It is important that we review modern philosophies of science since they have served to set the rules for how psychologists have thought about their research for the past 80 years. In other words, if we want to understand what psychologists think they are doing when they carry out scientific research we need to understand their philosophies of science. However, as we shall see there are many different models of the scientific endeavour apart from those that most psychologists use. The evolution of ideas about how to do science indicates that some psychological research is still stuck in an earlier framework which has been supplanted by more recent and arguably more challenging and liberating models of how to carry out empirical investigations.
What is the ‘philosophy of science’?
Philosophies of science are ultimately concerned with the question of how we should carry out scientific research given our understanding of the nature of knowledge. Originally, philosophers of science sought to explain how science should be conducted by looking at successful scientists such as Einstein. More recently though the philosophy of science has moved on to consider how most scientists actually work given the social and practical circumstances of their work.
Reality, Knowledge and Science
We all have questions about the world around us. What is real and what is fiction? What do we know and how do we know it? How can we find out more about the world? Philosophers analyse these questions intensively. They are interested in the relation between ontology (the study of what actually exists), epistemology (the study of what knowledge is, what we can know and what the limits of knowledge are) and methodology (the study of the ways in which the world can be studied).
It should go without saying that the kinds of assumption we make about what exists affects what we consider we can know about it. which in turn affects how we think it is best to study it. Thus our ontological assumptions affect our epistemological assumptions, which in turn affect our methodological assumptions. For this reason we cannot really pick a methodology arbitrarily since each methodology brings with it epistemological and ontological assumptions. Which is why psychoanalysts use couches rather than microscopes, and why behaviourists use Skinner boxes rather than questionnaires. Many philosophers have tried to clarify possibilities and limitations of science in terms of ontology, epistemology and methodology and it is worth looking at some of the more influential ideas and considering their implications for psychology. This is the area of the philosophy of science and we need now to review it.
What is the point of looking at the philosophy of science? How is it relevant to Psychology?
It is useful to acquaint ourselves with the philosophy of science for several reasons. First, we can see what a can of worms a question like ‘is psychology a science?’ really opens. There are many different definitions about what counts as science and psychology meets the criteria for some of these, but not others. Second, when we come to consider forms of psychology carried out outside of the traditional logical positivist mode, we can think more clearly about ways of evaluating those theories and studies if we have a more flexible idea of what science might entail a film porno. When we come later to review qualitative research we will see that we have to be so flexible that we might need to rethink our ideas about ‘science’ altogether.