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Kinds and degrees of (scientific) understanding

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In my talk I will present my current research project ‘Kinds and degrees of understanding’. Understanding is highly valued in the sciences and in everyday life. In previous work I have developed a contextual theory of scientific understanding (which I will summarize briefly). My new research project addresses the question: How to account for degrees of understanding? While it appears intuitively plausible that understanding comes in degrees, it is not clear how such differences in degree of understanding should be explicated. A related question is whether understanding can differ only in degree or also in kind. In my presentation I will address these questions by focusing on the historical development of science. In particular, I will discuss the question of whether ‘outdated’ scientific concepts can still be used to achieve (some degree of) understanding of the phenomena. For example, can one still use the notion of phlogiston for understanding particular chemical phenomena? Although I cannot give a definitive answer to this last question as yet (it’s the topic of my research in the next two months), I will present a case from the history of quantum theory that sheds some light on the issue.

This talk is part of the CamPoS (Cambridge Philosophy of Science) seminar series.

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