Research summary

My research is primarily located at the intersection of philosophy of science and philosophy of technology. I am interested in how scientists makes use of what they learn. Researchers in any area of inquiry can make use of what they learn in the sense of revising their beliefs or pursuing new questions raised by what they learn, but the natural sciences are peculiar in that technology often provides access to the domain of inquiry. Indeed, technology is often used to augment or even transcend human epistemic abilities. But technology is also part of nature. Consequently, scientists can apply what they learn to their technology. How is this possible, given that scientific theories only provide a fraction of the knowledge needed for their own application? How does this interaction between discovery and technology affect the nature and pace of scientific progress? What generalizations can be drawn from this interaction, if any, about the mechanisms driving scientific change? In answering these kinds of questions, I draw together several different areas of history and philosophy of science which have not been well connected in the extant literature: theories of scientific progress, the history of scientific technology, and the distinction between knowledge-that and knowledge-how. By building bridges between these areas, I aim to provide a more complete account of how science make progress. For more detail, please reference my dissertation, publications and presentations.

My dissertation is called "Science, labor and scientific progress." My advisors are John Norton and Michael Dietrich. My dissertation research suggests several avenues for future research, of which the common thread is the careful consideration of how technology gets used in science. 

The Demarcation Problem and 

Scientific Progress

One of the main claims of the dissertation is that knowledge in the form of abilities is both a major cause, and constituent, of scientific progress. A major future project that I would like to undertake is to examine how this picture of scientific progress affects traditional issues in the philosophy of science. A promising target in this regard is the problem of demarcating science from pseudo- or non-science. Traditionally, the problem has been posed as one of finding a criterion that would demarcate science from pseudo-science. Another interesting version of the problem, however, is what makes scientific progress different from progress in other non-scientific but genuine intellectual endeavors (like philosophy, law, music, political theory, etc.).  Other intellectual endeavors do not appear to have a comparable cycle of discovery and instrument construction to power their growth, nor do they have a similar ability to transcend native human abilities.

  • What role does technology play in scientific progress, and how does this compare to its role in other fields?

  • ​What role does prior knowledge play in scientific progress, and how does this compare to its role in other fields?

  • Is the manner in which abilities evolve in science distinctive?

  • What social mechanisms support scientific progress?

  • What science policy implications follow from the role of technology and prior knowledge in scientific progress?

  • How do the answers to these questions inform our understanding of scientific method(s)?

Instrumental Revolutions

In my study of the Instrumental Revolution in chemistry, I identified several cognitive consequences of radical changes in scientific instrumentation.  Because the latter changes can have major cognitive consequences, I think it worth considering whether the Instrumental Revolution was also an instrumental revolution, that is, an instance of a distinct kind of revolution involving radical changes in the means of production. Given the fundamental role of the means of production in the labor process, this kind of revolution is not limited to cases involving mechanization. Nor is it limited to changes in data-producing instruments, but could involve, for example, means of representation or theorizing. The notion of an ‘instrumental revolution’ raises questions for future research.

  • Historically, are there other instances of this kind of revolution in science?

  • Conceptually, what is the nature of such a revolution, considered as a kind of revolution rather than a particular historical episode?

  • What causes instrumental revolutions? Are the causes internal or external to science?

  • Are there common features of such revolutions across the sciences?

  • What effects do they have on the trajectory of science?

  • What effects do they have on the social structure of science, and how do these effects affect scientific development?

  • Are such revolutions always progressive?

  • How is the role of humans in science affected?

Is Empiricism Anthropocentric?

The traditional answer is “obviously yes,” insofar as empiricism amounts to the view that “all knowledge rests on experience,” where “experience” is understood as human sense-experience. Nevertheless, this view has come under attack in recent decades, as philosophers of science grapple with the spectacular success of science in studying phenomena inaccessible to the human epistemic abilities. One focus of the debate has been on what aspects of empiricism are still valid, given the fact that our access to such phenomena is heavily mediated by instruments. This debate raises several questions: 

  • how do humans participate in science?  What epistemic roles do they fulfill?

  • Are these roles essential, or dispensable? Static, or in evolution?

  • Should the apparent partial elimination of the human element in some scientific fields be interpreted as a transformation of humans’ epistemic roles rather than as outright replacement? What difference does the transformation make to the nature of the knowledge produced? 

  • How does the changing human-instrument relationship affect the conceptual dynamics of science?

  • How does the increasing complexity of scientific technology affect our grounds for assurance in scientific results?

     

I have written preliminary arguments concerning the role of humans in science in "Scientific agency and the conceptual dynamics of science”, “Measurement, representation and the scientific concept of observation” and “Belief-forming processes and instrument-based testimony”