Philosophy of Science

University of South Alabama, Department of Philosophy, Spring 2013

Syllabus | Schedule | Professor

General Information


Professor Ted Poston
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(or by appointment)
Humanities Building124


T,R 12:30-1:45pm
Humanities Building 136
1/14/2013 - 5/3/2013



The philosophy of science examines questions and issues arising from the methods and results of science, questions and issues that are not themselves answerable by scientific methods. This course focuses on the nature of explanation in the sciences. Science aims to explain the phenomena. We shall seek to answer the question of what constitutes a good or a successful explanation of some phenomena? This question will lead us into debates over the nature of explanation, problems with accounts of explanation, competing criteria for good explanation, and differences between scientific explanation and other types of explanation. After the course the student will have a better grasp of the nature and variety of scientific explanation.


Although this course does not have any official prerequisites, it does presuppose an acquaintance with both elementary logic and some basic philosophical concepts. This class is an advanced philosophy courses. Students are expected to be able identify the thesis and main argument of a professional philosophical paper. Additionally, students are expected to be able to summarize a philosophical paper in both written and oral form. Students who are unprepared to do this sort of work will not earn a passing grade and are strongly urged to take some other course.

Course Materials


There is no textbook for this course


    1. Hempel, C. G. and P. Oppenheim. (1948). “Studies in the logic of explanation.” Philosophy of Science 15:135–175. (690 citations)
    2. Watkins (1957) ‘Historical Explanations in the social sciences’ The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science (202 citations)
    3. M. Scriven, (1959) ‘Explanation and prediction in evolutionary theory’ Science (305 citations)
    4. Paul Feyerabend (1962) ‘Explanation, Reduction, and Empiricism” Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science vol 3. 29-97 (789 citations)
    5. Gilbert Harman (1965) “Inference to the Best Explanation” The Philosophical Review (780 citations)
    6. Hempel, C. G. (1966). “Explanation in science and in history.” In W. H. Dray (ed.), Philosophical Analysis and History. Harper and Row, New York. Revised version of paper originally published in 1962. (243 citations)
    7. Mink, L. O. (1966). “The autonomy of historical understanding.” History and Theory 5:24–47. (131 citations)
    8. Bromberger (1966) 'Why Questions' in R. Colodny *Mind and Cosmos* (228 citations)
    9. Friedman, M. (1974). “Explanation and scientific understanding.” Journal of Philosophy 71:5–19. (580 citations)
    10. Paul Thagard (1978) "The Best Explanation: Criteria of Theory Choice" Journal of Philosophy 75: 76-92. (274 citations)
    11. Steiner, M. (1978). “Mathematical explanation.” Philosophical Studies 34:135–151. (93 citations)
    12. Brody, B. (1972) "Towards an Aristotelian Theory of Scientific Explanation." Philosophy of Science, 39, 20-31.
    13. McCarthy, T. (1977) "On an Aristotelian Model of Scientific Explanation." Philosophy of Science, 44, 159-66.
    14. W. Salmon (1978) “Why ask ‘Why?’” Proceedings and Addresses of the APA (136 citations)
    15. van Fraassen, B. C. (1980). “The Pragmatic Theory of Explanation” Oxford University Press, Oxford.
 (citations 3916)
    16. Kitcher, P. (1981). “Explanatory unification.” Philosophy of Science 48:507–531. (903 citations)
    17. Railton, P. (1981). “Probability, explanation, and information.” Synthese 48:233–256. (160 citations)
    18. Jackson, F. and P. Pettit. (1992). “In defense of explanatory ecumenism.” Economics and Philosophy 8:1–21. (79 citations)
    19. Gopnik, Alison. (1998). “Explanation as Orgasm”, Minds and Machines, 8: 101-118. (70 citations)
    20. Wilson, Robert A. and Frank Keil. (1998). “The Shadows and Shallows of Explanation”, Mind and Machines (94 citations)
    21. Glennan (2002) ‘Rethinking Mechanistic Explanation’ Philosophy of Science (251 citations)
    22. Trout (2002) ‘Scientific Explanation and the Sense of Understanding’ Philosophy of Science (103 citations)
    23. Velleman, J. D. (2003). “Narrative explanation.” Philosophical Review 112:1–25. (72 citations)
    24. Hitchcock, C and J. Woodward. (2003). “Explanatory Generalizations, Part II: Plumbing the Explanatory Depth”, Nous, 37: 181-1 (50 citations)
    25. Woodward, J. (2003). Making Things Happen: A Theory of Causal Explanation. Oxford University Press, Oxford. (1044 citations)
    26. Lipton, P. (2004) Ch 4. Inference to the Best Explanation, 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge. (1069 citations) and chapter 4 “IBE”
    27. White, Roger. (2005). “Explanation as a Guide to Induction”, Philosopher’s Imprint 5: 1-29. (22 citations)
    28. De Regt, H. W. and D. Dieks. (2005). A contextual approach to scientific understanding. Synthese 144:137–170.
(104 citations)
    29. Bechtel and Abrahamsen (2005) “Explanation: a mechanist alternative” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 36:2 421-441 (248 citations)
    30. T Lombrozo (2006) “The structure and function of explanations” (88 citations)
    31. Frank Keil (2006) “Explanation and Understanding” Annual Review of Psychology (155 citations)
    32. Strevens (2008) 'The Causal and Unification Approaches to Explanation Unified—Causally' Nous (59 citations)
    33. Lipton, P (2009) “Understanding without explanation” Philosophical Perspectives (11 citations)
    34. Leibowitz, U. D. (2011). Scientific explanation and moral explanation. Nous 45:472–503.


    Course Homepage:

    COURSE Requirements


    (10% of final grade)

    Attendance is required in this course. By not coming to class, students will be hurting their own final course grades in several ways. First, I will periodically take attendance to keep track of who is in class and actively, regularly participating. At the end of the course, I will give each student a percentage grade that will be worth 10% of his or her final course grade. Second, less directly, students who miss classes will thereby miss important course content; as a consequence, students who miss class will not do as well on tests, homework, or in class discussion.


    (40% of final grade)

    A reading summary consists of (i) a statement of the author’s thesis, that is, what he is arguing for or against. Occasionally this may include more than one statement. Also, sometimes you will have to paraphrase the author’s thesis. Reading summaries also include (ii) a sketch of the author’s main argument for his thesis. In the remainder of the summary (you have at most 500 words) explain the rationale of the major premises and any problems you see with the author’s argument.

    Many of our readings will be difficult. However, it should be fairly easy to get the main gist of the article. For instance, if an article is on skepticism you should be able to determine whether the author argues for skepticism or against it. In cases where you don’t know what the article is getting at, just say that and try to explain some of the reasons for your bafflement. These summaries are intended to encourage you to wrestle with these readings. Each essay is central to the development of epistemology and deserves careful scrutiny. Writing on an article forces you to be clear about your reaction to the article and your sense of what the author has accomplished (or failed to accomplish). These summaries are also intended to improve your ability to write about and explain complicated issues.

    Reading summaries will be graded as follows:


    (Midterm=10% of final grade and Final=20% of final grade)

    Students will take a midterm and final exam. The final will be cumulative. The midterm exam will be an oral exam. You will make an appointment to come to my office and we will discuss the topics we have covered thus far. You will be graded on your comprehension of the material and on your ability to answer questions I pose. I will announce the format of the final exam later.


    (20% of final grade)

    You shall formulate a thesis statement, argue for it, and defend it from possible objections. Your discussion should manifest a good understanding of the relevant literature—you’ll gain this understanding from our readings and class discussion. I will give you a list of topics. Before you begin writing confirm your topic with me. If you would like to pursue a different topic than one I have given then discuss it with me. The paper shall be no more than 2000 words. Use footnotes with standard documentation practices (e.g., MLA).

    Statement of Grading Criteria:


    Final letter grades will follow a standard 10-point scale: 90-100 A, 80-89 B, 70-79 C, 60-69 D, 0-59 F. I will not be using a curve when calculating your grades.

    Policies, etc.


    In general, I do not allow students to make up missing homework or missed exams. I also generally don't allow students to turn in late work. Some exceptions might be made in cases where students have a valid reason excusing them and evidence of that reason (e.g., sickness and a doctor’s note).


    Please turn off your electronic devices during class. This very much includes your cell phones! If you absolutely feel like you have to have your tablet or laptop with you to take notes during class, please talk to me outside of class to argue your case.


    Student Academic Conduct Policy (Adopted 1988; Revised 2004, 2007) “As a community of students and scholars, the University strives to maintain the highest standards of academic integrity. All members of the community are expected to exhibit honesty and competence in academic work. This responsibility can be met only through earnest and continuing effort on the part of all students and faculty. Any dishonesty related to academic work or records constitutes academic misconduct including, but not limited to, activities such as giving or receiving unauthorized aid in tests and examinations, improperly obtaining a copy of an examination, plagiarism, misrepresentation of information, or altering transcripts or university records. Academic misconduct is incompatible with the standards of the academic community. Such acts are viewed as moral and intellectual offenses and are subject to investigation and disciplinary action through appropriate university procedures. Penalties may range from the loss of credit for a particular assignment to dismissal from the University. Note that dismissal from any University of South Alabama college or school for reasons of academic misconduct will also result in permanent dismissal from the University. Faculty, students, and staff are responsible for acquainting themselves with, adhering to, and promoting policies governing academic conduct.” From The Lowdown


    The University of South Alabama seeks to provide equal access to its programs, services and activities for people with disabilities. If you have a specific disability that qualifies you for academic accommodations, please notify the instructors and provide certification from Disability Services (Office of Special Students Services). The Office of Special Students Services is directed by Ms. Andrea Agnew and is located in the Student Center, Room 270, Phone 460-7212.