Philosophy of science

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Philosophy of science
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Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.
—Usually attributed to Richard Feynman[1]

(whoever said it has never heard of songbird habitat preservation or is philosophically illiterate)

A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is — in my opinion — the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.
Albert Einstein[2]

Philosophy of science is a branch of formal philosophy dedicated to questions about science and the scientific method. It is not an attempt to "do" science, but to ask questions about why and how science is done and why it may be a good method. It also deals with epistemology: the nature of knowledge — what constitutes knowledge and how it affects science.

In the practical sense, "the" philosophy of science is almost synonymous with the scientific method — it is the philosophy and ideal that scientists hold and that they believe they should ascribe to.

Philosophical issues[edit]

Philosophy of science asks about numerous issues.

  • What is a theory and what is a law of science? The two are often conflated, but have well defined meanings; a "law" is unbroken, such as the law that gravity causes things to fall, but might not be totally proved, such as the laws of thermodynamics, which are mostly observed empirically and aren't necessarily true all of the time in all conditions. The second law of thermodynamics, for example, has only a statistical certainty of operation and can conceivably be violated in individual cases; see Maxwell's demon.
  • Realism and anti-realism: To what extent do scientific theories describe reality? Are scientific theories primarily tools for prediction and control, or do they aim at description of a mind-independent reality? If so, what parts do so? Which theories? What does it mean for a scientific theory to be "correct?"
  • What is scientific explanation? Why are scientific explanations so successful? What makes something a good explanation? Are explanations primarily causal, logical, or something else? Are explanations in different sciences structurally similar, or do they each have their own "logic?"
  • Reduction and emergence: What is reductionism? To what degree is reductionism possible? How do, e.g. biological explanations and concepts relate to physical explanations and concepts? What does it mean for a phenomenon to be "emergent?" Are the sciences converging on an increasingly unified picture of the world, or are they fragmentary, giving us only partial and increasingly domain-specific descriptions?
  • What is falsifiability? Falsifiability is often taken to be a "litmus test" of science — it means that a claim can be falsified, or shown to be not true. Atomic theory could be falsified by showing a chemical reaction that wasn't stoichiometric, for example. Supernatural explanations, on the other hand, cannot be falsified; as by definition, proponents of supernatural explanations will put themselves outside the realms of actual testing.
  • What is and is not "scientific"? This is known as the Demarcation problem. Many people defer to Karl Popper on this, who was a great proponent of the idea that science rests entirely on falsifiability. Within the philosophy of science community, Popper's falsificationism is widely criticized.[3][4][5][6] Work in contemporary philosophy of science largely ignores the demarcation problem.
  • What is the definition of Direct observation? For instance, how many layers of theoretical observation can be applied, before you are no longer directly observing and before the theory-laden tools compromise the term "direct observation"? For instance: I see a leaf. I use a single lens magnifying glass to see the leaf. I use a double-lens microscope to see the leaf. Based on the theory of electrons, I look at the leaf with electron microscope. Based on other theories, I look at the light under UV scopes... this could be taken down to the atomic level, as atoms are too small to be observed by visible light, so their existence must be inferred from other regions of the electromagnetic spectrum; X-Rays for diffraction or NMR to observe the magnetic moment of the nucleus.
  • What are, if any, the ramifications of theory-laden observation?
  • What defines the natural world?
  • What is the limit of scientific reasoning? Where (if anywhere) does "science" cross into "non-science" when talking about things like chaos theory, string theory, and other non-empirical driven science. This is a special case of the demarcation problem.
  • Pseudoscience: what characterizes deviations from scientific principles that might undermine their reliability?

Notable philosophers[edit]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]


Barker, G. and Kitcher, P. 2013. Philosophy of Science: A New Introduction. Oxford University Press (ISBN 9780195366198)

  • A very good, short textbook by two very widely-cited philosophers of science. Can show its pragmatist leanings at points.

Bunge, M. 1998. Philosophy of Science, 2 vols. Transaction Books - Rutgers University Press

  • Very long and can be heavy going at points, but rewarding. Has numerous exercises and huge bibliography. Non-standard in many ways, approaches phil. of science from an extremely scientifically informed perspective. Bunge has been very influential among many "foundations" oriented scientists[7], if not many other philosophers, who often do not grasp the relevant science properly. Very much in "tune" with RationalWiki's general orientation (but Bunge, an argentine scientist, specifically mentions “biological psychiatry”[8] not making the proper distinction, among other things (because "biological psychiatry" is pseudoscientific[9]).

Chalmers, A.F. 2013. What Is This Thing Called Science?, 4th edition. Hackett

  • Somewhat non-standard in the amount of space it gives to Kuhn, Popper, and Lakatos, but very fair and nuanced on them. This is good for many scientists and laypeople because out in the real world "philosophy of science" is for many people synonymous with those figures. Tends to focus on physics-based examples.

Godfrey-Smith, P. 2003. Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. University of Chicago Press

  • Excellent all around, very fair even though it does overall have a slight pragmatist-naturalist leaning (which makes sense since Godfrey-Smith is a famous student of Philip Kitcher's). Especially strong on biology-related examples as Godfrey-Smith is a major figure in the foundations of evolutionary theory (particularly population genetics) right now.

Hacking, I. 1983. Representing and Intervening: Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Natural Science. Cambridge University Press (ISBN 9780511814563)

  • A somewhat older book that emerged in a context where there was a new-found attention paid to experiment as an important subject for philosophy of science, so it's very good on issues about the nature of experiment, data, probabilistic inference, etc. Hacking is sympathetic to a moderate constructivism to an extent, but not in a blithe pomo way.

Hempel, C.G. 1966. Philosophy of Natural Science. Pearson

  • A classic book that these days is unfairly neglected, as the framework laid down by Hempel and other late logical empiricists basically set the terms for philosophy of science to this day. Hempel's sophisticated logical empiricism (think less radical version of logical positivism) is a nice counterbalance to certain lazy and fad-ish anti-naturalist and anti-formalist tendencies in philosophy today.

Okasha, S. 2002. Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press

  • Probably the easiest quality introduction you will find. Necessarily superficial given the format, but packs quite a lot of information into few pages.

Rosenberg, A. 2011 Philosophy of Science: A Contemporary Introduction, 3rd. edition. Routledge

  • Quite possibly the best one-volume, "general" introduction to the philosophy of science on the market today. If you want a one-stop shop for the most talked-about issues in the philosophy of science literature today, plus helpful context drawn from the history of science, this is the book. Notable for having a very good discussion of (and being very sympathetic to) naturalism, whilst being very fair to non-naturalist views. The naturalism section is only in the 3rd edition and onward (there is a projected 4th edition coming in the next couple years) though, so be careful if you want this! Rosenberg is also better scientifically informed than most philosophers, which comes through in that many of the "further reading" suggestions are by scientists.

Anthologies of classic works/papers[edit]

Ayer, A.J. ed. 1966. Logical Positivism. Free Press

  • Unlike the others, this is not a "general" phil. of science reader, but specifically has classic works of logical positivism and logical empiricism. However, understanding the aims, successes, and failures of logical positivism is very useful for understanding subsequent developments in the philosophy of science.

Balashov, Y. and Rosenberg, A. eds. 2001. Philosophy of Science: Contemporary Readings. Routledge

  • Overall a very good selection while keeping the length of the book reasonable. The editors did a good job balancing comprehensiveness with not being overwhelming. Topic-wise this is very focused on the issues du jour in academic philosophy of science, for better or worse. Somewhat light on specifics from the sciences.

Boyd, R., Gasper, P. and Trout, J.D. eds. 1991. The Philosophy of Science. MIT Press

  • Slightly older, more technically-oriented than Balashov and Rosenberg (2001). Readings are a bit harder, but there is a lot more attention paid to specific sciences, and to formal approaches.

Cover, J.A., Curd, M. and Pincock, C. eds. 2012 Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues, 2nd edition. Norton

  • Probably the single most comprehensive anthology in the subject, a massive book. Has important papers which tend to otherwise be split between multiple anthologies. Also has very good extensive editiorial introductions, if that's your sort of thing. Like Balashov and Rosenberg (2001), however, for better or worse it does have an emphasis on the issues du jour in the contemporary literature rather than on what scientists, naturalists, skeptics, humanists etc. might consider more important.

Klemke, E.D., Hollinger, R. and Rudge, D.W. eds. 1998. Introductory Readings in the Philosophy of Science, 3rd edition. Prometheus Books

  • Affordable, and has some important papers neglected in a lot of the phil. of science literature today that are very useful for actual scientists, naturalists, skeptics, humanists, etc. Also has an interesting "case studies" approach and study questions. Best purchased as a complimentary volume for something like Balashov and Rosenberg (2001) or Cover, Curd and Pincock (2012).

Accessible non-textbook monographs[edit]

Bunge, M. 2001. Scientific Realism: Selected Essays of Mario Bunge. Prometheus Books

  • Not technically a monograph, but a collection of a single author's essays. Covers many core topics in the philosophy of science from a refreshingly scientifically informed perspective. The bits on the foundations of physics can get quite technical, but that is only one part of the book.

Giere, R. 2010. Scientific Perspectivism. University of Chicago Press

  • Interesting pragmatist-naturalist attempt to carve a path between realism and anti-realism. Very informed by the cognitive sciences. Also quite short with very readable prose.

Giere, R. Bickle, J. and Maudlin, R. 2005. Understanding Scientific Reasoning, 5th edition. Cengage

  • Not a conventional philosophy of science textbook in that the goal is not to get the reader up to speed on debates in the philosophy of science literature. Instead, the book uses the philosophy of science to try to paint a general picture of how to reason scientifically, of how science works.

Haack, S. 2003. Defending Science, Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism. Prometheus Books

  • Haack is fearlessly original, going where her interests and reasoning lead her and not where the latest philosophical fad is going, and this shows here. Mainly focused on the relationship between natural science and other forms of inquiry (hence the subtitle), also includes a proposal for a very original form of realism and a lot of attention to social issues surrounding science, such as the use of evidence in law and public policy. Another pragmatist-oriented book.

Hull, D. 1990. Science as a Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science. University of Chicago Press

  • Quite heavy going at points, but does not require much of a background in philosophy. Very good for people who already have a degree confidence in their knowledge of biology, Hull argues that the progress of science works in a way very similar to biological evolution, and proposes an "evolutionary" epistemology. Philosophy of science aside, this book also has a lot of fascinating accounts of episodes in the history of biology.

Kitcher, P. 2003. Science, Truth, and Democracy. Oxford University Press

  • Develops a pro-science, realist, naturalist position that takes on board some of the criticisms of science by social-constructivists, feminist science critics, etc. while ultimately remaining against those critics. A good way to learn about academic anti-science views and criticisms thereof.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions 2nd edition Thomas Kuhn

Kuhn, T.S. 2012. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 4th edition/50th anniversary edition, originally published in 1962. University of Chicago Press

  • Enormously influential for better or worse, important for understanding social-constructivist and academic anti-science positions. Best read in conjunction with something like Kitcher (2003), Parsons (2001), or Merton (1979).

Merton, R.K. 1979. The Sociology of Science. University of Chicago Press

  • While not strictly a book of philosophy of science, Merton's book provides an important sociological counterbalance to anti-science postmodernists like Latour and Woolgar that is much more sensitive to the nuances of scientific practice and more realistic about the relevance of sociology of science to considerations of scientific method.

Parsons, K. 2001. Drawing Out Leviathan: Dinosaurs and the Science Wars. Indiana University Press

  • Scientifically informed critique of academic anti-science. Introduces a lot of good philosophy of science concepts along the way, and Parsons can be quite funny.

Pigliucci, M. 2010. Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. University of Chicago Press

  • Similar to Parsons (2001) in some ways, but focuses on more common forms of pseudoscience rather than academic postmodernism (though it does have a discussion of the latter). Brings classic CSI-esque skepticism and critical thinking together with academic philosophy of science.

Popper, K. 2002. The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 2nd edition. Originally published in 1935, first English edition in 1959. Routledge

  • Classic primary source that is quite readable, important for understanding what all the fuss is about over falsifiability. The Routledge Classics edition includes a huge amount of extra material which can get extremely technical, but the actual title book is short and easy to read.

Sokal, A. 2010. Beyond the Hoax. Oxford University Press

  • Alan Sokal of "Sokal Hoax" fame is a philosophically-minded mathematical physicist, and this book is a compilation of his lengthier philosophy-of-science oriented writings. This book is a very good way for working scientists, skeptics, etc. to get into the philosophy of science, and Sokal's perspective as a scientist rather than a strict philosophical insider avoids some of the pitfalls the latter sometimes fall into. Includes a heavily annotated of Sokal's original parody, as well as an original form of scientific realism and an argument for the incompatibility of science and religion.


  1. "Richard Feynman's Philosophy of Science". Philosophy Now.
  2. "Einstein's Philosophy of Science". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  3. Bunge, M. 1998. Philosophy of Science, 2 vols. Transaction Books — Rutgers University Press
  4. Grünbaum, A. 1976 "Is the Method of Bold Conjectures and Attempted Refutations Justifiably the Method of Science?" British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 27:105–136.
  5. Lakatos, I. 1970. "Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programs" in Lakatos, I. and Musgrave, A. eds. 1970. Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. Cambridge University Press
  6. Laudan, L. 1977. Progress and Its Problems. Routledge.
  7. Bunge consistently ranks in the top 200 in the Science (journal) Hall of Fame
  8. For MARIO BUNGE (which clearly confused some concepts): "[...] biological psychiatry remained speculative until Paul Broca (1864) found the anatomical seat of speech, and Carl Wernicke (1874) that of the comprehension of linguistic locutions - or the transformation of word into concepts." From a Scientific Point of View: Reasoning and Evidence Beat Improvisation across Fields (book)
  9. Pam, Alvin (1995). "Biological psychiatry: science or pseudoscience?". In Colin Ross and Alvin Pam. Pseudoscience in Biological Psychiatry: Blaming the Body. NY: Wiley & Sons. pp. 7–84. ISBN 978-0-471-00776-0.