Once more the New Wave

Wed 10 Feb 2010 05:47 AM

More shilling: Here is the full text of the introduction to New Waves in Philosophy of Science. I wrote it with Jacob Busch, with whom I editted the volume.

New Waves in Philosophy of Science

The explicit aim of volumes in this series is to collect contributions from young researchers likely to dominate the discipline; for this volume, the discipline in question is philosophy of science. It has been our privilege to edit such an audacious project, but it has also been a great challenge. We can only make educated guesses about the future. We cannot say with certainty which recent topics will be central to the discipline. Even selecting among areas which will probably remain central, there are competing desiderata: for example, to balance perennial topics against others which have more recently attracted the attention of philosophers.

A number of subjects have recurred in debates among philosophers of science: induction and the justificatory status of ampliative modes of inference; the role of explanation and its metaphysical status; causation; the problem of demarcation; the role of metaphysics in science; probability theory and its influence on formal approaches to confirmation; scientific realism against various kinds of anti-realism. One might also add issues arising out of 20th-century physics, such as the interpretation of quantum mechanics and the nature of spacetime theories. And it is no longer the case that a philosopher can claim to account for science when only really accounting for physics. So one might add issues that arise in biology, chemistry, climatology, psychology, sociology, and other sciences.

Philosophy of physics, philosophy of biology, and others have become autonomous specialties in their own right. There are conferences and journals dedicated to each, and we could without difficulty have collected papers for a volume exploring the 'new waves' in just one of them. So we are the first to admit that any volume covering philosophy of science tout court will leave out a great deal which might reasonably have been included.

We did not pick a roster of topics and invite each author to report on the state of the art in one area. That might have resulted in a stultifying collection of field reports. Instead, we invited contributors who are doing exciting work in diverse areas of philosophy of science. We explained the aim of the volume. And then we let them tell us what needed to be written, which debates are the important ones, and how those debates might best be resolved.

A consequence of our approach is that the table of contents is not an exhaustive roster of topics. Also, unfortunately, not all of the invited authors were ultimately able to contribute. So topics like causation, the role of experiment, and formal confirmation are regrettably absent. The field is large enough, however, that some omissions were inevitable. We apologize for them, all the same.

The alternative to our approach would have meant filling out the contents of the volume as if it were a shopping list, with topics that could be checked off as they were put in the basket. That would make sense if philosophy of science were nothing more than a mismatched agglomeration of all of these specialties. On that agglomeration conception, the authors in this volume are working in disparate fields. Yet, once asked to identify a pressing issue - something they are working on now that will still be worth thinking about a decade from now - none selected boutique topics. All of the topics addressed in this volume are within the purview of general philosophy of science, rather than being of interest only to sub-specialists within a fragment of a specialty. The perennial issues of realism and representation are presented here in their 21st-century incarnations. Where specific examples are discussed, they are used to illuminate more general questions. For example: Electron micrographs raise questions about the nature of visual representation. Environmental science and climate change are test cases for accounts of the relation between values and science. A central issue in the philosophy of social science ultimately turns on our conception of science itself. And so on.

For purposes of our introduction, we'll treat the topics in five broad groups: 1. Scientific realism, 2. Science and metaphysics, 3. Representation, 4. The relation between science and values, and 5. Science and social structure.

1. Realism

Scientific realism is a stock issue in the philosophy of science, motivated in its current form by the failure of logical positivism in the middle of the last century. The subject has both benefitted from and to some extent suffered from the amount of literature on the various aspects of realism. Today there is little agreement on what constitutes the most significant aspect of the debate, but epistemic concerns are inescapable; realists must rely on ampliative modes of inference.

Juha Saatsi maps out the territory, proposing that various ampliative strategies are best organised by the conceptual distinction between content-driven and form-driven ampliative inferences. In Saatsi's view, this distinction does more than just systematise the realism debate; it also makes apparent that the more form-driven arguments are seriously problematic. As a consequence, Saatsi suggests that realists should argue for what he calls "rather content driven" arguments. He sets out what he believes to be a challenge for any realist, namely to settle how best to construe these content-driven arguments in general terms.

Sherrilyn Roush focuses on the pessimistic meta induction, which argues from the fact that theories past scientific theories have been proven false to the conclusion that our current theories will be proven false also. Roush suggests a novel solution to this argument, and argues that there is in fact no formulation of the argument that takes into account that the pessimist must appeal not merely to the falsity of our predecessors' theories but to the unreliability of their ways of coming to their beliefs (as confirmed by their repeated false conclusions). But even granting their unreliability, Roush argues that nothing follows from this about whether we have a right to our confidence in our particular theories. In establishing this the pessimist must show that the reasons for believing that our predecessors were unreliable must be the same as the reasons for believing that we are unreliable but this has not been shown, since the difference in methods between us and our predecessors undermines the legitimacy of the pessimist's induction. Therefore there is no motivation for the suggested pessimism about the prospects for realism about science. As such the ground has been cleared for the further development of realist positions in science.

2. Science and metaphysics

Metaphysics has had a somewhat rogue status amongst philosophers of science and the role of metaphysics continues to be a point of contention. With the collapse of logical positivism, no one would insist that metaphysical talk is nonsense. Nevertheless, the same empiricist sensibilities that motivate anti-realism motivate humble ontological commitments - metaphysics could be rejected as mere speculation.

Anjan Chakravartty asks about the proper role for metaphysical debate in philosophy of science and suggest that there is no one right answer. He is, in effect, arguing against the assumption that the debate between realists and anti-realists can be resolved. He is sceptical of the idea that there should be a single correct answer to the question of how much metaphysical speculation is appropriate in understanding science. Choices of where to draw the line, of how much metaphysics to do, is rather a matter of convention. Importantly, Chakravartty does not take this to motivate an empiricist stance about science; he takes himself to be a realist. His point is just that we should not expect for there to be an Archimedean point from which one side can persuade the other to abandon their wrongheaded ways.

Jessica Pfeifer argues directly against one kind of antimetaphysical view: nominalism. She argues that even the most sophisticated variety of nominalist will be unable to account for our inductive practices. A strict nominalist approach to language would leave us with no way of explaining that we do make inductive inferences, regardless of whether we are justified in doing so or not. In this way she exploits a fact about our epistemic practices, without taking a stance on whether this practice is justified. If her argument is successful, it's a victory for non-nominalist positions.

3. Representation

The question of how theories map the world is closely related to realism (the accuracy of those maps) and metaphysics (what the features are that appear on the maps). In the logical empiricist tradition, a theory was treated as a set of statements in a formal language. The question of how a theory represents was just the question of how language represents. Yet the statement view ultimately collapsed, and representation became a thornier problem. Papers in this section address the general problem of scientific representation, the problem of determining when two representations are genuinely distinct (rather than just expressed differently), and the problem of visual representation.

Otavio Bueno sketches a framework for accommodating different features of scientific representation. Bueno views representation in scientific practice as being specific to contexts where only partial information is available. From this diversity we obtain partial isomorphisms between our theories and the objects represented. The framework promises to accommodate the diversity of representational mediums used in scientific practice, from models and templates to micrographs, and the output of various instruments.

Greg Frost-Arnold and P.D. Magnus address the familiar problem of the underdetermination of theory by data -- evidence is insufficient for establishing which of two different theories is correct. A case of would-be underdetermination could be averted if the alternatives were not different theories at all, but merely different formulations of the same underlying theory. They call this the identical rivals response, and argue that it involves reducing the ontological commitments of each formulation. They argue further that there is no logical criterion for determining whether this ontological withdrawal is appropriate. Instead, applying the identical rivals response (or not) is a strategic choice.

Laura Perini asks how visual images function as scientific representations. Since scientists use visual representations in their arguments, she insists, understanding scientific reasoning requires making sense of pictures. To make sense of them, she offers a semiotic analysis of pictures and diagrams as symbolic. This analysis also helps clarify scientific representation more generally.

4. The relation between science and values

It is a bit of hoary wisdom that science is value free. Philosophy of science is concerned with epistemic matters, and questions of value should be left to the ethicists. The papers in this section explode this old conception.

Jay Odenbaugh considers what lessons general philosophy of science can learn by considering the environmental sciences. He focuses on three areas. First, he considers how environmental scientists use rely on models and simulations which they know are inaccurate in important respects and uses this to inform our understanding of idealization in science generally. (This overlaps with the concerns about representation in the previous essays.) Second, he considers the way value commitments effect environmental science and argues that it does not compromise scientific objectivity. Third, he considers the role that climate science plays in political debates. This role, he argues, raises questions about the function of controversy and consensus in science.

Justin Biddle and Eric Winsberg argue that, in the area of contemporary climate modeling, scientists cannot estimate the uncertainties of climate predictions in a way that is free from 'non-epistemic' considerations. To put the point differently, they argue that developments within climate modeling are influenced by values and choices. To be clear, they are not arguing that consensus regarding the causal connection between fossil fuel emissions and global climate change is problematic. Nor are they arguing for skepticism about the climate models that have been employed to reach this result. Rather, if they are right, the subtle influence of values in good climate science indicates that good science can be influenced by values.

Kristen Intemann's primary focus is feminist philosophy of science. Although concerned with how gender influences science, feminist work is more broadly concerned with how understanding this influence can inform our understanding of science more generally. For example, most feminist philosophers of science have held that social and political values can play a legitimate role in good science. Intemann distinguishes two positions: feminist empiricism and standpoint feminism. She argues that debates between these two positions are ultimately misguided. They are not so different as their debates might make them seem. Moreover, Intemann insists, a more plausible position can be developed by taking parts of each.

5. Science and social structure

Traditional philosophy of science has sometimes ignored the fact that science is a social activity. And it has also often taken the natural sciences, especially physics, to be paradigmatic of science. Social sciences were faced with two unsavory options: Employ the methods of the natural sciences (naturalism) or articulate an alternative (interpretivism).

Daniel Steel argues that we should not accept either option in their traditional form. The methods of natural science cannot be characterized in a precise enough way to apply both to fundamental particles and societies. If we understand naturalism as the position that the natural and social sciences employ the same methods, then it is a nonstarter. Yet this does not mean that interpretivists win all the traditional debates. Instead, Steel argues, we can see naturalism as a commitment to what he calls the Enlightenment ideal of a science. According to this ideal, social science aims to discover the causes and effects of social phenomena so as to support inform social policy. Framing the debate in this way makes better sense in terms of general philosophy of science, and also promises to redirect the debate in more productive directions.

Michael Weisberg is concerned about science as a social activity, rather than with social science. He asks how the arrangement of scientists' cognitive labor effects the development of science - that is, how scientific communities might best be organized so as to facilitate progress and discovery. He discusses three areas of recent research: the marginal contribution/reward approach, the epistemic networks approach, and his own epistemic landscape approach. He discusses some specific work in the latter approach, modeling the scientific community as a mixture of followers and mavericks. He concludes by suggesting ways in which the approaches might inform one another.

Weisberg's paper exemplifies our problem in trying to write a precis for this volume. The work he discusses has things to teach us both about specific questions and about science generally. Yet its importance for philosophy of science is not yet settled. And so it is with all the essays. In a decade or more, we may look back to see where the new waves crashed upon the old shore. But now we can only guess where each will end up.

We offer the present volume as a collection of things that seem important in the present philosophy of science, as judged by these authors.

New Waves in Philosophy of Science. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 1-7.