Philosophy of Science

Course No. 4100
Professor Jeffrey L. Kasser, Ph.D.
Colorado State University
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Course No. 4100
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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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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 Associate 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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Philosophy of Science is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 91.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Informative. I have been listening to courses from this company for about 20 years. MANY courses on a wide variety of subjects. As a professor of Statistics this is quite simply the most valuable course I have ever had from The Teaching Company. My son who is also a professor of Statistics is also highly enthusiastic.
Date published: 2020-04-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Caution: Dense Material I have listened or watched scores of classes from the Great Courses (Teaching Company, as those of us long-timers still think of it). The Philosophy of Science is the course that most clearly qualifies as a real university level class. Unlike most of the courses I have taken which suffice as a series of interesting and informative lectures, Kasser ambitiously presents a rigorous and systematic investigation of a an academic field. I have listened to this class maybe eight times over the years, just finished again. It is dense, and if you don't have a background in science and philosophy you'll probably give up. It is not only densely packed, but much of the material is abstract, and although Kasser gives many examples, there are times when I still found myself lacking a referent for the idea presented. As Kasser says a few times, philosophy has no tangible stuff in its domain like bugs or lasers, just ideas, clarifications, logic, semantics, and the like. Explaining scientific practice in abstract terms is a great challenge, and I think he did a fine job. As my title suggests, and many reviewers noted, this class is not for everybody. You must make a real investment of thought and time, or you will end up wondering what in the world it's all about. It is indeed like taking a difficult real university class. This is the sort of presentation that should be the Great Courses' stock-in-trade. As for the presentation, Kasser does talk pretty fast, and given the mostly abstract material, it requires focus. He has a lot of humor, so it's far from dry.
Date published: 2019-11-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Need to See it at Least Twice I took similar courses in college and university. This one is more in depth and interesting. I must see it at least twice to truly appeciate it.
Date published: 2019-08-09
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good, not great The lecturer is excellent and some of the chapters are done very well and I learned some. However, some of the chapters are the regular philosophy, about splitting hairs.
Date published: 2019-06-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Broad depth High level. Required my attention. A good thing.
Date published: 2019-03-20
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Clarity is not so Clear Professor Kasser ends this course by discussing the clarity that philosophy brings, in this case the philosophy of science. After 36 lectures, I admit that I’m unclear as to many of the ideas and concepts presented. As one with no academic training in philosophy but with an abiding interest, including the average lay persons understanding of philosophers and philosophy, from the Classic period through more or less the Enlightenment and with a background in physics and math, I thought that this course was designed for me. But I struggled. And am still struggling. For sure there is much to praise, as Dr. Kasser packs an enormous amount of information and intellectual content into 18 hours. That too is the downside. Too often I felt that I was floundering with a concept and needed time to consider what was being presented but the concepts kept on coming. At least, having read other reviews, I realize in this I am not alone. For me (currently) this course is balanced between the good and things lacking. For example, I applaud that Dr. Kasser does not dumb down his presentation. He uses words precisely, according to the shaded, but important meanings that he is presenting. On the other hand, he often does not clarify the concepts (even when presenting analogies) sufficiently to be understandable. Admittedly it is a hard task to present difficult concepts in a clear fashion, but not impossible—see Dr. Sean Carroll’s course on “Dark Matter, Dark Energy” as an example—so a balance between the good and the not so good. I really appreciated the way that the course presented various philosophers and philosophies in both a chronological and balanced fashion. Professor Kasser just gives us the facts (or concepts) without judgment and lets the next position bring to the front the problems with the prior positions. But I could have used the help with an occasional more rigorous critique of some concepts when first presented. In the end, I learned a lot, but felt that I could have learned much more if some concepts were as clear as he explained Logical Positivism. This is one of a few courses that left me a bit confused as to how I felt and how much I learned, but one that I will take again after due consideration. Provisionally recommended, but only for those with an interest in the subject.
Date published: 2018-12-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best of the Great Courses I've done about 15 Great Courses. This is the best. I've done it three times. It's well organized, comprehensive, and open minded. But, be prepared to work. It's not suitable for passive listening. I found it very helpful to read the transcript too.
Date published: 2018-07-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Best and Most Challenging Course! As other reviewers have observed, this course is not easy to follow. This is because Dr. Kasser has offered a true survey of the philosophy of science at the advanced undergraduate level. I have worked in academic scientific research for 25 years and regularly take university courses in a variety of disciplines and compared to any course I have taken at 3 accredited universities here in Canada, this course ranks as one of the most thorough I have worked through. This is the only Great Courses (GC) course for which I would say that you HAVE to follow along in the handbook. I have taken 4 other (also excellent) GC philosophy courses and it was possible to rely only on the lectures to follow them to the end. Dr, Kasser's course is not like that. The ideas and concepts come fast and furious in this course! I want to stress that the challenging nature of the course stems from the fact that Dr. Kasser is an excellent teacher who is not "dumbing down" his lectures and possibly robbing the student of the richness of the subject!!! The material is subtle and challenging and honestly, I am in awe that Dr. Kasser has managed to cover the material so thoroughly in a way that any person who might be interested in the philosophy of science can obtain a legitimate grounding in the subject IF THEY ARE SUFFICIENTLY MOTIVATED. If you want a philosophy course that can be appreciated by listening casually to while exercising or driving, then there are excellent survey courses that I would recommend such as Great Ideas of Philosophy or Philosophy of Religion. These are both excellent courses and are very good introductions to the methods and topics that loom large in Philosophy. However, if you are interested in diving below the surface and grappling with the attempts that philosophers have made to account for the impressive epistemic power of science in a way that does not candy-coat the subtleties of thought required to understand the competing views, then you'll have to listen to some of these lectures more than once, while maybe even taking notes to get the concepts straight. This is rich, heady stuff, intellectually and if you have any sort of passion for epistemology in general or science in particular, then, like me, you'll be grateful for Dr. Kasser's virtuoso lecture series!
Date published: 2018-05-25
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