Presentation Topics

Philosophy 920: Scientific Explanation

Spring 2008

1 Monday, January 28: Aristotle, medieval, and early modern views of scientific explanation. Occult powers versus mechanisms

  • What is the relationship between causation and explanation in Aristotle's view of explanation?
  • How should one characterize the contrast between Aristotle's and Descartes' views of scientific explanation?

2 Monday, February 4: Newton and the transformation of scientific explanation: a weaker notion of mechanical explanation

  • Does Newton offer an explanation of the phenomena of the spectrum that results when light passes through a prism? Is it a mechanical explanation? How does his view of explanation differ from Hooke's and Descartes?
  • What notion of explanation would lead Duhem to deny that Newton's account is an explanation? Why does Duhem deny that representations are explanations?

3 Monday, February 11: The deductive-nomological model of explanation (I). The basic model, its setting, motivation, structure, and plausibility.

  • What are the virtues of the deductive-nomological model of explanation? To what intuitions concerning explanation does it respond?

4 Monday, February 18: Controversies concerning the deductive-nomological model.

  • Scriven argues that explanations need not be arguments. What are his main arguments and how conclusive are they? Are the other objections to the DN model more serious?

5 Monday, February 25: Final versus efficient causes, mechanical and functional explanation, and the limits to the deductive-nomological model and its explanatory ideal

  • Can functional explanations be deductive-nomological explanations? Can they be causal explanations? What is Hempel's account? Is there a better way of understanding functional explanation?

6 Monday, March 3: Inductive-statistical explanation

  • Sketch Hempel's inductive-statistical model and discuss the resemblances between the deductive-nomological and the inductive-statistical models of explanations. What are the intuitions underlying the inductive-statistical model and how well does the model accomodate these intuitions?

7 Monday, March 10: Salmon's statistical relevance model

  • Sketch Salmon's statistical relevance model of explanation and discuss why Salmon needs the notion of a homogeneous reference class and why he has so much trouble defining it. How does this problem relate to the difficulties Hempel tries to solve with the requirement of maximal specificity? Does Salmon's theory avoid relying on notions of causation?

8 Monday, March 24: Conclusions on probabilistic explanation

  • What is Railton's "deductive-nomological model of probabilistic explanation? To what extent is it faithful to Hempel's theory?
  • What is Humphreys' theory of probabilistic explanation? In what way does it differ radically from Hempel's, Railton's and Salmon's theories? Does this difference represent progress?

9 Monday, March 31: Explanations and Why-Questions. The pragmatic (erotetic) theory of explanation

  • What is van Fraassen's account of explanation? Is it consistent with Hempel's? How does its motivation differ? What are its main virtues and difficulties?
  • Formulate and evaluate Kitcher and Salmon's critique of van Fraassen. How might van Fraassen reply? To what extent do Kitcher and Salmon beg the question against van Fraassen?

10 Monday, April 7: Explanation and unification

  • Lay out Michael Friedman's unification theory of explanation and Kitcher's objections. How serious are the problems? Is there any way to save the theory?
  • Lay out Kitcher's unification theory of explanation, explain how it surmounts the problems facing Friedman's theory, and offer your assessment.

11 Monday, April 14: Explanatory asymmetries and theories of causal explanation

  • Clarify the problem of explanatory asymmetries and the extent to which a causal theory of explanation solves it. Is it enough simply to say that explanations cite causes?
  • Discuss either Wesley Salmon's or David Lewis' theory of causal explanation. How illuminating are they? Do they say much more than that explanations cite causes?

12 Monday, April 21: Theories of causal explanation

  • Lay out Richard Miller's theory of causal explanation. What role do pragmatic factors play? What demands does he place on the notion of causation?
  • Lay out the basics of Woodward's theory. How does it compare to Miller's?

13 Monday, April 28: Causal explanation, invariance and law

What does Woodward mean by invariance, and why is it so important to his account of explanation? What role do counterfactuals play in explanation? How can the central role of the notion of an intervention be defended?