PHIL 750.001 – Advanced Studies in Philosophy of Science
Instructor: John T. Roberts. This course meets W 4:00 – 6:30 p.m. in CW 213.
This course will be about scientific explanation. Some scientific achievements are best described as successful predictions, accurate (or merely useful) descriptions, and/or effective techniques for intervention. But it’s in principle possible to achieve any of those things without understanding why the phenomena involved go the ways they go. Scientific explanations are the scientific achievements that supposedly do give us understanding, i.e. tell us why the phenomena are as they are and not otherwise. One traditional view within the philosophy of science is that in fact, science (by which I mean, the empirical/experimental natural sciences as practiced since about 1600, and social sciences as practiced more recently) does not explain anything; it merely describes what happens, and if you want explanations or understanding, you need to turn to metaphysics or something like that. Contemporary philosophers of science almost uniformly reject this view, which sadlles them with the question of precisely what — over and above description, predictions, etc. — scientific explanation consists in. Many of the initially plausible answers to this question advert to things like causation, laws of nature, necessity, and objective probabilities, which all bring in more philosophical puzzles of their own.
In this course, we will do a very quick overview of the history of philosophical theorizing about scientific explanation in the analytic tradition from 1948 until about ten years ago. Then we will carefully work through several more recent contributions, as well as some recent work by cognitive psychologits on the psychology of explaining and understanding.
No specific background in the philosophy of science (or science) will be presupposed.