Spotlighting new work in the philosophy of science

A couple of years ago when we started this blog we claimed that ‘the philosophy of science is entering an exciting era’. This is reflected in the submissions we’ve received at the BJPS which have covered a huge range of topics, from the hole argument in general relativity to the science of well-being, and from the status of climate change modelling to the nature of delusions in schizophrenia. This sense of excitement will hopefully extend to our up-coming series of blog posts, which will cover an equally broad range of topics in the philosophy of science, from general issues to the more particular. This series is a chance for philosophers of science to talk about their new projects, while they are still in their development stage. We hope you will enjoy them, pass them on, tweet about them (!), and carry the conversation forward.

And, of course, if you are a philosopher of science and would like to write about your new project, send your idea to

How Philosophy of Science Relates to Scientific Practices | Angela Potochnik

It’s widely appreciated that contemporary philosophy of science, when done well, engages with actual scientific practices. Philosophers should not sit back (in armchairs, of course), consider what we think good science would look like, then inform scientists of our findings. Rather, current thinking goes, we should take seriously what scientists actually do, using these practices as the starting points for our philosophical accounts of the aims, processes, and products of science.

The Metaphysical Status of Quantities | J. E. Wolff

Paradigmatic physical attributes, like energy, mass, length, charge, or temperature are quantities. That these attributes are quantitative is important for experiments (they can be measured), as well as theories (we can formulate quantitative laws that hold between them). Quantities are arguably central to science, and especially to the physical sciences. Quantities pose peculiar epistemological and metaphysical challenges.

Compatibilism about Chance and Determinism | Nina Emery

Suppose that it is already determined that the coin I just flipped will land heads. Can it also be the case that that very coin, on that very flip, has some chance of landing tails? Intuitively, the answer is no. But according to an increasing number of contemporary philosophers, especially philosophers of physics, the answer is yes.

A Hot Mess: Inflation and Fine-Tuning | Casey McCoy

Given the suggested philosophical nature of cosmology, it may seem somewhat surprising that philosophers have paid relatively little attention to the physical study of cosmology, namely, what one might call the science of little ‘u’ physical universes. If philosophy aims at understanding the Universe, then surely an important piece of the complete story is to be found in its physics.

Sommerfeld’s Miracle: The Ultimate Challenge to Scientific Realism | Peter Vickers

A ‘no miracles’ argument is still prevalent in the scientific realism debate, even if a lot has changed since Hilary Putnam’s formulation of it, and even if the word ‘miracle’ is generally avoided. For example, realists think that if the most central ‘working’ parts of a scientific theory were not even approximately true (for any serious theory of ‘approximate truth’), then it would be incredibly unlikely (‘miraculous’) for that theory to deliver successful novel predictions with ‘perfect’ quantitative accuracy (e.g. to several significant figures). It would be like perfectly predicting the time and position of the next solar eclipse based on a completely false (not even approximately true) model of how the sun, moon, and earth interact. Here it is appropriate to talk in terms of ‘counterexamples’ to scientific realism: any historical case where a scientific theory delivered ‘perfect’ predictions but where the central working parts of the theory are now thought to be radically false would be a very serious thorn in the side of nearly every contemporary scientific realist position.

Making Sense of Scents: The Science of Smell | Ann-Sophie Barwich

While we have a better understanding of the olfactory pathway today, many of the central questions remain unresolved. How do you classify smells and how do you make their perception comparable? (And how do you control the volatile stimulus, its concentration, and its administration in psychophysical studies?) What are the perceptual dimensions of smell? Are there such things as primary odours? How does the brain represent smells? From this perspective, the discovery of how the sense of smell works presents us with an intriguing, yet untold, history of creativity in scientific reasoning.

Scientific Explanation from the History and Philosophy of Science to General Philosophy of Science | Lina Jansson

Philosophers of science of all stripes draw on the history of science. However, within philosophy of science there are diverging trends between literature in the history and philosophy of science and the work in (what often goes under the name of) ‘general’ philosophy of science. With the caveat that what follows paints a picture with very broad brushstrokes, the trend among those working on integrated history and philosophy of science is towards recognizing particular differences between scientific fields, periods, and practitioners. On the other hand, the driving motivation in general philosophy of science is towards unified frameworks and theories.

Causation in Scientific Methods | Rani Lill Anjum

Need scientists worry about philosophy? Or should philosophers get off their backs and let them do their work in peace? Unsurprisingly, many scientists want to stay clear of philosophical discussions. What is more disturbing is when I hear philosophers themselves announce that our discipline has nothing useful to offer science. In my view, they could not be more wrong.

Aesthetics in Science | Milena Ivanova

Aesthetic considerations feature widely in science. Many scientists claim that aesthetic values guide their activities, motivate them to study nature, and even shape their attitude regarding the truth of a theory. Some scientists also regard the product of their intellectual activities, whether scientific theories, models, or mathematical proofs, as works of art. Interestingly, recent studies in neuropsychology have shown that exposure to beautiful equations activates the same area of the brain in mathematicians and scientists as exposure to beautiful pieces of art. How is the concept of beauty understood by scientists; how do they come to regard some features of a theory as aesthetically appealing; and what role can be given to aesthetic considerations in scientific reasoning?

The Limits of the Numerical | Stephen John

There are many good reasons to want social policy to be based, where possible, on numerical evidence and indicators. If the data clearly shows that placing babies on their back reduces the risk of cot death, this information should guide the advice which midwives give to new parents. On the other hand, not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that can be measured matters. The care a midwife offers may be better or worse in ways that cannot be captured by statistical indicators. Furthermore, even when we are measuring something that matters, numbers require interpretation and explanation before they can be used to guide action. It is important to know if neo-natal mortality rates are rising or falling, but the proper interpretation of this data may require subtle analysis. To make matters worse, many actors aren’t interested in proper interpretation, but in using the numbers to achieve some other end; as a stick with which to beat the midwifery profession, say.

Contemporary Scientific Realism and the 1811 Gill Slit Prediction | Peter Vickers

How exactly are the history and philosophy of science supposed to come together? In the case of the scientific realism debate there is a relatively straight forward answer to this. In short, scientific realists are keen to make some sort of success-to-truth inference. Typically they state that when scientific success is sufficiently impressive, we ought to infer that the hypotheses (or parts or aspects of the theory) that generated this success are at least approximately true. This allows for the possibility that, in the history of science, one might find just that sort of success, born of a theory/set of hypotheses that are definitely not approximately true (whatever your take on ‘approximate truth’). Even allowing for one or two exceptions, the possibility arises that there might be many such cases in the history of science. This makes many scientific realist positions falsifiable—loosely speaking, at least. But as things stand, nobody knows which contemporary realist positions (if any) are indeed falsified because we just don’t have at hand the relevant historical ‘facts’ (again, speaking loosely). What we need to make progress is careful and detailed history of science, dealing with relevant historical episodes…

A Process Ontology for Biology | John Dupré

Reflection on the last hundred years of physics might naturally lead one to suppose that the ancient debate as to whether the world was ultimately composed of things or processes had been resolved in favour of the latter. Quantum physics, whatever else it may be, seems to constitute a decisive rejection of the atomism at […]

Getting Tough on Armchair Models | Anna Alexandrova & Robert Northcott

Models and modelling practices in science were once ignored in philosophy of science; however, in the past fifty years they have been anything but. From Mary Hesse’s pioneering work in the 1960s, to the writing of Ron Giere, Uskali Maki, Nancy Cartwright, Mary Morgan, and Margaret Morrison in the 80s and 90s, to today’s contributions from Michael Weisberg, Mauricio Suarez, Wendy Parker, and too many others to mention, scientific models are now studied left and right. This work is no longer quirky or marginal, and it spans many scientific fields. There are detailed and intricate accounts of what models are, the variety of different models, and the epistemic and social roles played by models. But we would like to suggest that in one respect, more should be done.

The Mysterious Methodology of Rational Choice Theory | Christopher Clarke

In the last few decades, economists have puzzled over the curious phenomenon of so-called ambiguity-averse preferences. You are indifferent between (A) receiving a cash prize if a coin lands heads, and (B) receiving the prize if a coin lands tails. You are also indifferent between (A*) receiving the prize if the Nikkei stock index goes up and (B*) receiving the prize if it goes down; for you are totally ignorant about the Japanese stock market. But you prefer (A) to (A*), and you prefer (B) to (B*). Thus, intuitively, you prefer gambling on the more familiar toss of a coin than on the less familiar stock market.

Philosophy of Science for Scientists, and Science for Philosophers of Science | Ellen Clarke

Most professional philosophers of science would, I hope, agree that our discipline shares the object of its investigations with some other academics, i.e. scientists. But how often do we actually talk to them? Till Grüne-Yanoff has published a paper over at the EJPS, making a case for science students to be taught compulsory philosophy of science courses, and setting out some constraints on the optimal design of such courses. He does a great job of identifying some obstacles that advocates of such courses need to overcome.

The ‘Cell State’ Revived? | Jonathan Birch

What is an organism? Ask any two biologists from any two different sub-disciplines, and you’d probably get two different answers. A physiologist would give you a physiological answer, an immunologist would give you an immunological answer, a developmental biologist would give you a developmental answer, an evolutionary theorist would give an evolutionary answer… and so on. There would, of course, be some important recurring themes (organisms are ‘integrated wholes’, they are ‘organized’, they are in some sense ‘autonomous’) but as soon as we get down to details it’s plurality, not unity, that prevails.