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Liberal Arts Conference - Core Texts in the Sciences

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Core Texts in the Sciences. Talk given at the conference Core Texts in the Liberal Arts, Amsterdam University College, September 2015.

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Liberal Arts Conference - Core Texts in the Sciences

  1. 1. Core Texts in Natural Science: Progressiveness in Science and the Recurrent Nature of the Big Questions Sebastian de Haro University of Cambridge and University of Amsterdam Liberal Arts and Sciences and Core Texts in the European Context
  2. 2. Introduction •Focus: core texts in science for science students • Not proving every theorem in Newton’s Principia • Exposing students to selected pages from Newton’s Principia •Point of view of this talk: philosophy of science •Such reflection is needed because of real objections to use of core texts in natural sciences • Waste of time: even harmful to expose students to modes of thinking no longer accepted by current standards in the natural sciences 2
  3. 3. Progress and Paradigms • Basic tension: • Science is progressive, looks towards the future • History looks towards the past • Popper: science advances by discarding wrong theories (falsification) • Kuhn: during scientific revolutions, there is a change in the dominating paradigm • Evolution: only the most fruitful theories survive • Kuhn: despite evolution, two important limitations: • Incommensurability of paradigms (cannot really compare them) • Kuhn-loss: there are some things that the new paradigm can no longer explain 3
  4. 4. Progress and Paradigms (Cont’d) • Laudan: science is a progressive activity • The progressiveness of a research tradition is in its problem- solving ability • Kuhn and Laudan: paradigms/research tradditions are closely connected with the choice of educational practices • Initiation in a trade or craft • Importance of textbooks: rewritten after paradigm change • Should we teach from the textbooks written within the most recent tradition? • ) 4
  5. 5. Progress and Paradigms (Cont’d) •Should not fall into this trap: progress is not linear • Paradigms are incommensurable • There is Kuhn-loss: phenomena explained by the old paradigm, left unexplained by the new one • Exposure to core texts keeps us sensitive to Kuhn-loss: limitations of the present paradigms/research traditions •Paradigms or research traditions sometimes die too early 5
  6. 6. The Chemical Revolution •Lavoisier’s theory of oxygen vs. Priestley’s phlogiston theory •Victory of Lavoisier’s oxygen theory rationally justified (Imre Lakatos) •Hasok Chang (2012): “Is Water H2O”? • Phlogiston theory guillotined too early! • Precursor of modern concept of free electron (Kuhn loss) •Good ideas, even if rejected by the latest paradigm, never quite die 6
  7. 7. Action at a Distance • Rejected by Descartes and Huygens • Accepted by Newton in his theory of gravity • Rejected by Einstein • Back in quantum mechanics as the idea of non-locality • Discarded ideas are almost bound to be the seeds of the theories of the future (in different guise...) 7
  8. 8. Summary so far i. Science does not always progress linearly: it sometimes takes hundreds of years before a Kuhn-loss is adequately repaired. • Example: phlogiston theory and metal theory of electron ii. Parallel universes where scientists made better choices: the development of science was faster and more secure • Phlogiston theory flourished and led to earlier development of electron metal theory • From (i): there are, in those core texts, good ideas stil to be dug out for learning and inspiration • From (ii): programme of integration of history and philosophy of science in teaching basic scientific concepts • Douglas Allchin, “Science and Education” (1997): teaching using the phlogiston concept 8
  9. 9. Four complementary arguments i. Exposes the students to the methods and ways of thinking of the best scientists ii. Practical sense of the reasons that led scientists to reject theories iii. Sense of the intuitive questions, paths of investigation, and simple concepts that scientists grappled with, and the answers they gave to them: not always feasible with current theories, which are very sophisticated iv. Prepares future scientists for “the jobs that don’t yet exist” (Ramon Puras) 9
  10. 10. Summary • Problem-solving nature and directedness of science not absolute • Also in the natural sciences there are perpetually recurring questions • Core texts can be of guidance in the way to finding new solutions • Action at a distance precursor of modern non-locality • Integrated way of teaching that combines science, history, and philosophy? 10
  11. 11. Thank you! 11

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