HPS 2501/Phil 2600     Philosophy of Science     Fall 2017

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John D. Norton, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Room 1017L CL, 412 624 5986, jdnorton@pitt.edu
Room G28 CL
Tuesday 3:00 pm - 5:30 pm
Your obligations

1. A 500-1000 word warm up exercise due in my email at jdnorton@pitt.edu before class Tuesday September 5.

2. Three short papers of 500-1000 words, sent to me by email at jdnorton@pitt.edu, chosen from the list of questions with associated deadlines.

3. Your share of the presentations of assigned readings in the seminar.
The number will depend on how many students are in the seminar; at present I estimate 3-4 presentations each.

4. Alert attendance and participation in discussion.

HPS graduate students will sit a two hour, closed-book exam in the final class meeting on December 12, in order to satisfy the examination requirement of the HPS graduate program's Comprehensive Requirement III.E.1



The essence of good philosophy is the formulation of a strong and clear thesis and the mounting of cogent arguments in its favor. This is what I will look for in assessing the papers. I will ask: What is the thesis? What is the argument? I will give no quarter to vague or muddled thought.

Good philosophy suffers if it is not communicated clearly. I expect the papers to be written in clear, simple prose. I expect short, snappy sentences. And I expect plain talk, concrete words and vivid examples to be used wherever possible, instead of jargon, remote abstraction and free floating generalizations.

Late submissions are strongly discouraged. Deadlines are serious. That way everyone is under the same time pressures. You have a choice of papers. Save the missed papers for when you need them. They are intended to give you flexibility in dealing with life's little disasters that can make normal deadlines hard to meet, such as when the cat brushed past your coffee cup so that it spilled into your computer, so that you lost all your notes, and, while you were taking the cat to the vet to treat the burn in the car you borrowed from your friend, you noticed that the registration had expired six months ago just at the same time as a passing police car noticed and pulled you over, finding that your name and vehicle description matched that of a serial identity theft fraudster wanted in six states specifically for scamming veterinarians, and you said you were on the way to the vet, so the next thing you knew was that both you and your cat were in handcuffs, on a train being extradited to Alabama, and in the train the air conditioning didn't work and the windows didn't open and it was 115 degrees, so the other prisoners rioted, and you were struggling to wake up since this couldn't really be happening. And when you woke up you realized that you'd forgotten to write the paper due today.

Presentation of Readings

Your goal is to review the essential content of the paper read for the seminar, proceeding with the assumption that the seminar has read the paper in advance.

Your goal is active engagement with the reading. You are to identify what are the major theses, the arguments that support them, the important ideas, and the paper's strengths and the weaknesses.

Your goal is NOT merely to recapitulate passively what you read. "Author says this, then this, then this, then this ..." is unhelpful to the seminar and minimizes what you learn from the reading.

For long readings, it will not be possible to present everything in the paper. Be bold. Select the most important content and concentrate on that. Leave the incidentals. That is better than giving superficial coverage of everything.

To help you focus on what is important and what you have learned, I am asking each presentation to identify "three gems." They are just three items in the reading that you judge noteworthy.

Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sapphire_Gem.jpg

Presentations are enhanced by a handout.

30 minutes have been assigned to each reading. Presentations should keep strictly within this 30 minutes so that we can keep to our schedule of three papers read per seminar meeting.

Added November 23, 2017:

A presentation IS an act of communication.

That means that there are two parties in the act: you and those in the room. The communication goes in two directions. You convey your material to them; and they react by showing various levels of interest and, from time to time, intervening with questions to trigger discussion.

To present well, you should come to the front of the room and stand. Then you tell everyone what you think about the reading. You should look at everyone in the room and make eye contact with them. This is essential if you are to keep communicating. Only then can you see how they are reacting to what you saying. Are they interested? Are they bored? Do they get the little jokes? Does someone have a question? Good! What is it? This opens the discussion.

You will likely have to consult notes as you tell everyone what you think. But the primary mode will be you speaking to the room. Every time your head drops into your notes, you break contact and the presentation is diminished.

Standing is important. It gives you a full view of the room and lets you see if you are holding everyone's interest. It also encourages you to be dynamic in your presentation. Body language is an important amplifier of your message. Think of how you shift your weight forcefully forwards with a key point Those movements are enhanced when you stand.

When you stand, you can also use visual aids well. Old-fashioned "chalk and talk" is still a very effective means of communicating. You stand at the blackboard. The act of writing draws attention to the few key words, symbols or pictures at the core of your story. You then turn to the room and explain, pointing at the key elements. Powerpoints are also good, if used well, especially if you have the "chalk and talk" mindset. They do not work well if all you do is parade huge slabs of text or undifferentiated bullet points.

If you have had little experience speaking, you will likely be nervous. That will soon pass. The more you make it an act of communication, the more it feels like talking to one person only. You will not be talking AT a crowd of strangers. You will be talking WITH a new friend, but many times over in parallel. Your demeanor will shift from nervous recitation to conversation. If you like talking to a friend, you will like talking to this room of new friends. And they will be happy to listen and engage with you.
A presentation is NOT a ritual act of recitation.

It is not an athletic event in which you drive through your content, at breakneck speed, with your head buried in your notes. Then, when your time is up, you are relieved that you have discharged the awful obligation of displaying knowledge of the reading. Your listeners will be relieved as well.

Proper communication requires that you keep your listeners in mind and worry about whether they are keeping up with you or perhaps whether you are just telling them what they all already know. You cannot know which is happening unless you open channels for them to communicate back to you. Pause and let those signals come back to you.

Ask for feedback. "Is that clear?" "Did I go through that too fast?" and even "I'm not sure what to think of X. Should it be Y or Z? What do you think?" Then pause and wait for an answer. Nudge a little if you have to. "Are some of you thinking Y...?"

You cannot do this if you sit at the back of room, with poor lines of sight, with your head buried in your notes.

A handout does enhance a presentation since then those in that room are relieved of the obligation of taking notes. But that is all it does.

If your presentation merely consists of reading or paraphrasing line by line what is in the handout, it will be a tedious imposition on everyone in the room. As the tedium continues and interest in what you are saying flags, the overriding hope in the room is that this display will end soon. It is as awkward and uncomfortable for you presenting as it is for everyone who has to listen to it.


The literature in philosophy of science has grown enormously in recent decades.

For an introductory orientation on almost any topic, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is probably the single most useful source; and it is free. It consists of articles commissioned from leading scholars in philosophy and edited subsequently by professional philosophers, associated with the encyclopedia. As a result, the articles are more reliable and more uniform in quality than wikipedia (which can be quite useful as well).

There are now many survey volumes and handbooks available, most of them pretty good. My overall sense, however, is that their quality is declining slowly, since the motivation to publish is often not a real gap in the literature, but a perception by a publishing house that the publication would be profitable.

The Department's early contribution to these survey volumes comprised chapters written by each of the department's (then, c. 1990) faculty members and is :

M. H. Salmon et al. Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999.

A handy reference for paragraph sized explanations of things that everyone else but you seems already to know all about is:
Stathis Psillos, Philosophy of Science A-Z. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.


What is Philosophy of Science?
"The field of philosophy of science encompasses the philosophical scrutiny of science, both in general and in its particular branches; and the scientific scrutiny of those issues in philosophy to which the content of scientific theories and their methods are relevant."

Mission statement, Center for Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh
This definition identifies two parts to philosophy of science. In one, the methods of philosophical analysis are applied to an understanding of science itself. These methods have no mysterious content or powers. They amount to an insistence on the clear statement of ideas and claims and that they be supported by cogent arguments. That one should proceed in this way is widely accepted. What distinguishes professional philosophers is that, even when the problems are tough and the going very murky, they will not compromise on clarity and cogency and still find ways of proceeding.

The second part of the definition reflects the fact that philosophy is not a closed field. Its traditional problems--the nature of space, time and matter; life; mind; experience; and so on--can overlap with the concerns of the sciences. Indeed one should expect that a knowledge of these sciences has something of use for the traditional problems.

These two parts roughly align with another division in philosophy of science. On one side we have the treatment of issues common to all sciences, so-called "general philosophy of science." Its concerns include the structure of theories, the nature of experiment, induction and confirmation, explanation, scientific realism and scientific change. On the other side we have the analysis of problems peculiar to individual sciences. It includes "philosophy of physics," "philosophy of biology," "philosophy of cognitive science" and so on.

What is Good Philosophy of Science?

Good philosophy of science is done this way:

   Formulate and state clearly an interesting and novel thesis and argue cogently for it.

This recipe is easy to state as an abstract conception. We can point to many excellent examples of it. We each have our own favorites. I am a great fan of Carl ("Peter") Hempel and Wesley ("Wes") Salmon. They were masters of the craft. Their writing is lucid. Their logic is precise. They make it look easy. Consult any of their works and make emulating them your goal.

There are, unfortunately, many ways that we can be distracted from writing good philosophy of science:

    Mere science writing.
    Proposing new science.
    Purely historical studies.
    Excesses of mathematical precision.
    Pointless axiomatization.
    Naming of parts.
    Merely suggestive questioning.
    Reductions to the more problematic.

These traps are elaborated individually in my Goodies page: How Not to Do Philosophy of Science: A Guide for Makers and Consumers.

The Point of Intractability

What should you seek when you start reading in a new topic in philosophy of science? The emphasis should be on identifying the central theses and arguments. But how deeply should you read? I have found one rule of thumb very helpful. In any field, there are easy and obvious results. They are typically picked up and published early. The sign of maturity of a field is that none of them are left. Rather one develops a sense of a deep intractability that blocks further progress. You should seek to read to this point of intractability and try to find how that intractability arises. It is generally manifested in a "damned if you do and damned if you don't" dynamic. There will be a proliferation of different viewpoints, each designed to circumvent the difficulty, but with none commanding universal assent.

The classic philosophical problem, Hume's problem of induction, illustrates this. How can inductive inference be justified? Any purported justification must call upon other means of inductive justification, so that they are circular or trigger an infinite regress. Or, if you accept that no justification is admissible, then it would seem we have no reason to believe inductive inference. So can you justify induction? You are damned if you try; and damned if you don't.

The common experience in entering a new field in philosophy of science is that you see lots of easy results. Exactly because they are easy, chances are that they are widely known. When you find that progress has been stalled by apparently intractable problems, rejoice! You have come to the point where novel contributions are possible.

See "The Point of Intractability," in my Goodies pages.

July 8, August 31, 2006; August, 2009; August 2011, August 2014, August, 2017.