David B. Kinney on the Philosophy of Science


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Science is often seen as a pure, objective discipline — as if it all rests neatly on cause and effect. As if the universe acknowledges a difference between ideal categories like “biology” and “physics.” But lately, the authority of science has had to reckon with critiques that it is practiced by flawed human actors inside social institutions. How much can its methods really disclose? Somewhere between the two extremes of scientism and the assertion that all knowledge is a social construct, real scientists continue to explore the world under conditions of uncertainty, ready to revise it all with deeper rigor.

For this great project to continue in spite of our known biases, it’s helpful to step back and ask some crucial questions about the nature, limits, and reliability of science. To answer the most fundamental questions of our cosmos, it is time to bring back the philosophers to articulate a better understanding of how it is that we know what we know in the first place. Some questions — like the nature of causation, where we should look for aliens, and why we might rationally choose not to know important information — might not be answerable without bringing science and philosophy back into conversation with each other.

This week’s guest is David Kinney, an Omidyar Postdoctoral Fellow here at SFI whose research focuses on the philosophy of science and formal epistemology. We talk about his work on rational ignorance, explanatory depth, causation, and more on a tour of a philosophy unlike what most of us may be familiar with from school — one thriving in collaboration with the sciences.


On the Explanatory Depth and Pragmatic Value of Coarse-Grained, Probabilistic, Causal Explanations.Philosophy of Science. 86(1): 145-167.

Is Causation Scientific?

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26 episodes