Philosophy of Science

Philosophy of Science 800px-Solar_sys

Logical Positivism

In the mid-twentieth century, a philosophical school called “Logical Positivism” asserted that science provided the only true knowledge.  That school suggested that we should stop considering metaphysical questions (about how to understand the nature of our world and ourselves and anything spiritual and how to choose the best actions to take).  Rather, Logical Positivism suggested that we should use the scientific method (verifiable, replicable experiment to formulate mostly mathematically expressed laws of nature) to answer all questions.

Because of the many successes of science, Logical Positivism was popular for a little while, until some philosophers of science noticed that there was no way to use the scientific method to prove that the scientific method provided the only true knowledge.  That assertion, the core insight of anti-metaphysical Logical Positivism, was a metaphysical one.  Oops.

Logical Positivism lost the argument philosophically, but, unfortunately, by and large in practice it still holds sway with the scientific community and with the popular imagination of a significant portion of the population.  In the popular imagination of those who do not look to religion as the source of secure knowledge, the scientific method is assumed to be pretty much the only way to produce virtually certain knowledge.  What we know using science is what is known.  What we don’t know yet will someday be known if we pursue the scientific method.

Mechanistic-Deterministic Model of the Universe

This prejudice in favor of the scientific method and against metaphysical philosophy, has led to some very serious conceptual problems.  For example, most science is based on a mechanistic-deterministic model of the universe.  According to this, mostly hidden, assumption, the universe is like a machine (or more recently, a computer) that somehow made and continues to make itself.  The way this universal machine functions can be understood if a group of people carefully observe it, share their observations, and formulate its rules using mathematical equations that then can predict how the machine (computer) will function in the future.

Science, guided by this mostly implicit philosophy, has produced some very significant understandings. It has also provided the basis for some very impressive technologies (specialized machines/computers taking advantage of an understanding of the rules of the universal machine/computer).

Unfortunately, the whole human experience suggests that machines (and computers) don’t make themselves. Rather they are made by people.  So we should not get too enamored of the rather naive assumption that the universe is like a machine/computer that makes and keeps on making itself, even given the technological successes and the predictability of the laws of physics stemming from this approach.

So, where has this combination of the scientific method and the partially buried assumption of the mechanistic-deterministic model of explanation gotten us?  It’s gotten us into a bit of a mess.

Philosophy of Science Part 2