I have found myself thinking more and more lately about the philosophy of science, and finding it increasingly important for the rest of philosophy. There are multiple reasons for this. Perhaps the most important is simply the prestige (or normative weight) we attach to scientific knowledge, a prestige I take to be deserved. I would agree that to the extent that it is fair to say that “science has established” that human consciousness is not reborn after death, then it is true that human consciousness is not reborn after death. Science, in that respect, is what classical Indian philosophers would have called a pramāṇa, a reliable means of knowledge.
A second, related, reason is that it turns out that that very nature of something’s being scientifically established turns out on closer glance to be quite complex, itself its own kind of philosophical question – and one with bearing on philosophical questions well outside the natural sciences. Studies of the history of science – what science has actually been in practice, not what it is supposed to be in theory – show us a process much messier than an account in the standard mold of “build your theory by generalizing from the empirical evidence”. Often the theoretical insight comes first and the observations supporting it come only later. So Copernicus built his heliocentric model mathematically and only later would Galileo demonstrate it with a telescope, just as Einstein began with an “intuition” of the theory of relativity that was only later empirically verified. The way actual science – including the science of our greatest scientific heroes – has proceeded, turns out to be considerably messier than the standard account tells us it is supposed to be.
How then might we think about what science and scientific knowledge are? Continue reading