HPS 2501/Phil 2600     Philosophy of Science     Fall 2017

Paper Topics

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(a) You are required to submit the warm up exercise and then your choice of THREE only of the short papers described below.
(b) Optional additional assignment: you can, if you wish, submit one additional short paper. The paper grade will be determined from the four best papers submitted, including the warm up exercise.
(c) The short papers are intended to be short--500 to 1000 words--but rich in content. In counting the words, footnotes are included, but not the list of references.
(d) The papers are due one week after the last paper of the relevant section has been read in class. (Deadlines listed below.)
(e) Papers will be graded according to how well they state clearly a thesis in philosophy of science and argue cogently for it. See policies on papers.
(f) Remember also my policies late submission. (Don't.)
(g) Send the paper to me in email (jdnorton@pitt.edu) in an editable file, that is, not a pdf. I find Microsoft "doc" files and rtf = "rich text format" the most flexible and generated by most word processors.

1. Warm up Exercise (MUST DO), Due September 5, before class (500-1000 word maximum)

Whether they know it or not, scientists harbor views in philosophy of science and they are often quite strong. An example is the importance scientists now often place on novel prediction. For example, Feynman's speech (played in the seminar) on scientific method depends essentially on a theory making a prediction that can be tested against experience.

This emphasis on prediction is relatively new in philosophy and has come to the fore only over the last century or so. Prediction had little place in older ideas of inductive science, such as embodied in Bacon's tables and Mill's methods.

These predictive powers can be the central issue in debates in modern science or in the larger popular sphere. In our introductory meeting, we look briefly at two such cases. See Readings for references.

Inflationary cosmology: Paul Steinhardt was one of the founders of the currently popular inflationary cosmology. Along with his collaborators, he has come to believe that inflationary cosmology is flexible enough to be adaptable to whatever observations may provide. While the theory would still fit all the data, they take this to mean that the theory "cannot be evaluated using the scientific method." In the readings for the introductory week, we see their accusation and an establishment response by the founder of inflationary cosmology, Alan Guth, and 32 (!) co-signers.

Evolutionary theory: The theory of evolution has long been under siege from religiously motivated critics outside mainstream biology. One of the foremost is Phillip Johnson. In his Darwin on Tria1 (Ch. 12, p.111), he accuses proponents of evolution of failing Popper's dictum: "Confirmations should count only if they are the result of risky predictions." The readings include a response by a leading biologist and popularizer of biology, Steven J. Gould.

In both cases, issues of science are enmeshed with those of philosophy of science. Since our expertise is in the latter, we can and should ask: what can we contribute as philosophers of science? Your warm up exercise is to try to add some useful insight:

Select EITHER the debate in inflationary cosmology OR in evolutionary theory (or both if you are very eager). Assert a non-trivial claim in philosophy of science concerning the issues in the debate and argue cogently for it.

Each debate touches on some technical issues in cosmology or biology. However the philosophical issues seem not to depend upon any details in the science and I do not expect you to deal with them, unless you are so inclined. Keep your focus on the bigger questions of the role of prediction in scientific methodology.

Whichever approach you take, this is an exercise in the stating of a clear thesis and arguing cogently for it. This is not the place for rambling discussion. Get straight to business. State the thesis clearly and lay out the argument. Don't bury it in chatter. You have 500-1000 words. Use them well.

2., 3., 4. Choose THREE of:

Below is a list of the topics covered in this seminar. Choose any three. To prepare for the paper, reflect on the topic until you have arrived at a definite viewpoint concerning it. Your paper consists of the presentation of that viewpoint and the case for it.

Your task is to develop your own viewpoint and argue for it. Your paper should follow the model set in the warm up exercise: assert a single, non-trivial claim in the pertinent philosophy of science and argue cogently for it.

Your task is NOT to recapitulate what is found in the readings. Since you are limited to 500-1000 words, you cannot waste words on unnecessary recapitulation of the readings.

Your task is NOT to present a collection of wisdoms concerning the topic. In a short paper like this, presenting a cogent argument for one thesis is likely all that is feasible.

(Added October 10, 11, 2017)
Your task is NOT merely to criticize some author's writing in philosophy of science. That sort of critique by itself is not advancing a non-trivial claim in philosophy of science. Rather it is advancing a claim about someone's writing.

(Distinguishing the two can be hard. The non-trivial claim can be buried within your critique of the author. e.g. you say this author's argument for thesis X is flawed. The buried claim in philosophy of science may be just "Thesis X is false." The buried claim should be presented as your paper's thesis.)

(This year (2017) too many of you are reading the assignment as saying "Take one of the papers we read and poke some holes in the argument offered." This is NOT what the assignment asks you to do. That would be easy work, especially when the author is not present to tell you why you are wrong. Any minimally competent philosopher can do it without much effort. The core skill needed for philosophy of science is the ability to mount novel theses in philosophy of science. That is much harder to develop. The assignment is pressing you to develop that skill. That your thesis disagrees with something said by the author of one of the papers we read is worth mentioning. It shows that you are doing work relevant to the literature. It should not however be the primary substance of your paper.)

Here is the list of topics and deadlines for submissions of the papers.

Empiricism Sep. 19
Models and Idealizations Sep. 26
Representation Oct. 3
Inductive Inference Oct. 10
Bayesian Confirmation Theory Oct. 24
Underdetermination Oct. 24
Falsificationism and the Demarcation of Science. Oct. 31
Explanation Nov. 7
Realism and AntiRealism Nov. 14
Causation Nov. 21
Reduction and Emergence Nov. 28
Experiment and Simulation Dec. 5
Revolutions and Meaning Change Dec. 12

Are you wondering where to start? Remember that the beginning of novel work in philosophy of science is the point of intractability. Once you have found it, merely advancing the discussion one millimeter forward is worthwhile.