Typically, scientists call subjects
they investigate scientific phenomena. While the notion of a scientific
phenomenon seems to be common in science, apart from a few exceptions, it has
not been systematically discussed in philosophy of science. This is surprising.
Has the notion simply been overlooked? Or are there deeper reasons for this
One reason might be that the
notion is generally considered as unproblematic in the sense that there is wide
agreement as to what it means. This, however, is not the case. One way to
understand the notion of a scientific phenomenon traces back to the ancient
astronomical program called “Saving the phenomena” which claims that
astronomical theories should account for the observed orbits of celestial
bodies without violating the principles of Greek natural philosophy. In this
sense, scientific phenomena are observed facts that should be explained. As
Bogen and Woodward (1988) have pointed out, however, scientific explanations
often do not concern observed facts, but rather some general patterns that can
be inferred from the data. They suggest to broaden the notion of a scientific
phenomenon in order to include these unobservable patterns and to take
scientific phenomena generally as the explanada of scientific theories. Over
and above this question concerning the observability of scientific phenomena, a
second problem arises: If knowledge about phenomena is indeed typically gained
via inferences, in what sense are phenomena theory-laden? Are scientific
phenomena that are inferred on a par with theoretical entities?
A second reason for not
discussing the notion in philosophy of science might be that its analysis might
not yield any philosophical insights. Depending on the way one uses the notion,
one ends up in well-known discussions either about observations or about
theories and explanations. Although scientists talk about phenomena, this
notion, one could claim, does not do any philosoph
ical work in order to
illuminate the way science works.
The conference aims at better
understanding of the notion of a scientific phenomenon. How should the notion
be used? Does it, in one sense or the other, do any philosophical work at all?