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Philosophy of Science

Philosophy of Science

Professor Jeffrey L. Kasser, Ph.D.
Colorado State University

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Philosophy of Science

Course No. 4100
Professor Jeffrey L. Kasser, Ph.D.
Colorado State University
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Course No. 4100
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is well illustrated, featuring more than 300 visual elements, including portraits of the philosophers discussed, such as Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Carl Hempel, Bas van Fraassen, and Nelson Goodman, plus ample on-screen text to highlight key concepts.
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Course Overview

Science can't be free of philosophy any more than baseball can be free of physics. With this bold intellectual swing for the fences, philosopher Jeffrey L. Kasser uses the tools of philosophy to launch an ambitious and exciting inquiry into what makes science science. In this brilliant course you will discuss

  • Why is science so successful?
  • Is there such a thing as the scientific method?
  • How do we distinguish science from pseudoscience?
  • Is science rational, cumulative, and progressive?

Focusing his investigation on the vigorous debate over the nature of science that unfolded during the past 100 years, Professor Kasser covers important philosophers such as Karl Popper, W. V. Quine, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Imre Lakatos, Carl Hempel, Nelson Goodman, and Bas van Fraassen.

All of these thinkers responded in one way or another to logical positivism, the dominant movement influencing the philosophy of science during the first half of the 20 th century. Logical positivism attempted to ground science exclusively in what could be known through direct experience and logic.

It sounds reasonable, but logical positivism proved to be riddled with serious problems, and its eventual demise is an object lesson in how truly difficult it is—perhaps impossible—to secure the logical foundations of a subject that seems so unassailably logical: science.

A Surprisingly Practical Field

The philosophy of science can be abstract and theoretical, but it is also surprisingly practical. Assumptions about the nature of science affect such contemporary debates as:

  • Which research gets funded
  • What topics qualify as science in elementary and high school classrooms
  • What is considered legitimate and ethical medical care
  • What and whether treatments are reimbursed by insurance companies.

Science plays a pivotal role in our society, and a rigorous study of its philosophical foundations sheds light on the ideas, methods, institutions, and habits of mind that have so astonishingly and successfully transformed our world.

Philosophy Made Accessible

In 36 half-hour lectures, Dr. Kasser takes you step by step through a host of philosophical arguments that illuminate important aspects of science. His goal is "to leave you puzzled in articulate and productive ways"—a mission at which he has compiled an impressive track record, as evidenced by such honors as the prestigious Senior Class Charles Bassett Teaching Award at Colby College.

In reporting this award, Colby Magazine cited the following testimonial from a student: "Jeff makes difficult material accessible better than anyone else from whom I've taken a class. After one of Jeff's classes, students feel as though they have conducted a complete study, not just a survey of scattered ideas."

Slaying Philosophical Dragons—or Wounding Them?

One example of how even the most promising approach to science is beset with unforeseeable problems involves the favorite philosopher of many working scientists: Karl Popper. People from all walks of life are familiar with Popper's rule of thumb for separating pseudoscience from science: If a theory can't be "falsified"—if there is no way to disprove it—then it doesn't qualify as science.

Early in the course, you will learn that Popper came up with this formulation in the 1930s in response to his disillusionment with Marxist political theory and Freudian psychology. Neither discipline appeared to have the self-confidence of, for example, Einstein's relativity theory, which could unequivocally state the kinds of observations that would disprove, or falsify, it.

By contrast, Marxists and Freudians tended to argue away all apparently disconfirming evidence, rendering their theories immune to falsification. Spurred by this realization, Popper proposed that true science is engaged in a ceaseless attempt, not to prove theories (something that can never be done definitively), but to falsify them, and having done so, to move ahead to improved theories. These, in turn, undergo a new round of tests until falsified, and so on.

As you will learn, Popper's demarcation criteria seemed to slay some prominent philosophical dragons, including the notorious problem of induction, first proposed by the Scottish philosopher David Hume in the 18th century. Hume argued that there is no justification for making the inductive inference that the future will resemble the past, which is a linchpin of scientific reasoning.

For Popper, this was not a problem because his falsification criteria made no appeal to induction. Professor Kasser quips that Popper is like a mutual fund manager who warns that past performance is not only no guarantee of future performance; it's no evidence at all for future performance.

But consider these cases:

  • Contrary to Popper's model, at some point we stop testing our theories and start taking them for granted. Ask yourself how much sense it makes to get on an airplane if you don't think past performance is any indicator at all of future performance.
  • From reading Popper, you might expect that early 19th-century scientists would have been anxious to reject Newtonian physics when the planet Uranus did not have the orbit that Newtonian physics predicted. Instead, they kept Newtonian physics and posited an as-yet-unobserved planet that turned out to be Neptune.
  • Astrology is the poster child of alleged pseudosciences. But advocates of this view often say in one breath that astrology makes false predictions and in another that it's unfalsifiable and hence, unscientific. But making false predictions is just one outcome of making testable ones. You can't simultaneously reject a theory as false and unscientific, especially if your criterion for science is falsifiability.
  • Popper's criteria admit virtually all competitors into the race to survive falsification. But "nobody would watch the Olympics if everybody got to compete," says Professor Kasser. "We have to find some way of distinguishing views that should be taken seriously, that should receive our resources, from views that shouldn't."

Popper is not the only thinker to get the philosophical third degree in this manner. If you already hold views about the nature of science or if you simply have strong instincts about what sounds right, you will find your convictions tested repeatedly in this course.

A Manual for Intellectual Self-Defense

Popper represents one powerful current of philosophical thought about science in the 20th century. Another was initiated by Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which Professor Kasser also covers in depth.

In the course of these lectures, you will investigate a wide range of philosophical approaches to science, including empiricism, constructivism, scientific realism, and Bayesianism.

You will also explore such concepts as natural kinds, bridge laws, Hume's fork, the covering-law model, the hypothetico-deductive model, and inference to the best explanation (mistakenly called "deduction" in the Sherlock Holmes stories). Professor Kasser shows how these and other tools allow us to take apart scientific arguments and examine their inner workings.

"Philosophy, in general, is supposed to provide a kind of manual for intellectual self-defense," he explains. "So philosophy of science should help us look at claims made within science, and claims made about science, and help us make informed judgments about how and what we're to think about each case."

Throughout the course, Dr. Kasser is careful to be an impartial guide, describing the arguments among different philosophers as these debates developed during the past 100 years. In Lecture 36, he ventures his own synthesis of the major themes that stand out in this remarkable century of thought.

Dr. Kasser's masterful summary in this last lecture might just count as a game-winning play in the inquiry he launched so boldly with a baseball analogy in Lecture 1. But we invite you to be the umpire.

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36 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
Year Released: 2006
  • 1
    Science and Philosophy
    Does a scientific worldview leave any room for distinctively philosophical knowledge? Do philosophers have anything useful to tell anyone, especially scientists, about science? Professor Kasser argues that this course will give ample reasons to answer "yes" to both questions. x
  • 2
    Popper and the Problem of Demarcation
    The distinguishing mark of science, according to Viennese philosopher Karl Popper, is that it seeks to falsify, not to confirm, its hypotheses. This lecture develops and assesses Popper's remarkable proposal. x
  • 3
    Further Thoughts on Demarcation
    What would be the implications of describing astrology as lousy science rather than as pseudoscience? Would this treatment of the problem of separating science from pseudoscience inevitably lead to the teaching of creationism in high school classrooms? x
  • 4
    Einstein, Measurement, and Meaning
    Einstein's special theory of relativity shocked physicists and scientifically minded philosophers by revealing a lack of clarity in familiar concepts such as length and simultaneity. When we insist on understanding simultaneity and length experimentally, we see that they crucially involve the notion of a reference frame, which is why durations and lengths are measured differently by observers moving relative to one another. x
  • 5
    Classical Empiricism
    The classical tradition of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume sets the terms for the problems that a sophisticated empiricist account of scientific knowledge must address. Empiricism's antimetaphysical tendencies constantly threaten to force it into a disabling and radical skepticism. x
  • 6
    Logical Positivism and Verifiability
    Born in the early 20th century, logical positivism tried to develop an empiricist conception of philosophy that was logically coherent and adequate to the practice of science. This lecture sketches the positivist program, paying special attention to the demarcation criterion and the verification principle. x
  • 7
    Logical Positivism, Science, and Meaning
    It is difficult for empiricism to make room for unobservable reality. However, scientific theories are full of claims about quarks and other apparently unobservable entities. One response is instrumentalism, according to which a scientific theory need only "save the phenomena." x
  • 8
    W. V. Quine's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism," published in 1953, is often considered the most important philosophical article of the century. In it, Quine draws radical implications from his idea that hypotheses are not testable in isolation. x
  • 9
    Discovery and Justification
    John Stuart Mill systematized a number of techniques used in earlier empiricist approaches to inquiry. Although overly ambitious and curiously naïve by today's standards, Mill's methods have proved valuable in fields such as artificial intelligence. x
  • 10
    Induction as Illegitimate
    This lecture begins the discussion of inductive logic by wrestling with Hume's argument that there is no justification for believing that the sun will rise tomorrow. Popper claimed that this was not a problem for science, which could operate perfectly well without such inductive inferences. x
  • 11
    Some Solutions and a New Riddle
    There are several philosophical responses to Hume's problem of induction. Notably, Nelson Goodman's "new riddle of induction" turns Hume's problem on its head, showing that experience lends support to too many inferences of uniformity in nature, not too few. x
  • 12
    Instances and Consequences
    Carl Hempel offered a paradox that appears as frustrating as Goodman's, showing that almost anything counts as evidence for a proposition such as "All crows are black." This instantial model was replaced by the hypothetico-deductive model, which faced challenges of its own. x
  • 13
    Kuhn and the Challenge of History
    Thomas Kuhn's 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, dealt logical positivism its mightiest blow. This lecture discusses the pattern of normal science punctuated by periods of revolution that Kuhn finds in the history of science, and his explanation of this pattern via the notion of a paradigm. x
  • 14
    Revolutions and Rationality
    Kuhn's treatment of normal science is controversial, but his treatment of scientific revolutions created a greater sensation. Notions of rationality and truth play little role in his explanation of the rise of a new paradigm. x
  • 15
    Assessment of Kuhn
    Kuhn's powerful and wide-ranging work raises several questions: How accurate is his portrayal of patterns in science? How acceptable is his explanation of these patterns? Are his claims about perception defensible? How sophisticated are his views of language and truth? x
  • 16
    For and Against Method
    Imre Lakatos tried to reconcile Kuhn's historical approach with a more robust role for scientific rationality. Lakatos's intellectual sparring partner, Paul Feyerabend, argued against all scientific methodologies. If there has to be a rule governing scientific practice, Feyerabend's is: Anything goes. x
  • 17
    Sociology, Postmodernism, and Science Wars
    Sociology of science promoted itself as the heir to philosophy of science, inspiring ideas such as "the social construction of reality." This lecture also explores postmodern views of science, including physicist Alan Sokal's notorious submission of a parody essay to the journal Social Text. x
  • 18
    (How) Does Science Explain?
    This lecture explores some philosophical ideas that have come to the fore since the Kuhnian revolution, focusing on Hempel's covering-law model of explanation. Hempel tried to reconcile empiricist scruples with the need for genuine scientific explanations. x
  • 19
    Putting the Cause Back in "Because"
    Many philosophers appeal to causation to avoid problems that crop up in Hempel's covering law model, which allows arguments that intuitively have no explanatory force as legitimate scientific explanations. The causal model appears to deal with this concern. x
  • 20
    Probability, Pragmatics, and Unification
    This lecture examines the remaining major issues in the philosophy of explanation, including Bas van Fraassen's radical proposal that explanation is no part of science itself and that good explanations are nothing deeper than contextually appropriate answers to "why" questions. x
  • 21
    Laws and Regularities
    It is generally, though by no means unanimously, agreed that science seeks to uncover laws of nature. But the role of such laws is controversial. Empiricist philosophers are suspicious of the very concept because of the association of laws of nature with divine decrees and other metaphysical pictures. x
  • 22
    Laws and Necessity
    This lecture looks at several other approaches to the problem of laws of nature. Nancy Cartwright, a philosopher of physics, argues for a stark dilemma: Either the laws of nature are false, but can be used in scientific explanations; or they are true, but useless for explaining things. x
  • 23
    Reduction and Progress
    Science appears to progress when one theory is absorbed by or reduced to another. According to the positivists, bridge principles allow the reduced theory to be derived from the reducing theory. But Kuhn and Feyerabend hold that many such cases are more like replacements of one theory by another. x
  • 24
    Reduction and Physicalism
    Many philosophers have been tempted by the view that the social sciences reduce to psychology, which reduces to biology, which reduces to chemistry, which reduces to physics. What are the prospects for this bold outlook? x
  • 25
    New Views of Meaning and Reference
    This lecture explores a new approach to meaning and reference, along with a new conception of scientific theories. These ideas conceive of theories in terms of models and analogies, rather than as deductive systems. x
  • 26
    Scientific Realism
    Scientific realism is the claim that successful scientific theories correctly depict unobservable as well as observable reality. "Hard" realists seek to discover how the world truly is. "Soft" realists strive to organize a mind-independent world in the way that makes the most sense out of the many possibilities. x
  • 27
    Success, Experience, and Explanation
    Realists defend their position as the best explanation for the success of science. Anti-realists point to a number of successful-but-false theories in the history of science. Under what conditions, if any, does the success of a theory give grounds for believing it is true? x
  • 28
    Realism and Naturalism
    The realist asserts and the empiricist denies that a theory's explanatory success provides evidence that the theory is true. Many realists argue that realism is best defended from within a naturalistic approach, which abandons the project of providing a philosophical justification for science. x
  • 29
    Values and Objectivity
    This lecture examines the values that animate science and scientists. Might the social structure of science generate objective results even if individual scientists are motivated by the pursuit of recognition, money, or tenure? Who should get to participate in the formation of a scientific "consensus" and why? x
  • 30
    Throughout much of Western intellectual history, "chance" was thought to represent the enemy of reason. But notions of chance, or probability, are now arguably inquiry's greatest ally. This lecture confronts the philosophical issues that arise about the interpretation of probability statements. x
  • 31
    Bayesianism is a remarkable program that promises to combine the positivists' demand for rules governing rational theory choice with a Kuhnian role for values and subjectivity. After explaining the basics of Bayesianism, this lecture examines its approach to scientific reason. x
  • 32
    Problems with Bayesianism
    Predictably, a Bayesian backlash has also been gaining momentum in recent years. This lecture investigates Bayesianism's surprisingly subjective approach to probability assignments as well as the Bayesian treatment of the problem of old evidence. x
  • 33
    Entropy and Explanation
    Typically, philosophy of science is philosophy of a particular science. This lecture turns to the philosophy of physics to examine such concepts as the reduction of thermodynamics to statistical mechanics, the direction of time, the origin of the universe, and the nature of explanation. x
  • 34
    Species and Reality
    Biology defines species in a number of ways, and even some of the best definitions seem to exclude most organisms on Earth from being members of a species. How valid is the species concept, and does a sufficiently well-defined notion of species track something real? x
  • 35
    The Elimination of Persons?
    Folk psychology is the commonsense explanation of human behavior in terms of beliefs, desires, and so forth. Many folk psychological explanations face direct empirical challenge and are vulnerable to eliminative reduction, which has the paradoxical effect of rendering personality an illusion. x
  • 36
    Philosophy and Science
    Seeking to "leave you puzzled in articulate and productive ways," Professor Kasser sums up the overarching themes of the course, which involve recurring ideas such as the search for demarcation criteria, the inescapability of metaphysics, and the tension between empiricism and realism. x

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Your professor

Jeffrey L. Kasser

About Your Professor

Jeffrey L. Kasser, Ph.D.
Colorado State University
Dr. Jeffrey L. Kasser is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University. He earned his B.A. from Rice University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. As a graduate student, Dr. Kasser taught Philosophy of Science to Ph.D. students in Michigan's School of Nursing. He was the first recipient of the John Dewey Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Education given by the Department...
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Rated 4.1 out of 5 by 76 reviewers.
Rated 2 out of 5 by Be forewarned This is one of the VERY few poor reviews I've given, but I do so with reservations. I actually kind of liked the professor and the information was really great. It simply seemed to me to be a bit over my head and I REALLY needed to absorb everything he threw out (and there is a LOT of info packed in here) in order to keep up. I gave up after about 8 lectures as I felt I was completely lost in the weeds. In the meantime, I purchased "Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science" and am thrilled with it (but am only on lecture 9 as of now). Redefining Reality is FAR preferable for anyone like me who has an interest in learning about the Philosophy of Science, but has a limited interest in learning about every nuanced argument made between 300 different Philosophers over the years. The two courses cover very similar material, but Professor Gimbel is a more dynamic presenter and he presents the material in a more accessible way. After doing RR, I'm planning to try Philosophy of Science one more time, better prepared with some of the basics. Perhaps I'll like it more at that point. If so, I'll make sure to edit this review. In the meantime, P of S is only for the hardcore, academic types while RR is more for the everyday learner like me. October 21, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent Course But Not for the Casual Listener I have a Ph.D. in the humanities and I have found this course to be a real challenge. That's not to say Professor Kasser is bad. I actually think he is remarkably good. I am not sure I have ever listened to a Great Courses teacher who has so much clarity of understanding and expression -- and such a gift for organization. But the material is hard, and there is a lot of it, and Kasser doesn't pad the presentation out much. He usually explains an idea very clearly, but succinctly. Then he gives one good example, and he does this in about 20 seconds. There is seldom a second example. Then he is on to the the next point, which often involves raising an objection to the point he just made. He might spend two minutes on an objection. Then he is on to another point -- perhaps another, different objection, or perhaps a reply to the objection. He is scrupulously fair about showing the problems with everyone's theory of science. But he doesn't believe in wasted words. As far as I can tell, he doesn't care much about sharing the philosophers voice either. he seldom quotes any of the philosophers. He just extracts the key arguments and the helpful examples. And of course, it's a taped lecture, so you can't ask questions. Have you ever seen the philosophy book called "Just the Arguments"? Kasser's lectures are like that. He gives you just the arguments, and having given the key idea, he doesn't lolligag around waiting for you to understand it. I am reminded of Samuel Johnson's comment, "Sir, I have provided you with an argument; I am not obligated to provide you with an understanding." In some Great Courses you feel like a lecture is really an attempt to get you to understand a single point. The professor sort of wanders around the idea, looks at it from various angles, states it, restates it, gives quotations, gives numerous examples. The treatment is expansive, even a little sprawling. This can be helpful if you are new to the subject, as it gives you some time to get your mind around the point. Also, you can tune out if the traffic picks up and tune back in when it dies down. But Kasser's course is not like that at all. His course has the structure of a series of propositions in which all unnecessary verbiage has been left out. It is well organized and tight. Man, is it tight! But as a result, it is demanding, and I can see why some people think the lectures are poorly put together and overwhelming. They feel to me like they are pitched at an audience with an IQ a good deal above average. I was listening to some of the lectures today -- in some cases I am listening for the second or third time. I felt the need to pull over and devote all of my attention to listening to what Kasser was saying. And then I got to the point where my brain was full and I had to turn off the CD. As I was sitting there in my car, I said to myself, "Wow! If these lectures are this much of a challenge for me, I have to think they are going to be a challenge for others who have done less relevant reading. . . . or am I perhaps dumber than I think I am?" I felt a sudden urge to go to the Great Courses page and see what other people have to say about the course. I have just read most of the other reviews and I feel somewhat re-assured. I am clearly not the only person who finds these lectures challenging. The reviews on this page actually show precisely what I expected. Some people really like the course, but some really don't. I think it's going to depend on your tolerance for an intellectual rigorous, taut, and terse presentation. It's not for everybody. If you are looking for "easy listening," look elsewhere. But these really are remarkable lectures if you have a little interest in the subject. It might help if you have read one or two of the things he is discussing -- like maybe Kuhn's book or a little Popper. I find it somewhat easier sledding now that I have read some of the key texts. But it's not easy listening even with this background reading. I have listened to probably 35 of these Teaching Company courses over the years. I think Kasser and Bart Ehrman are perhaps the two most intellectually impressive lecturers I have heard. September 30, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Great for hard-core philosophy-enthusiasts This course is great for hard-core philosophy-enthusiasts, definitely not something to listen to with half an ear. It covers more material and in better depth than do many university introductory courses in the philosophy of science. (Much more than I do in MY philosophy of science course!) Be prepared to listen to some of the lectures more than once. September 4, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by A perfect course Honestly, I don't know how this course could be improved upon. All subjective considerations aside ~ like, "Do you find the philosophy of science interesting?" ~ everything about this course is just what it should be, and more. Is the content difficult and challenging? Of course! Will most auditors need to listen to it more than once to catch everything? Absolutely! But these are essential elements and consequences of any subject that is worth thinking deeply about. I am midway through my 6th listening of the entire series of 36 lectures, and not only am I still gaining greater clarity on many points and discovering previously unrecognized nuggets, but I still enjoy Dr. Kasser's lecturing as much as ever! His style is clear, engaging, and amusing; and he has a wonderful talent for anticipating my questions, and providing satisfying answers. Well, "answers" may be too strong a word, since philosophy seems to be largely the art of showing why all answers are wrong! But Dr. Kasser's explanations are always clear, and as easy to follow as discourse on this intellectual level can be expected to be. I have listened to five other Teaching Company courses that fall within the broad category of science and philosophy, and Dr. Kasser's is by far the best; and this is due almost entirely to Dr. Kasser himself. There are two points about his lectures that I particularly appreciate. One is that he never allows his own opinion to cloud the issue being discussed. He always presents a balanced perspective, pointing out fairly what the proponents have to say, and then countering with the arguments against. But in hardly any point can one tell what Dr. Kasser himself thinks about it. I feel that this is immensely important; and it is a quality that I have not found in the other courses I have listened to. In all of the others, the lecturer can clearer be recognized as trying to lead the listener towards his own way of seeing things. The second point about Dr. Kasser's course is that there is not a single moment in all 36 lectures where I have been able to detect any sloppiness of reasoning. I am not a philosopher myself, and have no formal training; nevertheless, in every other lecture series there are moments where I can detect a fallacy in the argument that is being presented, or an important point that has been glossed over because it is not consistent with the opinion of the presenter. That this is completely absent from Dr. Kasser's lectures, yet so common in the other courses I have listened to, is rather remarkable; and in my mind it says much about Dr. Kasser's excellence as a teacher. In short, if you have an interest in philosophy and science, pour yourself a cup of tea or coffee, settle into your favorite armchair, and start listening to these lectures. You are in for an intellectual treat! May 20, 2016
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