Philosophy of the Special Sciences
Advanced Intro to Philosophy of Science (PHIL-GA 1104)
Fall 2023

The special sciences study the behavior of particular or "special" physical structures: organisms, ecosystems, brains, languages, economies, planets and their climates. In this seminar, we will explore the equally specialized devices for thinking and representing that scientists use to characterize and to understand those behaviors: models (typically heavily idealized), inexact generalizations, hedged generalizations, probability distributions. And we will bring what we learn to bear on various questions about the autonomy of the special sciences. As an Advanced Introduction, the seminar will not presuppose any expertise in the philosophy of science; indeed, an aim of the seminar is to gain familiarity with some of the many topics in the philosophy of science -- in particular, those having to do with lawhood, probability, modeling, explanation, and autonomy -- by viewing them in the light of the special needs of the special sciences.

Questions that we will investigate include:

  1. Does the contingency of many special science regularities undermine their lawhood?
  2. Are some special science generalizations conceptual necessities?
  3. Can a model that contains idealizations, hence falsehoods, genuinely explain anything about the corresponding system?
  4. What explanatory work can be done by a probabilistic model of a deterministic system?
  5. Does adding "ceteris paribus" to a generalization render it empty or trivially true?
  6. In what senses are the special sciences autonomous from physics?

Class meets Tuesdays 4 to 6 PM in Room 202, 5 Washington Place


Readings will be found on the class's NYU Brightspace site