HPS 2501/Phil 2600     Philosophy of Science     Fall 2006

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John D. Norton, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Room 817L CL, 412 624 1051, jdnorton@pitt.edu
Room G28 CL
Thursday 9:30-12noon
Your obligations

1. 4 short papers of 500-1000 words, sent to me by email at jdnorton@pitt.edu, chosen from the list of questions with associated deadlines.

2. Presentation of at least 2 assigned readings in the seminar.

3. Alert attendance and participation in discussion.

HPS graduate students will sit a two hour, closed-book exam in the final class meeting on December 14, 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. That essential content should be sought in the paper's theses and the arguments used to support it.

If you can, identify the point of intractability (see below) and the dynamic that sustains it.

Presentations are enhanced by a handout.

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


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 a professional philosopher 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--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 and include "philosophy of physics," "philosophy of biology," "philosophy of cognitive science" and so on.

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; and 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.

July 8, August 31, 2006