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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.