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Philosophy of Science

(36 lectures, 30 minutes/lecture)

Course No. 4100
Taught by Jeffrey L. Kasser
North Carolina State University
Ph.D., University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Course Lecture Titles:

01. Science and Philosophy
02. Popper and the Problem of Demarcation
03. Further Thoughts on Demarcation
04. Einstein, Measurement, and Meaning
05. Classical Empiricism
06. Logical Positivism and Verifiability
07. Logical Positivism, Science, and Meaning
08. Holism
09. Discovery and Justification
10. Induction as Illegitimate
11. Some Solutions and a New Riddle
12. Instances and Consequences
13. Kuhn and the Challenge of History
14. Revolutions and Rationality
15. Assessment of Kuhn
16. For and Against Method
17. Sociology, Postmodernism, and Science Wars
18. (How) Does Science Explain?
19. Putting the Cause Back in "Because"
20. Probability, Pragmatics, and Unification
21. Laws and Regularities
22. Laws and Necessity
23. Reduction and Progress
24. Reduction and Physicalism
25. New Views of Meaning and Reference
26. Scientific Realism
27. Success, Experience, and Explanation
28. Realism and Naturalism
29. Values and Objectivity
30. Probability
31. Bayesianism
32. Problems with Bayesianism
33. Entropy and Explanation
34. Species and Reality
35. The Elimination of Persons?
36. Philosophy and Science

"Science can't be free of philosophy any more than baseball can be free of physi
cs." With this bold intellectual swing for the fences, philosopher Jeffrey L. Ka
sser launches an ambitious and exciting inquiry into what makes science science,
using the tools of philosophy to ask:
Why is science so successful?
Is there such a thing as the scientific method?
How do we distinguish science from pseudoscience?
Is science rational, cumulative, and progressive?
Focusing his investigation on the vigorous debate over the nature of science tha
t unfolded during the past 100 years, Professor Kasser covers important philosop
hers such as Karl Popper, W. V. Quine, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Imre Lakato
s, Carl Hempel, Nelson Goodman, and Bas van Fraassen.
All of these thinkers responded in one way or another to logical positivism, the
dominant movement influencing the philosophy of science during the first half o
f the 20 th century. Logical positivism attempted to ground science exclusively
in what could be known through direct experience and logic.
It sounds reasonable, but logical positivism proved to be riddled with serious p
roblems, and its eventual demise is an object lesson in how truly difficult it i
s perhaps impossible to secure the logical foundations of a subject that seems so un
assailably logical: science.
A Surprisingly Practical Field
The philosophy of science can be abstract and theoretical, but it is also surpri
singly practical. Assumptions about the nature of science affect such contempora
ry debates as:
Which research gets funded
What topics qualify as science in elementary and high school classrooms
What is considered legitimate and ethical medical care
What and whether treatments are reimbursed by insurance companies.
Science plays a pivotal role in our society, and a rigorous study of its philoso
phical foundations sheds light on the ideas, methods, institutions, and habits o
f mind that have so astonishingly and successfully transformed our world.
Philosophy Made Accessible
In 36 half-hour lectures, Dr. Kasser takes you step by step through a host of ph
ilosophical arguments that illuminate important aspects of science. His goal is
"to leave you puzzled in articulate and productive ways" a mission at which he has
compiled an impressive track record, as evidenced by such honors as the prestig
ious Senior Class Charles Bassett Teaching Award at Colby College.
In reporting this award, Colby Magazine cited the following testimonial from a s
tudent: "Jeff makes difficult material accessible better than anyone else from w
hom I've taken a class. After one of Jeff's classes, students feel as though the
y have conducted a complete study, not just a survey of scattered ideas."
Slaying Philosophical Dragons or Wounding Them?
One example of how even the most promising approach to science is beset with unf
oreseeable problems involves the favorite philosopher of many working scientists
: Karl Popper. People from all walks of life are familiar with Popper's rule of
thumb for separating pseudoscience from science: If a theory can't be "falsified
" if there is no way to disprove it then it doesn't qualify as science.
Early in the course, you will learn that Popper came up with this formulation in
the 1930s in response to his disillusionment with Marxist political theory and
Freudian psychology. Neither discipline appeared to have the self-confidence of,
for example, Einstein's relativity theory, which could unequivocally state the
kinds of observations that would disprove, or falsify, it.
By contrast, Marxists and Freudians tended to argue away all apparently disconfi
rming evidence, rendering their theories immune to falsification. Spurred by thi
s realization, Popper proposed that true science is engaged in a ceaseless attem
pt, not to prove theories (something that can never be done definitively), but t
o falsify them, and having done so, to move ahead to improved theories. These, i
n turn, undergo a new round of tests until falsified, and so on.
As you will learn, Popper's demarcation criteria seemed to slay some prominent p
hilosophical dragons, including the notorious problem of induction, first propos
ed by the Scottish philosopher David Hume in the 18th century. Hume argued that
there is no justification for making the inductive inference that the future wil
l resemble the past, which is a linchpin of scientific reasoning.
For Popper, this was not a problem because his falsification criteria made no ap
peal to induction. Professor Kasser quips that Popper is like a mutual fund mana
ger who warns that past performance is not only no guarantee of future performan
ce; it's no evidence at all for future performance.
But consider these cases:
Contrary to Popper's model, at some point we stop testing our theories and start
taking them for granted. Ask yourself how much sense it makes to get on an airp
lane if you don't think past performance is any indicator at all of future perfo
From reading Popper, you might expect that early 19th-century scientists would h
ave been anxious to reject Newtonian physics when the planet Uranus did not have
the orbit that Newtonian physics predicted. Instead, they kept Newtonian physic
s and posited an as-yet-unobserved planet that turned out to be Neptune.
Astrology is the poster child of alleged pseudosciences. But advocates of this v
iew often say in one breath that astrology makes false predictions and in anothe
r that it's unfalsifiable and hence, unscientific. But making false predictions
is just one outcome of making testable ones. You can't simultaneously reject a t
heory as false and unscientific, especially if your criterion for science is fal
Popper's criteria admit virtually all competitors into the race to survive falsi
fication. But "nobody would watch the Olympics if everybody got to compete," say
s Professor Kasser. "We have to find some way of distinguishing views that shoul
d be taken seriously, that should receive our resources, from views that shouldn
Popper is not the only thinker to get the philosophical third degree in this man
ner. If you already hold views about the nature of science or if you simply have
strong instincts about what sounds right, you will find your convictions tested
repeatedly in this course.
A Manual for Intellectual Self-Defense
Popper represents one powerful current of philosophical thought about science in
the 20th century. Another was initiated by Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book, The St
ructure of Scientific Revolutions, which Professor Kasser also covers in depth.
In the course of these lectures, you will investigate a wide range of philosophi
cal approaches to science, including empiricism, constructivism, scientific real
ism, and Bayesianism.
You will also explore such concepts as natural kinds, bridge laws, Hume's fork,
the covering-law model, the hypothetico-deductive model, and inference to the be
st explanation (mistakenly called "deduction" in the Sherlock Holmes stories). P
rofessor Kasser shows how these and other tools allow us to take apart scientifi
c arguments and examine their inner workings.
"Philosophy, in general, is supposed to provide a kind of manual for intellectua
l self-defense," he explains. "So philosophy of science should help us look at c
laims made within science, and claims made about science, and help us make infor
med judgments about how and what we're to think about each case."
Throughout the course, Dr. Kasser is careful to be an impartial guide, describin
g the arguments among different philosophers as these debates developed during t
he past 100 years. In Lecture 36, he ventures his own synthesis of the major the
mes that stand out in this remarkable century of thought.
Dr. Kasser's masterful summary in this last lecture might just count as a game-w
inning play in the inquiry he launched so boldly with a baseball analogy in Lect
ure 1. But we invite you to be the umpire.