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Book Review

James Ladyman: Understanding Philosophy of Science, Routledge, London, 2002, 290


To a layman the understanding of science is limited to its application in everyday life. We

understand it as a form of knowledge based on some experiments or observations to understand
the natural and the physical world. We tend to get convinced with the knowledge it imparts
because we believe that it explains reality objectively i.e. it deals with objective enquiry. We
believe that what science offers has no subjective element attached to it. Such an understanding
of science will no longer be tenable if one comes across the arguments that Ladyman in this book
bring to the reader. He poses several questions on the methods of scientific enquiry- its
metaphysical and epistemological basis. It begins with the ontology of science and the nature of
knowledge that science generates. The author has not taken any philosophical position. Instead
he introduced the readers with philosophical problems and asks those questions to them. In this
sense, his approach is a balanced one. To a reader who has never been exposed to philosophical
dilemmas earlier, this book is a must. This book is for those readers who have a basic
understanding of science but no understanding of philosophy for it cites examples of natural
phenomena as explained by scientists and then ask philosophical questions based on them. It not
only introduces the readers with the philosophical underpinnings of science but also gives an
exposition to the nature of the study of philosophy- the questions that philosophy asks. In other
words, it confuses the reader with questions that might not have appeared otherwise if one is
studying science in a laboratory. I believe the aim of the book is to make the readers wonder and
grapple with the question of method that science employs to understand a phenomenon and the
credibility of scientific theories about the object that is not observable. The book is divided into
two parts. The first part introduces the reader with the subject matter of philosophy of science.
The study of scientific method is at the heart of the philosophy of science. The second part poses
some pertinent questions about the structure of reality (metaphysical questions) and antirealism.
He interestingly explains both sides of the argument about scientific realism without taking any
position. The author clearly mentions in the introduction that the book is about the philosophy of
natural sciences. . The epistemological questions that run throughout the book are What is a
scientific method? How does evidence support a theory? Is theory change in science a rational
process? Are scientific theories true? Science is important to philosophy because it asks some
philosophical questions like is knowledge mere belief? Philosophy of science then deals with
justification of belief. The justification of beliefs would require the scientists to develop theories
and methods. The metaphysical question about science arises from its treatment of objects which
are unobservable. How are we to believe in something that science offers when the object which
it investigates cannot be observed? These questions are explained in detail in the latter part of the
book. To the reader it makes clear that scientific enterprise is not only to describe the world as it
is but to ask why it is so. What explains a theory better than its rival theories? - is also the subject
matter of philosophy of science. When we think of science as an enquiry about laws of nature,

we ought to think of it as replacing metaphysics because science begins by asking the real causes
of things i.e. it tries to unravel what is ultimately the real nature of things.

This review is mainly on the second part of the book which introduces the debate about realism
and anti realism and the role of explanation and inference to establish scientific realism. The
paper also touches upon the issues discussed in the first part briefly.

The first chapter gives the reader a general introduction to the subject matter of philosophy of
science. The author does a fascinating job by giving examples from everyday use of science and
asks philosophical questions underlying the observation. For instance, he talks about theories of
physics and chemistry like electromagnetic waves, atoms, and molecules etc. which are not part
of our everyday life. The question then he asks is about their existence as we cannot see them. So
this chapter sets the ground for further developments which take place in the next chapters and
prepares the reader for some philosophical ventures into the world of science. It talks about
scientific method and begins with an example of scientific belief and scepticism. It gives
historical context to scientific revolution starting with Galileo to Copernicus. It introduces the
reader with Bacons Novum Organum which is still considered to be a book on scientific method.
The chapter describes how Aristotelian teleological study is refuted by many in the evolution of
scientific method. It paved the way for new method in science to seek knowledge- the method of
induction. Chapter two goes into the problem of induction and inductivism in more detail. In this
connection Humes contribution in the field of philosophy of science is discussed. The
philosophical question is whether induction as a scientific method generates knowledge. Chapter
three is on Poppers idea of falsification. It shows the demarcation of the basis of science from
non science and deals with the problem of inductivism. The author distinguishes between the
context of discovery and justification- the idea propounded by Popper. The idea is that an
inductivist should separate question of how theories develop from how to test them. The author
very well brings out the idea that science is also about falsification in this chapter. The fourth
chapter is based on scientific revolution focusing on Kuhns revolutionary history of science. The
readers are introduced with the concept of paradigm in this chapter. Scientists are inclined to a
particular paradigm and can do anything to retain it. Contrary to Poppers idea, Kuhn considered
that the search for scientific knowledge is routine and does not involve critical thought. The
linkage between theory and observation and the role of experiments is taken into account
towards accumulating scientific knowledge. The author does a good job in addressing the issue
of judgments and beliefs formed by the society we live which may come in our quest for truth.
Thus the first part with four chapters is on methodological debate about science and the historical
development of different theories of science.

The second part begins with chapter 5 which establishes the basis of scientific realism. It
historically traces the debate on realism and anti realism. The chapter tells us how science has
replaced metaphysics. It traces historically the ongoing debate about scientific realism and anti
realism. Scientific realism is the view that we should believe in the unobservables postulated by
scientific theories. To anti realists it seems implausible and the reason is developed more clearly

in the latter chapters where the author discusses about underdetermination and pessimistic meta
induction. Antirealists put limits on the extent and nature of scientific knowledge. Eddington
distinguishes between common sense reality and scientific reality. Common sense reality is an
illusion. To understand two types of reality we must go back to scientific revolution and two
properties (primary and secondary properties of objects). Scientific revolution was characterized
by various features of which one is that scientific knowledge is not a priori natural truth, it is an
empirical inquiry (p.132). It talked about various developments like Newtonian mechanics and
William Harveys discovery of blood circulation in humans with the help of physics and
chemistry and then replacement of human senses with machines. Earlier characteristics like
colours, texture, ductility, malleability etc. were used to know elements. Movement from these
subjective characteristics to objective one by using refractive index etc. was seen as scientific
knowledge progressed. The author has provided examples to distinguish between primary and
secondary properties of objects. Primary properties are things which not only appear to have but
also have in reality whereas secondary properties are those that they dont possess in themselves
but in the mind of the observer (p.134). Mehanical philosophers and those who talked about
corpuscles were of the view that science should focus on the primary qualities. Ladyman brings
the ideas of philosophers like Locke and Descartes in this context. Locke talked about nominal
essence and real essence. Nominal is the one that appears to us. For instance gold appears to us
as yellow, shiny and heavy. The real essence is whatever the underlying nature is. Descartes also
distinguished between primary and secondary properties of an object. He did not believe in
atoms but matters. He thought all the primary properties are geometrical. How can we know
about the primary properties of things? Do we know things beyond our experiences? The focus
of this chapter is mainly on the question of whether science is about reality that goes beyond
appearance. These are the subject matter of scientific realism. Realism has three philosophical
commitments. A metaphysical commitment is towards a mind independent world, semantic
commitment to the literal interpretation of scientific theories and an epistemological commitment
to the possibility of knowledge of at least approximate truths.

Chapter six discusses on the problem of scientific realism by introducing the concept of
underdetermination. If there are several theories which are consistent with evidence gathered,
then the data may underdetermine the correct theory. Decisions have to be taken by the scientists
in face of uncertainty. In this case the scientists have to rely on the best available evidence. The
author then distinguishes between the strong and weak form of underdetermination. The weak
form of underdetermination arises from the data which are consistent with more than one theory.
We ought to suspend judgment as to which theory is true. The chapter mainly discusses about
when it is justified to retain a theory and when not. He gives conditions for strong
underdetermination problems. One of them is- no evidence can ever support a unique theory
more than its strongly empirically equivalent rivals and theory choice is radically
underdetermined. Ladyman then argues in favour of the realist and at last he again makes the
position of realists in danger by introducing the concept of constructive empiricism by Van
Fraasan. While defending the realists he argued that strong empirical equivalence thesis is

incoherent because clear distinction between the observable and unobservable is not possible.
Also, two theories may have different degree of evidential support even if they predict the same
phenomena. There are non empirical features of theories like simplicity, non adhocness, novel
predictive power etc. which may help us choose among the theories. These are superempirical
virtues which can solve underdetermination problem. In this respect Ladyman talks about social
constructivism which can solve the problem of underdetermination. Instead of considering
superempirical virtues to solve underdetermination one can consider social, psychological or
ideological factors. A theory may be socially more important than others. They have an
implication in scientific research. Lastly, the chapter deals with constructive empiricism by van
Fraasan who critiques the epistemic component of scientific realism. Theories should be
accepted only when it is empirically adequate i.e. when it is correctly describing the observables.
Later, the author also criticizes constructive empiricism as vulnerable to underdetermination as
scientific realism because sometimes data underdetermine which theory is empirically adequate.

Chapter seven is on explanation and inference to establish the case for scientific realism.
Explanation involves reference to theoretical unobservable entities. It again brings in van
Fraasan and his criticism on scientific realism. It introduces IBE (inference to the best
explanation) as a rule to break underdetermination. IBE is choosing the best explanation of the
evidence when we have several hypotheses to explain a phenomenon. This view is attacked by
van Fraasan who believes that adopting IBE as a rule of inference is irrational. For him,
experience is the sole source of information about the world. In the latter part of this chapter, the
author brings us to the response of the realists to van Fraasan who questions IBE. According to
them scientific realism is akin to common sense metaphysical realism in the unobservable
domain (p. 226). The author does not seem to provide a reason for accepting Fraasans argument
against common sense realists.

The last chapter is crucial in understanding the ongoing battles about scientific method in more
detail. The idea of structural realism as opposed to constructive empiricism is introduced to the
reader. The author considers arguments for kinds of antirealism giving it a historical basis.
Another argument against realism is put forward in this chapter which is pessimistic
metainduction which is closely related to history. It considers that there is no reason to believe
that theories which exist today will exist in future because theories change with time. The
chapter then discusses about reference asking whether same entity referred to wither side of a
theory change. The last part is on structural realism which the author seemed to have introduced
to the reader very briefly and has not developed it in detail. It is the answer to the problem of no
miracle argument of the nature of science and pessimistic meta induction as it emphasizes on
the structural content of theories. The author warns us about the ambiguity of structural realism
on whether it is metaphysics or epistemology. At last he makes the reader wonder with the
question of Realism about what? Is it the entity, structure or fundamental laws? The author
offers us with an answer that supports structural realism but at the end he seems to pass on the

philosophical task of scientific realism to the history of science arguing that debate on scientific
realism is a complex one.

It is an interesting introductory book for readers whose aim is to understand philosophy of

science. It comes as a story and arguments and debates are arranged sequentially and in a
comprehensive manner for a first time reader of philosophy of science. The author has brought
many philosophers like Bacon, Locke, Descartes, van Fraasan etc. Since he was trying to ask
metaphysical questions related to scientific enquiry, the question of being in the sense of
philosopher Heidegger could have been addressed as the metaphysical question is very much
related to ontological question of existence. The book leaves the readers with complex
philosophical questions which answers are not resolved.