Science, Metaphysics, & Understanding

Henk W. de Regt (Amsterdam) gives a talk at MCMP titled “Science, Metaphysics, and Understanding”. This talk addresses the question of whether there are limits to scientific understanding. To answer this question we first need to know what exactly scientific understanding is, and how it is achieved. This issue has long been neglected by philosophers of science because of the misguided assumption that understanding is purely subjective. I will offer an analysis of the nature of scientific understanding that accords with scientific practice and accommodates the historical diversity of conceptions of understanding. Its core idea is a general criterion for the intelligibility of scientific theories that is essentially contextual: which theories conform to this criterion depends on contextual factors, and can change in the course of time. To illustrate my account I will discuss a well-known episode in the history of physics: the debates about the intelligibility of gravitation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These debates were concerned with the relation between science and metaphysics, and an analysis of them sheds new light on the question of limits of scientific understanding.

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