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?

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