University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy

Physics and Astronomy Calendar

Friday, March 6th 2015
Speaker: Andrea Woody, Department of Philosophy, University of Washington
Subject: A Methodological Role for Explanation in Science: Mechanistic Explanation and the Functional Perspective
Refreshments served in Room 275 Nicholson Hall at 3:15 p.m.

Philosophy of science offers a rich lineage of analysis concerning the nature of scientific explanation. The vast majority of this work, aiming to articulate necessary and/or sufficient conditions for explanations, presumes the proper analytic focus rests at the level of individual explanations. In recent work I have been developing an alternative, which I call the functional perspective, that shifts focus away from explanations as individual achievements and towards explaining as a coordinated activity of communities.
In this talk, I outline the functional perspective and discuss certain virtues and challenges for the framework. In particular, the functional perspective suggests that explanatory discourse should be “tuned” to the epistemic and practical goals of particular scientific communities. To explore the plausibility of this contention, I examine explanatory patterns involving reaction mechanisms in organic chemistry. The aim here is to investigate ways in which such explanations are shaped to support the largely synthetic goals of the discipline. The contrast case will be mechanistic explanations in the biological sciences as recently characterized by philosophers of science. Mechanistic explanations in chemistry seem different in important respects. Most basically, I will argue that this example illustrates how taking the functional perspective may reveal an important methodological role for explanation in science, a role situated ultimately in social epistemology.

Sponsored by the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science

The weekly calendar is also available via subscription to the physics-announce mailing list, and by RSS feed.