In Discussion on March 13, 2010 by ariew

I’ve been thinking a bit more about how the non-philosophers of science might be perceiving the course so far–I’m including the ethicists, historians, economists.

On the one hand, it might look like a mess.  Philosophers are particularly good at blowing a problem up rather than solving them.  For instance, we started with reductionism as a subject and we learned that the issue is divided into numerous sub-issues, e.g. metaphysical vs. theoretical reduction, macro vs. micro explanation, causal vs. unificatory virtues.

Perhaps perversely, I think we’ve made progress: there’s a method to the mad mess-making.  I’m recalling Descartes’s Discourse on Method (one of the first expressions of analytic philosophy) where he proscribes that to truly understand something we must divide it into its simplest parts where the simplest parts are certain and indubitable.  At least we’re doing some dividing…  Issues like “explanation”, “reduction”, “virtues of modeling”, dog us because they aren’t easily understood unless we partake in some dividing and analysis.

Still, there’s a problem with the way the course is currently constructed.  I think it serves as a rather poor introduction to philosophy of science.  My original aim was that it would.  But, I think, some of the debates we’ve seen in class and on this blog suggest to me that a basic background in philosophy of science would have been helpful.  Yet, on the other hand, I think the course serves as a good “teaser” for a philosophy of science class. There’s something to be said for motivating students to want to dig deeper into the issues we cover.

Any thoughts on how the course is going?


3 Responses to “Reflections”

  1. I like the case that I’ve been exposed to so many different topics and interesting problems to think about in philosophy of science. I am glad that I knew what the evolutionary theory is essentially about and what Darwin’s theory of evolution is eseentially about in the first 2 weeks.

    I just got more and more confused when the basic problem itself or the appropriate approach is not clear. Since I really have no background in philosophy of science, I hope we could clear up some basic distinctions as the course goes along: e.g., discovery/explanation, confirmation/explanation, explanation/prediction. I have some ideas about them now, but I don’t think I’ve fully grasped them.

    Since we have been discussing models in these weeks, I also would like to know some basic consensus on models. I realize that there are a lot of things controversial on this topic, but without knowing anything people agree upon, sometimes I don’t know how to appropach the issue at all (I use my intuitions, but I don’t think this is a good method).

  2. Like Wenwen, I had really no background in philosophy science coming into the class so it’s been a steep learning curve. While I have certainly enjoyed the variety of topics covered and especially appreciated the great outside speakers which we’ve been able to bring in, it has at times felt like grasping at straws. One thing that I think has been helpful for me as a newcomer has been the recent string of classes related to issues regarding a single topic (modeling). For me, its nice to have both the continuity and added depth that this format affords.

    At the beginning of class, I was afraid that my lack of knowledge of science generally would be a major hindrance. Fortunately, I don’t think that has been as big of a problem as I anticipated. To be sure, there are sometimes esoteric examples in the readings which to be honest I don’t understand but it seems that in most cases you can get the gist of whats going on.

    It seems though that the difficulty of this course for a non-specialist may not be unique. Other non-survey graduate seminars may also face this problem. I took PV’s seminar on socio-political philosophy last semester which certainly was not meant to be an intro to or survey course. The strategy there was to focus on a particular author and topic and examine it fully. This was of course done only at the cost of neglecting other points of view and topics except as they were relevant to the primary text.

  3. I hear what you are saying, Wenwen and Leo: I often worry about whether the course requires too much previous knowledge. Case in point, some of the most talkative grad students in the class are philosophers of science with lots of courses at their back. But, I recall now my own experiences in grad school. Leo’s point about PV’s course is on the same track. All seminars in grad school require some background material–it is just difficult to know how to assume much given the variety of experiences among the students taking the class. So, the question is of balance.

    At my alma matter we were told explicitly that it is up to the students to do what it takes to keep up with the courses. If that means oodles of background reading, so be it. Now, I didn’t like that approach. It felt too much like bootcamp. After all, I had no particular interest in, say, Y, so why should I read any more than what was required? Especially if tending to Y course I would give up time in courses, X, Z, I preferred, I thought this is bad advice.

    Over a decade later my resolution is kinda weak: I think we have to leave it up to the individual students. You put in what you want to get out. And, I’ll respect that (assuming that one is achieving some minimum threshold of output–which most, but not all, students in the class are meeting).

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