Friday, 25 September 2015

Science; what does it all mean?

For the penultimate post in his Night shelf series, Stephen Town revisits his undergraduate studies to find out how much has changed.

As the new academic year approaches, for the first time in forty-two years I will not be an active participant as it unfolds. I find myself in this situation increasingly drawn to recollection of my undergraduate experience, not in sentimental recollection, but through a continuing desire to learn and think within an academic community. Perhaps a retirement activity will be further study, and probably no better field to return to than the philosophy of science, having spent much of my professional life at the junction of science and humanities.

Lewens, T., The Meaning of Science, in the University Library at R 1 LEW

Lewens, T., The meaning of
Science. Pelican, 2015.
Tim Lewens is a professor in my old department of the History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge, so I was pleased to pick up this book to read on a long flight. This is a broad-ranging and relatively accessible introduction to the philosophy of science, delivered in the resurrected Pelican format. It covers a range of contemporary topics, including the currently much argued-over field of genetics, sociobiology and altruism in a chapter entitled “Human kindness”. My main interest was to see whether the fundamentals of the discipline had moved on, and I was both relieved and perhaps a touch disappointed to see that Popper, Kuhn and Feyerabend still dominate the field and exercise similar fascination they had for us forty years ago. It was, however, quite sad to read that the current view of Kuhn’s paradigms seems so much weaker than in my day. Perhaps this is a reflection of overuse of the term over the intervening period, rather than an accurate reading of this seminal idea.

Feyerabend, P., The Tyranny of Science, in the University Library at R 1 FEY

Feyerabend, P., The tyranny
of Science. Polity, 2011.
Paul Feyerabend was (and perhaps still is, although now deceased) the enfant terrible of the philosophy of science, attacking rationalist views of science, providing critiques of the scientific method, and proposing that science is an anarchic enterprise. These views were attractive (and not just philosophically) to those of us involved in the student politics of the time, and there was great excitement at the publication of Feyerabend’s Against Method (1975) in the course of my studies. We have almost all of Feyerabend’s work in the library, but I am pleased to be able to fill a gap with one of his last works, written in 1993, but not published in English until 2011. I read this alongside Lewen’s book, and there is certainly a contrast in style, but both seek to challenge myths about science, and establish better understanding of its role and conduct in our age.

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