- Paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.; 4 edition (September 15, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 162466038X
- ISBN-13: 978-1624660382
- Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.5 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 9 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #128,268 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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What Is This Thing Called Science? 4th Edition
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Comments on the previous edition: This timely and valuable revision will do much to preserve What is this thing called Science? as the best overall introductory textbook in the philosophy of science available in the English language. The new chapters give an insightful and concise treatment of major developments in the field from the last two decades, in the same accessible and lively style that made the first two editions such successes. . . . I would recommend the new edition heartily. . . . --Hasok Chang, University College London
About the Author
Alan Chalmers is Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, where he has taught since 1971.
Top customer reviews
There is a common sense view of science that happens to be wrong: science is the slow, progressive accumulation of factual truths, that the sum total of today's scientific knowledge is an large edifice built brick by brick. It is a fairly recent view of science, simply because science itself, as we know it today, is a recent invention, one really beginning around the sixteenth century. Before that we had philosophy, which did investigate the physical and biological world, but also politics, ethics, the nature of reality, the soul, the gods and so on. (Mathematicians worked then pretty much the same way they work today, but mathematics isn't exactly science.)
Science as a slow progression is easy to understand, it seems obvious, and it supports the authority of science as a trustworthy institution, so why is this view wrong? Because science is full of big ideas and those ideas change all the time. The earth was flat, now it's round. The earth was fixed, now it orbits the sun. Things used to be made of fire, air, water and earth now they are made up of a hundred or so atomic elements assembled into millions of different molecules. There's no slow development here!
Empiricism was our first attempt to better understand the nature of knowledge. It closely matched the slow progress view of science, but it was deeper and different because it accepted that the physical world had to be studied on its own term. If we see, smell, touch or hear something we know those sense impressions. For empiricists, sensory experience is the foundation of all knowledge. For a while, it was a convincing account of science.
The problem with empiricism however is that it breaks down when the scientific enterprise leaves what can be directly experienced. We can only see the variety of life on earth and what relates different organisms together today, but we cannot _see_ the 500 million years of evolution, yet we are justified in saying birds descend from dinosaurs and that we humans descend from australopithecus. We can only see a needle move on a voltmeter, but we can't actually _see_ 120 volts of electricity even though we are justified in saying we know that's the potential in a standard North American wall outlet.
The nineteenth century attempted to correct empiricism or propose new theories of knowledge, but it's only in the twentieth century that two very different, very convincing attempts attracted widespread attention: first falsification and second structure.
Instead of justifying our knowledge as being true knowledge of the world, falsificationism dismisses the question and asserts that we _cannot_ know the world. We can propose a hypothesis and check it; if it fails the test, we reject the hypothesis but if it passes, we accept it provisionally. A rejection is conclusive: we were wrong. Provisional acceptance is just grounds to look harder. This view is actually how most of science works today and it's what actually gives it its authority: scientists constantly check their facts and are always out to debunk something. And when they publish, they have to worry about being proved wrong. This makes them very careful.
However, falsificationism, proposed and perfected by Karl Popper from the 1920s through the 1990s, doesn't really explain the _progress_ made by science. It's fine to say scientists will make this daring hypothesis or this bold conjecture, but where do these come from? After all, most of the time science does evolve bit-by-bit. It's plain not a series of conjectures each one bolder than the last. The Gregorian calendar was an incremental improvement over the Julian calendar (and it's worth mentioning both assumed the earth at the center). Small differences between what we expected to see and what we actually saw were successfully explained by tweaking the earth-centric model: the sun and moon go around the earth, but the planets go around the sun (which still goes around the earth). Eventually all those little tweaks made everything rather heavy and further progress was very very difficult. And that's when Copernicus proposed that the earth went around the sun.
A bold conjecture that came not from any single refutation of a previous idea, but from the slow realization that we'd reached a wall; that we had to try something new. The earth centred theory gave way in one sweeping moment to a sun centred model. Initially, that did not solve anything and it also had to be tweaked: the earth and the planets did not move around the sun move in circles, but in ellipses. And again we are back to the slow progress that comes from working out the details of the model. This is the structure of scientific revolution proposed by philosopher Thomas Kuhn in 1963.
It's interesting that both Popper and Kuhn give up any ambition of knowing the truth. Perhaps that is the reason why these two philosophies of science leave us a little dissatisfied: we want to know!
Vincent Poirier, Québec City
Seriously, it made me wish that I was taught these concepts in high school. While I fear that many high schoolers would be a less than pleased with the information density - it is, after all, suitable for a university class - it nonetheless presents information in an extremely helpful way, to better understand what exactly science is, and just as importantly, what it is not.
This is definitely going to be added to my "recommended" list of books!
So far the apex of scientific development has been human progress in the domain of destruction of Life which has reached its apex by the creation of weapons capable of destroying the Earth in one day.
While many prescribe to Bacons method of collecting facts though organized observation and deriving theories from them, the author promises to suggest some improvements on modern theories on science.
The author returns idealists to harsh reality proclaiming that “attempts to give a simple and straightforward logical reconstruction of the scientific method encounter further difficulties when it is realized there is no method that enables scientific theories to be conclusively [proved ] disproved ” (p xvi)