Understanding is a central aim of science and highly important in present-day society. But what precisely is scientific understanding and how can it be achieved? This book answers these questions, through philosophical analysis and historical case studies, and presents a philosophical theory of scientific understanding that highlights its contextual nature.
This article analyzes the epistemic value of understanding and offers an account of the role of understanding in science. First, I discuss the objectivist view of the relation between explanation and understanding, defended by Carl Hempel and J. D. Trout. I challenge this view by arguing that pragmatic aspects of explanation are crucial for achieving the epistemic aims of science. Subsequently, I present an analysis of these pragmatic aspects in terms of ‘intelligibility’ and a contextual account of scientific understanding based (...) on this notion. †To contact the author, please write to: Faculty of Philosophy, VU University Amsterdam, De Boelelaan 1105, 1081 HV Amsterdam, The Netherlands; e‐mail: email@example.com. (shrink)
It is often claimed—especially by scientific realists—that science provides understanding of the world only if its theories are (at least approximately) true descriptions of reality, in its observable as well as unobservable aspects. This paper critically examines this ‘realist thesis’ concerning understanding. A crucial problem for the realist thesis is that (as study of the history and practice of science reveals) understanding is frequently obtained via theories and models that appear to be highly unrealistic or even completely fictional. So we (...) face the dilemma of either giving up the realist thesis that understanding requires truth, or allowing for the possibility that in many if not all practical cases we do not have scientific understanding. I will argue that the first horn is preferable: the link between understanding and truth can be severed. This becomes a live option if we abandon the traditional view that scientific understanding is a special type of knowledge. While this view implies that understanding must be factive, I avoid this implication by identifying understanding with a skill rather than with knowledge. I will develop the idea that understanding phenomena consists in the ability to use a theory to generate predictions of the target system’s behavior. This implies that the crucial condition for understanding is not truth but intelligibility of the theory, where intelligibility is defined as the value that scientists attribute to the theoretical virtues that facilitate the construction of models of the phenomena. I will show, first, that my account accords with the way practicing scientists conceive of understanding, and second, that it allows for the use of idealized or fictional models and theories in achieving understanding. (shrink)
J.D. Trout (2002) presents a challenge to all theorists of scientific explanation who appeal to the notion of understanding. Trout denounces understanding as irrelevant, if not dangerous, from an epistemic perspective and he endorses a radically objectivist view of explanation instead. In this note I accept Trout's challenge. I criticize his argument and defend a non-objectivist, pragmatic conception of understanding that is epistemically relevant.
The act of understanding is at the heart of all scientific activity; without it any ostensibly scientific activity is as sterile as that of a high school student substituting numbers into a formula. Ordinary language often uses visual metaphors in connection with understanding. When we finally understand what someone is trying to point out to us, we exclaim: “I see!” When someone really understands a subject matter, we say that she has “insight”. There appears to be a link between visualization (...) and understanding, and between visualizability and intelligibility. This applies in science no less than in daily life: visualization is regarded as a useful means of achieving scientific understanding, even in the .. (shrink)
In this paper we have two aims: first, to draw attention to the close connexion between interpretation and scientific understanding; second, to give a detailed account of how theories without a spacetime can be interpreted, and so of how they can be understood. In order to do so, we of course need an account of what is meant by a theory ‘without a spacetime’: which we also provide in this paper. We describe three tools, used by physicists, aimed at constructing (...) interpretations which are adequate for the goal of understanding. We analyse examples from high-energy physics illustrating how physicists use these tools to construct interpretations and thereby attain understanding. The examples are: the ’t Hooft approximation of gauge theories, random matrix models, causal sets, loop quantum gravity, and group field theory. (shrink)
In his later years, Wesley Salmon believed that the two dominant models of scientific explanation (his own causal-mechanical model and the unificationist model) were reconcilable. Salmon envisaged a 'new consensus' about explanation: he suggested that the two models represent two 'complementary' types of explanation, which may 'peacefully coexist' because they illuminate different aspects of scientific understanding. This paper traces the development of Salmon's ideas and presents a critical analysis of his complementarity thesis. Salmon's thesis is rejected on the basis of (...) two objections, and an alternative view of the relation between different types of explanation is proposed. (shrink)
While the relation between visualization and scientific understanding has been a topic of long-standing discussion, recent developments in physics have pushed the boundaries of this debate to new and still unexplored realms. For it is claimed that, in certain theories of quantum gravity, spacetime ‘disappears’: and this suggests that one may have sensible physical theories in which spacetime is completely absent. This makes the philosophical question whether such theories are intelligible, even more pressing. And if such theories are intelligible, the (...) question then is how they manage to do so. In this paper, we adapt the contextual theory of scientific understanding, developed by one of us, to fit the novel challenges posed by physical theories without spacetime. We construe understanding as a matter of skill rather than just knowledge. The appeal is thus to understanding, rather than explanation, because we will be concerned with the tools that scientists have at their disposal for understanding these theories. Our central thesis is that such physical theories can provide scientific understanding, and that such understanding does not require spacetimes of any sort. Our argument consists of four consecutive steps: We argue, from the general theory of scientific understanding, that although visualization is an oft-used tool for understanding, it is not a necessary condition for it; we criticise certain metaphysical preconceptions which can stand in the way of recognising how intelligibility without spacetime can be had; we catalogue tools for rendering theories without a spacetime intelligible; and we give examples of cases in which understanding is attained without a spacetime, and explain what kind of understanding these examples provide. (shrink)
Boltzmann’s Bildtheorie, which asserts that scientific theories are ‘mental pictures’ having at best a partial similarity to reality, was a core element of his philosophy of science. The aim of this article is to draw attention to a neglected aspect of it, namely its significance for the issue of scientific explanation and understanding, regarded by Boltzmann as central goals of science. I argue that, in addition to being an epistemological view of the interpretation of scientific theories Boltzmann’s Bildtheorie has implications (...) for the nature of scientific understanding. This aspect has as yet been ignored because discussion of the Bildtheorie has been restricted to the realism-instrumentalism debate. To elucidate my analysis of Boltzmann’s Bildtheorie concrete examples are presented, and the pragmatist and Darwinist roots of Boltzmann’s view are discussed. Moreover, I propose to use Boltzmann’s ideas as a starting-point for developing a novel analysis of the notion of scientific understanding, of which a brief impression is given. It shows that the study of Boltzmann’s philosophy is not only of historical interest but can be relevant also to modern philosophy of science and to the methodology of theoretical physics. (shrink)
This article examines the role of philosophy in the development of the kinetic theory of gases. Two opposing accounts of this role, by Peter Clark and John Nyhof, are discussed and criticized. Contrary to both accounts, it is argued that philosophical views of scientists can fundamentally influence the results of their scientific work. This claim is supported by a detailed analysis of the philosophical views of Maxwell and Boltzmann, and of their work on the kinetic theory, especially concerning the so-called (...) specific heat anomaly. It leads to the conclusion that the scientific development of the kinetic theory cannot be understood without taking into account the role of philosophy. (shrink)
The present paper presents a philosophical analysis of earth science, a discipline that has received relatively little attention from philosophers of science. We focus on the question of whether earth science can be reduced to allegedly more fundamental sciences, such as chemistry or physics. In order to answer this question, we investigate the aims and methods of earth science, the laws and theories used by earth scientists, and the nature of earth-scientific explanation. Our analysis leads to the tentative conclusion that (...) there are emergent phenomena in earth science but that these may be reducible to physics. However, earth science does not have irreducible laws, and the theories of earth science are typically hypotheses about unobservable (past) events or generalised - but not universally valid - descriptions of contingent processes. Unlike more fundamental sciences, earth science is characterised by explanatory pluralism: earth scientists employ various forms of narrative explanations in combination with causal explanations. The main reason is that earth-scientific explanations are typically hampered by local underdetermination by the data to such an extent that complete causal explanations are impossible in practice, if not in principle. (shrink)
Reductionism, in the sense of the doctrine that theories on different levels of reality should exhibit strict and general relations of deducibility, faces well-known difficulties. Nevertheless, the idea that deeper layers of reality are responsible for what happens at higher levels is well-entrenched in scientific practice. We argue that the intuition behind this idea is adequately captured by the notion of supervenience: the physical state of the fundamental physical layers fixes the states of the higher levels. Supervenience is weaker than (...) traditional reductionism, but it is not a metaphysical doctrine: one can empirically support the existence of a supervenience relation by exhibiting concrete relations between the levels. Much actual scientific research is directed towards finding such inter-level relations. It seems to be quite generally held that the importance of such relations between different levels is that they are explanatory and give understanding: deeper levels provide deeper understanding, and this justifies the search for ever deeper levels. We shall argue, however, that although achieving understanding is an important aim of science, its correct analysis is not in terms of relations between higher and lower levels. Connections with deeper layers of reality do not generally provide for deeper understanding. Accordingly, the motivation for seeking deeper levels of reality does not come from the desire to find deeper understanding of phenomena, but should be seen as a consequence of the goal to formulate ever better, in the sense of more accurate and more-encompassing, empirical theories. (shrink)
Early in 1926 Erwin Schrodinger presented his famous theory of wave mechanics to account for atomic phenomena. It is often assumed that Schrodinger’s work reflected a realist philosophy. In this article, I will argue that this assumption is incorrect.
This paper approaches the scientific realism question from a naturalistic perspective. On the basis of a historical case study of the work of James Clerk Maxwell and Ludwig Boltzmann on the kinetic theory of gases, it shows that scientists’ views about the epistemological status of theories and models typically interact with their scientific results. Subsequently, the implications of this result for the current realism debate are analysed. The case study supports Giere’s moderately realist view of scientific models and theories, based (...) on the notion of similarity, and it highlights the crucial role of model users. The paper concludes with a discussion of Boltzmann’s Bildtheorie, the sophisticated form of realism that he developed in response to the scientific problems of kinetic theory. (shrink)
This article analyses an episode in the earlyhistory of quantum theory: the controversy betweenPauli and Heisenberg about the anomalous Zeemaneffect, which was a main stumbling block for the oldquantum theory of Bohr. It is argued that theindividual philosophical views of both Pauli andHeisenberg directed their attempts to solve theanomaly and decisively influenced the solutions theyproposed. The results of this case study arecompared with the assertions of four theories ofscientific change, namely those of Kuhn, Lakatos,Laudan and Giere.
Only a decade ago, the topic of scientific understanding remained one that philosophers of science largely avoided. Earlier discussions by Hempel and others had branded scientific understanding a mere subjective state or feeling, one to be studied by psychologists perhaps, but not an important or fruitful focus for philosophers of science. Even as scientific explanation became a central topic in philosophy of science, little attention was given to understanding. Over the last decade, however, this situation has changed. Analyses of scientific (...) understanding that do not treat it as a subjective state or feeling have been offered and debated, and both the epistemic value and the pitfalls of purported psychological .. (shrink)
The writings of Kuhn and Feyerabend on incommensurability challenged the idea that science progresses towards the truth. Davidson famously criticized the notion of incommensurability, arguing that it is incoherent. Davidson's argument was in turn criticized by Kuhn and others. This article argues that, although at least some of the objections raised against Davidson's argument are formally correct, they do it very little harm. What remains of the argument once the objections have been taken account of is still quite damaging to (...) the thesis that formerly endorsed scientific theories are incommensurable with those of today's science. (shrink)
I argue that scientific explanation has a pragmatic dimension that is epistemically relevant. Philosophers with an objectivist approach to scientific explanation (e.g. Hempel, Trout) hold that the pragmatic aspects of explanation do not have any epistemic import. I argue against this view by focusing on the role of models in scientific explanation. Applying recent accounts of modelling (Cartwright, Morgan and Morrison) to a case-study of nineteenth-century physics, I analyse the pragmatic dimension of the process of model construction. I highlight the (...) crucial roles that conceptual tools, skills, and commitments play in this dimension, and show how they contribute to the epistemic aim of science. (shrink)
Amsterdam 2009 Henk W. De Regt ... Alan C. Love 16.1 When Philosophers of Science Disagree According to John Norton there are no universal rules of inductive inference (Norton 2003). Every formal theory put forward thus far (e.g., ...
Een van de centrale doelen van wetenschap is het begrijpen van de wereld om ons heen. Wetenschappers geven beschrijvingen van verschijnselen en doen voorspellingen, maar bovenal trachten ze de verschijnselen te verklaren – en wetenschappelijke verklaringen leiden tot begrip. Of het nu het ontstaan van het universum betreft, het gedrag van levende organismen of de huidige sociale en economische ontwikkelingen, wetenschap streeft naar begrip ervan. En niet alleen wetenschappers zelf zijn geïnteresseerd in zulk begrip, wetenschappelijk begrip is van belang voor (...) iedereen. Het Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change bijvoorbeeld stelt zich expliciet ten doel om te evalueren in hoeverre er wetenschappelijk begrip is van klimaatsverandering. Het begrijpen van de klimaatsverandering is cruciaal voor onze toekomst. (shrink)