Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Humanities, VU University Amsterdam
Understanding Scientific Understanding
It is widely acknowledged that a central aim of science is to achieve understanding of the world around us, and that possessing such understanding is highly important in our present- day society. But what precisely is scientific understanding, and when is it achieved? In my book Understanding Scientific Understanding (OUP, 2017) I present a philosophical theory of scientific understanding that answers these questions. In contrast to most existing studies in this area, my approach takes into account scientists’ views on understanding and their role in scientific debate and development. The result is a contextual theory that can describe and explain the historical variation of criteria for understanding actually employed by scientists.
In my talk I will outline the contextual theory of scientific understanding and illustrate it with a historical case study of the transition from classical physics to quantum physics in the first decades of the twentieth century. I will show that debates about the nature of scientific understanding, and about the conditions for the intelligibility of physical theories, played a crucial role in this important period in the history of physics.