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FROM: Dr. Joel Press RE: Enroll for Spring 2014 PHI490 Scientific Explanation and Reduction
10/9/2013 12:04:48 PM
To: Students, Faculty, Staff

Enroll for Spring 2014

PHI490 – Scientific Explanation and Reduction

What is the course about?

We often say that science explains natural phenomena.  Gravity explains the motions of the planets around the sun.  Atomic structure explains the properties of chemical compounds.  Presence of harmful bacteria in the body explains disease.  Natural selection explains the diversity, adaptation, and geographic distribution of life.  A child’s traumatic experience with a snake explains her ophidiophobia.  (Yes, I did have to look that one up.)  Cold fronts explain rain.  The movement of tectonic plates explains the distribution of earthquakes. 

But what exactly is a scientific explanation?  Do all scientific explanations explain in the same way?  Do all explanations invoke laws of nature, or causes, or describe mechanisms?  What makes a scientific explanation scientific?

We also sometimes say that the phenomena studied by one science have been explained by the phenomena of another science, and that the former have been reduced to the latter.  Chemical facts have been reduced to physical facts.  Biological facts have been reduced to biochemical facts.  Psychological facts have been reduced to physiological facts about the brain. 

Or have they?  Are all such explanations reductive?  Are any of them?  What makes an explanation reductive or non-reductive? 

What will students do?

Students enrolled in this course will study several of the most significant philosophical attempts to answer these questions as a group before embarking on their own guided project of philosophical research.  Students will be expected, with guidance from the instructor, to produce a philosophical essay worthy of publication in a peer-reviewed undergraduate philosophy journal and/or presentation at an undergraduate philosophy conference.  (Actual submission to journals and/or conferences will be encouraged, but not required.)

Who should enroll?

Students from any background or program are invited, and no prior knowledge of either science or philosophy will be assumed.  However, students with experience in philosophy, a science (social or natural), or both, should find the course of particular interest.  The only firm requirements are a willingness to read, to think critically, and to write, about what the student thinks, about what was read.

Please direct any questions to Dr. Joel Press,