HPSC X755 — Function and Mechanism in the Life Sciences
Meeting time: Tu 4:15:-6:45; Location: Sycamore 022
Among philosophers of biology, increasing attention is being paid to ways in which the notions of function and mechanism are linked. Meanwhile the life sciences are providing an increased appreciation of the complexity of the interactions that comprise biological systems at all levels, from molecular to ecological. What notions of function or mechanism are operative in the life sciences? And do the latest developments in biology undermine or support the idea that there are distinctively "functional" modes of explanation in the life sciences that have no counterparts in the physical sciences?
To address these questions, the first third of the course will be spent getting up to speed on the past and current literature on functions. The second third will be spent covering the more recent literature on mechanisms. The final third will be spent on applications to various issues in the life sciences, such as genomics, embryology, self-organization, and even the cognitive sciences (which I say should be considered a life science, even if some wish it weren't so). Along the way we will encounter many traditional questions in the philosophy of science, such as the nature of causation and the merits of reductionism.
Grades will be based on performance in the following four categories:
Presentation (~10 mins): Report on a recent article (since 2000) that either cites or is cited by one of the assigned readings for Functions & Teleology portion of the class (it can be one of the optional readings if we did not discuss it in class, but please clear it with me first).
Writing assignment #1 (April 3): Pretend that you have been commissioned to write an entry for the SEP on "Mechanisms in the Life Sciences". Write an introduction to the topic of 3-5 paragraphs, and provide a table of contents as found in all SEP entries, with at least 3 additional sections. For each section briefly (in one paragraph) sketch the issues that should be addressed in that section. Starting with the readings listed on the syllabus, and extending it as you are able, provide a bibliography with brief annotations about relevance to the sections of your outline.
Writing assignment #2 (May 1): Either (a) develop your SEP-style entry to approx. 5000 words, or (b) write a critical, argumentative piece related to an issue mentioned in my (revised) "Teleleogy in Biology" article or in your "Mechanisms in the Life Sciences" article outline, or (c) survey some portion of the recent empirical literature (e.g., all the articles in a specific scientific journal for the past few years), tabulate the uses of the terms "function" and/or "mechanism" appearing in that literature, and use your data to assess whether philosophers of biology have adequately represented the those uses.
Schedule of Readings and Presentations
All readings will be placed on line where possible, and linked to this syllabus. Any other items that cannot be linked will be placed on photocopy reserve in the department. Some of the links may require access from within the IU campus network and others will require a password that will be given out in class.
This section is under construction — links to readings will be added as they become available. The exact ordering of readings later in the semester may change. Student presentations will also be added later.
Some Additional Resources
Please send other links/documents as you find them.
Statement for Students with Disabilities
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University rules concerning academic misconduct will be rigorously enforced in this class. See IU Code of Ethics, Part II for details.