Philosophy of science is a branch of philosophy whose importance has extensively grown over the past century, in connection to the raising prestige and influence of disciplines such as physics, chemistry and – most lately – biology in understanding basic questions regarding the world as well as human identity and agency. Although its existence as a separate branch is relatively young and it is partially explainable also in terms of the specialization of academic research, issues in the philosophy of science have been debated throughout the whole history of philosophy, by authors such as Aristotle, Aquinas, Galileo, Descartes, Bacon, and Locke.
The Structure of Scientific Theorizing
Philosophy of science took off during the first half of the twentieth century, thanks especially to the debate within the so-called Vienna Circle lead by authors such as Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970) and Hans Reichenbach (1891-1953). During this initial phase, most attention was devoted to understanding the relevance of the recently formulated theory of special relativity for philosophy.
Early philosophy of science was concentrated on uncovering the logical structure of scientific reasoning: the form of a law of nature, the relationship between specific laws and whole theories, and the relationship between laws concerning phenomena at different levels (e.g. chemical and physical). The problem of induction, formulated by Hume in the second half of seventeen hundreds, was now revived and rephrased in terms of the latest developments in logic and philosophy of language.
An earthquake however was about to shake this sort of research in the early 1960s, with the work of Thomas Kuhn. After the earthquake, disciplines like biology had established themselves and philosophers of science started to look in that direction as well.
In 1962 philosopher Thomas Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolution, a book that brought philosophy of science to the attention of the large public. According to Kuhn, scientific thinking should not be thought as a constant progress within one paradigm; rather, science proceeds by means of intellectual revolutions to which follow periods of stability of a paradigm. Thus, for instance, the Copernican revolution happened at the expenses of much reasonable work that was being done on the Ptolemaic system, and it was followed by a period of stability, during which scientists uncovered astronomic facts compatible with the Copernican paradigm.
Kuhn’s proposal opened up a Pandora’s vase for philosophers of science: if scientific changes do not follow a well-ordered trajectory, what about the idea of progressing towards truth as scientific theorizing develops? Authors such as Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994) arrived at defending a radical form of scientific relativism: the Ptolemaic system was no less true than the Copernican; they are just different.
It is quite safe to assert that Kuhn’s goal was not to defend a form of relativism, but more pragmatically to show that the progress of scientific thinking takes forms that are not close to the stereotypes that were typically taught in school.
Philosophies of Science
Following the branching and specialization of individual sciences as well as of philosophical research, over the past three decades philosophers of science have divided up into communities centered around different disciplines: philosophy of physics and philosophy of biology are probably the two largest communities at the moment, but also philosophy of chemistry is on the raise as well as philosophy of the social sciences.
As one can naturally expect, the perspectives offered on central metaphysical, ethical and epistemic issues vary wildly depending on whether the prompt is physics or evolutionary biology. Thus, in recent years, some philosophers of biology have stressed the importance of functions for the explanation of natural phenomena (e.g. an eye), and the impossibility of reducing the explanation of processes of natural selection to interaction of fundamental physical entities.
Further Online Readings
The Philosophy of Science resource page maintained by Bruce Janz.
The Philosophy of Science Association page, an association formed in 1934 to promote research in philosophy of science from different angles.
The web page of the Pittsburgh Center for Philosophy of Science, one of the prominent research institutions in the field.
The web page of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, one of the prominent research institutions in the field.