‘Sloppy Thinking’: To What Extent Can Philosophy Contribute to the Public Understanding of Science?

Trubody, Ben (2013) ‘Sloppy Thinking’: To What Extent Can Philosophy Contribute to the Public Understanding of Science? PhD thesis, University of Gloucestershire.

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This thesis will address two questions: Does philosophy contribute to the ‘public understanding of science’ (PUoS), and if so, how? The popular public image of science is one of methodology. Science is a means for making true statements about the world, where we compare hypothesis with observation against the evidence. This then allows for a body of knowledge that guides further advancements and progress. Philosophy, however, seems to be antithetical to this. A popular notion is that philosophy is either what science was, or it deals with objects and ideas so intangible, that they have no real effect in the world. Either it is an outmoded way of doing science, or it is the preserve of armchair academics. In both cases the average person would be forgiven for thinking it had no relevance to them, and especially their ability to understand science. This thesis will look to challenge this relationship. Using hermeneutics, discourse-textual analysis and deconstruction, I present two interpretations of science and philosophy. These two interpretations I will call the ‘methodological’ and ‘historical’ approach. The ‘methodological’ approach is to understand science as a collection of principles or rules that, if followed, will produce true statements about the world. An example of such a principle that intersected both philosophy and science is ‘falsification’ as understood through the ‘problem of demarcation’ (PoD). The irrelevance of philosophy to science is fortified by the constant failure to produce fixed rules for what makes one thing scientific and another not. The ‘historical’ approach is to understand the actions of scientists as historical events. So rather than ask ‘what is science?’ we might ask, ‘what does it mean to act scientifically?’ I will argue philosophy can be of use in overcoming the antagonism between understanding a methodological question historically and a historical question methodologically. Firstly, I give an uncontroversial reading of the PoD, as argued by Karl Popper, who represents the ‘methodological’ view and oppose this to the ‘historical’ approach of Paul Feyerabend. Due to the dominance of the interpretation of science as a methodology, I argue that historical critiques, like Feyerabend’s, become nonsensical when understood as methodological substitutes. This is what I call the ‘received view’of what both Popper and Feyerabend had to say on science. Here, Popper fails to solve the PoD and Feyerabend appears to deny the method, objectivity or rationality of science. Next, using ideas inspired by Heidegger, I reverse those roles by presenting a ‘methodological’ and ‘historical’ reading of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. I develop two types of language, which I call ‘about’ and ‘of’ language that map on to the methodological and historical distinctions. Using this method I construct two contradictory readings of the text, but unlike the Popper-Feyerabend antagonism, we see how the historical approach is the more fertile interpretation. One version, which I call the ‘strong’ reading, has Kuhn as a relativist, irrationalist or anti-science, which is important if this is the ‘received view’ of Kuhn. This reading carries political weight with ‘interest groups’ who may wish to undermine the epistemic authority of science. That same reading can be used to discredit Kuhn/ philosophy of science, and by extension philosophy as a worthwhile instrument for understanding science. The other version, which I call the ‘weak’ reading, has Kuhn as a supporter and defender of science, but it also resolves old philosophical disputes by framing the problem in a different way. This will not only problematize any notion of a dominant interpretation, but it gives good grounds why one cannot be relativist or irrationalist about ‘truth’. Thus it defends the epistemic authority of science, and also gives philosophy a valuable role in public thinking about science.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Thesis Advisors:
Thesis AdvisorEmailURL
Large, Williamwlarge@glos.ac.ukhttps://www.glos.ac.uk/staff/profile/william-large/
Webster, Daviddwebster@glos.ac.ukUNSPECIFIED
Uncontrolled Keywords: Philosophy, Public perception of science,
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > B Philosophy (General)
Q Science > Q Science (General)
Divisions: Schools and Research Institutes > School of Creative Arts
Depositing User: Susan Turner
Date Deposited: 04 Dec 2014 15:58
Last Modified: 31 Aug 2023 08:56
URI: https://eprints.glos.ac.uk/id/eprint/1063

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