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Chalmers: What is this thing called Science?


What is this thing called Chalmers?

This page consists of an overview and a short description of the content in Alan Chalmers - What is this thing called Science? 3Ed.

A detailed discussion about the content can be downloaded here:




Alan Chalmers' book What is this thing called Science? is sometimes used during introductory courses at university level in Sweden within Philosophy of Science.

In the book, philosophical arguments within epistemology, i.e. philosophy of knowledge, are intermixed with arguments about science.

Due to the suggestion by Chalmers that academic movements, outside of philosophy, that deny a scientific method should be starved of funds (p.172), I want to clearly express that I do not share this view.

My opinion is that this type of denial, whether from philosophy or from other sources, must be met with serious information. /PP



In the book, at least two strange examples of ambivalence can be seen:


Ambivalence towards science

At one side, Chalmers erroneously argues that science should be equivalent to knowledge, which implies an opinion of that scientific methodology is the only possible way that will provide us with knowledge.

At the other side, almost every page of the first six chapters of the book contains polemic against science, where Chalmers uses arguments that are well known within epistemology and since the Greek antique have been directed against the concept of “absolutely certain knowledge”. This confusion is rather odd and suggests a lack of insight or a conscious attempt to manipulate the reader.


Chalmers could have mentioned the philosophy behind the scientific method, which can be summarized as that nothing can be proven to be “absolutely certain knowledge”.

This skepticism is balanced by a demand of that any proposition must be coupled to a careful description of the basis for the proposition.

This demand provides at least a possibility to estimate the probability that the proposition is in agreement with our perceived reality and has decreased the proportion of non-verified statements in scientific publications, which in turn have increased their reliability.


Ambivalence towards philosophy of science

In spite of that Chalmers is active within philosophy of science, he appears to show a low esteem about the subject.

In the introduction to the first edition he describes that he, a dedicated follower to the philosopher Karl Popper, during discussions with philosophers of science realized that Popper was wrong in a number of major issues. In spite of this he claims that Popper's theses are infinitely much better than most other philosophic orientations.

The introduction and the first six chapters contain a logically erroneous criticism of the concept science. After this, in chapter 7, a discussion of Popper's so called "Sophisticated falsification" follows. It very discretely ends with (p.103) that Popper's theses are not relevant.


Chapters 8-10 contain accounts of some other philosophical discussions that also criticize science. They are discretely terminated by noting that the discussions are not adequate.

Then a total surprise comes in chapter 11. Here Chalmers claims that none of the philosophies have been successful and that their failures have opened the gates for postmodernist trends.

In this chapter (p.172) Chalmers also suggests that academic movements that deny a scientific method should be starved of funds.

It is interesting to note that courses that are arranged by these "movements" may use suitable excerpts (chapters 1-6) of Chalmers book.


An advantage with the content


A benefit with a book is the ambition to account for sceptical arguments, one of the philosophical foundations of science, which:


... is a necessary preparative to the study of philosophy, by preserving a proper impartiality in our judgements, and weaning our mind from all those prejudices, which we may have imbibed from education or rash opinion.

David Hume (1777) - Enquiry, p.150


Some disadvantages with the content


One disadvantage with the book is that the anti-dogmatic ambition is destroyed by that the author uses ill-defined arguments that are weak, are aimed onto wrong targets, and are erroneous.

A basic problem that “always” has been known within epistemology is that we cannot show the existence of “absolutely certain knowledge” concerning anything in our world. An example is Plato’s description of Socrates’ defence speech, where the sentenced stresses that he, as opposed to others, does not believe that he knows anything. Outside philosophy, epistemologically complex terms like “knowledge”, “truth” and “fact” may of course be used, but when such terms, without definitions, is heavily used and relied upon in a book dealing with philosophy, the book exudes a stale odour of sophistry.

By using known sceptical arguments and in these arguments exchange the word “knowledge” for “science”, Chalmers claims that great problems exist within scientific methodology. Inexperienced readers may then reach the opinion that “absolutely certain knowledge” exists, but that it cannot be found using the scientific method.

Such arguments become strange, also because one of the reasons for scientific methodology is that we should be able to live with the problems within epistemology.


Another major disadvantage with the book’s anti-dogmatic ambition is that it mainly uses argumentation brought up from the dogmatic philosopher Karl Popper. It is ironic that his theses are spread mainly within areas that Popper claimed were non-scientific.

An additional disadvantage is the author’s complete lack of historic perspectives. Chalmers only describes opinions among some selected recent philosophers, and completely forgets that the scientific method has been used successfully for at least 200 years. When his discussion approaches scientific methodology it is what he calls “The new experimentalism” with references from about 1980 and onwards.

Chalmers mentions in the book’s introduction that a scientific methodology has produced enormous success within areas where it is accepted. But when he later only claims that the base for this methodology has enormous errors and flaws, it is likely that a not completely uncritical reader may want to acquire some information about what it is within this methodology that has created this success.


Short summary of the content

Introduction and chapters 1-4: Problems with science


The title of the book implies a wish to explain the concept of science. After an introduction filled with odd rhetoric about our misconceptions in the image of science as something that is trustworthy, four chapters follow that describes “big problems”, that actually are found in the concept of “absolutely certain knowledge” but that the author instead claim concerns the concept of “science”.

The main message is that we certainly cannot trust science at all.


When Chalmers discusses these epistemological problems, as they should concern science, he is not credible; scientific methodology is the non-dogmatic answer to the problems of “absolutely certain knowledge”.

These problems have been known since the Greek antiquity, and you are within science well and sometimes painfully aware of that “absolutely certain knowledge” is not a useful concept, and that it very soon may come new scientific reports that questions what you yourself recently has published.


Chapter 5-7: Celebration of Popper’s dogmatic theses


Chapters 5-7 treat theses proposed by Karl Popper about how meaningless it is to verify something, as opposed to falsify something. The latter is very important - so important that it, according to Popper, should define whether something is scientific or not.

In the beginning of his career as a philosopher, Popper expressed this opinion, but by time he modified his claims and approached to what we call science. This modification is by Chalmers described as “sophisticated”.


At the end of the third chapter about Popper’s theses (ch. 7), Chalmers discreetly writes that he wonder what is left of the theses about falsifying when you admit dogmatism to play a key role, and that it would be ironic if the theses are totally unusable.

The discrete conclusion demonstrates that detectable illogical arguments may appear as representing wise thoughts, but that they also in this context were completely irrelevant.


Chapter 8-9: Theories as structures


After the three chapters about Popper’s theses, two chapters follow about how theories concerning our world may be developing.

Chalmers continuously pushes the thesis that hypotheses and theories leads to observations. He has not understood something that is obvious and was expressed already by Aristotle:

In order to formulate a hypothesis about something in our experienced word somebody must have made observations that lead to the hypotheses.

The investigation method from Aristotle is called the inductive-deductive method and is used even today during investigations that are not only concerned with what is already accepted. An interpretation of this method is called hypothetico-deductive method. It is applicable during testing of already formed hypotheses, but not during acquiring completely new conclusions concerning our world.

To express this more specific, we have without previous observations not a clue about existence of what the hypotheses expresses.

The first of these two chapters about theory development describes the author Thomas Kuhn’s discussion of paradigms, belief systems as a basis for science. A paradigm is, according to Kuhn, the base for an activity until it is changed in a revolution and is followed by a new paradigm that in turn will be changed.

Chalmers suggests that a paradigm with necessity will be changed, but does not mention that there exist many paradigms within each science, that a new paradigm almost always includes the earlier, and that paradigm exists within all human activities.


In addition, the author is not updated about what history has shown and what even Kuhn himself later expressed:

.. two types of scientific development, normal and revolutionary. Most successful scientific research results in change of the first sort, and its nature is well captured by a standard image ...

The overwhelming majority of scientific advance is of this normal cumulative sort ... (i.e. according to scientific methodology /

Thomas Kuhn - The Road Since Structure (2000) p.13-14.

Chalmers seems to claim that the content in what we call science with necessity is transient and that which today is accepted will not be accepted tomorrow.

The second chapter about theories describes Imre Lakatos’ discussions about science programs. With the term “program” Lakatos seems to mean “system of theories”. He advocates rules about how science should be performed and about what should be permitted and not permitted, but his theories do not have an obvious relation to how science has been found to operate.

A term that is repeated is “heuristic”, a non-defined term that denotes “pragmatic non-strict investigation method”. Lakatos seems, like Popper and Kuhn, later have realised that his hypotheses were not relevant for scientists.


Chapter 10: Feyerabend's anarchistic claims about science


In similarity with other general critics, Feyabend claimed that we should not believe in anything, except in his own theses.


But he is said to have been an entertaining speaker.


Chapter11: Methodical changes in method


A rather weak introduction, e.g. a claim of importance that a scientific method is “universal”, is followed by a “definition” of a scientific method according to “common sense”:

Take argument and the available evidence seriously and do not aim for a kind of knowledge or a level of confirmation that is beyond the reach of available methods.

This “definition” can be seen as a part of the accepted scientific method.


Chalmers disapproves of what he calls “levellers” and suggests that academic movements that deny a scientific method according to “common sense” should be starved of funds.

He also claims that philosophies of science have failed and that this has opened the gates for post-modern opinions within philosophy of science.


Chapter 12: The Bayesian approach


Thomas Bayes suggested a method to estimate how probabilities are changed as new evidence is added.


Even if this approach should have been correct, it is not associated with philosophy of science.


Chapter 13: The new experimentalism


The chapter contains a type of description of empiricism, well known since more than 200 years, where Chalmers does not use the term “observation” but “experiment”, which appear to imply something close to “planned observation”.


In this chapter it is acknowledged that observations are not always following from theories, see Chapters 8-9.

The discussion has some reminiscence with Newton's discussion about theories and observations.


Chapter 14: Why should the world obey laws?


The world should not obey laws, but we have sometimes observed that it does so.

In this chapter Chalmers enhances the suspicions that his earlier arguments occasionally have brought forth, i.e. that he seems to believe that the laws of science represents “truths” or “absolutely certain knowledge”.

Laws, in similarity with all other reasoning about our perceived reality, do not represent “absolutely certain knowledge” and accordingly not “knowledge” according to the vocabulary of philosophy.


A law is a hypothesis that summarizes observations. In many cases it has also (e.g. by using the concept of energy) been possible to couple to other laws, based upon completely different observations, which creates a very strong trust in the involved laws.

Sometimes the trust is so strong that an emotion called “understanding” occurs.


Chapter 15: Realism and anti-realism


The term “realism” denotes a conception that an external world exists with properties that are independent of whether we observe it or not.

“Anti-realism” appears not to discuss whether an external world exists, but discusses that we cannot say anything that represents “absolute certain knowledge” about it.

Chalmers fills his book with that a statement about the unobserved world cannot represent “absolutely certain knowledge”.


The discussion, as Chalmers describes it, also here is focused on the lack of a definition of the term “knowledge”.

According to the correspondence theory of truth, a statement is true if and only if it corresponds to the facts. As the term “fact” is dependent on the term “truth”, this is a tautology that demonstrates the enormous need of definitions within philosophy, or conversely: How convenient it is with lacking definitions if your only objective is to express pretentious nonsense.


Chapter 16: Epilogue


Chalmers questions e.g. if he has succeeded in answering his book title, i.e. “What is this thing called Science?”. Well, he has not even tried:

He calls science for a “thing”. It is a since 200 years well known method, based on philosophical arguments about “knowledge that has been found to work quite well. When he calls it a “thing”, it is at best ignorant.

Being focused in philosophy, Chalmers is actually not interested in answering the question.


A philosopher do not want to discuss how things are, but is more interested in a discussion around this, or about what it could have been.

Chalmers writes himself at p.172 that he is not interested in a description of science, and should the commonly accepted description of science not be questioned, he and all philosophers of science would be put out of business.

Chalmers also states that philosophy cannot describe what science is. This is an opinion that I share after having read this book thoroughly.