Monday, December 22, 2008

Teaching Philosophy of Science

When I was an undergraduate, one of the best courses I took was philosophy of science, and that was years before I thought about turning in this direction as a career. I've finally found the confidence, time, and support to teach the course using the technique that I so enjoyed as a student, satellite presentations on problems in the special sciences.

Why do we teach philosophy of science courses with confirmation and explanation at their center, maybe winding up the course with Structures of Scientific Revolutions and a few thoughts about realism or constructivism? Judging from the textbooks that are out there, this is the standard format.

But whose research is general, or in confirmation and explanation? Our research interests are problems in molecular biology, levels of evolutionary selection, evaluations of climate models, how economics represents the rational mind, and so on... Those are the truly interesting questions, and we keep our undergraduate students out of them because we think the problems are too complex or require too much technical sophistication. Or maybe because our own expertise is in one narrow area of biology, and so we wouldn't be able to tackle the problems in psychiatry, physics, and information processing with the appropriate level of skill.

I bit the bullet. I'm requiring a student presentation on a philosophical problem in the special sciences, but I'm adjusting my expectations to account for my own levels of expertise and my students' inexperience with philosophy, with science, and with presenting. We've had three weeks of our term, and many students have clearly expressed their excitement about doing independent research.

My hope is that these presentations will build skills, but also that they will be fun and interesting, and so will build curiosity. I don't remember much of anything from the lectures my undergraduate philosophy of science professor gave, but I do remember a half dozen of the student presentations--17 years and many many philosophy of science talks later!

I expect the format to accomplish several goals:
1. giving student presenters the opportunity to see what it is like to be the expert in the room.
2. giving student presenters the opportunity to present philosophical material. I allow but discourage PowerPoint for these 15-minute presentations. Several students were dismayed by this policy. "What are we supposed to do for 15 minutes if we don't use PowerPoint?"
3. open-ended questioning that models philosophical inquiry. Many of the topics that were chosen will lead us into the territory of metaphysics, logic, confirmation or explanation, methodology, and even religion.
4. student presenters acting as teachers--providing questions as much as answers; or, if answers, then answers which they have to defend.

The first weeks' presentations--on emergent properties (via Steven Johnson's popular book) and on the classification of mental illness--provoked a lot of quality discussion. I had suggested the latter topic as a possibility, but I didn't realize at the time how many questions it raises:
  • To what degree are disease concepts socially constructed?
  • What does social construction mean in this context? That a disease has an environmental component, e.g. one may have a genetic disposition but not be an alcoholic if never exposed to alcohol? Or that abnormality depends on acceptance and approbation?
  • To what degree does labeling the cause of unacceptable behavior a disease release the patient from responsibility from illegal actions?
  • Does identification of symptoms as the result of a physical illness rather than a mental illness depend on the sophistication of our science? That is, neurological disorders, in which a harm to brain tissue can be identified, are not classified as mental illnesses, but chemical imbalances are equally physical but as of yet unidentifiable.
The NYT reports on the development of the DSM-V, which will bring some of these questions about responsibility and social construction into wide discussion. Commentary by Christian Perring here.


Rachel McKinney said...

This is an excellent idea. Keep us in the loop on how the semester ends up going!

Trevor said...

Here is the "Gestalt Switch" of the spinning silhouette that we mentioned in class today: