•  768
    Levels of explanation reconceived
    Philosophy of Science 77 (1): 59-72. 2010.
    A common argument against explanatory reductionism is that higher‐level explanations are sometimes or always preferable because they are more general than reductive explanations. Here I challenge two basic assumptions that are needed for that argument to succeed. It cannot be assumed that higher‐level explanations are more general than their lower‐level alternatives or that higher‐level explanations are general in the right way to be explanatory. I suggest a novel form of pluralism regarding lev…Read more
  •  729
    Explanation and understanding: An alternative to Strevens’ Depth
    European Journal for Philosophy of Science 1 (1): 29-38. 2011.
    Michael Strevens offers an account of causal explanation according to which explanatory practice is shaped by counterbalanced commitments to representing causal influence and abstracting away from overly specific details. In this paper, I challenge a key feature of that account. I argue that what Strevens calls explanatory frameworks figure prominently in explanatory practice because they actually improve explanations. This suggestion is simple but has far-reaching implications. It affects the s…Read more
  •  625
    A Neurathian Conception of the Unity of Science
    Erkenntnis 74 (3): 305-319. 2011.
    An historically important conception of the unity of science is explanatory reductionism, according to which the unity of science is achieved by explaining all laws of science in terms of their connection to microphysical law. There is, however, a separate tradition that advocates the unity of science. According to that tradition, the unity of science consists of the coordination of diverse fields of science, none of which is taken to have privileged epistemic status. This alternate conception h…Read more
  •  550
    The diverse aims of science
    Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 53 71-80. 2015.
    There is increasing attention to the centrality of idealization in science. One common view is that models and other idealized representations are important to science, but that they fall short in one or more ways. On this view, there must be an intermediary step between idealized representation and the traditional aims of science, including truth, explanation, and prediction. Here I develop an alternative interpretation of the relationship between idealized representation and the aims of scie…Read more
  •  509
    The Limitations of Hierarchical Organization
    with Brian McGill
    Philosophy of Science 79 (1): 120-140. 2012.
    The concept of hierarchical organization is commonplace in science. Subatomic particles compose atoms, which compose molecules; cells compose tissues, which compose organs, which compose organisms; etc. Hierarchical organization is particularly prominent in ecology, a field of research explicitly arranged around levels of ecological organization. The concept of levels of organization is also central to a variety of debates in philosophy of science. Yet many difficulties plague the concept of dis…Read more
  •  492
    Revisiting Galison’s ‘Aufbau/Bauhaus’ in light of Neurath’s philosophical projects
    with Audrey Yap
    Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 37 (3): 469-488. 2006.
    Historically, the Vienna Circle and the Dessau Bauhaus were related, with members of each group familiar with the ideas of the other. Peter Galison argues that their projects are related as well, through shared political views and methodological approach. The two main figures that connect the Vienna Circle to the Bauhaus—and the figures upon which Galison focuses—are Rudolf Carnap and Otto Neurath. Yet the connections that Galison develops do not properly capture the common themes between the…Read more
  •  440
    The tremendous philosophical focus on how to characterize explanatory metaphysical dependence has eclipsed a number of other unresolved issued about scientific explanation. The purpose of this paper is taxonomical. I will outline a number of other questions about the nature of explanation and its role in science—eight, to be precise—and argue that each is independent. All of these topics have received some philosophical attention, but none nearly so much as it deserves. Furthermore, existing vie…Read more
  •  433
    Modeling social and evolutionary games
    Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 43 (1): 202-208. 2012.
    When game theory was introduced to biology, the components of classic game theory models were replaced with elements more befitting evolutionary phenomena. The actions of intelligent agents are replaced by phenotypic traits; utility is replaced by fitness; rational deliberation is replaced by natural selection. In this paper, I argue that this classic conception of comprehensive reapplication is misleading, for it overemphasizes the discontinuity between human behavior and evolved traits. Explic…Read more
  •  379
    Feminist implications of model-based science
    Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 43 (2): 383-389. 2012.
    Recent philosophy of science has witnessed a shift in focus, in that significantly more consideration is given to how scientists employ models. Attending to the role of models in scientific practice leads to new questions about the representational roles of models, the purpose of idealizations, why multiple models are used for the same phenomenon, and many more besides. In this paper, I suggest that these themes resonate with central topics in feminist epistemology, in particular prominent ver…Read more
  •  337
    Explanatory independence and epistemic interdependence: A case study of the optimality approach
    British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 61 (1): 213-233. 2010.
    The value of optimality modeling has long been a source of contention amongst population biologists. Here I present a view of the optimality approach as at once playing a crucial explanatory role and yet also depending on external sources of confirmation. Optimality models are not alone in facing this tension between their explanatory value and their dependence on other approaches; I suspect that the scenario is quite common in science. This investigation of the optimality approach thus serves a…Read more
  •  332
    Optimality modeling in a suboptimal world
    Biology and Philosophy 24 (2): 183-197. 2009.
    The fate of optimality modeling is typically linked to that of adaptationism: the two are thought to stand or fall together (Gould and Lewontin, Proc Relig Soc Lond 205:581–598, 1979; Orzack and Sober, Am Nat 143(3):361–380, 1994). I argue here that this is mistaken. The debate over adaptationism has tended to focus on one particular use of optimality models, which I refer to here as their strong use. The strong use of an optimality model involves the claim that selection is the only important i…Read more
  •  306
    Causal patterns and adequate explanations
    Philosophical Studies 172 (5): 1163-1182. 2015.
    Causal accounts of scientific explanation are currently broadly accepted (though not universally so). My first task in this paper is to show that, even for a causal approach to explanation, significant features of explanatory practice are not determined by settling how causal facts bear on the phenomenon to be explained. I then develop a broadly causal approach to explanation that accounts for the additional features that I argue an explanation should have. This approach to explanation makes sen…Read more
  •  304
    Toward Philosophy of Science’s Social Engagement
    Erkenntnis 79 (Suppl 5): 901-916. 2013.
    In recent years, philosophy of science has witnessed a significant increase in attention directed toward the field’s social relevance. This is demonstrated by the formation of societies with related agendas, the organization of research symposia, and an uptick in work on topics of immediate public interest. The collection of papers that follows results from one such event: a 3-day colloquium on the subject of socially engaged philosophy of science held at the University of Cincinnati in October …Read more
  •  284
    Scientific Explanation: Putting Communication First
    Philosophy of Science 83 (5): 721-732. 2016.
    Scientific explanations must bear the proper relationship to the world: they must depict what, out in the world, is responsible for the explanandum. But explanations must also bear the proper relationship to their audience: they must be able to create human understanding. With few exceptions, philosophical accounts of explanation either ignore entirely the relationship between explanations and their audience or else demote this consideration to an ancillary role. In contrast, I argue that consid…Read more
  •  265
    Optimality modeling and explanatory generality
    Philosophy of Science 74 (5): 680-691. 2007.
    The optimality approach to modeling natural selection has been criticized by many biologists and philosophers of biology. For instance, Lewontin (1979) argues that the optimality approach is a shortcut that will be replaced by models incorporating genetic information, if and when such models become available. In contrast, I think that optimality models have a permanent role in evolutionary study. I base my argument for this claim on what I think it takes to best explain an event. In certain cont…Read more
  •  235
    Debate about cognitive science explanations has been formulated in terms of identifying the proper level(s) of explanation. Views range from reductionist, favoring only neuroscience explanations, to mechanist, favoring the integration of multiple levels, to pluralist, favoring the preservation of even the most general, high-level explanations, such as those provided by embodied or dynamical approaches. In this paper, we challenge this framing. We suggest that these are not different levels of ex…Read more
  •  220
    True Enough (review)
    Philosophical Review 128 (3): 363-366. 2019.
  •  216
    There is widespread recognition at universities that a proper understanding of science is needed for all undergraduates. Good jobs are increasingly found in fields related to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine, and science now enters almost all aspects of our daily lives. For these reasons, scientific literacy and an understanding of scientific methodology are a foundational part of any undergraduate education. Recipes for Science provides an accessible introduction to the main conce…Read more
  •  207
    Our World Isn't Organized into Levels
    In Dan Brooks Brooks, James DiFrisco & William C. Wimsatt (eds.), Levels of Organization in Biology, Mit Press. forthcoming.
    Levels of organization and their use in science have received increased philosophical attention of late, including challenges to the well-foundedness or widespread usefulness of levels concepts. One kind of response to these challenges has been to advocate a more precise and specific levels concept that is coherent and useful. Another kind of response has been to argue that the levels concept should be taken as a heuristic, to embrace its ambiguity and the possibility of exceptions as acceptable…Read more
  •  182
    Defusing Ideological Defenses in Biology
    BioScience 63 (2): 118-123. 2013.
    Ideological language is widespread in theoretical biology. Evolutionary game theory has been defended as a worldview and a leap of faith, and sexual selection theory has been criticized for what it posits as basic to biological nature. Views such as these encourage the impression of ideological rifts in the field. I advocate an alternative interpretation, whereby many disagreements between different camps of biologists merely reflect methodological differences. This interpretation provides a mor…Read more
  •  156
    What Constitutes an Explanation in Biology?
    In Kostas Kampourakis & Tobias Uller (eds.), Philosophy of Science for Biologists, Cambridge University Press. forthcoming.
    One of biology's fundamental aims is to generate understanding of the living world around—and within—us. In this chapter, I aim to provide a relatively nonpartisan discussion of the nature of explanation in biology, grounded in widely shared philosophical views about scientific explanation. But this discussion also reflects what I think is important for philosophers and biologists alike to appreciate about successful scientific explanations, so some points will be controversial, at least among p…Read more
  •  130
    Biological Explanation
    In Kostas Kampourakis (ed.), The Philosophy of Biology: A Companion for Educators, Springer. pp. 49-65. 2013.
    One of the central aims of science is explanation: scientists seek to uncover why things happen the way they do. This chapter addresses what kinds of explanations are formulated in biology, how explanatory aims influence other features of the field of biology, and the implications of all of this for biology education. Philosophical treatments of scientific explanation have been both complicated and enriched by attention to explanatory strategies in biology. Most basically, whereas traditional ph…Read more
  •  130
    Sex and sensibility: The role of social selection Content Type Journal Article DOI 10.1007/s11016-010-9464-6 Authors Erika L. Milam, Department of History, University of Maryland, 2115 Francis Scott Key Hall, College Park, MD 20742, USA Roberta L. Millstein, Department of Philosophy, University of California, Davis, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616, USA Angela Potochnik, Department of Philosophy, University of Cincinnati, P.O. Box 210374, Cincinnati, OH 45221, USA Joan E. Roughgarden, Departm…Read more
  •  126
    Idealization and Many Aims
    Philosophy of Science. forthcoming.
    In this paper, I first outline the view developed in my recent book on the role of idealization in scientific understanding. I discuss how this view leads to the recognition of a number of kinds of variability among scientific representations, including variability introduced by the many different aims of scientific projects. I then argue that the role of idealization in securing understanding distances understanding from truth, but that this understanding nonetheless gives rise to scientific kn…Read more
  •  57
    Idealization and the Aims of Science
    University of Chicago Press. 2017.
    Science is the study of our world, as it is in its messy reality. Nonetheless, science requires idealization to function—if we are to attempt to understand the world, we have to find ways to reduce its complexity. Idealization and the Aims of Science shows just how crucial idealization is to science and why it matters. Beginning with the acknowledgment of our status as limited human agents trying to make sense of an exceedingly complex world, Angela Potochnik moves on to explain how science aims…Read more
  •  15
    A Philosophical Journey with Some Startling Detours (review)
    Physics Today 71. 2018.
    Paul Dicken’s Getting Science Wrong: Why the Philosophy of Science Matters is an engaging journey through deep philosophical waters. Dicken, a philosopher of science, works his way through some historic and recent episodes related to science and touches on philosophical debates as he goes. His book is written for a broad audience and many parts are gripping and fun. Yet Dicken weaves together both well-established philosophical ideas and his own particular controversial ideas without signaling w…Read more