(Fourth edition)             

© Copyright 2018 Thomas J. Hickey

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CHAPTER I – Overview

 Both successful science and contemporary philosophy of science are pragmatic.

In science, as in life, realistic pragmatism is what works successfully.  This introductory book is a concise summary of the elementary principles of the contemporary pragmatist (or neopragmatist) philosophy of science, the philosophy that the twentieth century has bequeathed to the twenty-first century.

1.01 Aim of Philosophy of Science

The aim of contemporary pragmatist philosophy of science is to discover principles that explain successful practices of basic-science research, in order to advance contemporary science by application of the principles.

The principles are set forth as a metatheory.  Basic science creates new language: new theories, new laws and new explanations.  Applied science uses scientific explanations to change the real world, e.g., new technologies, new social policies and new therapies.  Philosophy of science pertains to basic-science practices and language.

1.02 Computational Philosophy of Science

Computational philosophy of science is the design, development and application of computer systems that proceduralize and mechanize productive basic-research practices in science.

Philosophers of science can no longer be content with more rehearsing of the Popper-Kuhn debates of half a century ago, much less more debating ancient futile issues such as realism vs idealism.

Philosophy of science has taken the computational turn.  Mechanized information processing has permeated almost every science, and is now belatedly intruding into philosophy of science.  Today computerized discovery systems facilitate investigations in philosophy of science in a new specialty called “computational philosophy of science”.

The pragmatist philosophers Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and Norwood Russell Hanson (1924-1967) had described a nonprocedural analysis for developing theories.  Some called this nonprocedural practice “abduction”, others “retroduction”.  Today in computational philosophy of science procedural strategies for developing new theories are coded into computer systems.

1978 Nobel-laureate economist Herbert Alexander Simon (1916-2001), a founder of artificial intelligence, called such systems “discovery systems”.  In the 1970’s Hickey (1940) called the mechanized approach “metascience”.  In the 1980’s philosopher of science, Paul Thagard (1950), called it “computational philosophy of science”, a phrase that is more descriptive and therefore will probably prevail.

Mechanized simulation of successful episodes in the history of science is often used to test the plausibility of the discovery-system designs.  But the proof of the pudding is in the eating: application of computer systems at the frontier of a science, where prediction is also production, in order to propose new empirically superior theories, further tests the systems.  Now philosophers of science must practice what they preach by participating in basic-science research and producing contributions.  Application of discovery systems gives the philosopher of science a participatory and consequential rôle in basic-science research.

1.03 Two Perspectives on Language

Philosophy of language supplies a coherent analytical framework that integrates contemporary philosophy of science.  In philosophy of language philosophers have long distinguished two perspectives called “object language” and “metalanguage”.

Object language is discourse about nonlinguistic reality including domains that the particular sciences investigate as well as most of everyday discourse.

Metalanguage is language about language, either object language or metalanguage.

Much of the discourse in philosophy of science is in the metalinguistic perspective.  Important metalinguistic terms include “theory”, “law”, “test design”, “observation report” and “explanation”, which are classifications of the uses of language.  In the contemporary pragmatist philosophy a Theory is a universally quantified hypothesis proposed for empirical testing, and a “Test design” is a universally quantified discourse presumed for empirical testing a theory, in order to identify the subject of the theory independently of the theory and to describe the procedures for performing the test.  The computer instructions coded in discovery systems are also metalinguistic expressions, because these systems input, process and output object language for the sciences.

1.04 Dimensions of Language

Using the metalinguistic perspective, philosophers analyze language into what Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970) called “dimensions” of language.  They are syntax, semantics, ontology, and pragmatics. 

Syntax refers to the structure of language. Syntax is arrangements of symbols such as linguistic ink marks on paper, which display structure.  Examples of syntactical symbols include terms such as words and mathematical variables and the sentences and mathematical equations constructed with the terms. 

Syntactical rules regulate construction of grammatical expressions such as sentences and equations usually arranged by concatenation into strings of terms.   

Semantics refers to the meanings associated with syntactical symbols.  Syntax without semantics is systematic but literally meaningless.  Associating meanings to the symbols makes the syntax “semantically interpreted”. 

Semantical rules describe the meanings associated with elementary syntactical symbols.  In the metalinguistic perspective belief in the truth of semantically interpreted universally quantified sentences such as the heuristic stereotypic “Every raven is black” enables sentences to function as semantical rules displaying the complex meanings of the sentences’ component descriptive terms.  Belief in the statement “Every raven is black” makes the phrase “black raven” redundant, thus displaying the meaning of “black” as a component part of the meaning of “raven”.  The lexical entries in a unilingual dictionary exemplify an inventory of semantical rules for a language.  

Ontology refers to the aspects of reality described by semantically interpreted sentences believed to be true, especially belief due to experience or systematic empirical testing.  This is the thesis of ontological relativity.  Ontology is typically of greater interest to philosophers than to linguists. 

Semantics is knowledge of reality, while ontology is reality as known, i.e. semantics is the perspectivist signification of reality, and ontology is the aspects of reality signified by semantics.  Ontology is the aspect of mind-independent reality that is cognitively captured with the perspective revealed by semantics. 

Not all discourses are equally realistic; the semantics and ontologies of discourses are as realistic as they are empirically adequate.  Since all semantics is relativized and ultimately comes from sense stimuli, there is no semantically interpreted syntax of language that is utterly devoid of any associated ontology.

Pragmatics in philosophy of science refers to how scientists use language, namely to create and to test theories, and thereby develop scientific laws used in test designs for testing and in scientific explanations.

1.05 Classification of Functional Topics

Basic-science research practices can be classified into four essential functions performed in basic research.  They are also topics typically discussed in the academic literature of philosophy of science.  They are:

1. The institutionalized aim of basic science is the culturally shared aim that guides development of explanations, which in turn are the final products of basic-scientific research.  The institutionalized views and values of science have evolved considerably over the last several centuries, and will continue to evolve episodically in unforeseeable ways with future advancements of science.

2. Discovery refers to the processes of constructing new theories. Pragmatists define theory language pragmatically, i.e., functionally, as universally quantified statements expressible in conditional form including equations (a.k.a. “models”) that are proposed for empirical testing.

Theories are universally quantified hypotheses proposed for empirical testing.

3. Criticism refers to the decision criteria used for the evaluation of theories.  Pragmatists accept only the empirical criterion.  Empirical testing is the pragmatics of theory language, and it uses modus tollens conditional deductive argument form.  A scientific law in the conditional deduction is an empirically tested and nonfalsified theory.

Test-designs are universally quantified discourse presumed for empirical testing a theory, in order to identify the subject of the theory independently of the theory and to describe the procedures for performing the test.

4. Explanation is language that describes the occurrence of individual events and conditions as caused by the occurrence of other described events and conditions according to law statements.  It uses modus ponens conditional deductive argument form, which includes universally quantified statements expressible in conditional form that are scientific laws. Whenever possible the explanation is predictive of future events or of evidence for past events.  A scientific law is a former theory that has been tested with a nonfalsifying outcome.

1.06 Classification of Modern Philosophies

Twentieth-century philosophies of science may be classified into three generic types.  They are romanticism, positivism and contemporary pragmatism.  Romanticism is a philosophy for social and cultural sciences.  Positivism is a philosophy for all sciences inspired by reflection on Newtonian physics. Contemporary pragmatism is a philosophy for all sciences inspired by reflection on quantum physics.  Each generic type has many representative authors advocating philosophies expressing similar concepts for such metalinguistic terms as “theory”, “law” and “explanation”.  Philosophies within each generic classification have their differences, but they are much more similar to each other than to those in either of the two other types.  These various concepts are related as follows:



Aim of Science





















Chapter 2. Modern Philosophies

    This chapter sketches the three generic types of twentieth-century philosophy of science in terms of the four functions.  Philosophy of language will be taken up in Chapter 3.  Then all these elements will be integrated in a discussion of the four functional topics in Chapter 4.

Thesis II: Empirical underdetermination.

Empirical underdetermination refers to the limited ability of the semantics of language at any given time to signify reality. 

Measurement error and conceptual vagueness, which can be reduced indefinitely but never completely eliminated, exemplify the omnipresent and ever-present empirical underdetermination of descriptive language that occasions observational ambiguity and theoretical pluralism.  Experience is replete with instances for which it is unclear as to whether or not a descriptive term may apply.  Einstein recognized that a plurality of alternative but empirically adequate theories could be consistent with the same observational description, a situation that he called “an embarrassment of riches”.

Additional context including law statements in improved test-design language contributes additional semantics to the observational description in the test designs, thus reducing while never completely eliminating empirical underdetermination.  In his Word and Object (1960) Quine introduced the phrase “empirical underdetermination”, and wrote that the positivists’ “theoretical” terms are merely more empirically underdetermined than terms they called “observation” terms.  Thus contrary to the positivists the types of terms are not qualitatively different.



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NOTE: Pages do not corresponds with the actual pages from the book