Philosophy of Science

I am intrigued by two things that I’m hoping my scientifically minded and trained friends can help me with:

  1. In your training in your field was it a requirement to study the Philosophy of Science? If it wasn’t a part of your training…have you done some work in this area on your initiative?

  2. Do you have any recommendations for study in the area of the Philosophy of Science?

  1. No. But I’ve taken it because I love it. I also think it’s an interesting question how much philosophy should a scientist know? Could it cause them to overthink their methods and not do any research?

  2. Like books and articles? Just on general philosophy of science?


That’s an interesting thought. It seems to me that scientists should at least have some acquaintance with the philosophy of science…it may lead to a tentativeness in conclusions drawn…but that may be healthy.

Yeah. Or better yet - free lectures or discussions on YouTube. :slight_smile:

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Here’s a good start. I’ll get some books and stuff together for you too:


There are two good playlists

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I wouldn’t think so. The fun of science is in the discovery of new things and in pursuing answers to questions, old and new.

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See here:


Yes, all PhD students in my program are exposed to at least some of the basics of philosophy of science in mandatory courses, and I’m sure I received the odd lecture on it back in undergrad, although nothing I remember explicitly. Most of my knowledge in this area has been based on my own reading/researching though.

This book is a nice short introduction:

I also reccomend this book for a more evolutionary biology-focused look at the philosophy of science (what is evidence, how to weigh hypotheses, etc):


Of the six scientists in my department (with a variety of educational backgrounds) I’m the only one that has ever had a philosophy of science course, and that was as an undergrad.

Philosophy of Chemistry is almost non-existent, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a chemistry grad student doing philosophy of science as a part of their graduate education.

I would echo @T.j_Runyon a bit and say I would guess many graduate advisors would actively discourage much “extracurricular” philosophy. Many scientists have a pretty poor opinion of philosophy.

I enjoy philosophy of science and am trying to weave it into our undergrad curriculum, especially as we discuss faith integration. I think it’s better though after some science training.


My favorite introduction:


Feyneman made once some dumb crack about how philosophy of science was irrelevant to real science.
The purpose as I see philosophy to science is simply to recognize when its happening and when it is not.
how to establish/prove conclusions.
evolutionism is case in point for how a philosophy of accuracy in doing science has failed.
probably physics . indeed its about human failure in figuring things out while holding all options open AND then not jumping the gun about conclusions.

Thank you for your responses so far, I hope to see more.

My scientific knowledge and ability is staggeringly poor. So, I’d not presume to dictate what should be in a science field’s curriculum. However, I am surprised that it’s not common to have some of that discussion as part of the program. From what I’ve gathered…there is a lot of teaching about how to do science in the programs…but not a lot of reflection on what science is. Is that fair?

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I have been in three large departments across the United States. In my experience, the typical physicist (and astronomer) does not have any training in philosophy. Some (a majority?) even have disdain for philosophy. This is not always the case: historically (e.g. early to mid 1900s) physicists are much more in touch with philosophy.

There is also a large difference between Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of “a specific field of science”. Philosophy of Science deals with the big picture and is much closer to epistemology, e.g. “How do we know what we know?”, “How do we distinguish between Science and Pseudoscience?”, “What does it mean to conduct an experiment?”

While for example, Philosophy of Physics concerns philosophical ruminations of physical theories, e.g. “Is spacetime real?”, “What does quantum mechanics say about determinism?”, “What is the meaning of symmetries?”

Philosophy of Physics is often closer to physics than philosophy. A friend of mine who is a philosopher of physics said that doing Philosophy of Physics is simply “getting a job as a physicist in a philosophy department”.


These distinctions are very helpful.

I was thinking more of Philosophy of Science in my original question…and precisely as you’ve outlined it. It also seems to me that Philosophy of Science might help people to more fully understand the biases and assumptions they necessarily bring to the task.


A whole lotta science is just the boring, mundane, fail-til-something-works type of activities and if any biases or assumptions that may affect the science are there they are usually weeded out in group meetings, conference presentations/discussions, peer-review, etc.

It’s not like a scientist is sitting at their desk thinking up a grand theory full of logic and premises and then goes out to find experimental proof. Most of the time people just have an interesting question that they convinced somebody with a lot of money to give them a little bit to see if they can find an answer.


This makes sense to me. I suppose I’m thinking more on the macro level. However, perhaps, as you’ve outlined, it’s not necessarily a concern.


I currently lead and organize a bi-weekly Philosophy of Science discussion group at the physics department here at Harvard. The participants are mostly graduate students (and some interested undergrads) in physics and biophysics. It’s not easy to get people interested (except if we have some special guest around); I think the majority of graduate students and working scientists want to focus purely on getting more regular science done rather than reflecting on what it “means.”

As the group is physics-heavy, topics like interpretations of quantum mechanics, probability, and naturalness are commonly discussed, although we also regularly do more general philosophy of science such as Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos, Feyerabend, realism vs. instrumentalism, philosophy of logic, philosophy of biology (The Evolutionary Contingency Thesis: Do Biological Laws Exist?) as well as more sociological and “out there” topics such as figuring out the best way to rank physicists, the ethics of climate change, neuroscience, the relationship of Eastern mysticism and quantum mechanics.

The fact that most of the participants have good knowledge of science certainly helps a lot to anchor the discussion. Often we find out that there is less uniformity in opinions regarding common issues in philosophy of science such as realism vs. instrumentalism, although all of us are working scientists. (Of course, I don’t know if our group is representative of physicists as a whole.)

To get started on philosophy of science, I particularly recommend this book: Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues (Second Edition) (9780393919035): J. A. Cover, Martin Curd, Christopher Pincock: Gateway It contains a selection of short essays (no more than 10-15 pages each) which give a good representative of the important topics. You can pick or choose whichever you like; the papers are accessible even to people with little philosophy background. I have used chapters from this book as discussion material in my group.


I would maybe further add that I think there’s sort of two ways to look at making sure everything is “high quality” scholarship.

The philosophy/humanities way is to be ruthlessly analytical with regard to meaning of words, premises, assumptions, etc. Basically, if you build a high quality foundation you should get a good product out.

The science way is to have self-correcting processes that are designed to weed out crap. It’s maybe like depending more on quality control rather than sourcing the best starting materials.


This is how it’s done for large swaths of physics… After reading some philosophy papers, I am not inclined to believe that philosophy (even those from the analytical philosophy school) is anywhere near as analytical and rigorous with their language and premises as e.g. mathematical physics.


In my PhD program, there was no requirement for studying the Philosophy of Science. Further, I don’t even think it was an option.

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it, but I’m still a very raw novice at this, and have no business making any recommendations on the Philosophy of Biology. There are a few philosophers of science at my university, one of which is a DI Fellow. We get along very well, but much interaction about philosophy is contra-indicated :stuck_out_tongue:

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