Philosophy 920: Scientific Explanation

Spring 2008

Syllabus


Introduction:

Scientific explanation is one of the broadest and most important topics in the philosophy of science.  If one presses hard enough, questions about explanation lead to questions concerning scientific realism, concerning the nature of laws and theories, concerning the nature of causation, concerning the interpretation of probability and the significance of indeterminism, concerning the relations between the natural and social sciences, concerning the character of functional ascriptions in biology and the social science, concerning confirmation and theory choice.  In other words reflection on scientific explanation leads to reflection on most of the central problems in the philosophy of science.

Although this seminar aims at providing an overview of the central problems concerning scientific explanation and the principal solutions that have been proposed, the topics covered in this seminar will be somewhat narrowly defined. In particular,

So what does that leave?  What issues will this seminar address?


Course Goals:

  1. To provide a good grasp of what scientific explanation is, how the notion of scientific explanation has changed with the development of science, and how to adjudicate among competing theories of scientific explanation.
  2. To provide familiarity with the principal texts concerning scientific explanation.
  3. To develop the analytical skills, the writing skills, and the presentation skills of the members of the seminar.

Note: Students are encouraged to discuss problems concerning the teaching of this course with the instructor. If students wish to pursue a complaint with someone else, they should contact James Anderson, Assistant to the Chairperson, Philosophy Department, 5185 H.C. White Hall, 263-5162.


Texts:


Course Web Site:

A variety of material, including the syllabus, a bibliography, and other materials will be available on the seminar web page at http://philosophy.wisc.edu/hausman/920s08/main.htm. There will also be a seminar discussion page, where class discussion can continue out of class on Learn@UW.

As explained below, the course discussion on the Learn@UW site will play an important part in the seminar. Your weekly postings will provide the starting point for the seminar discussions, and a great deal depends on how well thought out and composed those postings are. I will provide occasional detailed feedback, and your postings will also influence your course grades. The web discussion will be of greater value if you

  1. Refine your contribution as much as possible. Use a word-processing program or text editor rather than the web editor so that you can easily read, reread, revise, and improve what you have written.
  2. Think about how to format your contribution to make it as easy to read and comprehend as possible. Numbering your points can make it easier for others to respond to particular claims. Keep your paragraphs short.
  3. Think about not only what you want to say but how to say it so that it will be as clear to other members of the seminar and as easy for them to grasp as possible.
  4. Be careful to be courteous -- but don't hide your disagreements. Disagreement is in fact a peculiarly philosophical form of compliment. Tough criticism is unavoidable in serious philosophy -- we're trying to find the correct answers, and we cannot be indifferent to what seem to us to be mistakes -- but rudeness and personal attacks are unacceptable. Criticism and debate thrive when there is mutual respect, despite vigorous disagreement. A large part of doing philosophy is blundering, finding one's mistakes (with the help of others), and then blundering again -- though hopefully not quite as egregiously.

Seminar Requirements:

1. Seminar Paper:


2. Seminar Presentation:


Seminar Participation:


Seminar Outline:

Note: The suggestions for further reading that are listed for many of the seminar sessions are just that.  No one is expected to do the "further readings."  The suggestions are there only to provide some guidance to those who want to pursue the particular issues further.  Members of the seminar may also want to consult the bibliography on scientific explanation available at http://philosophy.wisc.edu/920/bibliography.htm


Monday, January 21: Optional informal dinner meeting. 6:00 1016 Van Buren Street. Introduction. Pre-theoretic notions of explanation. Scientific versus non-scientific explanation. What are the questions, and why are they important?


1 Monday, January 28:  Aristotle, medieval, and early modern views of scientific explanation. Occult powers versus mechanisms

Readings:

Optional:


2 Monday, February 4:  Newton and the transformation of scientific explanation: a weaker notion of mechanical explanation

Readings

Optional


3 Monday, February 11:  The deductive-nomological model of explanation (I).  The basic model, its setting, motivation, structure, and plausibility.

Readings:

Optional:


4 Monday, February 18: Controversies concerning the deductive-nomological model.

Readings:

Optional:


5 Monday, February 25:  Final versus efficient causes, mechanical and functional explanation, and the limits to the deductive-nomological model and its explanatory ideal

Readings:

Optional:


6 Monday, March 3: Inductive-statistical explanation

Readings:

Optional:


7 Monday, March 10: Salmon's statistical relevance model

Readings:

Optional:


8 Monday, March 24:  Conclusions on probabilistic explanation

Readings

Optional


9 Monday, March 31: Explanations and Why-Questions.  The pragmatic (erotetic) theory of explanation

Readings

Optional


10 Monday, April 7: Explanation and unification

Readings:

Optional:


11 Monday, April 14: Explanatory asymmetries and theories of causal explanation

Readings

Optional:


12 Monday, April 21:  Theories of causal explanation

Readings

Optional


13 Monday, April 28: Causal explanation, invariance and law

Readings

Optional


14 Monday, May 5: Non-causal scientific explanation (?)

Readings


Office Hours:

If my office hours, (Tuesdays 11:00-12:00 and Wednesdays 1:30-2:30) are not convenient, email me, call me, or see me after seminar to arrange another time to meet.  Please feel free to come see me.


The Use of Email:

Feel free to email me at dhausman@wisc.edu with any specific questions, but if the question involves a matter of philosophical substance, I would urge you to post it on the course web page and then send me (or the entire class) a brief email notifying me (us) of the posting.  I will give each of you a seminar email distribution list.


A Note on Plagiarism:

It should go without saying (though I'm saying it anyway) that plagiarism is a serious offense. All sources and assistance used in preparing your papers must be precisely and explicitly acknowledged -- this includes even a few words pasted from some internet source. If you have any questions about what constitutes plagiarism, please come talk with me. Ignorance of what constitutes plagiarism is not a defense. It is your responsibility to be sure.