Currently Reading: The Philosophy of Physical Science by Arthur Eddington.

I think it was probably back all the way in December when I said I was going to start reading this book; it obviously never happened.  I got halfway through the first chapter, got called away on some silly errand and never got back to it during the Christmas break, then I had to go back to school.  I have picked it up again with the intention of working through it and posting some thoughts here.

Today: Chapter I – Scientific Epistemology

Eddington begins the book by defining some terms, among them scientific epistemology:

Epistemology is that branch of philosophy which treats the nature of knowledge.  It will not be denied that a significant part of the whole field of knowledge is that which has come to us by the methods of physical science.  This part takes the form of a detailed description of a world – the so-called physical universe.  I give the name “scientific epistemology” to the sub-branch of epistemology which deals with the nature of this part of our knowledge, and therefore indirectly with the nature and status of the physical universe to which it formally relates.

He continues by elaborating on the nature of physical knowledge, and how one obtains it.  Physical knowledge is that which is gotten through and justified by the process of physical science.  This might sound trite, but it allows Eddington to define the physical universe to be the world described by physical knowledge.  It’s an important distinction to note that with Eddington, the world described is defined by the knowledge known, not separate from same.

Eddington goes on to further classify physical knowledge: “Every item of physical knowledge must therefore be an assertion of what has been or would be the result of carrying out a specified observational procedure.” [p 10]  Eddington here denotes that observational knowledge is allowed alongside “hypothetico-observational” knowledge, a knowledge of what would happen were an experiment to be carried out.  Eddington’s example is the distance to the moon; through various mathematical procedures (Eddington cites a process involving pendulums at different latitudes), we are able to infer the distance to the moon with great accuracy.  Knowing the outcome of mathematical methods designed to calculate the distance to the moon allows us to state our knowledge of what the result would be if we were to actually measure the distance to the moon.

Eddington also discusses the intersection between philosophy and science; the importance of linking one to the other was of keen interest to me.  Eddington claims that “it is actually an aid in the search for knowledge to understand the nature of the knowledge which we seek.” [p 5]  Science can determine the validity of its findings by appealing to scientific epistemology, and in turn enlighten one’s application of epistemology:

If our epistemology is at fault, it will lead to an impasse in the scientific developments proceeding from it; that warns us that our philosophical insight has not been deep enough, and we must cast about to find what has been overlooked.  In this way scientific advances which result from epistemological insight have in turn educated our epistemological insight. [p 5]

This link between philosophy and science is not only beneficial, according to Eddington, it is inescapable.  Using the theory of evolution as an example, Eddington points out that despite being a “purely scientific theory”, evolution still had extremely important effects on the spheres of philosophy and religion.  The same is true for the theories and systems of Copernicus and Newton; both were purely scientific, yet had an impact on the trajectory of philosophy.

If you’ve read anything else on this blog (not that I’d engage in such shameless self-promotion), you already know that the intersection of philosophy and science is of great interest to me.  I think the importance of knowing how far our scientific knowledge extends into other spheres of knowledge is exceedingly important in a world where many see science as an end-all be-all for obtaining knowledge and truth.  I am very interested to continue reading this book and to learn more about the intersection between science and epistemology.  Expect more reports as the summer progresses.