Teaching the Philosophy of Science with Non-Scientific Examples
ABSTRACT: This essay explores the benefits of utilizing non-scientific examples and analogies in teaching philosophy of science courses, or general introductory courses. These examples can help resolve two basic difficulties faced by most instructors, especially when teaching lower-level courses: first, they can prompt students to take an active interest in the class material, since the examples will involve aspects of the culture well-known to the students; second, these familiar, less-threatening examples will lessen the students' collective anxieties and open them up to learning the material more easily. To demonstrate this strategy of constructing and employing non-scientific examples, a lengthy analogy between musical styles and Kuhn's theory of scientific revolutions is developed.
Without a doubt, one of the most difficult tasks in teaching undergraduate philosophy courses is motivating the students to take an active interest in the abstract and complex issues normally presented. One obvious method of overcoming this dilemma is to provide numerous historical examples and analogies of the relevant philosophical problem, since concrete instances are frequently less complicated than general descriptions, articulate the main points more clearly, and have the added bonus of being more "personal" and relatable. Thus, if one were presenting, say, Imre Lakatos theory of scientific research programs, describing the conflict between the Ptolemaic and Copernican views would serve as an excellent backdrop for the introduction of Lakatos' ideas. Nevertheless, if the students are unfamiliar and/or bored by the kinds of examples employed, the strategy will, of course, spark little enthusiasm from the class. This is a problem particularly acute in teaching the philosophy of science, moreover, since the average college student's generally low levels of instruction in science, let alone the history of science, will render the majority of real-life scientific examples as opaque as the philosophical issues they were supposed to make clear!
In this essay, one possible strategy for overcoming this obstacle, which has been culled from personal experience, will be recommended by way of demonstration. In short, the suggestion is to devise examples and analogies from outside the realm of science and its history, but which can serve to both highlight and augment the actual scientific cases typically offered, as well as provide an interesting test-bed for the exploration of philosophical concepts. If these examples are tailored to reflect the interests of the students, most notably by drawing upon the humanities and popular culture, then a marked increase in class enthusiasm and participation will be the likely result. In short, these non-scientific analogies can help explain the nature and purpose of a philosophical/scientific concept. In what follows, consequently, we will develop a lengthy...