books book reviews

Philosophy of science books

reviewed by T. Nelson


Physical Theory: Method and Interpretation

by Lawrence Sklar, ed.
Oxford, 2015, 293 pages

E ver since natural science and philosophy went their separate ways, philosophers have looked at science, sometimes enviously and sometimes confrontationally, as a competing view of the universe. In this collection of essays the goal is not so much to explain science, but to use it as a mirror for philosophy: a way of understanding causality and the concept of truth.

In “Scientific Explantion” James Woodward explains various post-Kuhnian models, including the deductive-nomological model, the inductive-statistical model, and the statistical relevance (SR) model. In SR, it was thought that a theory succeeded by providing an increased probability of explanatory relevant information. This model foundered on the realization that correlation does not imply causality, and we got the most recent models: the causal/mechanical model and the idea of unification, where a good theory is said to unify disparate facts. The theories are explained clearly and fairly.

Another chapter deserving of praise is “Structure and Logic,” where Saunders and McKenzie discuss the structuralist approaches, popular in the 20th-century, for understanding how scientists make decisions, what constitutes a theory, and how science progresses. These approaches are linguistic, using simplified formalisms like the Ramsey sentence, a quasi-representation of a theory using set notation. The idea was that a theory had a deductive structure that could be represented separately from its knowledge content. After a tour through Carnap (who re-invented it), Putnam, and Quine, the authors sum up the current stalemate in structuralism with a quote from Bas van Fraasen:

“The main lesson of twentieth-century philosophy of science may well be this: no concept which is essentially language-dependent has any philosophical importance at all.”

In “Evolution and Revolution in Science,” Jarrett Leplin continues the theme by asking whether science is evolutionary, where theories must compete in the jungle of ideas just as animals compete for food and mates, or whether it is revolutionary, where each theory consigns its predecessor to the guillotine. Conclusion: No.

Old ideas about causality have been seriously challenged by Einstein and by quantum indeterminacy. In Part 2, the authors ask: What can we learn from relativity about causal connectibility? These three essays are basically introductions to relativity, QM and statistical mechanics for philosophers. The challenge they face learning this material as outsiders and extracting its philosophy is not a small one. They also face social challenges: for example, John Norton warns students that the theory of relativity does not imply moral relativism.

The authors are coy about finding any answers here; the overall idea is that a new approach is needed. There are no heated dorm-room style discussions, and nobody gets stoned, either rhetorically or literally, and it's blissfully free of science-bashing or politics. The discussion is informative, professional and fascinating.

jun 14, 2015