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A Historical Introduction to the
Philosophy of Science

Ch. 19: Descriptive Philosophies of Science

Book cover: A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science by John Losee

The following is a summary of the nineteenth chapter of John Losee's book, A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (fourth edition), with some ancillary notes.

Philosophers discussed in this chapter: Gerald Holton (1922—); David Hull (1935—)

(p. 264) Except for Fine, philosophers of science have been prescriptive in developing rational standards for evaluating scientific theories.

(p. 265) From the 1980s, some philosophers advanced one of two forms of a non-normative, descriptivist approach:

  1. Modest descriptivists aim to reconstruct piecemeal the actual evaluative standards of scientists.
  2. Robust descriptivists offer a theoretical explanation of scientific judgments by appealing to underlying evaluative principles.

Holton on Thematic Principles

(p. 266) Holton noted that contemporary scientists ignored the pronouncements of philosophers of science. From his historical studies, Holton identified these thematic principles of discovery and justification:

  1. explanatory principles (e.g., Bohr's Principle of Complementarity)
  2. directive principles (e.g., seek micro-structure)
  3. evaluative standards (e.g., parsimony, simplicity, incorporation)
  4. ontological assumptions (e.g., atomism, plenism)
  5. high-level substantive hypotheses (e.g., quantization of energy)

For Holton, scientists' avowed principles may not match their actual methodological practice (e.g., Newton, Darwin).

Although thematic principles are revised by the scientific community over time (e.g., mass conservation), it is these shared commitments that bind scientists into the one enduring enterprise.

(p. 267) Following Whewell, Holton recommended a three-dimensional interpretative framework for describing the activity of scientists:

  1. empirical content (facts)
  2. analytical content (ideas)
  3. thematic content (principles)

For Holton, only by attending to the thematic content can we find out:

  1. what gives continuity to science in spite of radical shifts in theory and practice
  2. why scientists tenaciously hold on to a theory/principle in the face of contrary evidence
  3. why scientists with the same information accept contrary theories

(p. 268) While Holton focused on the role of general theoretical presuppositions, others explored experimental practice. Franklin identified strategies scientists use to separate 'genuine' experimental results from artefacts, including:

  1. demonstrate that the apparatus accounts for known phenomena (e.g., spectroscopic data on solar absorption lines)
  2. show that an experimental procedure accounts for known features (e.g., infrared spectroscopic data on an organic substance)
  3. employ different types of instruments to generate experimental results (e.g., optical, polarizing, electron microscopes on minute objects)
  4. argue that features of an experimental result establish it as a genuine fact (e.g., telescopic observations of moons of Jupiter)
  5. argue that the well-established operation of an instrument warrants its applications to new phenomena (e.g., radio signals in astronomy)

(p. 269) Losee also emphasizes that sometimes results from different instruments are mutually reinforcing (e.g., molecular weights, Planck's Constant).

Pickering concluded that the acceptance of an experimental fact requires three elements:

  1. material procedure (specified in advance)
  2. model of the operation of the instrument (to determine correct operation)
  3. model of the phenomena under investigation (to compare with results)

The lack of these three elements hindered the acceptance of Galileo's telescopic observations of sun spots. Galileo's critics objected that:

  1. there is no plausible optical theory about the telescope
  2. the telescope magnifies all terrestrial objects, but only some celestial objects (planets)
  3. some telescopic observations of celestial objects are inconsistent with naked-eye observations (e.g., horns on Venus)

Galileo attempted to support the three elements of experimental practice by appealing to the fact that the observed spots:

  1. change shape from oval at the Sun's periphery to round at its centre
  2. increase in velocity as they move from the periphery to the centre

(p. 270) Galileo countered the resistance of critics wed to the geostatic model by pointing to the change in orientation of the spots with the Earth's seasons. This change is explained by the heliostatic model, but left a puzzle on the geostatic model.

Toulmin on Conceptual Evolution

Toulmin applied the Darwinian Theory of Evolution as an explanation of the development of concepts in science. For Toulmin, mirroring Kuhn, in a scientific revolution, the paradigm that wins is the one best adapted to the pressure presented from anomalies to explain nature.

Hull on Selection Processes

(p. 271) Hull amplified on Toulmin with his 'General Theory of Selection Processes' in which there are:

  • replicators: concepts that are copied and transferred (akin to genes)
  • interactors: scientists/research groups subject to competition within an environment (akin to individual)
  • lineages: sequences of replicators (akin to genetic history)
Thinking and Reasoning: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan St. B. T. Evans

For Hull, the 'fittest' conceptual innovations (replicators) survive pressure from within the scientific community.

Fitness is a balance between adaptation to present pressures and adaptability (fertility) to future pressures. Scientist's judgments of 'fitness' are provisional.

(pp. 271–2) Hull draws explicit parallels between biological evolution, his Theory of Selection Processes and items from the history of science (see table).

(p. 272) For a concept to be in the same lineage as another, its adoption by scientists must be causally related to that other previous concept (e.g., Darwin's and Wallace's theories vis-à-vis Matthew's).

For Hull, his General Theory of Selection Processes is not just an interpretation of the history of science, but a theory of science as it provides answers to three key questions:

  1. Science is highly successful because the self-interests of individual scientists to publish coincide with the aims of the discipline.
  2. Scientists are concerned about priority and proper citation because it contributes to their individual 'fitness'.
  3. The self-policing activities of science are very effective because undermining professional standards is self-defeating.

L. J. Cohen on the Inappropriateness of the Evolutionary Analogy

(p. 273) Cohen objected to Toulmin's and Hull's evolutionary analogy on two grounds:

  1. coupled processes: in nature, variants are produced blindly, whereas, in science, variants are produced intentionally with solutions in mind
  2. complex interrelations: in nature, individuals represent their species, whereas, in science, research programmes are a complex mix of concepts, relations, theories, rules and standards

Toulmin and Hull conceded Cohen's points, but insisted that the disanalogies were not significant.

Ruse on Epigenetic Rules

(p. 274) Two views drawing on evolutionary biology:

  1. Evolutionary-Analogy View (Toulmin/Hull) = analogy between differential reproductive success of genes and of scientific theories/standards
  2. Evolutionary-Origins View (Ruse) = epigenetic rules have been encoded in homo sapiens that direct scientific progress

Ruse added to the epigenetic rules that guided human 'colour' language, deep linguistic structure and incest prohibition further rules that stipulate:

  1. formulating internally consistent theories
  2. seeking 'severe tests' of theories (Popper)
  3. developing 'consilient' theories (Whewell)
  4. using logic and mathematics in formulating and evaluating theories
Book cover: Lakatos: An Introduction by Brendan Larvor

Critics point to numerous failures in human reasoning (e.g., affirming the consequent, 'gambler's fallacy', conjunction fallacy).

Ruse responded that humans do reason according to the rules when necessary for survival and reproduction. Losee objects that Ruse's response is ad hoc.

(pp. 274–5) Losee further objects that the Evolutionary-Origins View that scientists' aim for pattern recognition/successful prediction because it leads to adaptive advantage fails to account for scientists' striving for more than just to 'save the appearances'.

(p. 275) For example, the more complicated Virial Expansion law is more accurate than the theoretically explained Ideal Gas Law.

The Evolutionary-Origins View advocate may respond that the speed of predictions is also an evolutionary advantage. O'Hear objects that the scientists' search for true explanations does not reduce to predictive effectiveness, survival and reproduction.

(pp. 275–6) It may turn out that scientists' dispassionate search for truth is driven by the same forces that drive evolutionary adaption to the environment, but Losee is skeptical.

Descriptive Philosophy of Science and the History of Science

The descriptive approach seeks to subsume the philosophy of science under the history of science, with an emphasis on evaluative practice. But Losee thinks that philosophers of science have an additional aim; that of uncovering general principles of evaluation that transcend historical instances.

Questions to Consider:

  1. Is it possible for descriptivists to provide a non-normative account of scientific practice?
  2. Why do you think many scientists ignore the prescriptions of philosophers of science?
  3. How is it that legendary scientists such as Newton and Darwin say one thing and do another?
  4. How important do you think Holton's thematic principles are to an adequate explanation of scientific practice?
  5. Are Pickering's criteria for scientists' acceptance of an experimental result exhaustive?
  6. To what extent do you think an evolutionary account of science succeeds? Where does it fail?

Copyright © 2022–3

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