Philosophy of Science: High Level Explanation
Fall 2004

Tuesday 7–9

Much scientific explanation occurs at a relatively high level of description: it is couched in terms of organisms, economies, societies, ideas, rather than of particles or electromagnetic forces. Does high level explanation offer benefits above and beyond low level explanation? Can higher level understanding also be deeper understanding? Is there some sense in which the high level can be explanatorily autonomous? What is the explanatory role of certain kinds of properties that seem to emerge only at a relatively abstract level of description: robustness, probability, function, and (perhaps) representation? The seminar will focus on these questions. Examples will be taken from evolutionary biology, genetics, the social sciences, psychology and the philosophy of mind, and statistical mechanics.


Reading for December 7th:

  • Michael Strevens, The Explanatory Role of the Notion of Representation, especially sections 2, 5 and 6. Available right here.
  • (Optional) Robert Cummins, chapter two of The Nature of Psychological Explanation, especially pp. 34–44.
  • (Optional) Fred Dretske, chapter four of Explaining Behavior.

Reading for November 16th and 23rd:

  • Jaegwon Kim, Multiple Realization and the Metaphysics of Reduction, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 52:1–26, 1992. Available on JSTOR.
  • (Optional) Lawrence Shapiro, Multiple Realizations, Journal of Philosophy 97:635–654, 2000.
  • (Optional) Ned Block, Anti-Reductionism Slaps Back, online at Ned Block's web site.

Online Documents

See the syllabus (PDF).

Some background reading (PDF).

Some paper topics, suggested (PDF).

Reading for November 2nd: How are the sciences of complex systems possible?

Reading for November 9th: The kairetic account of probabilistic explanation (excerpt).