10 Philosophers on science

On scientific thought over the ages

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Great Science Philosophers

By: Lipsad

Human beings have been on the planet for about 315,000 years. We have come a long way, from our inception to dark ages and finally here we are in the modern world.

Throughout the history of our existence, there have been people who changed the course of our development by their actions. While some won wars which led to the establishment of great civilizations, a few others thought of ideas and concepts which revolutionized our scientific temperament.

In this article, we shall see 10 philosophers of science whose works helped enhance our understanding of this universe and of our own selves. These people have left an indelible mark on the passage of time. Generations of people have grown up learning their seminal ideas and future generations will continue to do so.

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

1.Socrates (470-399 BCE)

“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” Socrates was someone we would call a scientist in this modern world. However, it was his methodology of questioning to seek answers which laid the foundations for the modern-day sciences. He is credited with evolving the method and principle of ‘induction’ and ‘general definition’- a cornerstone in the study of sciences. Socrates gradually moved to the study of ethics. He was on a quest of discovering the answer to more profound questions. His works have inspired generations of scientists to inculcate the element of ethics in their pursuit and understanding of science. Socrates rightly belongs to the legacy of those individuals who radically redefined the cultural and intellectual evolution of the world.


2. Aristotle (385-323 BCE)

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” Aristotle is regarded as the pioneer of the scientific study of life. He spent a great amount of time developing the nature of scientific inquiry. According to Aristotle, the ultimate aim of the inquiry was the creation of a system of concepts and propositions that are to be organized hierarchical style. His works led to the evolution of ‘essential natures of objects of study’ and ‘first principles’. For Aristotle, the scientific comprehension of any proposition has to be accompanied by reasoning to explain the validity of that proposition.


3. Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

“Half of science is putting forth the right questions.” Bacon is widely regarded as an impeccable historian, intellectual reformer, philosopher, and champion of modern science. He proposed a system of empirical and inductive principles that would replace a long-standing tradition of how science was understood. He was a critique of theories such as scholasticism, humanism, and natural magic. Francis Bacon believed that human civilization needed the dynamic evolvement of new arts and inventions with the objective of producing a repository of practical knowledge for “the use and benefit of men”. For him, this was a medium of uplifting the standards of human lives. For the thoughts Bacon propounded, he is universally considered a genius of the Renaissance times.

Cristiano Banti’s 1857 painting Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition

4. Galileo Galilei (1564–1642)

“…It is not in the power of professors of the demonstrative sciences to alter their opinions at will, so as to be now of one way of thinking and now of another…” Galileo is one of the most important personalities from the age of enlightenment. He was a proponent of the Copernican theory of the universe. Galileo’s work formed the foundations of the modern study of astronomy and astrophysics. Galileo’s intellectual sphere inculcated an element of philosophical inquisitiveness in it. He developed novel conceptions of what constitutes natural philosophy. He was involved in the understanding of the development and pursuit of natural philosophy. Galileo Galilei’s contributions led to the development of ‘new sciences’. He is credited with bringing about a scientific revolution that completely altered our perception of the universe, its components, and its nuances.  

5. William Whewell (1794-1866)

“Man is the interpreter of nature, science the right interpretation” William Whewell is the creator of the words ‘scientist’ and ‘physicist’. Whewell worked in a variety of fields like mechanics, mineralogy, history and philosophy of science, and moral theology. It is no surprise that he was one of the most brilliant polymaths of the 17th century. Whewell is remembered for conceptualizing the ‘induction’ method. According to him, for any concept, there should be a wide array of facts that should come together to hold a steady conclusion. He also attempted to initiate a disciplinary system for the classification of sciences, for which he designed a heuristic categorization of the subject.


6. Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947)

“All science as it grows toward perfection becomes mathematical in its ideas.” Whitehead evolved the theory of ‘extensive abstraction’ which is regarded as the foundational principle for formal spatial relations. This came to be known as ‘mereotopology’. He premised his works on the logical and algebraic issues of space and geometry. Alfred North Whitehead presented deep philosophical insights in his works such as ‘Enquiry into the Principles of Natural Knowledge’ and ‘The Principle of Relativity’. He is highly regarded for his critique of the general theory of relativity given by Albert Einstein. Whitehead’s works have influenced researchers and scientists to apply alternative approaches to traditional problems. His ideas have helped reimagine the ways of looking at the world and the various connections that manifest in it.

7. Pierre Duhem (1861–1916)

“The history of science alone can keep the physicist from the mad ambitions of dogmatism as well as the despair of Pyrrhonian skepticism.” Duhem is famous for developing a philosophical analysis of physics. He presented his ideas in his book ‘Aim and Structure of Physical Theory’. He is regarded as one of the greatest teachers of physics. Pierre Duhem developed a theory on testing hypotheses. According to him, a scientific theory cannot be tested in isolation but only in conjunction with several other major theoretical hypotheses (like Newton’s laws of motion). For Duhem, an experiment in physics is not only limited to the study of the observation but it is the interpretation of the observations by employing a theoretical framework. Over the course of time, this theory has come to be known as ‘confirmation holism’ or ‘epistemological holism’.

8. Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970)

“Let us be cautious in making assertions and critical in examining them, but tolerant in permitting linguistic forms.” Carnap was a world-renowned proponent of logical positivism. For his ideas and works, he is regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century. His works range from the theory of probability, philosophy of science, inductive logic, and modal logic. Carnap is credited with developing a formal system for space-time topology. Rudolf Carnap made impressive contributions to the field of metamathematical research by evolving the omega rule. His book, ‘The Logical Syntax of Language’ is considered to be a seminal work. For Carnap, philosophical problems are to be studied in artificial languages. He stated that such a study has to be governed by the rules of logic and mathematics.

9. Karl Popper (1902-1994)

 “Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.” Popper is regarded as one of the most influential science philosophers of the 20th century. His works dealt with the evolution and understanding of the ‘general scientific methodology’ and ‘theory choice’. Popper emphasized the need for distinguishing science from non-science. Karl Popper evolved a methodology of drawing conclusions from scientific theories, famously known as ‘falsification’. Popper argued that a scientific theory is characterized by the necessity of predictions that future observations might turn out to be false. Popper is credited with re-establishing sciences as an empirical enterprise. He helped in inventing ways that would help distinguish an authentic work of science from pseudoscience. His works continue to leave impressions on modern-day scientific research.

Thomas S. Kuhn being interviewed November 1989 in his office at MIT;
photographer: Skúli Sigurdsson; picture: 10

10. Thomas Kuhn (1922-1966)

“In science, as in the playing card experiment, novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation.” Thomas Kuhn is responsible for revolutionizing the way we understand the philosophy behind science. He began with the study of physics, moved to the history of science and left a remarkable impression in the realm of philosophy of science. Before Kuhn presented the world with his groundbreaking theory of ‘paradigm shift’, it was widely accepted that science evolves on the basis of a sequence of scientific theories which were just an extension of the preceding theory in an advanced form. Kuhn argued against this idea and stated that science goes through three phases: First, the normal phase. It witnesses the working of the scientific model in use and over a considerable period of time, it starts to accumulate anomalies. Then comes the second phase is known as the ‘crisis phase’. It is during this phase that the amount and complexities of the anomalies turn into a crisis. It is here that a new scientific paradigm is born out of the crisis. This is ultimately followed by the ‘revolutionary phase’ wherein the preceding science is completely replaced by the new science. Kuhn’s theory on the emergence of newer paradigms challenged Popper’s theory of falsifiability and opened newer avenues to the understanding of sciences. We hope this article helps you find your scientific calling. These are some of the greatest minds to have existed and it falls upon us that we build on their legacy by developing a flair for reasoning and thoughtfulness.

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One Response

  1. Congratulations on your article, very well written and pleasant to read, especially for a science lover, like me.
    Reading the theories of these philosophers, it makes me think of the times in which we live today.
    In the middle of the 21st century, we have the growth of Science negationism. Besides that, some people try to use this negationism in their own favor.
    People blindly believe in any news that circulates in social networks, and there are people who deny global warming, the use of vaccines, and the fact that the Earth is round.
    Unfortunately, it seems to me that we have learned nothing from these philosophers. I still believe in one thing, that I know nothing.

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