Philosophy and History of Science and Technology

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Tuesday, 09-05-17: Introduction: Puzzles


This is the first of hopefully many synopses. The synopses give me another shot at explaining points from lecture, let me highlight important points, and, frequently, let me expand on our discussions in (hopefully) useful ways.

I began today with the ordinarily tedious exercise of explaining the course mechanics. I trust you can read and understand the syllabus, but please feel free to contact me should you have any questions.

Next today we got started on the group project.

That is, I want to expand our study of the Philosophy of Science to include the Philosophy of Technology, since it seems to me that technology raises a host of questions which have not been examined by philosophers of science with the same kind of care and interest as traditional topics in the Philosophy of Science. Surely technology has as much to do with what Science can do as any endeavor; it is just as certainly that which makes even basic science most clear in the day to day lives of the ordinary person. If anything, technology has become more, not less, important. And in this respect at least we can 'get our hands dirty', as it were, and look for ourselves at the development of technology.

Hence I am requiring everyone to work in groups of no more than six to recreate as best they can a piece of technology using only the tools and materials available at the time of its original creation. A large part of this project is as historical detective: You have to find out what was available and what could have been done at the time. Moreover, it has to be something you and your group can accomplish in a semester. Thus, you should be thinking about modest innovations. Of course, there is a trade-off. The more modest the innovation, likely the earlier its inception, so the less we will have in the historical record about the process by which it was brought about.

Let me add that this class boasts an extremely talented and intelligent collection of students from various programs around campus--many of whom I've gotten to know in other courses over several semesters. Any professor would count him or herself lucky to have the opportunity to work with a class of this calibre. I anticipate the group projects will be fascinating to watch develop. I hope they will prove as interesting in execution. That said, it is not the case that your grade depends on the 'success' of your project. Indeed, I've seen projects do better even though they 'failed' miserably when viewed as a device.

Bear in mind that the group project prospectus is due Thursday, 9/21, to give your group time to research alternatives.

Here are a few points to bear in mind as you put together your group's prospectus:

  • You may not repeat a project from previous classes. So you may not, for example, build a trebuchet, since that's been done. However, the trebuchet is only one of many kinds of catapult. A very different catapult involving very different technology would be allowable under this requirement.
  • You may only use the tools, materials, and techniques available at the time of the original advance. Anything, that is, that was 'off the shelf' then is available to you 'off the shelf'. For example, if your project needs leather and leather was common at the time, you can just go get some leather. You needn't skin an animal and tan its hide. That would, in fact, be to replicate two technological advances instead of one. The toaster example in the video below is thus not quite on the mark, since he goes all the way back to smelting in his project.
  • Finally, mythbusters-style projects are always welcome. There is much we don't know about how things were built or, if we have the plans, whether they could have been built. It is always fascinating to explore possible technological developments.

Please read the instructions on the group project and follow them scrupulously. Above all, adopt strict safety measures so no one gets hurt on these projects.

I recognize that group projects are pretty much hated by everyone. Please note that your grade for the project, however, hinges almost entirely on the portfolio you each present, wherein you write about what you did, explain the research you conducted, and describe the discoveries you made along the way. More on all that later.

Now, it is trite to note that we humans seem naturally unable to perceive very well or reason very well. As an aside, I think this helps explain why we have historically sought to tell stories about the world to explain the world. It is much easier to explain that lightning is Zeus being belligerent than telling the full, complicated, and surprisingly incomplete story of fulminology, the science of lightening. Thus by attributing agency to phenomena, we at once believe ourselves to have a better understanding of them while we feel ourselves better able to control them.

These twin desires, understanding and control, are expressed in modern terms as science and technology. If I'm right, the impulse that originally led us to religion is precisely the same impulse that now leads us to science.

Yet we must not thereby conclude that religion has no role in our lives. The point is rather that the reasons for having religious belief today are different than the reasons we originally had for religious belief. Naturalism recognizes that explanations by appeal to the supernatural merely explain at the cost of inviting far more troubling puzzles. For example, if God set the template for the evolution of organisms on Earth as Intelligent Design theorists seem to conclude, then what explains God?

But I digress. The things we are good at are precisely those kinds of things one would expect us to be good at given our evolutionary history: Our attentiveness to bilateral symmetry, for example, or our looming reflex, or even our emotional/social sensitivity to others. We evolved, in short, to be good at the kinds of things we needed to be good at so as to evolve. Understanding the fundamental nature of matter (quantum mechanics) or light (optics) or the origins of the universe (cosmology) or evolution itself (biology) are not things we needed to understand to succeed evolutionarily speaking, so it should be no surprise that we are poorly equipped to understand them.

We must, in other words, be humble in trying to understand the world, because our minds (through no fault of our own!) are relatively blunt instruments.

That said, there are a host of questions we will consider this semester. From the syllabus,

  • Why should we expect the world tomorrow to be anything remotely like it was today?
  • What is a scientific theory, and how do scientific theories from different disciplines relate to one another?
  • What is the nature and justification of a law of nature?
  • Is the notion of a completed science coherent?
  • Can science ever be completed?
  • What is a scientific explanation, and how does it differ from other kinds of explanations?
  • Does science reveal the fundamental nature of reality, and is revealing the fundamental nature a goal humans should expect to achieve?
  • What are the characteristics of scientific progress and what factors contribute to it or detract from it?
  • What are the scope and limits of technological progress?
  • What is a scientific revolution, and how does a scientific revolution change the technical and cultural aspects of the society in which it occurs?
  • How does a technological advance change the scientific and cultural aspects of the society in which it occurs?
  • Should science and technology always be pursued, or is there a point at which we ought not go further?
  • Why is Evolutionary Theory a scientific theory but not Creationism?
  • How are scientific explanations justified?
  • How do we adjudicate between competing scientific theories?
  • Can all sciences be reduced to physics?
  • Is it legitimate for a scientific theory to postulate the existence of unobservable entities?
  • Does scientific knowledge make technology possible, or does improvement in technology make scientific inquiry possible?
  • What distinguishes a scientific discipline like chemistry or psychology from a pseudo-science like alchemy or para-psychology?
  • Why is Evolutionary Theory a scientific theory but not Creationism or Intelligent Design?
  • Are psychology and the so-called social sciences legitimate sciences?
  • How is it that mathematics, a largely arm-chair discipline, works so well in scientific explanation and prediction as to be indispensible?

These represent head-throbbingly difficult puzzles, and they only begin to scratch the surface of our investigations this semester. Next time we begin with a truly pressing question with which Karl Popper began: What precisely distinguishes science from pseudo-science?