Philosophy of Science

PHI 321, Spring 2007.

Adam Elga (follow link for contact information, office hour).

AI: Ryan Robinson rdrobins@Princeton.EDU. Office hour Wednesdays 4:30-5:30pm, at Room 126 of 1879 Hall (the archway office).

Class meetings: 3:00 pm - 4:20 pm M W (each meeting will be a combination of seminar and precept).


First part of course: Theories and space. "Gravity will stop operating tomorrow." All of your evidence is consistent with this claim. So why would it be absurd to believe it? More generally, why is it reasonable for us to favor certain simple or beautiful scientific theories over ugly, artificial, or ad hoc ones?

Second part of course: Evolution, games and reduction. Is "adaptationist" thinking legitimate in evolutionary theory? Can evolutionary theory be legitimately applied to psychology? Can game-theoretic models shed light on the origins of cooperation and signaling systems? Are explanations of biological and psychological phenomena all grounded in fundamental physics?

Prerequisite: One previous philosophy course.

Note: since this will be a very challenging course, the prerequisite is a strict requirement. The problem sets will consist mostly of short, focused questions on the readings for the current week. Some of the problem sets may involve a bit of math.

Grading: No P/D/F, no audit. 20% problem sets, announced and unannounced quizzes and class participation, 25% midterm assignment, 25% final paper, 30% final exam.

Information on final exam and final paper

Homework assignments

Homework assignments are posted here. They will be assigned by announcement in class, listing on this page, or email. Unless otherwise specified, homework is due handed in at the end of the next class meeting. See below for guidelines on how to complete these assignments.


To access the readings (all will be made available soon electronically) you will need a userid (the userid is "guest") and a password (announced in class). If you would like to preview the readings, please email

Note: In many cases, only a subsection of the linked reading is required. In those cases, the required page range is listed to the right of the reading.

Session outline

Note: this outline will certainly change throughout the semester. Rather than printing it out once and for all, be sure to check the site on Wednesdays to ensure that you have the best information about the readings for the coming week.


Mon Feb 05

Russell, Bertrand On induction

Wed Feb 07

Goodman, Nelson. The new riddle of induction (chapter 3 of Fact, fiction, forecast), sections 1,2,4.

Mon Feb 12

Jeffrey. Probability primer (chapter 1 of Subjective probability: the real thing), sections 1.1 (except skip examples 2 and 3 on pp. 13-15), 1.4, 1.6.

Wed Feb 14

Jeffrey, cont'd.

Mon Feb 19

White, Roger. Why favour simplicity?. Analysis. Introduction and section 1.

Wed Feb 21

White, Roger. The epistemic advantage of prediction over accommodation. Mind. Reading instructions: Do the following in order (1) Read introduction and first section (653-657). (2) Read section 8 (668-669). (3) Read 2nd complete paragraph on p. 667. (4) Read sections 6-7 (663-667).

Principles of Indifference

Mon Feb 26

Van Fraassen, Bas. Indifference: the symmetries of probability. Chapter 12 of Laws and Symmetry. Read sections 2-7, except for the "proofs and illustrations" part of each section.

Wed Feb 28

Strevens, Michael. Inferring probabilities from symmetries

Mon Mar 05

Weinberg, Steven. Beautiful theories. Chapter from Dreams of a final theory. Read 132 - 138("..are equivalent"), 147("I have been referring...") - 151("...cannot be taught."), 157("It is very strange...") - 165.

How fundamental is causation?

Wed Mar 07

Russell, Bertrand. On the notion of cause. From Mysticism and Logic. Read 180, 185 (1st complete para) - 189, 192 "I return now ..." - 197, 201 "There is, in all these questions ..." - 203 "...known by memory".

Mon Mar 12

Induction wrap-up, discuss midterm assignment.

Wed Mar 14

Cartwright, Nancy. Causal Laws and Effective Strategies. Read Introduction, I.1, II.1.

Mon Mar 26

Continued discussion of the Cartwright paper, with special emphasis on effective strategies (Section II.1). Additional hw question has been posted.

Wed Mar 28

Norton, John. Causation as folk science. Philosophers' Imprint Volume 3, No. 4 November 2003. Read sections 1, 2, 4.

Mon Apr 02

No class on Mon Apr 2; to be rescheduled.

Evolution and adaptationism

Wed Apr 04

If you are in the EVEN group, read the Gould/Lewontin article carefully, and take a quick look at the Dennett if you have time. You will be expected to explain and defend the Gould/Lewontin position in class.

If you are in the ODD group, read the Dennett selection carefully, and take a quick look at the Gould/Lewontin if you have time. You will be expected to explain and defend the Dennett position in class.

Gould, Stephen and Richard Lewontin. The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B, vol. 205, no. 1161 (1979), pp. 581-598.

Dennett, Daniel. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Chapter 10: Bully for brontosaurus. Read Section 2.

Mon Apr 09

Read and be prepared to defend whichever of the articles for last class you have not yet read.

What is the proper scope of evolutionary explanations?

Wed Apr 11

Lewontin, Richard. The Evolution of Cognition: Questions We Will Never Answer (Chapter 3 of An Invitation to Cognitive Science - 2nd Edition: Vol. 4. Edited by Don Scarborough and Saul Sternberg) Read pp. 108 - 1st para on 109, 120-130.

Provine, Robert. Laughing, tickling and the evolution of speech and self

Evolution of cooperation

Mon Apr 16

Kitcher. A beginner's guide to life, sex, and fitness. Chapter 3 of Vaulting Ambition. Read pp. 77-95.

Sterelney, Kim, and Paul Griffiths. Organisms, groups, and superorganisms (Chapter 8 of Sex and death). Read figure 8.2 on p. 166.


Wed Apr 18

Fodor, Jerry. Special sciences (or: the disunity of science as a working hypothesis) Synthese 28:2 (1974) 97-115.

Weinberg, Steven. Two cheers for reductionism. Chapter 3 of Dreams of a final theory.

Mon Apr 23

Continue discussing Fodor and Weinberg.

Wed Apr 25

Noam Chomsky The view beyond: prospects for the study of mind (Chapter 5 of The Managua lectures). Read pp. 142-146.

David Lewis Reduction of mind. Entry in A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind, Samuel Guttenplan, editor. Read pp. 412 - end of first column on 414


Mon Apr 30

Devitt, Michael. Scientific Realism. Entry in The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Analytic Philosophy. Read pp 767-9, 772-7. Optional: pp. 784-7.

Optional background readings

Norton, John. The Formal Equivalence of Grue and Green and How It Undoes the New Riddle of Induction. Synthese, (2006) 150: 185-207.

Norton, John. Must evidence underdetermine theory?

Hitchcock, Christopher, and Elliot Sober. Prediction versus accommodation and the risk of overfitting.

Sterelney, Kim, and Paul Griffiths. The received view of evolution (Chapter 2 of Sex and death).

Dennett, Daniel. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Chapter 9: Searching for quality.

Sterelney, Kim, and Paul Griffiths. Adaptation, perfection, function (Chapter 10 of Sex and death).

Robert Berwick. Feeling for the Organism Review of Richard Dawkins Climbing Mount Improbable. December 1996/ January 1997 issue of Boston Review

Axelrod, Robert. Success of TIT FOR TAT in computer tournaments. Chapter 2 of The evolution of cooperation.

Skyrms, Brian. Evolution of inference. Chapter 4 of The stag hunt and the evolution of social structure.

Skyrms, Brian. Cheap talk. Chapter 5 of The stag hunt and the evolution of social structure.

Skyrms, Brian. The stag hunt. Chapter 1 of The stag hunt and the evolution of social structure.

Axelrod, Robert. The problem of cooperation. Chapter 1 of The evolution of cooperation.

Weinberg, Steven. Can Science Explain Everything? Anything? New York Review of Books, Volume 48, Number 9, May 31, 2001.

Crane, Tim and Mellor, D.H. (1990) There is No Question of Physicalism, Mind, 99. Read sections 1 and 2.

Ayer, A. J. Chapter 1 of Language, truth and logic.

Course mechanics and policies

How to complete the short-answer assignments:

Missing class or precept: It is expected that you attend all of the class meetings. If you do miss class, it is your responsibility to find out from another student what happened and to get copies of notes and handouts. After doing that, if you have questions about what was covered, please do meet with your preceptor to discuss them. Some material will only be covered in class, and you will be responsible for that material on your exams and quizzes.

Adam Elga | Princeton University