Research Projects

KNOWING SCIENCE • KNOWING MEDICINE • REPLICATION CRISIS • CREATIVITY • NATURAL KINDS • POWERS AND PROPERTIES

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  • KNOWING SCIENCE    My book Knowing Science (OUP, forthcoming 2021) brings together my work in epistemology and philosophy of science. Its principal themes are: i) radical anti-empiricism and (ii) the centrality of knowledge to philosophy of science. Key ideas include:

    The aim of science is the production of scientific knowledge. Scientific progress is the accumulation of scientific knowledge (a surprisingly radical thesis in the philosophy of science).

    A novel account of social or group knowing. Group knowing does not supervene on the mental states of scientists. Rather it depends on the group being organised (e.g. in distributed cognition) in a manner suited to the achievement of cognitive goals.

    A functionalist account of evidence that implies that while evidence is knowledge, it is not any special kind of knowledge—evidence in science is not observational knowledge, nor perceptual knowledge, nor non-inferential knowledge.

    A functionalist account of observation. Insofar as the concept of observation is important for understanding science, it is not a perceptual concept. (Indeed, observations can be made by machines.)

    A view of theoretical inference in science according to which knowledge is gained through 'inference to the only explanation' (or 'Holmesian inference').

    Inference to the best explanation is an approximation to Holmesian inference that allows us to assess the plausibility of a hypothesis and which bears a heuristic relationship to Bayesian inference.

    Standard, global realism vs. anti-realism debates are redundant. Meta-scientific arguments cannot replace consideration of the first-order scientific arguments and can supplement the latter only locally.

    In the book I briefly argue that scientific understanding is a species of scientific knowledge—typically knowledge of explanatory relations. I will expand on this argument in future work.
  • KNOWING MEDICINE   My work in the philosophy of medicine is in part an application of the work described above under 'Knowing Science'. This project examines the philosophy and history of medical methodology. Of past and present doctors and their practices, we can ask ‘What did they know? Did they know that this practice would work? And if so how did they know?’ In my view modern medicine starts in 1721—not because of any novel medical practice but because of an innovation in methodology. The 1720s saw the first systematic project for assessing the efficacy and safety of an intervention (smallpox inoculation). Thereafter further methodological progress led to an increasing ability of doctors to distinguish what works in medicine from what does not. I trace this through the nineteenth to the twentieth century and the advent of the randomized trial and the recent Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) movement, while giving an philosophical analysis of the epistemological contribution made by each. This project includes publications on Hill’s ‘criteria of causation’, the EBM hierarchy, and James Jurin’s analysis of smallpox inoculation.  
  • REPLICATION CRISIS  The replication crisis raises questions regarding the reliability of science, methodological norms, and research ethics. It therefore ought to be of central interest to philosophers of science, although to date only a small number have engaged with it. My particular interest focuses on the role of null-hypothesis significance testing in explaining (in part) the existence of failures to replicate. Roughly, improbable hypotheses plus a significance level that is not negligible (e.g. the standard 5%), can be expected to lead to a high proportion of false positives (which then fail to replicate). If that is an important part of the diagnosis, then what should be done? Require more stringent statistical tests? Acknowledge a lower degree of confidence in successful hypotheses? Or reduce the proportion of implausible hypotheses put forward for testing? These questions have serious practical implications for researchers. Through the UK Reproducibility Network colleagues and I aim to promote reforms that will improve the methodological quality of scientific research.
  • CREATIVITY    Standard accounts of creativity take creativity to be a disposition to create novel works that are valuable in some way. Creativity itself is therefore always to be valued highly. In a series of collaborative papers (e.g. ‘Against Creativity’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 2019) Alison Hills (St John’s College, Oxford) and I argue that these views are mistaken. Creativity can sometimes be exercised in the production of works of no value. In our view, what is distinctive about creativity is that it involves exercise of the imagination. Since creativity is not necessarily valuable according to our view, it is important to ask the question: under what circumstances does creativity produce value? We emphasise the importance of a tradition of valuable work as providing exemplars that guide the imagination. Our work on creativity is applied to both the arts and the sciences. My particular interest concerns the relationship between creativity and scientific rationality. These are usually held to be entirely distinct—a manifestation of the distinction between context of discovery and context of justification. Our work leads us to reject this distinction.
  • NATURAL KINDS   Here my interest has focused mainly on metaphysical questions. For example, do natural kinds exist? And if so what sort of entity are they? Can a posteriori essentialism be defended? What is the relationship between natural kinds and the laws of nature? I argue that natural kinds exist, not simply in the sense that there are natural divisions of things into kinds, but in the strong realist sense that natural kinds are themselves a species of entity. Although kinds are entities, they are not fundamental entities. My co-author Katherine Hawley (St Andrews) and I argue that kinds are complex universals. Natural complexes of universals can have essences. I am also interested in how the very possibility of a particular natural kind constrains non-fundamental laws concerning that kind. I argue that these constraints mean that there is much less contingency in the world than there appears to be. Future work will integrate the metaphysics, philosophy of language, and philosophy of science of natural kinds. For example, the view that natural kinds are complex universals provides an answer to the question: what is rigidity for natural kind terms?
  • POWERS AND PROPERTIES   In my Nature’s Metaphysics (2007) I argued that the fundamental properties of physics are essentially dispositional properties (powers). In the last decade the ontology of powers has become very popular, and powers have been advertised as the solution to a wide range of philosophical problems, from morality through causation to free will to ethics. Many of these ‘solutions’ require the powers in question to be non-fundamental properties. Nonetheless, I regard the case for non-fundamental powers (in addition to fundamental powers) as not yet made—and so these applications of the powers ontology are spurious (see Mind 2016). So I am interested in the question: which non-fundamental properties are powers, if any? And if there are non-fundamental properties that are not powers, what characterises the nature of those properties? 

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