The social practice we call science has had spectacular success in explaining the natural world since the 17th century. While advanced mathematics and other...

The social practice we call science has had spectacular success in explaining the natural world since the 17th century. While advanced mathematics and other precursors of modern science were not unique to Europe, it was there that Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and others came up with theories that got modern physics and chemistry off the ground. In his latest book, Wondrous Truths: The Improbable Triumph of Modern Science (Oxford University Press, 2016), J.D. Trout mounts a spirited defense of the claim that the best explanation of the rise of science in 17th Century Europe is that Newton and others got lucky; among other serendipitous factors, they happened to come up with versions of preexisting ideas that were just right enough to explain just enough of the world, and that was enough to get the ball rolling.

Trout, who is Professor of Philosophy and Psychology at Loyola University in Chicago, defends the scientific realist view that scientific theories are successful because they are by and large true, not just predictively accurate. He also sharply distinguishes the psychology of explanation–the Aha! feeling of understanding–from the truth of an explanation. On his ontic view of explanation, we can experience being satisfied with bad (false) explanations, and there are true theories we may never understand.

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