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Scientific Understanding

Philosophical Perspectives

Eidted by Henk W. de Regt, Sabina Leonelli, and Kai Eigner

Publication Year: 2009

To most scientists, and to those interested in the sciences, understanding is the ultimate aim of scientific endeavor. In spite of this, understanding, and how it is achieved, has received little attention in recent philosophy of science. Scientific Understanding seeks to reverse this trend by providing original and in-depth accounts of the concept of understanding and its essential role in the scientific process. To this end, the chapters in this volume explore and develop three key topics: understanding and explanation, understanding and models, and understanding in scientific practice. Earlier philosophers, such as Carl Hempel, dismissed understanding as subjective and pragmatic. They believed that the essence of science was to be found in scientific theories and explanations. In Scientific Understanding, the contributors maintain that we must also consider the relation between explanations and the scientists who construct and use them. They focus on understanding as the cognitive state that is a goal of explanation and on the understanding of theories and models as a means to this end. The chapters in this book highlight the multifaceted nature of the process of scientific research. The contributors examine current uses of theory, models, simulations, and experiments to evaluate the degree to which these elements contribute to understanding. Their analyses pay due attention to the roles of intelligibility, tacit knowledge, and feelings of understanding. Furthermore, they investigate how understanding is obtained within diverse scientific disciplines and examine how the acquisition of understanding depends on specific contexts, the objects of study, and the stated aims of research.

Published by: University of Pittsburgh Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix

The idea for this volume was born in the aftermath of the conference “Philosophical Perspectives on Scientific Understanding,” held in Amsterdam in August 2005. Our thanks go to all the conference participants and particularly to Hasok Chang and Peter Lipton, whose engagement and vision were decisive input for the making of this volume. Peter Lipton’s untimely death in November ...

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1. Focusing on Scientific Understanding

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pp. 1-18

In the eyes of most scientists, and of educated laypeople, understanding is a central goal of science. In the past centuries scientific research has enormously increased our understanding of the world. Indeed, it seems a commonplace to state that the desire for understanding is a chief motivation for doing science. But despite the prima facie plausibility of these claims, it is ...

Part I. Understanding, Explanation, and Intelligibility

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2. Understanding and Scientific Explanation

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pp. 21-42

In 1948, physicist Erwin Schrödinger delivered the Shearman Lectures at University College London. In 1954, these lectures were published as Nature and the Greeks. In this book Schrödinger argues that science, since it is a Greek invention and is based on the Greek way of thinking, is “something special,” that is, “it is not the only possible way of thinking about Nature.” ...

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3. Understanding without Explanation

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pp. 43-63

Explaining why and understanding why are closely connected. Indeed, it is tempting to identify understanding with having an explanation. Explanations are answers to why questions, and understanding, it seems, is simply having those answers. Equating understanding with explanation is also attractive from an analytic point of view, since an explanation is understanding incarnate. ...

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4. Ontological Principles and the Intelligibility of Epistemic Activities

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pp. 64-82

My main goal in this essay is to establish intelligibility as an epistemic virtue that is meaningful and desirable independently of any connection it might or might not have with truth.1 In brief, my argument is that intelligibility consists of a kind of harmony between

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5. Reliability and the Sense of Understanding

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pp. 83-99

If we are fortunate, at some point while pursuing the answer to one of our explanation-seeking why-questions we will experience a sense of understanding. In other words, we will seem to “grasp” or “see” what it is that accounts for the thing we want to explain, a moment of “grasping” or “seeing” that is often accompanied by a distinctive phenomenology—perhaps even a ...

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6. The Illusion of Depth of Understanding in Science

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pp. 100-120

Philosophers of science have a long tradition of making a connection between explanation and understanding, but only lately have they started to give the latter notion a substantial role in their theories. The reason is because understanding is an even more difficult notion than explanation. To my mind, the recent interest in understanding (exemplified by this volume), springs from ...

Part II. Understanding and Models

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7. Understanding in Physics and Biology: From the Abstract to the Concrete

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pp. 123-145

It is commonly thought that the greater the degree of abstraction used in describing phenomena the less understanding we have with respect to their concrete features. I want to challenge that myth by showing how mathematical abstraction—the characterization of phenomena using mathematical descriptions that seem to bear little or no relation to concrete physical entities/ systems—can aid our understanding in ways that more empirically based ...

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8. Understanding by Modeling: An Objectual Approach

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pp. 146-168

Scientific understanding has, so far, mainly been discussed in terms of the intelligibility of theories and the relation between understanding and explanation. In the course of this debate several theoretical virtues have been identified as being conducive to such understanding. Interestingly, the virtues addressed are the ones that have also occupied a prominent place in the discussion ...

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9. The Great Deluge: Simulation Modeling and Scientific Understanding

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pp. 169-186

Recently, a friend went to see her general practitioner in order to give her thyroid gland a checkup. The doctor took a blood sample to test a few parameters in the laboratory, and she performed an ultrasound scan on the thyroid gland. The result was not completely clear, and the doctor referred my friend to a specialized radiologist with the necessary instruments for a reliable ...

Part III. Understanding in Scientific Practices

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10. Understanding in Biology: The Impure Nature of Biological Knowledge

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pp. 189-209

This chapter offers an analysis of understanding in biology based on characteristic biological practices: ways in which biologists think and act when carrying out their research. De Regt and Dieks have forcefully claimed that a philosophical study of scientific understanding should “encompass the historical variation of specific intelligibility standards employed in scientific practice” ...

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11. Understanding in Economics: Gray-Box Models

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pp. 210-229

In economics, models are built to answer specific questions. Each type of question requires its own type of model; it defines the empirical criteria that a model should meet and thereby instructs how the model should be constructed. This chapter will investigate a particular kind of question: namely, questions that ask for understanding, and which will be labeled as how’s that questions ...

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12. Understanding in Physics: Bottom-Up versus Top-Down

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pp. 230-248

Physics is the paradigmatic example of a successful science. One of its great successes is its impressive track record of giving explanations of natural phenomena, by which these phenomena are made understandable. This much is generally granted, but things become less clear when one asks what these physical explanations exactly consist in. Philosophers of science have proposed ...

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13. Understanding in the Engineering Sciences: Interpretive Structures

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pp. 249-270

My account of scientific understanding focuses on scientific practices, especially the intellectual activities and abilities of scientists. I will use engineering sciences—which I consider laboratory sciences (compare Hacking 1992)—as a case for illustrating how scientists gain scientific understanding of phenomena, and how they exercise their understanding of scientific theories. ...

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14. Understanding in Psychology: Is Understanding a Surplus?

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pp. 271-297

Since Thomas Kuhn’s characterization of science by means of a list of epistemic values that provide “the shared basis for theory choice,” there is a debate in philosophy of science about what the epistemic values of science are (for example, Kuhn 1977; McMullin 1983; Longino 1990; Lacey 2005). Kuhn’s ...

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15. Understanding in Political Science: The Plurality of Epistemic Interests

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pp. 298-313

Upon a first encounter with the field of International Relations (IR) studies, we stumble into a plurality of theoretical perspectives some of which, such as realism and liberalism, have already been around for decades, while others, such as constructivism, are more recent. A recent survey among IR scholars working in the United States gives us a rough idea of the weight attached ...

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16. Understanding in Historical Science: Intelligibility and Judgment

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pp. 314-334

Ideas about the role of understanding in different academic disciplines are sometimes incompatible. Regarding the empirical sciences, J. D. Trout (2002), for instance, launches a vigorous attack on “the sense of understanding” as a subjective and valuable concept in the evaluation of scientific explanations: ...


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pp. 335-338


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pp. 339-352

E-ISBN-13: 9780822971245
E-ISBN-10: 0822971240
Print-ISBN-13: 9780822943785
Print-ISBN-10: 0822943786

Page Count: 368
Publication Year: 2009