Something that I used to study at undergraduate but haven’t managed to for a while is the philosophy of science. As a subject it doesn’t get that much public airtime, but as science progresses and brings into the public consciousness theories which clash more and more dissonantly with our intuition, it’s more important than ever.
We (I include myself and in fact every other scientist in this, as well as the public in general) need to understand i) What questions can and does science ask about the world? ii) How are answers sought? and iii) What is the philosophical status of those answers once they are arrived at? Confusion in this area makes space for the context and content of scientific results to be manipulated to almost any end, and can also reduce the aesthetic impact of scientific theories; as Nagel points out in an excellent and tangentially related essay, the revelatory statement that ‘All mass is just energy’ is surprisingly lacking in punch on its own because, without some idea of the supporting conceptual background, we can’t really tell what it means for this to be true.
Philosophy of science discusses and formalises questions that all good scientists and interested observers consider at some point. I’ll hopefully get back to reading more of it and writing a bit more on here. For now, as a kind of introduction, I’ve uploaded two final-year essays from my philosophy of science course. Like most things written by a student for an assessor who knows much more about the subject than they do, they tend to be a strange mix of endearing simplicity and specialists-only balls-out complexity — I hope that the essential ideas still come through and maybe prompt anyone who is interested to research further:
What is a gene?
concerns the often-neglected field of the philosophy of biology. The ‘gene’, ingrained in the modern consciousness and underpinning huge swathes of new research, is a surprisingly hazy concept. I describe its heritage and development and discuss ways that people have sought to clarify its meaning.
Critically examining structural realism
looks at a big question: How and to what extent do scientific theories describe how the world really is? I introduce the problems of various apparently appealing viewpoints and outline structural realism, which attempts to get round those problems.