Edward Feser: Cartwright on theory and experiment in science

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2023-01-23 06:30:05

"One of the best contemporary writers on philosophy" National Review "A terrific writer" Damian Thompson, Daily Telegraph "Feser... has the rare and enviable gift of making philosophical argument compulsively readable" Sir Anthony Kenny, Times Literary Supplement Selected for the First Things list of the 50 Best Blogs of 2010 (November 19, 2010)

The supposition that science amounts to theory plus experiment is, Cartwright observes, widespread among laymen, scientists, and philosophers alike.  The mathematically expressible kind of scientific theory, familiar from modern physics and enshrined in equations like F = ma, is taken to be the gold standard.  From such equations, it is thought, specific observable consequences are predicted, and the point of experimentation is to test these predictions.  And that’s basically it.  Except, as Cartwright shows, that isn’t it, not by a long shot.  In addition to theory and experimentation, there are models, narratives, diagrams, illustrations, concrete applications, and so on.  None of these is reducible to theory or experiment, and neither are they any less essential to the practice and content of science.  And when we take account of them, both science and the world it describes are seen to be far more complicated than the common conception of science and its results implies.

Cartwright begins her analysis by noting that any theory is expressed in concepts, and that science aims for concepts with content that is both unambiguous and empirical.  As all philosophers of science know, it turns out to be very difficult to come up with a general account of how this is achieved.  Cartwright summarizes the familiar difficulties.  First of all, explicit definitions of theoretical terms are obviously of limited help when the definition is itself couched in yet further theoretical terms.  At some point we need to arrive at terms with clear empirical content.  But exactly how does that work?

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