Philosophy of Science (PHIL*2180) | College of Arts

Philosophy of Science (PHIL*2180)

Code and section: PHIL*2180*01

Term: Fall 2019

Instructor: Stefan Linquist


Over the past three centuries, science has gradually overtaken religion as the dominant source of knowledge about nature —including human nature. Yet there are lingering questions about the limits of scientific explanation and whether it deserves its place of authority in contemporary society. Before one can address those issues, it is important to understand how science has managed to attain its current level of success. You might answer, “because science makes successful predictions,” or, “because science leads to the production of fancy gadgets like my iPhone.” To be sure, these outcomes are part of the reason that science has replaced religion and other conceptual frameworks. But how does science manage to generate these impressive results? What is it about science, and scientific conduct, that distinguish it from other systems of belief? Over the past 100 years, philosophers have made considerable progress in answering this question. The aim of this course will be to review the philosophical theories and debates that have surrounded this field of research. The format of this course is organized around four very different types of answer to the question: “Why is science so successful?” Each answer corresponds roughly to a period in the recent (100 year) history of philosophy.

The first answer is that science is successful because it is grounded in experience. This is the answer that was defended by positivists and then empiricists. The first part of this course will critically assess their positions. A second answer, associated with Karl Popper, claims that science is successful because it follows the right method. We will consider this position in light of Thomas Khun’s criticisms. Alternatively, some argue that science isn’t really so successful after all – we have just been socially conditioned to believe that it is. We will examine this idea in the context of some popular postmodernist thinkers including Paul Feyerabend and Bruno Latour. The final proposal states that science is successful because it embraces the right sorts of social practices. This view will be evaluated in light of work by Phil Kitcher, Heather Douglas and some more recent social epistemologists.

Grades will be based on a midterm exam (20%), approximately four short reflections (40%), a final essay (30%), and participation in class discussion (10%).


"Course Outline"   

The University of Guelph resides on the land of the Between the Lakes Treaty No. 3, the territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit. This land is part of the Dish with One Spoon, a covenant between Indigenous nations to live peaceably on the territories of the Great Lakes region. We recognize that today this gathering place is home to many First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples and acknowledging them reminds us of our collective responsibility to the land where we learn, live and work.