A new philosophy of science? It is surely forbidden


The main thing that attracted me to the history and philosophy of science was the simple desire to understand the nature of science. I was introduced to the exciting ideas of Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend, but it soon became apparent that there were serious issues with each of these views and that those good days were long gone.

Professionals in the field would no longer dare to generalize with as much daring as the famous quartet had done. Over the past 40 years, the field has seen an increase in levels of specialization. Nowadays, philosophers of science tend to work on specific topics such as reduction, emergence, causation, the realism-anti-realism debate or the last working mechanism. Meanwhile, many other historians and philosophers have gotten to the bottom of it, focusing almost exclusively on the context of the discovery rather than the science involved. As we all know, this development led to the infamous science wars, which are only now beginning to fade into the background.

As for my own work, I specialized in the history and philosophy of chemistry and in particular the periodic table, including the question of how far this classification system boils down to quantum mechanics. More recently, I have been working on element discovery and scientific discovery in general. I thought about the issue of scientific priority and multiple discoveries. It seems to me that I have now arrived, or perhaps I have fallen into a general approach to the philosophy of the sciences of form which one is no longer supposed to indulge in. Let me share a bit of that point of view with you in case you haven’t by now decided to go out.

From left to right: 1) Charles Bury, chemist. Used with permission. 2) Dutch amateur scientist Antonius van den Broek (1870-1926). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

My work has focused on several minor figures in the history of modern chemistry and physics. They include virtually unknown scientists such as John Nicholson, Anton van den Broek, Edmund Stoner, Charles Bury, John Main Smith, Richard Abegg, and Charles Janet, none of whom are exactly a familiar scientific name. What I see convinces me that these “little people” represent the missing links in the evolution of scientific knowledge. I take the evolutionary approach literally as I will try to explain. Rather than focusing on heroic figures like Bohr, Pauli, and GN Lewis, in the period that interests me I see an organic whole, the scientific body that continually produces random mutations in the form of intuitions, assumptions, speculations. Without a doubt, the recognized giants of the field are the ones who seize these half-cooked ideas most effectively. But in trying to understand the nature of science, we have to take a step back and see the whole process from a distance.

What I see when I do this is something like a living, fully unified, evolving organism that I called SciGaia by analogy with the Gaia theory of James Lovelock, according to which the earth is a large living organism. But I reject any notion of teleology in my version. Science is not heading towards an objective “Truth” and here I agree with Thomas Kuhn who has always insisted on this point.

But I disagree with Venerable Kuhn on the question of scientific revolutions. To focus on revolutions is to miss the essential interrelationship and underlying unity between the work of all scientists, whether large or small. Talking about revolutions unwittingly perpetuates the idea that science progresses through a series of leaps led by the heroes of science.

I also separate myself from most analytical philosophers of science by not attaching any particular importance to the analysis of the logical and linguistic aspects of science. I consider logic and language to be literally “superficial”, that is, they come into play after discoveries have been made, for the purposes of communication and presentation. The discovery itself is deeper than logic and language and has more to do with human impulses and instincts, at least I believe it.

Of course, I do not claim to have invented the notion of evolutionary epistemology. It seems like I just arrived somewhere in this camp examining the grimy details of the development of early 20th century atomic chemistry and physics, such as the introduction of angular momentum quantization, the discovery of the atomic number. , the emergence of the byte rule, the use of a third quantum number to specify the electronic configurations of atoms, etc.

What I find quite curious is that Kuhn more or less disowned his early emphasis on scientific revolutions later in life and turned to the idea of ​​changing lexicons. Indeed, in his final interview, he went so far as to say that the Darwinian analogy, which he had briefly mentioned in his famous book, had been his most important contribution and that he wished it had been taken. more seriously.

Image presented by vladimir salman via Shutterstock. Used with permission.


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