Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Poincare's conventionalism

Henri Poincare was the leading mathematical physicist of 1900. Besides discovering relativity, he had a big impact on the philosophy of science. Here are a couple of new papers on him.

Poincare's impact on 20th century philosophy of science:
Poincaré’s conventionalism has thoroughly transformed both the philosophy of science and the philosophy of mathematics. Not only proponents of conventionalism, such as the logical positivists, were influenced by Poincaré, but also outspoken critics of conventionalism, such as Quine and Putnam, were inspired by his daring position. Indeed, during the twentieth century, most philosophers of mathematics and of science engaged in dialogue with conventionalism. As is often the case with such complex clusters of ideas, there is no consensus about the meaning of conventionalism in general, and Poincaré’s original version of it, in particular. Nonetheless, notions such as the under-determination (of theory), empirical equivalence (of incompatible theories), implicit definition, holism and conceptual relativity, all of which can be linked to Poincare's writings (even if not under those very names) have become central to philosophy. This essay explores the impact of some of these notions on twentieth century philosophy of science. In addition to inspiration based on Poincare's actual views, it emphasizes directions based on misreading and unjustified appropriations of Poincaré.
Did Perrin's experiments convert Poincaré to Scientific Realism?
In this paper I argue that Poincaré’s acceptance of the atom does not indicate a shift from instrumentalism to scientific realism. I examine the implications of Poincaré’s acceptance of the existence of the atom for our current understanding of his philosophy of science. Specifically, how can we understand Poincaré’s acceptance of the atom in structural realist terms? I examine his 1912 paper carefully and suggest that it does not entail scientific realism in the sense of acceptance of the fundamental existence of atoms but rather, argues against fundamental entities. I argue that Poincaré’s paper motivates a non-fundamentalist view about the world, and that this is compatible with his structuralism.

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