Friday, January 16, 2004

Review of Samir Okasha's Philosophy of Science: A very short introduction

Okasha's Philosophy of Science: A very short introduction is, so far, the best introduction to the philosophy of science out there. I would recommend it to anyone who is curious about the field, and wants to know what philosophers of science do. I would recommend it for the general public, or an undergraduate course dealing with the philosophy of science, though a full course might need quite a bit of supplemental reading, perhaps a decent anthology.

The book has a number of features that really recommend it. First, it is short. It is a small book that has under 150 pages. It is easy to carry and even a touch on the stylish side. But it also has much substance.

It starts out asking what science is. A good question, and it deliniates science, pseudo science, the philosophy of science and falsificationism. Then it moves on to the methodology of science addressing Induction, deduction, Hume's problem (no grue tough), inference to the best explanation, and theories of probability. It also tries to show how theories of probability are designed to try to solve Hume's problem of induction.

The third chapter deals with explanation. dealing only with the D-N model and causal accounts of explanation. It could have used some unification models too, although the two that were chosen are the standard ones, as well as the most popular. This is followed by a chapter on realism and anti-realism that does not make either side look dumb. Chapter five is on Kuhn and historicism. Again no Lakatos, and the relationship with Popper is hardly mentioned. But the chapter is pretty good at giving the challenges that arose when philosophers read Kuhn and started thinking of science in the light of the history of science.

Chapter six is refreshing in that it raises three questions from the special sciences that are addressed to illustrate problems that real philosophers of science deal with, and that really do make a difference to science. While I wish all philosophy of science introductions did this, I wish he could have done a slightly better job here. The first question deals with the Leibniz-Newton controversey of absolute space. Toward the end of the discussion there is a sentence about how the question has some contemporary relevance. We are left hanging there. What is the contemporary relevance? The second question is about classification in biology. This is of course useful. Are classifications by evolutionary relationships or some sort of similarity? I always thought that our biological taxonomies were based on evolutionary relationships. It would be nice here to see a stronger case for the alternative view to make the debate sound more plausible. Finally there is a discussion of Fodor's question about the modularity of mind hypothesis. Here again the philosophical motivation was not all that clear.

Chapter seven is also refreshing. It asks questions about science and values and science and religion. It is a good chapter. Ethics rarely gets covered in a philosophy of science introduction, and it should. So it was good to see it mentioned here.

For a book with so few words there is a lot of information, and it is well presented. The reader does not feel condescended to, and there are nice real scientific examples where appropriate. Here and there an argument is not made as good as it can be, like in the argument for underdetermination of theories. And generally only one or two theories are presented, like in the case of the interpretations of probability, where one would like more. But it is a very good read.

A minor point too is that the publisher did not see fit to full-justify the text. It is left-justified only detracting from the neat appearance of the book. I found this annoying.

The book will not make you an expert, but it will give you a picture of the terrain, and a very good feel that philosophers of science are doing something that is worth pursuing and even interesting. It is the first time I think that I came away from a book in the philosophy of science realizing that it's debates are not merely academic. They have relevance to the interpretation of science in a way that is comprehensible to scientist, layman, and philosopher.

No comments: