PHIL 850.001 – Research Seminar in Philosophy of Science
Instructor: Marc Lange. This course meets W 1:00 – 3:30 p.m. in CW 213.
“Inference to the best explanation” (IBE) is (according to its proponents) an inference form where we argue expressly that (roughly speaking) one hypothesis derives some plausibility over its rivals from the fact that the explanations it would give are better than the explanations that its rivals would give. IBE has generally been better served by its enemies (including van Fraassen, Salmon, Sober, and Norton) than by its friends. Its enemies have at least shown us what it cannot be. But in my opinion, its friends have generally failed to show us what it really is. My aim in this course is to investigate what it might be.
We will read some of the IBE literature, including pieces by Baker, Dellsen, Douven, Henderson, Huemer, Lipton, Lycan, Norton, Okasha, Paseau, Polya, Roche, Saatsi, Salmon, Sober, Thagard, van Fraassen, Weisberg, and Williamson. I will try out on you (that is to say, I will “inflict upon you”) some of my own ideas about IBE. There will be student presentations of some of the readings. Others I will take the responsibility for presenting.
One topic that will often engage our attention will be the relation between IBE and Bayesian conditionalization (BC), since this is one of the main axes around which the literature on IBE turns. To put ourselves in a good position to discuss this topic, we will spend some time near the start of the course looking at the basics of Bayesian confirmation theory.
One unusual feature of this course is that it will examine not only IBE in science (and everyday life), but also IBE in mathematics and even perhaps IBE in philosophy. I would like to spend a significant chunk of time on IBE in mathematics; it is unclear to me how much time will be available to discuss IBE in philosophy, but I would like to do so if we can (and it will be fair game for student papers).
Required written work will consist of (i) the usual thing for a graduate seminar: a term paper of 18-25 pages (excluding bibliography) on some topic of the student’s choice that makes direct contact with material that we have discussed in the course, and (ii) Two “reading response papers”, each on a different piece of assigned reading. (Students can select which reading assignments to which to respond. A student should not write a “response paper” responding to one of the assigned readings on which the student is giving a class presentation.) Each “response paper” will be no longer (and no shorter) than two pages (double-spaced). This is the only assigned writing for those students taking the course on the Department’s “reduced writing” option. (But those students will have to do their share of class presentations.) The reading response must be turned in before the start of the first class on which we are discussing the reading to which the response is responding.