Monday, February 27, 2012

Week 3: Explanation and Induction

In addition to questions about realism, Lipton aims to settle issues about inductive inference (Chapter 1). In short, his claim is that despite the apparent diversity of inductive inferences, many of them can be captured as special cases of a pattern of reasoning called Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE). Lycan (2002) lays out a more general program, explanationism, of which Lipton’s can be seen as a special case. We’ll also read Laurence Bonjour’s short review of the major problems of induction.
            Neither Lipton nor Lycan take themselves to be tackling the classic, Humean problem of induction—what Lipton calls the “problem of justification.” The problem of justification asks, “How are we ever entitled to believe things on the basis of inductive inference?” Instead, they take themselves to be addressing the “problem of description,” in which the problem is to devise an elegant classification of the kinds of inductive inferences we take as warranted.
            Solutions to the two problems can be separated. The problem of description—at least as construed by Lipton and Lycan--only assumes that some inductive inferences appear justified, and aims to explain this appearance in terms of explanatory roles played by the conclusions of these inferences. It could turn out that this is merely an appearance of justification, in which case the problem of description would be entirely distinct from the problem of justification.
            Conversely, solutions to the problem of justification can proceed without a very detailed classification/description of our inductive practices. All inductive inferences share certain features—e.g. that the premises of an inductive inference can be true whilst its conclusion be false. Furthermore, it’s precisely these common features that drive the problem of justification. Consequently, if we can justify the assumptions concerning these features, then we don’t need any further description of the kinds of inductive inferences that we employ.
            Of course, there’s nothing that prohibits concerns about description and justification from informing one another. In particular, if we think that the “meta-philosophy” that underwrites Humean skepticism unreasonably privileges philosophical reflection over other kinds methods, then explanationism might be justified in part by its ability to provide a good classification/description of our inductive practices. (Compare: our theory of atomic structure is justified in part by the periodic table’s ability to provide a good classification of the elements.) Indeed, Lipton gestures towards this maneuver later in his book.
So why should we care about the relationship between explanation and truth? In addition to the issues about realism raised last week, considerations about explanation also promise to offer a powerful description of our inductive practices. Since induction figures prominently in nearly all of our inquiries, this means that explanation would figure prominently in most of our inquiries. Consequently, if the connection between explanation and truth is tenuous, then we have to adjudicate between several scenarios: (1) that our inquiries properly aim for explanation/understanding but only incidentally aim for truth, (2) that our inquiries properly aim for truth but only incidentally aim for explanation/understanding, or (3) that our inquiries only incidentally aim for truth and only incidentally aim for explanation/understanding. So our self-conception as inquirers is at stake! That’s why we should care.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Week 2: Explanation and Realism

Last week, I asked (among other things), “Why should we care about the relationship between explanation, understanding, and truth?” One answer to this question is that explanatory considerations are frequently used to argue for the objectivity of our discourses Specifically, IBE is used to justify various forms of realism. Broadly construed, realists claim that some philosophically controversial part of our discourse (e.g. about unobservable entities in science, about the external world, other minds, morality) refers to mind-independent truths. Realists who do this via IBE claim that these mind-independence truths best explain the relevant evidence. Hence, realists who deploy IBE claim that there is an intimate relationship between our best explanations and the truth. Indeed, anybody who uses IBE seems committed to this claim. After all, a good inference transmits the truth of its premises to its conclusion. So, endorsing IBE entails accepting that good explanations are a reliable guide to truth. (People might disagree about whether mind-independent truths best explain the relevant evidence, as Harman and Frost-Arnold do in our readings.)
            There are at least three related domains in which IBE is used to justify realism. First, scientific realists argue that claims about the unobservable posits of scientific theories (e.g. subatomic particles) are true because otherwise the success of science would be unexplained. This is called “The No-Miracles Argument,” and it has received its fair share of criticism, e.g. (Frost-Arnold 2010).  Second, we’ll skim Thagard’s (2000)’s chapter, “Reality,” to get a sense of how IBE can justify realism about certain metaphysical issues. Finally, we’ll read Harman’s “Ethics & Explanation,” which denies moral realism on the grounds that it does NOT provide the best explanation of the relevant phenomena. Finally, we’ll read Sturgeon’s “Moral Explanations” for a rebuttal of Harman’s position.
            So, one answer to the “Why care?” question is that you should care about the relationship between explanation and truth because it figures prominently in discussions about the objectivity of various kinds of discourse. To that end, it would be good to know:
(1)  Whether IBE provides a sound justification for this position.
(2)  If IBE can’t provide such a justification, whether it’s more defensible to:
a.     Reject realism (i.e. become an antirealist), or
b.     Find a different justification for realism.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Integrating my teaching and my academic blogging

So my blogging has fizzled miserably since its hot start a year ago. To revive it, I'll be weaving it into my senior seminar, Concepts of Explanation (PHIL0425). My students will help me to use this blog more frequently. To get the ball rolling, here's the first entry for the seminar.
In this seminar, I want you to see how professional philosophy papers are made. In particular, you’ll be looking over my shoulder as I develop two related papers:

(1)  I’ll be weighing in on a debate about whether understanding entails true beliefs, and if so, which true beliefs such understanding entails.

(2)  I’ll be revising a theory of explanation that I’ve already put to print, largely in light of:

a.     Flaws that I see with my initial formulation; and

b.     Some views about explanation and understanding that I’ve developed since publishing that paper.

I want to stress that this is not a linear process; there will be missteps. Furthermore, these two projects have very different structures. I haven’t written a lick of the first, and haven’t even done the relevant background reading—this will be part of our task for the seminar. For the second, I’ve basically devoted my whole (though still relatively young) career to doing background reading. Yet, oddly, I feel much more prepared to write the first! Ask me about this…

To appreciate what I’m doing with these two papers, I’ll need to bring you up to speed on the following:

·      What are the dominant views about understanding in the philosophical literature?

·      What are the dominant views about the relationship between understanding and true belief in the literature?

·      What are the dominant views about explanation in the literature?

Lest the first two questions look unrelated to the third, observe that we frequently expect a good explanation to provide understanding. This leads to two more questions:

·      What does it mean for an explanation to “provide” understanding?

·      Why do philosophers care about the relationships between understanding, explanation, and true belief?

One of our textbooks, Peter Lipton's Inference to the Best Explanation (2004) provides a nice touchstone for addressing many of these questions. By supplementing several of Lipton’s chapters with additional readings, I’ll get you up to speed on these questions.

Weeks 1 through 3: Why care?

Week 1: Preliminaries

For the most part, we’ll be focusing on the epistemological dimensions of explanation. In other words, how do we know that we have a correct explanation, and how do correct explanations advance our knowledge? Since many (all?) of you aren’t familiar with epistemology, we’ll read Sturgeon’s quick rundown of its major ideas. Thereafter, we’ll delve into the concept that weaves the ideas of explanation, understanding, and truth together: Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE). Its general form is:


            q best explains p.

            So, (probably) q.

A more precise version of both IBE and its relationship to induction comes from Lycan (2002)Thagard (1978), and subsequent chapters in Lipton’s book. We'll read these as well. Here are some things that would be good for you to think about:
  1. Think of two potential explanations for the same phenomenon: one of these should be very plausible and the other really outlandish.
  2. Do the "theoretical virtues" that Lycan and Thagard mention favor the plausible one?
  3. Can you think of cases where IBE would lead us astray, i.e. where our best explanations aren't likely to be true? What are the more general concerns ("structural defects") with IBE this raises?