PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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Teaching Contemporary Philosophy of Science: The Challenge

Peter Achinstein recounts the challenge his dean made to him concerning the (ir)relevance of philosophy of science. “Peter,” as he quotes the dean, “you [Achinstein interprets “you” as plural in terms of philosophers of science as a class] have never made a contribution of interest to scientists.” This challenge should motivate philosophers of science to develop courses on contemporary philosophy of science to inform undergraduates and graduate students about the nature of science.

The proposed poster addresses the dean’s challenge by describing a philosophy of science course that not only surveys the development of contemporary philosophy of science but also assists students in appreciating the discipline’s relevance for understanding the nature of science, especially since western society is heavily indebted to modern science and its technology.

To achieve the above course goal, the course content covers the major movements in contemporary philosophy of science, beginning with logical positivism and empiricism and continuing with falsificationism, conformational holism, historical philosophy of science, sociology of scientific knowledge, the new experimentalism, evolutionary philosophy of science, and finishing with scientific pluralism. Also covered in the course are the criticisms levied against each of these movements. Through this initial survey, topics germane to philosophy of science, such as scientific theory and explanation, the underdetermination thesis, reductionism and anti-reductionism, and scientific realism and anti-realism (to name but a few), are introduced and discussed.

Besides lectures, videos, and class discussion, one of the more important pedagogical methods of engaging students consists of individual projects. The focus of the projects are generally on a specific philosopher of science, a particular topic or movement in the philosophy of science, or a philosophical issue facing the practice of a specific science. The goal of the projects is to inspire students to delve deeper into a philosopher, topic, movement, or science, than is possible within the constraints of the class. Finally, inviting scientists into the class to talk about philosophical and ethical issues is another important method for engaging students and scientists in the relevance of philosophy of science for understanding science.

Student response to the course has been positive and encouraging. For example, one student wrote in a course evaluation: “Science to me was wrongheaded prior to this class, but I now have a respect for the practice & its practitioners.” Philosophy of science can assist, then, in redressing the negative image of modern science often prevalent within today’s society.

In sum, as Achinstein was challenged, so philosophers of science are challenged to persuade students and scientists of the relevance and importance of the philosophy of science for educating them concerning an accurate conception of science rather than a distorted one that is often portrayed within modern society and especially its media. The aim of this poster is to add to the discussion concerning how best to develop a philosophy of science course to achieve that aim in terms of course goals, content, and pedagogical methods.

Author Information:

James Marcum    
Baylor University


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