Monday, November 11, 2013

Science and Philosophy

English: Karl Popper in the 1980's.
English: Karl Popper in the 1980's. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A student asked me a basic question this week: How can I state that science is philosophical?

Those of us familiar with philosophy know that many of the great scientific minds were (and are) philosophers. Science and philosophy follow different paths to some of the same questions: the how and why of existence and of human nature. For example, neurology, psychology, sociology, economics, and philosophy ask why we make some choices.

No single "philosophy of science" exists; there are complex and stimulating debates about the nature of scientific "meaning" and "truth" that reveal how little we understand ourselves. Science and math give us processes for exploring questions, too. Those methods of observation, instrumentation, measurement, and analysis are value-laden choices. The scientific method shapes our view of how to "properly" analyze phenomena and make judgments.

I have taught philosophy, ethics, technical writing, speech, academic writing, and creative writing. Each of these topics emphasizes communicating with and persuading others of our ideas. Not only are my philosophy courses "philosophical," but so are my other courses. Even when I teach computer programming, I am teaching a "philosophy" of sorts: that problems can and should be solved in a particular manner, shaped by the language designers' biases and ideals.

Young students view the scientific method uncritically. It seems perfect to them, with clear facts and data being revealed through the methodologies of various sciences. The possibility that our approaches today will look simplistic tomorrow is unfathomable. Not only will our knowledge keep expanding exponentially, but we will revise and reshape our methods for understanding.

The essentials in a philosophy of science discussion for undergraduates needs to include Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper, but there are dozens of thinkers I'd love my students to read and explore.

A partial list of philosophers of science can be found on Wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_science
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