Modern science puts us in an awkward situation. We are supposed to trust it. But how many of us really understand what it is and how it works? The imperative to live an examined life does not exclude the laboratory. In fact, upon opening that door, a lifetime of fascinating philosophical questions present themselves: Does science have a method? If so, how does it generate knowledge and understanding? If not, what separates science from pseudoscience? When should scientists let morality guide their actions? If modern physics is right, what does that tell us about space and time? If modern biology is right, what does that tell us about the nature of humanity? Whether you are a student of philosophy, history, sociology, science, or something else, this winter school will provide you with the tools to analyze the methods and outputs of science, sharpen your existing philosophical skills, and apply them to issues with real world importance.
This winter school, held from 13th to 18th December 2021, required no previous knowledge of philosophy of science. It was designed to give an introduction to philosophy of science, and at the same time, close familiarity with some of the most popular topics being discussed at the cutting-edge. It provided participants with an opportunity to learn from and interact with some of the best scholars in philosophy of science, as well as students from across India and around the world.
With early-stage researchers from across India, the 5-day winter school of consisted of curricular lectures and thematic talks with international scholars.
Day 1: 13th December 2021 || Experiments ||
Experiments are employed to create new things (golden-rice), detect effects (gravity-waves), measure quantities (Planks constant), and settle theoretical debates (Is the light wave or particle?). They are the final arbitrators of scientific disputes. However, an experiment is only good as the reason for believing in its result. In this session, we discussed the complexity of experimental reasoning and examine the reasons for believing in it by studying a few experiments in detail. We do so by asking the following questions. What is an experiment? How do we know that an experimental result is not a mere artefact of the instruments employed? Can experiments have a life of their own?
Day 2: 14th December 2021 || Scientific Understanding||
Scientific research doesn’t just aim at describing or predicting what happens. One of the central aims of science is to help us understand why things happen the way they do. The answer to these why-questions often come in the form of causal explanations, but is simply discovering causes enough to help us understand why something happens, or do we need more – an account of underlying mechanisms, perhaps? Are there forms of scientific understanding that are non-causal? For instance, could scientific understanding, in certain situations, be about discovering reasons or purposes rather than causes, or about interpreting a phenomenon rather than explaining how it came about? And how is the goal of scientific understanding impacted by a world of big data processed by complex computational models whose workings we cannot fully follow?
Day 3: 15th December 2021 || Theory and Evidence ||
How should we reason when our evidence falls short of complete proof? On one account, we should use probability. However, there is good evidence that even experts don't reason probabilistically. Moreover, it's not even clear what reasoning probabilistically would amount to, and whether it would be appropriate for situations where we are uncertain. On another account, we choose the simplest, most elegant solution. This more often matches the way experts describe their own reasoning, but much further work is required see what simplicity or elegance is, and why it would be a reliable way to reason.
Day 4: 16th December 2021 || Social Epistemology ||
The increase in collaborative research and institutional funding over the past few decades has made the social character of scientific knowledge production and justification all the more pronounced. It becomes important to investigate the epistemic role played by the social aspects – as biases, do they lead scientists astray from the rational project, or are they constitutive of group rationality; do institutional mechanisms of resource allocation lead to a diversity of theoretical approaches, or do they entrench orthodoxy; are disagreements between research programs merely a consequence of incomplete information that need to be overcome, or are they desirable methodological ends. These questions, and similar others, suggest the need for a social epistemology of science that explores the philosophical foundations of science conceived primarily as a collective and institutional enterprise; and they were taken up in this session.
Day 5: 17th December 2021 || Values in Science ||
We often hear that for science to be objective, our moral, political, social, and aesthetic goals need to be left out of science altogether. Science is, ideally, about emotionally detached reasoning about the structure of the world. After all, the world doesn't change how it works because of what is valuable to us. But science is also deeply tied up with moral and political issues such as research on climate change, gender or race, or genetic tracing. Should science steer clear of values or should science embrace values as a part of its practice? If we should accept values into science, which ones and when? These are some of the questions and issues we discussed.