The History of Scientific Methods, Pythagoras to Popper

Stanford HPS 154 / PHIL 163H  •  2012, similar courses in 2007, 2009, and 2010

How do scientists know what they know—or claim to know? It’s an important question, not just for scientists themselves, but for any of us who drive on bridges without fear, subject ourselves to doctor’s prescriptions, or must decide whether grade-school teachers should teach evolution or intelligent design. Science and its products pervade our personal, political, institutional, and cultural lives. We need to know where it comes from and whether it is reliable. How do scientists know what they know? Well, we might say, they use the “scientific method.” But, alas, there are now and have long been vigorous disagreements over exactly what a proper scientific method is.

Scientific debates often come down to disagreements over method, and the results of the debates can be deadly. Millions of people have died from crackpot science, teachers have been condemned for teaching science developed with unauthorized methods, and scientists have been jailed and put to death for using particular methods. To learn about how scientists know what they know, we will look at this interplay between science and scientific methods from Ancient Greece to modern times.

We will face an age-old question whether scientists must be content to accurately describe what they observe or can also be justified in claiming to know how things really are. We will examine conflicts between independent judgment and religious dogma. We will meet Pythagoras, Euclid, Plato, Aristotle, Ockham, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Darwin, Heisenberg, and others. We will meet great scientists, great philosophers of method, and some who were both. When we finish, you will have an understanding of the different ways scientists have tried to understand nature and the implications of those attempts—both for them and for us.

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