The Knowledge Machine and The Role of Confirmation Theory in Science
Michael Strevens (New York University)

September 22, 2021, 7:30pm - 9:30pm

This event is online

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We are happy to announce that Michael Strevens will give two online lectures on his new book The Knowledge Machine on 22nd Sept and 15th Sept at CASIP and Fudan PSI. In his book, Professor Strevens advances a new model to demonstrate how modern science departed from various kinds of intellectual practices (e.g., religion, and natural philosophy) and eventually became the powerful ‘knowledge machine’ that continually seek truth and knowledge.

The lectures are jointly organized by the Institute of Philosophy, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CASIP), and the Philosophy and Science of Intelligence Center (PSI), Fudan University. Everyone is welcome to attend. More information can be found below.


CASIP Lecture: The Knowledge Machine and the role of confirmation theory in science

Organizer: Institute of Philosophy, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CASIP)

Why is science so powerful?

How does science work, and why is it so effective?

Why did it take so long—two thousand years after the invention of philosophy and mathematics—for the human race to start using science to learn the secrets of the universe?

Michael Strevens will give two online lectures on his new book The Knowledge Machine on 22nd Sept and 15th at CASIP and Fudan PSI, respectively. In his talks, Strevens will answer these challenging questions, showing the astonishing idea that modern science only came into birth when its early practitioners gave up a bunch of methods in reasoning. Accordingly, modern science, which is usually taken as the achievement of human rationality, is surprisingly rooted in something inhuman and irrational.


The inferential engine of science is the logic of evidential support, aka "confirmation". In 1945, Carl Hempel proposed a simple theory of confirmation that eventually came to be seen as unacceptably unsophisticated: it failed to incorporate the impact of epistemic context, of the "superempirical virtues" (such as simplicity, unity, explanatory elegance, and so on), and it was purely qualitative, telling you when a piece of evidence supported a hypothesis but without quantifying the degree of support. Drawing on ideas in The Knowledge Machine, I will propose that Hempel's theory, precisely because it is simplistic, comes much closer to capturing the logic of evidential support in science than is commonly supposed. From a philosophical perspective it is indeed unacceptable, yet it reflects many aspects of scientific practice very well. Or more exactly, what it reflects is the role of evidential support in scientific publication (as opposed to private scientific reasoning). Using the case of theoretical beauty, I will argue that the way support works in scientific publication is, indeed, strictly speaking irrational. Yet that irrationality, I will suggest, is critical to the success of modern science.


Michael Strevens was born and raised in New Zealand. He moved to the US in 1991 to undertake a PhD at Rutgers University; currently, he teaches philosophy of science at New York University. His academic work is principally concerned with the nature of science, covering topics such as scientific explanation, understanding, complex systems, probability of various sorts, causation, and the social structure of science; he also applies contemporary research in cognitive psychology to explain aspects of both philosophical and scientific thinking. In The Knowledge Machine, a trade book, he explains why science is so successful at creating knowledge and why it took so long for humans to figure out how to do it right.

Time: Wednesday, 22th September, 2021, 7:30 PM — 9:30 PM (UTC+8)

Online Platform: Zoom

Meeting ID: 489 550 5875

Passcode: 6666

Zoom Link:

Speaker: Michael Strevens (New York University)

Chair: Chuang Liu (Fudan University/CASIP)


1: Darrell Rowbottom (Lingnan University)

2: Casper Storm Hansen (CASIP)

3: Zhu Xu (East China Normal University)

4: Yongping Sun (PKU)

Language: English


Tung-Ying Wu: [email protected]

Mingjun Zhang: [email protected]

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