Thursday, February 26, 2009

Reduction Then and Now

As Eric Schliesser explains in his recent post and comments, the old Unity of Science project is dead. That project had two main aims. One of these was to reduce the substantive claims of all science to those of physics. For instance, biology was to be shown to arise from biochemistry, biochemistry in turn from physics. In order to achieve this, the terms of the “special sciences” had to be reduced to those of physics: gene to DNA segment to some physical term. In short: all causal claims were to be reduced to claims about the entities of physics, and the special sciences themselves are reduced to sets of existential claims about certain combinations of the entities of physics.

This project died with the autonomy of science movement. Hilary Putnam, Jerry Fodor, and Philip Kitcher all argued that the claims of the special sciences did not depend in any way on the reduction to physics, and that the causal claims of these sciences could hold independently of their physical realization. For instance, Mendel’s Laws depend only on the independent segregation and recombination of genes, and their underlying structure is unimportant. This meant that the original unreduced meaning of the term gene was indispensable to biology, and the whole reduction process described above is nugatory.

In recent years, we have seen two rather controversial developments in this area – and because of the weakness of general philosophy of science they have not been properly scrutinized from the perspective of scientific methodology.

The first development is autonomy gone ontological. One example occurs in philosophy of biology where it has been claimed that natural selection and drift are “population level causes” in the sense that they act on populations in a way that has nothing to do with causes that act on individual organisms. This goes much further than the claim that populations (cp genes) are constituted by structural features that are indifferent to particular realizations. This is an extreme application of the autonomy arguments.

The second development is ontology being pushed deeper than physics. In the 1920s, Bertrand Russell argued that the terms of physics are functional: mass is nothing but resistance to acceleration; charge, once again, is to be understood interactionally. He asked what intrinsic properties of matter underlay these functional terms. Russell proposed a “neutral monism” in answer to this question, on which the fundamental properties of matter were the stuff of consciousness.

Recently, this proposal has been revived by David Chalmers and Daniel Stoljar, who suggest that the fundamental and intrinsic properties of matter are “protophenomenal”. Consciousness arises out of these deep properties of matter, as do the interactional properties described by physics. This seems like a radical application of the old Unity assumptions.

Both these developments beg for the critical discourse of general philosophers of science. C’mon girls and guys: where are you? Are these uses of Unity/Disunity of science maxims legitimate?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

On the decline of general philosophy of science

I could have added this to Gabriele's posting ("Are General Philosophers of Science Becoming an Endangered Species?" 11-2-09), but this way I can say hello to the group and thank Gabriele for inviting me to the blog.
First, I agree with Ed Machery (and Mohan Matthen) that much terrific general philosophy of science is conducted within or is an important byproduct from philosophy of a particular science. (My favorite examples are besides Craver, Bill Wimsatt's work.) I would add to this also history of science (see Howard Stein and George Smith, etc) and history of philosophy of science (Michael Friedman, Alan Richardson, etc).
Second, Ed and Mohan are a bit too quick in dismissing Gabriele's general concern. For one cannot deny that general philosophy of science lacks a certain urgency. (For example, see the fate of some of its leading lights: Michael Friedman's turn to history; Bas van Fraassen's turn to existentialism and religion; Kitcher's turn to public policy of science and opera.) This lack of urgency contrasts with three distinct earlier episodes. I) In the half-century aftermath of the publication of Newton's principia, there was a general debate about its metaphysics, methodology, and epistemology. The debate was between those that argued that philosophy could *limit itself* to a mathematical-empirical approach (Galileo, Newton, Cotes, MacLaurin) and those that thought that reason required a more general foundation (in our ideas, in principle of sufficient reason, in some bed-rock certainty, etc--think Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley, Hume of the Treatise). II) A second serious debate occured in the wake of Kant's success in forestalling and transforming the crisis within philosophy. This discussion was most intense in Britain where in the wake of the developing professionalization of science, philosophers discussed the methodology of science (Whewell, Jones, Mill, but also Maxwell and Peirce, Mach, Comte, etc). This was still the domain of general philosophy (and science) III) Professional philosophy of science (with its own journals and professionals) was born around the turn of the twentieth century. It arose from debates within neo-Kantianism in which epistemology was the first science. In this climate the philosophy of science had a very crucial purpose: if the results of science are the ideal of rationality then philosophy of science is the core of the first science (epistemology or in its Carnapian guise, the logic of science). This project intensified after the shock of the Einsteinian revolution. (It probably died somewhere early in the cold war.) If my potted history is accurate then Mohan's snap-shot of mid 20th century of science is an example of what happens to a research project that 'forgets' its own animating questions and becomes a problem-solving 'science' (with journals, conferences, fashions) that has a 'history' of circa 20 years (and, given the high barriers of entry to particular philosophy of science, can become, thus, unattractive to newcomers).
Third, this also suggests why Robert Northcott's creative proposal (philosophy of science as a bridge between M&E and particular philosophy of sciences [it reminds one of Neurath's and Carnap's project for unified language of science]) is doomed to fail. 'Our' leading M&E projects (derived from the work of David Lewis) appear designed (despite the language of naturalism, materialism, etc) to avoid 'contact' with science at all cost. Our services are not wanted!
Fourth, if I am correct, then general philosophy of science can only become animated if either contemporary M&E (or ethics, etc) has a need for it or if some general philosopher of science writes such impressive works of philosophy that can attract attention of discipline as a whiole.

New Metaphysics Group Blog

Sorry, I haven't been much around lately. I've been busy setting up another group blog, Matters of Substance, which is devoted to metaphysics.
Beside myself, the confirmed contributors include (in alphabetical order):

Elizabeth Barnes,
Karen Bennett,
Ross Cameron,
Alice Drewery,
Kit Fine,
Katherine Hawley,
John Heil,
Thomas Hofweber,
Jonathan Jacobs,
Dan Korman,
Dan López de Sa,
E.J. Lowe,
Ned Markosian,
Kris McDaniels,
Jennifer McKitrick,
Stephen Mumford,
L. A. Paul,
Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra
Jonathan Schaffer,
Robbie Williams,
Jessica Wilson,
Dean Zimmerman

I hope some of you will find this interesting!

Should Philosophers of Science Engage in the Science/Religion Debate?

One thing that the earlier post on general philosophy of science showed me is that many philosophers of science are interested in general philosophical issues, but that they also feel that many traditional topics like realism and explanation are beyond saving. At the Central APA there was a fairly remarkable session with Plantinga and Dennett (I summarize the Plantinga part here, somebody who wants to remain anonymous summarizes it from a more theistic perspective here). What impressed me was the number of people attending and the interest in philosophers of many kinds. So, this naturally raises the question of whether or not philosophers of science themselves should engage more often in this science/religion debate, e.g. are the findings of science consistent with theism?

My vague impression is that most philosophers of science do not really want to get involved in this debate. This is certainly my own preference, but I am not sure exactly why. Part of the problem is that it does not really concern science on its own, and because I lack much experience with religious belief and philosophy of religion, I don't feel especially qualified or interested in weighing in. Perhaps a less philosophical reason is that these debates tend to get quite personal, and I would rather not have philosophical arguments devolve into personal attacks.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Models, Methods, and Evidence: Topics in the Philosophy of Science – Proceedings of the 38th Oberlin Colloquium in Philosophy

The first March issue of Philosophical Studies (vol. 143, no. 1) contains the proceedings of the 38th Oberlin Colloquium in Philosophy. (Apparently the papers have been coming online one by one since December, but I just found that out, and I'm the guest editor….) The 38th Colloquium was devoted to the philosophy of science, and the proceedings are full of delicious treats for readers of this blog. I can't figure out how to post a useful link (I keep getting pulled back into my own institution's system), but the papers tend to focus on questions about evidence, modelling, or both, and the line-up is as follows: 

Bas van Fraassen, with comments by Helen Longino
Margaret Morrison, with comments by Ron Giere
Elliott Sober, with comments by Michael Strevens
Peter Godfrey-Smith, with comments by Arthur Fine
Nancy Cartwright, with comments by Sherri Roush

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Philosophy of Science at the Central APA

Looking through the Central APA program for later this week, I see at least five sessions of interest to philosophers of science:

Thurs. 1:30-4:30pm
I-F. Author Meets Critics: Bird, Nature's Metaphysics: Laws and Properties
Critics: Marc B. Lange (University of North Carolina–
Chapel Hill), Richard Corry (University of Tasmania)
Author: Alexander Bird (University of Bristol)

Thurs. 5:15-7:15
GII-9. Metaphysics of Science
Colin Klein (University of Illinois–Chicago), “Abstraction and the Shape of Reduction”
Robert Bishop (Wheaton College), “Reductionism Meets Complexity”

Thurs. 7:30-10:30
GIII-1. Idealization in Science

Friday 7-10:00
GIV-10. Authors Meet Critics: Ladyman and Ross, Everything Must Go
Critics: Andrew Melnyk (University of Missouri–Columbia), D. Gene Witmer (University of Florida)
Authors: James Ladyman (Bristol) and Don Ross (University of Alabama–Birmingham)

Sat. 9-12:00
IV-A. Ontological Emergence
Speakers: Karen Bennett (Cornell University) and Carl Gillett
(Northern Illinois University), “A Whole Lot More from ‘Nothing But’: Scientific Composition and the Possibility of Strong Emergence”
Commentator: Jordi Cat (Indiana University)

Did I miss anything?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Are General Philosophers of Science Becoming An Endangered Species?

(Disclaimer: some of the claims in this post are grossly exaggerated for the purpose of sparking a debate on an issue that, I would think, is important to many readers of this blog but do not necessarily reflect the considered views of its author).

Ok, a few days ago I said I was going to write a post about this and here it is...

"General" philosophers of science are at risk of becoming an endangered species. In saying this, I don't mean to say that there aren't many philosophers that do a lot of very interesting work on general issues in philosophy of science (many of those who contribute to this blog do!). Rather, I mean that there are very few philosophers of science today that are primarily interested in general issues in PhiSci. It almost feels like "respectable" philosophers of science are expected to pursue general PhiSci questions in their spare time, when they are not doing serious PhiSci (which often seems to be equated with philosophy of physics, biology, economics, etc.) or at most as a by-product of their doing "serious" philosophy of science. If one really cannot help but being primarily interested in general PhiSci questions, then s/he'd be better off pursue those question within some formal framework, if s/he wants to be taken seriously (e.g. Bayesian accounts of IBE, unification, confirmation, etc.). But, if you want to work mainly in general PhiSci, do so at your own risk!

(A few more disclaimers: a) personally, I find much "serious" PhiSci very interesting. b) I have no nostalgia for the time in which philosophers of science largely ignored "real science" (I have no problems with--in fact, I like--people using "real science" to illustrate their points when doing general PhiSci for example. c) I don't have anything against "formal" PhiSci--a lot of my work on scientific representation is pretty "formal" but I didn't go down that route to look like I'm doing serious PhiSci. I did only because it seemed to be the best way to say what I wanted to say clearly).

Of course, as I stated in the opening disclaimer, the one I painted above is a grossly exaggerated picture, but it's hard to paint a much rosier picture after glancing at recent issues of the main PhiSci journals or at the programs of major recent PhiSci conferences or after looking at the results of the latest PGR survey for general philosophy of science (which seem to reward faculties for having philosophers of science independently of how much they work on general PhiSci) and its list of assessors (many of whom have made important contributions to the general PhiSci debates but can hardly be considered as working mainly in general PhiSci). The problem appear even more serious when one considers how many senior philosophers of science work mainly on general issues without being either close to or past retirement or having earned much of their credibility by moonlighting as philosophers of physics or biology. If this climate perdures, I wouldn't be surprised if philosophers of science who work mainly on general issues were to become soon virtually extinct.

For those who, like me, see themselves as general philosophers of science and don't suffer of any inferiority complex, however, it's hard to see any good reasons for the apparent decline of the discipline (at least insofar as research output and number of senior figures) and it's tempting to attribute it to what good ol' Imre Lakatos would have called "external" reasons (I know, aint' I soooo unfashionable?)--i.e. historically and sociologically contingent causes, philosophical trends. One of the few "internal" reasons I can think of is that (for reasons that I take to be "external") general philosophers of science have too often ignored or disregarded many crucial, relevant debates in neighbouring fields such as metaphysics or epistemology. Today, the philosophical neighbours of gen PhiSci are flourishing, general philosophers of science seem to have isolated themselves from their most natural interlocutors who seem to consider them thier not-so-bright cousins (the serious philosopher of science because they do that kind of stuff on their spare time and the epistemologists and metaphysicians because general philosophers of science are so philosophically unsophisticated).

  1. So, how far off the mark is my grossly exaggerated picture? Am I completely wrong about general PhiSci not being considered a very respectable discipline these days? (For example, do PhD students at major PhiSci programs who are interested in general issues feel any explicit or implicit pressure to work on more respectable topics or work on general topics in a more respectable manner?)
  2. How wrong am I about general PhiSci isolating itself from M&E or in thinking that it's part of the problem? (For example, how many pure M&E grad courses do PhD students at major PhiSci programs take? At LSE, we were not forced to take any and many of my fellow students there had no background in philosphy)
  3. If I'm not wrong about there being a problem, but I'm wrong about its diagnosis? What is your diagnosis?
  4. If you think general PhiSci has no reason to exist today, why do you think so? (btw, if you think so why are you reading this blog?)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Teaching evolution

It being Darwin’s 200th birthday this week, I wonder – do people cover the evolution ‘controversy’ when teaching undergrad phil sci? I have found that students tend to be pretty interested. So far I have never experienced any heated religion-based bother, and pro-evolution students are usually glad to gain ammunition. (I make sure that I stay ostentatiously neutral regarding religious and political issues more generally.) Perhaps my positive experience is not typical, I don’t know. My class is largely non-philosophy majors in St Louis.

The topic’s also an excellent illustration of how philosophy of science can add something over and above science itself – something that’s not always obvious to science majors.

Maybe much depends on exactly how it is taught. I’ve never just shown a video, such as the (decent) PBS one about the recent Dover trial. Rather, I teach it as a natural follow-on from earlier stuff in the course about testing and auxiliary assumptions. Briefly – I roughly follow the presentation in Elliott Sober’s phil bio textbook, emphasizing that intelligent design arguments require auxiliary assumptions about the nature of any designer in order to be testable. Of course, such assumptions about a designer are themselves hard to test, as Hume noted long ago. And a default assumption of an optimal designer runs afoul of actual organisms’ many imperfections. I.e. intelligent design is either untestable or falsified. Obviously, this contrasts with the situation with science.

I also like to add a straight science class on the wide range of evidence for evolution because I’ve found that usually only a few students, even biology majors, are aware of more than a small portion of it.

No doubt there are other ways of proceeding, and I’d certainly be interested to hear about those that seem to work well. But my point is more that I’ve found the experience surprisingly satisfying rather than depressing, and far from a creationist Trojan-horse ‘teach the controversy’ exercise. Accordingly, given the state of public debate in parts of the US at least, perhaps we all ought to be teaching this?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Scientific Realism and Epistemic Justification

As far as I can see, much of the recent scientific realism debate revolves around the question of whether or not we are epistemically justified in believing our best scientific theories (or parts thereof) to be (approximately) true. In light of this, I've always found quite surprising that philosophers of science seem to be by and large uninterensted in the debates among epistemologists concerning epistemic justification. Among the few exceptions that I can think of are those scientific realist (such as Richard Boyd and Stathis Psillos) who more or less explicitly take an externalist/reliabilist stance on epistemic justification. However, I can hardly think of any scientific realist who takes an explicitly internalist/evidentialist stance. Yet, I don't see why an internalist/evidentialist view of justification wouldn't suit the purposes of (some) scientific realists. Do you think this is just an accident? Or do you see any serious reasons for a scientific realist to think s/he is better off being an externalist about epistemic justification (independenlty on who is right between internalists and externalists)?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Scientific Realism and "Consilience"

This post might just be motivated by my ignorance of the topic, my apologies if this is the case - I just decided to express some vague intuitions that have been in my mind for some time.

The intuition is that a good argument for scientific realism would come from a consideration of the convergence of independent methods and theories towards the same hypothesis. There’s something like this, of course, in Whewell’s ‘consilience of inductions’, and in subsequent work on the robustness of inductive methods. However, the Whewellian line of argument, as far as I understand, is mainly concerned with the reliability of inductive practices, e.g., with how varying experiments corroborates the trustworthiness of their outcomes.

What I have in mind is, instead, some general argument that the convergence of totally independent experimental and/or theoretical procedures towards the same ‘result’ (i.e., the postulation of the same entity, or the same theoretical structure) is best explained by saying that those procedures discover truths (perhaps all this could be put in terms of probabilities, with the probability, say, of the reality of x raising as more and more independent reasons for positing x emerge). As far as I know, something in this sense was said by Salmon (if I remember well, he considered the fact that there are 12 completely different methods of measuring Avogadro’s number as a reason for realism about the latter). But I don’t know of any more systematic treatment.

One could think of it in terms of a ‘detective story’ analogy: in the same way in which independent signs all point to the same (unknown) culprit and - after a certain (clearly vague) threshold is reached - they are sufficient for (quasi-)certainty about the identity of the murder, so independent scientific hypotheses might work together. Of course the objects and the murderer are observables, while the problem with scientific realism concerns the unobservable, but the important point here is that coherence seems to be an indicator of truth, and that the anti-realist arguments in favour of a commitment to mere empirical adequacy seem correspondingly weakened. Here, existing work on coherence and truth (e.g., Bovens and Hartmann), as well as on unification as a theoretical virtue (e.g., Myrvold), becomes relevant but, again, I don’t know of anyone who developed this in the specific domain of scientific realism.

One could say that we simply don’t have evidence of such convergence except in rare cases, such as that considered by Salmon. But this is a historical point- perhaps open for discussion - and doesn’t contradict the conceptual possibility of an argument for realism based on convergence.

Another objection I anticipate is that the convergence towards the same entity is not surprising because we typically tend to use theoretical structure that already exists, maybe in some other field, to explain new problematic evidence. I don’t think this reply has force: consider an alien scientist coming to Earth and illustrating all alien theories to us. It could happen that these theories are very different from ours, and yet (some of them) are based on (some of) the same entities we postulate. Surely, there wouldn’t be a possible pragmatic source for the convergence there, and yet - I think - we would have a strengthened belief in the existence of the entities in question.

Can anyone tell me what is wrong with the idea? Or, if it is not obviously incorrect and was explored before, where I can find something? Even just hearing people’s opinions on this would be nice. (I realise that I have been ambiguous between entity and theory realism here, but I guess it is because the intuition can be developed in slightly different ways).

The Reasoner

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Please consider contributing to The Reasoner! Pieces are short - up to 1000 words - and can for example develop blog posts and discussion.

In particular, we are looking for monthly columnists who would be prepared to write a piece of 100-1000 words each month on a particular area of research covered by The Reasoner. The idea would be to alert readers to one or two topics that are hot that month (in blog discussion, new publications, conferences etc.). Would you like to write a column on "What's hot in scientific method"? Or some other reasoning-related topic? Just send an email to with an example column attached.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Semantic View of Theories Again

I was thinking more about Gabriele's post on the semantic view of theories. Consider this quick argument in favour of a semantic view of theories:

  1. Scientists believe (or at least accept) scientific theories;
  2. Attitudes like belief and acceptance are held to propositions (certainly belief and acceptance ascriptions involve embedded 'that' clauses which seem to denote propositions);
  3. So, scientific theories are propositions.

This is pretty clearly a semantic view of theories. But Gabriele, and I presume others, seem not to believe this is the semantic view of theories, as discussed in the literature. Could someone explain the difference, if there is one? For I do not at this stage see it, for reasons I'll now explain.

The conclusion of this argument is what I have always understood to be the semantic view of theories. If propositions are structured (i.e., not just sets of possible worlds), then the propositions which express scientific theories can easily be models in the model-theoretic sense; if theories have merely qualitative content, no one model will capture the proposition expressed (as qualitatively indistinguishable models will equally satisfy the theory), so the proposition expressed should be a set of models. (Things seem to be a little, but not much, trickier if propositions are unstructured.) In any case, there seems to be a clear correspondence between the propositions expressed by the sentences of some presentation of the theory and the models which satisfy those sentences, a close enough correspondence that reducing the one to the other doesn't seem unreasonable.