.g. See Platt 1967 (Science) – “Strong Inference“ and the method of multiple working hypotheses as a statement about “the Scientific Method“

  • Lots of discussion and criticism of Platt as a normative or even prescriptive statement.

Thomas Samuel Kuhn(1922-1996)

Thomas Kuhn’s view of science

  • He is most famous for his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in which he presented the idea that Science is not Evolutionary, but Revolutionary.

  • For Kuhn each great scientific epoch, is dominated by what he calls “paradigms” or models which dictate what is to be considered as science.

  • How do these paradigms come to be established and accepted by scientists?

  • Revolutionary changes (paradigm shifts) when anomalies become obvious and pressing so that a new way of looking at phenomena is needed.

  • According to Kuhn what is defined as science is at any one time is what the scientific community as a whole chooses to accept as science.


  • A paradigm is

  • a (temporarily) accepted basis of a discipline

  • Generally accepted schema for selecting and solving problems

  • Basic assumptions and also explanations

  • Thomas Kuhn, Die Struktur der Wissenschaftlichen Revolution, 1962

For Kuhn the history of science is a story of :

1. Emergence of a new paradigm

2. Detailed working out of its consequences

3. Accumulation of anomalies

4. Breakdown (and replacement) of accepted paradigm

Kuhn v. Popper

How to get to revolutions:

  • Popper:

    • New data force revolutions

    • “We can learn from our mistakes”

    • Falsification is the only sure method of knowing

  • Kuhn:

    • New social systems recognize revolutions

    • Social systems only accept as problems those that follow norms

    • the idiosyncrasies of the scientific group are more important than the psychology of the individual

Paul Feyerabend(1924-1994)

‘The only principle that does not impede progress is “anything goes”’

Paul Feyerabend’s view of science

  • Feyerabend is the enfant terrible of contemporary philosophy of science.

  • It is not possible to provide a set of criteria which would distinguish the method of science from other non-scientific or pseudoscientific forms of enquiry.

  • Scientists have used any and every method.

Some Methods used by Scientists

  • They rely on intuition and mystical ideas

  • They play hunches

  • They retort to bluff and use propaganda

  • They create myths

  • They use induction like Bacon’s scientists

  • They use conjectures and falsification and carry on like Popper’s ideal scientists

Can we distinguish “science” from “non-science” ?

Traditional Knowledge Systems and Scientific Knowledge Systems are both dynamic in time and have their own mechanisms for establishing the validity of ideas and beliefs.

Traditional Knowledge Systems

Scientific Knowledge Systems

Traditional Knowledge Systems

Scientific Knowledge Systems


The generation of testable ideas is a point of contact between the scientific process and Indigenous People’s Knowledge.

E.g. Gottesfeld et al. 1991 - debris flow near Hazelton 3,500 years ago corroborates Gitksan oral history.

  • Both systems are empirical and dynamic.

  • Traditional knowledge systems tend to see connections between the “natural” and “supernatural”.

  • Science is careful to draw boundaries between the “natural” and the “supernatural”.

  • Rejecting a scientific idea doesn’t “reject” indigenous belief.

  • In general: science looks for differences, IPK makes connections.

Comparing Traditional Resource Management Systems and Western Science-Based Management(from Lertzman 2009, Ethnobiology)

Gradients of Management and Anthropogenic Influence(from Lertzman 2009, Ethnobiology)

Putting Descartes Before Des Horse



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