Philosophy of Science
Spring, 2011

Information on the Paper


As mentioned in the syllabus, the final due date for the paper is Monday, April 18, 2011. The paper should be 3000 - 4500 words in length (approximately 10-15 pages).

Preliminary deadlines:  I would like to have a paper proposal indicating the topic you would like to address, which class material you will make use of, and a preliminary indication of what position you will argue for and how, and what other resources you might find useful.  (Both these things may change as you work on the paper.)  This should be turned in by Monday, February 28. The proposal should be approximately one page in length. Please submit your proposal by posting it to the Paper Topics forum on the TLEARN site. (I will post comments on the proposals as replies on the forum.)

I strongly recommend that you give me a draft of the paper prior to the final due date. I would like to receive drafts by Monday, March 28 (three weeks before the final draft is due: I will try to get comments back to you within a week or so, so that you will have time for revisions). Of course you are more than welcome to submit a draft earlier than this!


1. Thesis. The paper should have a thesis or main point. This could be either positive (an attempt to develop and defend a novel position on a philosophical issue, such as an analysis of what it is to know something or of what it is to act freely) or negative (a critique of one of the readings or positions we have studied). If you are discussing a text whose interpretation is controversial and difficult, a substantial emphasis of the paper might be on developing an adequate interpretation of the text, but the overall goal should be to reach an assessment of the author's position rather than simply an interpretation of it.

2. Argument. Your paper needs to be more than an autobiographical account of what you liked or didn't like about the material you discuss. It also needs to do more than simply develop an aesthetically pleasing theory. You need to explain why your views are plausible; that is, you need to support them with critical argument. One very good strategy students often do not use enough is to think of possible objections to your view and respond to them. In addition, if you are criticizing someone else’s work, it is a very good idea to discuss how you think the writer would defend his or her position against your criticisms. This helps to deepen your argument.

Students sometimes think that writing a persuasive argumentative paper requires never mentioning any criticisms that might be offered, and even caricaturing the views they are criticizing instead of presenting those views and the arguments for them fairly. This might conceivably be a good strategy if (a) you care only about persuading your audience, not about how good your arguments are, and (b) your audience is neither very bright nor very well informed. Perhaps this is why the level of political argument is generally so low. In any case, in this paper your aim should be to develop and defend a position as carefully and completely as you can; the paper should be a search for the truth, not simply an attempt to persuade. The more objections you consider and respond to, and the more fair you are to your opposition, the more cogent and thoughtful your own view is likely to be. In addition, though, to an informed and thoughtful reader, your paper will be more persuasive if you present the opposition to your view clearly, fully, and fairly (and, of course, show why your own view is superior nonetheless).

3. Accuracy in your discussion of reading material for the class. The paper must make some use of class material, and should use it in a way that shows you have understood it well enough to apply it to an issue that interests you. When you cite ideas or passages from the reading or from other sources, it is very important to give page references; format does not matter--you can use footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical references with a bibliography--but it is vital that I know where to look to find the relevant quotation or idea.

4. Clarity of presentation. Clarity is important in any kind of writing, but especially in philosophy: if you don't say exactly what you mean I may not be able to figure out what you had in mind. So I would like for you to write carefully and to organize the paper very explicitly. Individual sentences should be unambiguous and grammatically correct; individual paragraphs should make a single main point, and connections between sentences should be clear; the overall paper should constitute a sustained defense of a thesis, and it should be clear at every point in the paper what stage of the argument you are currently at (e.g. responding to the second objection to your first main argument for your thesis).

5. Concreteness, detail, focus. Try to avoid vague generalities and empty abstractions. Your points should be made concrete by illustrating them with examples. References to texts should be specific and should include page references. Not only does this provide your reader with needed information, it also helps to keep you honest; you may find yourself reevaluating your view of what the philosopher says as you search for evidence that the text says what you thought it did!

6. Academic Integrity. You should make certain that you are familiar with the details of the Honor Code, which all Trinity students are now covered by. Students are required to pledge all written work that is submitted for a grade by writing, on the submitted work: “On my honor, I have neither given nor received any unauthorized assistance on this work,” followed by their signature. The pledge may be abbreviated “pledged” with a signature. If I suspect that the Honor Code has been violated, I am required to submit an allegation to the Honor Council, a student committee. After that, it is out of my hands: it is up to the Honor Council to determine whether a violation has occurred, and if so, what the penalty should be. The Honor Code prohibits faculty members from making their own determination, or even communicating about the allegation with the student involved. In my experience, the Honor Council has been at least as tough as I would have been on students found to have violated the code. For more details see the Honor Code web site.

You should be aware that I take academic integrity very seriously. Do not use any material verbatim that you did not write yourself unless you enclose it in quotation marks and give a citation to the source. (This goes for individual clauses as well as larger chunks of prose.) Do not use close paraphrases of material you did not write yourself, period. Be aware that plagiarism is easier to detect than you might think. Other actions that violate academic integrity, including turning in the same paper for more than one class, are listed in the Student Handbook. A PDF version of the handbook is online at (see p. 120 in the 2008-2009 version of the Handbook. There's a web page listing violations of the Honor Code here (as part of the Honor Code website).

I have had some students suggest that their plagiarism is “not a big deal.” You should be aware that I do regard it as a big deal. Other students have told me they were not aware that what they were doing was a violation of academic integrity. If you have any uncertainty about the policy, or about whether the specific use of other sources you are considering is acceptable, come and talk with me. I’ll be happy to clarify what is acceptable and what is not. Finally, I have heard from some students that they resorted to plagiarism because they were overwhelmed by an assignment and saw no way of completing it successfully without resorting to cheating. Ironically, in many cases, if these students had worked as hard at writing a paper as they did at plagiarizing, they could certainly have written an acceptable paper. If you are having trouble getting started on a paper, please come and talk with me.

Remarks on writing the paper

1. This is not primarily a research paper. Your goal is not to find out what a number of other people have said about your topic, but to develop and defend your own view. I do hope that you will bring to bear material you have learned elsewhere, either about one or more of the sciences or about philosophy or both, and I hope you will do some library research to find other relevant material. (Looking to see what's available on the Internet can also be valuable, but web materials must be used with discretion; since anyone can put anything they please up on the net, professional-looking sites may still contain material with no intellectual value. I have links to a few sites worth a look on my Philosophy of Science page.) But don't get buried under a mass of secondary material; your time will be much more productively spent by examining one or two articles very carefully than by quickly reading a great deal of material. (Of course, the ideal case may be one in which you quickly read a great deal of material and then select a small number of pieces for a very careful study.)

2. If you are to write a good paper, you will need to write at least two drafts. (No one ever seems to believe me when I say this - or at least, they think that while it may be true for most people, it isn't true for them. But they're wrong! Even if you can write a passable first draft, a second draft is likely to be much better.) You probably have your own strategies for writing papers, but here is one approach: study the class reading and other material you have found on your topic and begin to gather your thoughts about it. Before writing your first draft, it is a good idea to just write anything that comes to mind on your topic; ideas will come to you as you write. Then think about how to organize this material into a draft; outline the paper and write a complete draft. Let it sit for a few days, then reread it and begin work on the second draft; for this draft, clean up the prose, fill in missing steps in your arguments, add material that will make the structure of the paper clear to the reader, and consider and respond to objections to your position. In your final draft, pay careful attention to such mechanical matters as sentence structure and spelling.

Possible topics

I won't give you a list of topics from which to choose. You know your own interests better than I do. But let me suggest some general strategies.

1. You could write a critical exegesis and evaluation of one or more of the articles or chapters we have read. I can suggest additional readings in connection with most of them if you'd like.

2. You could take on a general issue, and make use of several pieces. You could write, for instance, on any of the main issues of the course: the nature of explanation, the nature of confirmation, the debate between realism and anti-realism, the role of values in science, etc. Of course these topics are too broad as they stand and would have to be narrowed down. For example, we discussed Hempel's "covering-law" model of explanation, considered a number of counterexamples, and then moved on to consider a picture according to which explanation is a matter of presenting those portions of the causal history of an event which are relevant in the specific context in which the explanation is requested. But we did not consider any version of this latter view that is nearly as clearly and precisely stated as the covering-law model. You might want to try to remedy the situation by proposing a specific list of conditions that explanations must satisfy according to this model, considering the extent to which such a model can avoid the counterexamples the covering-law model faces, and perhaps considering whether there are new counterexamples that cause trouble for the new model. Additional sources that could be helpful here include David Lewis, "Causal Explanation," in Lewis, Philosophical Papers Volume II; Bas van Fraassen, The Scientific Image; and Paul Humphreys, The Chances of Explanation.

Another possibility would be to criticize or defend Bas van Fraassen's constructive empiricism. You could explain the view in more detail and discuss some objections to it. In that case you would want to read parts of van Fraassen's book The Scientific Image, his responses to criticisms in Images of Science, and perhaps some of his book Laws and Symmetry. Of course the same sort of paper could be written on any of the more substantial pieces we have read.

3. If you have scientific interests, it would be most useful for you and most interesting for me if you were to write on a philosophical issue related to one of the sciences. For example, it would be interesting to write a paper about the relation between the philosophical debate over realism and the debate in physics over the foundations of quantum mechanics. (Or, more generally, about realist and anti-realist tendencies in the history of physics; here you might want to consider Arthur Fine's book The Shaky Game.) Again, one could write a very interesting paper comparing mathematics to the natural sciences: are there analogues to problems of explanation and confirmation in mathematics, or are these problems completely alien? (For example: the same theorem can typically be proven in a variety of different ways. But some proofs may seem more explanatory than others, may seem to reveal in a more straightforward way what makes the theorem true. This may raise issues analogous to the complaint against the deductive-nomological model of explanation that not just any prediction is explanatory.) If you are interested in the social or behavioral sciences, or even in biology, you could write an interesting paper on the prospects for reducing your field to some more "basic" science, and ultimately perhaps to physics.

Another possibility would be a topic in the philosophy of biology. Possibilities here include whether creation science is science; what the units of selection are in evolution (genes, organisms, species . . .); issues about how organisms should be classified. A good first source on all of these issues is Elliott Sober, Philosophy of Biology (Westview, 1993). Another interesting issue is whether sociobiology is a legitimate extension of biology into the sociological realm, and whether sociobiology has implications for ethics. Sober has a chapter on this issue also; in addition there are gung-ho books by E. O. Wilson (On Human Nature) and Richard Alexander (The Biology of Moral Systems). A detailed critique can be found in Philip Kitcher, Abusing Science. Still other interesting issues with a biological slant might arise from our discussions in class of the role of values in scientific inquiry, e.g. whether sexist assumptions have slanted work on the biology of sex differences. One starting point here would be Chapter 6 of Helen E. Longino, Science as Social Knowledge. An interesting if somewhat unusual interdisciplinary collection of materials that might provoke some ideas and resources for papers is Michael Ruse, ed., Philosophy of Biology (Prometheus, 1998).

Last update: October 27, 2010
Curtis Brown | Philosophy of Science | Philosophy Department | Trinity University