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Philosophy of Science

Sir Karl Richmund Popper is remembered as one of the greatest philosophers in the field of science during the 20th century. He was dedicated to opposing skepticism in science, conventionalism as well as relativism in all its forms. As a philosopher, he had significant intellectual influence in the field of science and to date scientists credit him for his work, having contributed significantly to the field of knowledge through his writings, even on technical matters of which he spoke with clarity. His work contains epistemological elements, scientific as well as social elements.

He had a very original interpretation in relating dogmatic thinking to critical thinking and in differentiating objectivity and subjectivity. He was also a critic of historicism in all its forms (Thornton, 2009). What follows is a review of the features of Popper’s philosophy of science. Popper describes empirical sciences as ‘systems of theories’ and the logic of scientific theory is therefore a theory of theories. He views scientific theories as statements which can be used to rationalize and explain the world (Popper 1959:59).

He divides statements into two categories: the universal and singular statements (1959:60). The universal statements are considered higher level while the singular ones are considered lower level. The singular statements are deducible from the universal ones and can therefore be termed as dependent statements while the universal ones are independent statements and explain the singular statements. Popper’s philosophy of science disputes all inductive forms of reasoning and uses the modus ponens reasoning method to disconfirm or falsify scientific hypotheses.

When using modus ponens, one begins with a scientific theory and employs deductive reasoning to arrive at particular conclusions, some of which are predictions. Deductive reasoning is assumed to preserve the truth, that is, if one’s basic premise is true, then they will deduce true predictions or conclusions. According to Popper, one cannot prove the truth of a theory or premise but can show that a conclusion or prediction is false. If a prediction is false, scientists can then use modus tolens reasoning to show that the theory is not true (Kenyon, 1984).

Thus Popper found Einstein’s theory of relativity in physics to be scientific as opposed to Freud and Adler’s theories since it was possible in Einstein’s theory, for one to deduce highly improbable consequences which if false, would make the whole theory to be falsified; whereas, psychoanalytic theories could not be falsified and were therefore likely to be based on primitive myths as opposed to genuine science. Thus falsifiability became Popper’s criterion to demarcate that which was scientific from that which was not scientific.

He stresses the issue of demarcation in objective knowledge and points out significance of empirical evidence (Popper 1972:12). Thus if a theory is not compatible with all possible empirical observations, it is considered to be scientific and where it is compatible with all such observations, it is not scientific. However, Popper does not view unscientific theories to be meaningless but believes that they may become falsifiable- and therefore scientific- with time. Thus demarcation is the main problem in the philosophy of science.

Some of the theories that are ranked by Popper as unscientific include among others, psychoanalysis, Adler’s individual psychology, logic as well as metaphysics. (Thornton 1997; see also Grant, 446-452). The main feature evident in Popper’s theory is that of critical testing. That is, for one to obtain valid results from critical testing and admit statements as theories, they should be proven free of looseness. There are four criteria used by Popper to determine whether a theory is ‘tight’ enough for it to qualify as a scientific theory.

First, one can logically compare the conclusions in themselves so as to check for internal consistency in the system, secondly, one can investigate the theory’s logical form so as to determine whether the character is of scientific theory. Thirdly, one can compare the theory with others to see whether it can advance scientifically and finally, one can test the theory by applying empirical methods to its conclusions (Kenyon, 1984). THOMAS KUHN’S PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE Like Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn is also regarded as one of the most significant philosophers of the twentieth century.

His contribution to science marked a departure from several positivist doctrines and brought about a new from of the philosophy of science which was more closely related to history (Bird, 2008). His view is that science has gone through stable growth periods, occasionally interrupted with intellectual revolutions and is not a steady accumulation of knowledge as most scientists think (“Thomas Kuhn”). He theorized that theories from different time periods could not be adequately compared (Bird, 2008).

What follows is a review of the main features of Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science. Kuhn is credited with popularizing the use of the term paradigm. To him, a paradigm is a set of beliefs that are held to be true by scientists and act as guidelines for them on how problems can be interpreted. Kuhn believes that these guidelines are important for any process of scientific inquiry as they hold the key to proper interpretation of history. A paradigm is supposed to guide a research and that is what makes any field scientific.

Kuhn holds that science usually undergoes a series of revolutions as it develops and he calls this revolution a paradigm shift. In Kuhn’s view, scientists are not objective thinkers since they apply only that which they have learnt to scientific knowledge without question. He claims that their research is usually aimed at discovering that which is already known and they therefore do not discover anything new as their instruments are skewed towards achieving that which they already know in advance.

They will often ignore findings that may contradict their existing paradigm and cause development of another. Before a given paradigm is broken therefore, it must have been adequately explored and found to be untrue through a series of disagreements. Thus the ensuing scientific revolution is usually a replacement of the former paradigm as opposed to it building on the existing body of knowledge (“Thomas Kuhn”). Kuhn’s history of science covers physics as well as astronomy.

For instance, he focuses on the Copernican revolution and writes on the problems evident in the Ptolemaic system as well as the solutions given by Copernicus. Through his work, Kuhn shows that Aristotelian science is genuine and those working from this view point especially on Ptolemaic astronomy are involved in a genuine scientific project. He defends Copernicus against his critics by calling attention to the existing paradigm within which he had to work which may have influenced his research.

Thus the work of Copernicus was informed by history. He also writes on the quantum theory to which he demonstrates incommensurability between the mature and the early quantum theories of Planck (Bird, 2008). In his book, The structure of scientific revolutions, Kuhn distinguishes between normal science and revolutionary science. The difference is that in normal science, the paradigms are not questioned whereas in revolutionary science, they are. Also, normal science does not experience conceptual discontinuity whereas revolutionary science does.

Perhaps the most significant feature of Kuhn’s philosophy of science is his incommensurability thesis which essentially means that a new theory cannot be used to build on existing ones. Thus for instance, he does not view Einstein’s relativist physics as having been built on the classical Newtonian physics. Newton’s physics is therefore an approximation of Einstein’s theory which brings it nearer to the truth than the previous theory. But it is not an improvement in the body of knowledge. To Kuhn, incommensurability is brought about by distinctions in the schemes of classification.

Each scientific field has its subject matter divided into different kinds which will also involve a lexical network involving related terms. Thus scientific change alters the lexical network thereby causing realignment of the different kinds of subject matter and the old and new group terms can therefore not be used interchangeably. This view holds that the different groups cannot overlap therefore there is no all encompassing classification that has both old and new elements of a theory. This view challenged positivist as well as realist doctrines (Bird, 2008).

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