What Is This Thing Called Science?

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Univ. of Queensland Press, Apr 1, 2013 - Philosophy - 312 pages
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Every ten years, Alan Chalmers draws on his experience as a teacher and researcher to improve and update the text that strives to answer the philosophical question in it’s title: What is This Thing Called Science? Identifying the qualitative difference between knowledge of atoms as it figures in contemporary science and metaphysical speculations about atoms common in philosophy since the time of Democritus proves to be a highly revealing and instructive way to pinpoint key features of the answer to that question. The most significant feature of this fourth edition is the extensive postscript, in which Chalmers uses the results of his recent research on the history of atomism to illustrate and enliven key themes in the philosophy of science. This new edition ensures that the book holds its place as the leading introduction to the philosophy of science for the foreseeable future.

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Alan F. Chalmers introduces his 1982 book What Is This Thing Called Science? with the smilingly discouraging words: “we start off confused and end up confused on a higher level”.
In the end does
Chalmers have us more confused on the topic of modern science, than we were in prior to reading his book? Definitely! Readers most probably start to question whether science has the ultimate authority in explaining the world around us. How exactly do scientists obtain their authoritative results that seem to permeate guide our modern lives? Are they as grounded in objectivity and reason as they would have us think? Is it true that “science has no special features that render it intrinsically superior to other branches of knowledge such as ancient myths or Voodoo”(Feywrabend).
The question is especially poignant today when dubious concept of science is used to justify treatment of people like machines, during the education process and via the standardized tests to name just one example.
Future might hold another scientific revolution and what we thought to be impossible may become mundane; on the other hand things that seemed scientific will be deemed superstitions. Or we might simply destroy what we have through wars and greed, and go back to primitive living with our posterity gazing at the skyscrapers of Manhattan with the same superstitious awe as we do gaze upon the pyramids of Giza. We simply do not know what the future might hold for us, as we did not know 500 years ago, before the current scientific revolution.
The word TRUTH has been used 30 times throughout this book, and yet readers are as far from understanding what it really stands for as they were in the beginning.On (p.147) Chalmers writes that “realism involves notion of truth, for the realist science aims at true descriptions of what the world is really like.” The concept of TRUTH starts to sound somewhat metaphysical. Since we are limited by our senses of perception and theories (that keep changing) in understanding of the world that is permanent and beyond us, it is quite possible that we will never be able to comprehend the absolute reality, objectivity or for that matter the elusive ‘truth’. Finite beings that are, we are not capable of comprehending and therefore describing the infinite with our finite methods and tools, that we have invented. Chalmers returns idealists to harsh reality by proclaiming (p. xvi) that “attempts to give a simple and straightforward logical reconstruction of the scientific method encounter further difficulties when it is realized there is no method that enables scientific theories to be conclusively [proved or ] disproved .
But we are humans. At some point in our history we were killing prey with sticks, today we send robots to Mars. Our knowledge (whether accurate or not) about the universe keeps expanding, and in order to feel comfortable and hopeful (looking at the empty space between the stars or between the electrons) we cling to theories, religions, sciences, statistics, and words like ‘’truth’.
Some of us will always be like Jesus and Buddha who testified of the Truth. Others will remain like Pilate who questioned “What is Truth”? I’m not sure about Jesus , but Budai might have replied in Feywrabend’s words “anything goes”!
Rationalism vs Relativism; Objectivism; Realism;, Instrumentalism and Truth; unrepresentative realism
In the concluding chapters of his book What Is This Thing Called Science? A. F. Chalmers discusses several more theories that attempt to explain the world and the way science operates in it. On (p.36) Chalmers introduced a doubt in his readers’ minds that rival and more modern approaches than inductivism are necessary to shed light on the nature of science . We finally have a chance to see what he had in mind and whether his book has fulfilled its lofty purpose.
Rationalism vs Relativism
On (p. 119) Chalmers quotes J.R. Ravetz who said that “ Scientific knowledge is achieved by a complex social endeavour, and


Preface to the first edition
Observable facts expressed as statements
The production and updating of experimental results
Further problems with inductivism
Falsificationism and progress
Sophisticated falsificationism novel predictions and the growth of science
Inadequacies of the falsificationist demarcation criterion and Poppers response
Kuhns ambivalence on progress through revolutions
Critique of subjective Bayesianism
Deborah Mayo on severe experimental testing
happy meetings of theory and experiment
Thermodynamic and conservation laws
Some standard objections and the antirealist response
Unrepresentative realism or structural realism
Further reading

Problems with Lakatoss methodology
Piecemeal change of theory method and standards
The Bayesian approach
Realism versus antirealism again
Further reading

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About the author (2013)

Alan Chalmers studied physics at the University of Bristol, received a Master of Science degree at the University of Manchester, and graduated from the University of London with a PhD in history and philosophy of science. He is now an Associate Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Sydney, and was recently elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities.

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