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Margaret C. Jacob


Science Without Laws?

With this issue we introduce an occasional series, "State of the Art," offering concise assessments of a particular field of study, generally taking off from a recently published book.

Philosophers who think about science are in trouble nowadays. The broad area known as "science studies" that includes them—as well as sociologists and historians—stands for considerable controversy, and quite public controversy at that. At issue—as hard as it is to believe—is the truth status of scientific knowledge.

The pragmatist in all of us recoils from a controversy about the obvious. When we go to the doctor or dutifully take our blood-pressure prescriptions we assume that there is a correspondence—however imprecise—between the knowledge being applied and what goes on in our bodies. That is enough truth for most people, including most scientists. But within the academic disciplines that study science, much that is new and interesting about how science works has made it possible to challenge simplistic notions of what constitutes truth.

Scientists often talk about an ideal world where laws uniformly apply. To put the matter as would Ronald Giere in Science Without Laws:

So what is the relationship between the idealized model pendulums of classical mechanics and real swinging weights? It is, I suggest, like the relationship between a prototype and things judged sufficiently similar to the prototype to be classified as of that type. … [T]he models themselves provide guidelines for the relevant similarity judgments.

The slip between the cup of the prototype and the lip of its analogue is where Giere wants to situate his philosophical position.

Giere wants science to proceed without the Procrustean bed of laws which, he argues, pertain to the prototypes and not to the reality of the everyday models. His naturalistic account, he claims, allows us to imagine that "what we have now [as] truths" might be different if we held to a different model of ...

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