Dear Philosophers, When philosophers write about scientific method, are they proposing a description of the actual practices of scientists or are they attempting to produce a normative theory of what science should be like? If it's the former, then shouldn't this be answered by historical study and not philosophy? If the latter, why do philosophers talking about scientific method bother to look at the history of science at all if one cannot gurantee an 'ought' from an 'is'? BMW

Philosophers often think of the philosophy of science as being less of a descriptive enterprise than is either the history or the sociology of science. The philosophy of science, it is often said, concerns itself in part with an evaluation of scientific practice. For instance, a philosopher of science does not just want to know what scientists have, as a matter of fact, accepted as good explanations; scientists might, after all, have jointly succumbed to some widespread error. Rather, the philosopher of science wants to know what would really constitute a good explanation—where it is assumed that scientists might on some occasions have taken something to be an explanation which was not. The philosophical project is thus in some sense a normative one, namely to determine what the scientist should take an explanation to be. Likewise, to consider another example, the philosopher of science is not particularly interested in whether scientists do believe ...

In relation to the debate raging in the US about evolution and Intelligent Design, I would like to know whether positing the existence and prior activity of an intelligent designer is a scientific or a philosophical question. Is it scientifically conceivable that the existence of a designer and of things having come about purposefully as opposed to randomly could ever be deduced from available or putative evidence?

Right, the judge did argue that ID wasn't science. But one of his grounds was that there couldn't be evidence for it. So I wonder whether Richard's first paragraph in fact ought to make one pause about at least one of the judge's arguments. Perhaps one way of addressing your question would be to say that the hypothesis about a designer is -- if you insist -- scientific. But if so, it's a lousy scientific hypothesis (like astrology, alchemy, parapsychology, etc.): vague, hard to test, in so far as it can be tested it hasn't been confirmed, and there's a deep, highly confirmed, more parsimonious account that's available as an alternative. Given all this, the insistence on teaching ID in the science classroom must be explained in terms of the School Board's religious motivations. And that's something that we should take to be ruled out by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. (The justice in Pennsylvania also ruled in favor of the Plaintiffs on the grounds that the motivation behind...

Is it true that in science 'theoretical' means 'non-empirical'? If so, are theoretical entities radically imperceptible? That is, although we can perceive the effects of theoretical entities, we can never perceive the entities themselves. For example, theoretical temperature is average kinetic energy of molecules, which we cannot perceive, but we can perceive its effects as thermometer readings and sensations of hot and cold; or mass is imperceptible but we can perceive its effects as forces of weight and inertia.

Sometimes, philosophers use the term "theoretical" to apply to certain statements in a scientific theory. Sometimes, they use the term to apply to certain entities whose existence is postulated by a theory, viz., those entities that are not directly observable. In the latter sense, they are contrasted not so much to "non-empirical" entities, but to observable ones. There is a lot of dispute about what "not directly observable" means. Are entities that we can see only with a telescope "directly observable"? Only with a microscope? Only with my glasses on? This kind of continuum has led some philosophers to declare that all entities are in principle observable. And others to hold that no entities are directly observable except "sense data", categorically unmediated sensory experiences. If you do think there are theoretical entities, or that most mature sciences contain statements with terms purporting to refer to them, then a major issue in the philosophy of science is what to make of (how...

Some people define a set of propositions as science only if they make testable (or perhaps falsifiable) predictions, and those preditions are verified. Is that a good working definition of science? If not, how do philosophers distinguish scientific claims about the world from non-scientific claims? (This question comes up in the current controversy over whether Intelligent Design is science.)

Just to amplify on the excellent point in Peter's last paragraph.The reason Intelligent Design (ID) shouldn't be taught in science classisn't that it's not science. (That debate leads to all sorts ofdreadful philosophical attempts to demarcate science from non-science.)The reason ID shouldn't be taught in science class is because it's alousy account of the phenomena it seeks to explain, a lousy accountwe're in no way committed to as it has a far superior competitor. Thereis religion lurking here but it's locus is often misidentified. Thereligion isn't in the claims of ID. Rather, the religion is in themotivation for pushing a lousy account into the curriculum. Ithink there are two reasons why people shy away from this way ofputting the matter. First, if you call ID "lousy science", then itseems you've allowed the ID people a foot in the door, by acceptingthat their account is science. Science vs. non-science seems like amuch clearer and sharper dichotomy than better vs. worse science.(People are...

Is the scientific method anything more than a good algorithm?

People often speak of "the scientific method", but it means nothing.There is no such method -- and one proof of that is the greatfascination and challenge scientific inquiry holds for so many people,something it would not have if its practice merely consisted in turningthe crank of The Method. However, the myth persists and it not onlygives a false picture of science, but also encourages the thoughtthat science and philosophy are very different kinds of enterprises.There are differences, to be sure, but they don't consist inphilosophy's not yet having found its method.

Is there a way to prove reincarnation? Has the possibility been explored?

(1) Only mathematicians and logicians are in the business of proving anything, and I don't think reincarnation is a hot topic for them. (2)Scientists offer evidence for their claims, making them more or lessreasonable to believe. But before that can be done, one has to make theclaim quite clear and, ideally, quantifiable. It's hard to offerevidence for or against a claim whose content is rather obscure. I saythis because when people talk to me about rebirth or about souls'moving from one body to another, I don't really understand them. I get confused enough when I think about the relation of my mind to my body!

I believe that it is assumed that the 'laws of physics', as we know them, apply throughout the universe. Is this a reasonable assumption or is our concept of cosmic reality an error?

On one interpretation of what you say, I don't think your belief is correct. I would wager that most scientists believe rather that the laws of physics, as they are presently formulated, are not quite (or in some cases, not even close to being) correct. Our experience of trying to know what the laws of physics are and then finding ourselves surprised to learn that they aren't quite what we thought gives us some reason to believe that our best theories now don't quite get things right either. But perhaps your question is rather about the scope of the laws of physics. Perhaps you're wondering whether certain laws hold in this corner of the universe and other laws hold in other areas of the universe. That's an empirical question, of course, and we'd have to ask the physicists. But there is something about inquiry that would make it hard for us to accept this, I think. One goal that regulates inquiry is to find an account that unifies a vast range of phenomena. The more a scientific...

Is astrology really a science that can be proven? Can the alignment of the planets of when and where someone was born make them who they are?

And just to pick up on one word from your question, one reason astrology cannot be proven is that no claim about the natural world can be proven. Justifications in natural science are always such that we can accept their assumptions and yet intelligibly question the truth of their conclusions; the truth of the ultimate assumptions don't force the truth of their conclusions. (This "forcing" is what's distinctive about proof.) This does not characterize arguments in mathematics, but it does those in the natural sciences. So, in point of being capable of being proved , there is no real distinction between astrology and astronomy. That doesn't mean that there isn't an important difference between the two. There is: we have very impressive evidence for many claims in astronomy and no good evidence for believing any astrological claims.

What is the basic difference between philosophy and science?

The difficulty Peter reports might encourage the thought that there is no "basic difference" between the two. For various sociological, historical, and bureaucratic reasons, we might label some rational inquiry "science" and some "philosophy", but one should not imagine that the labels follow fault lines within the world of inquiry. (But then one wants to say: isn't the basic difference between science and philosophy, or the manifestation thereof, that the former would never stop to ask what the basic difference is between science and philosophy, while the latter is kept up at night by that question?)