Sunday, January 31, 2010

Who discovered Photosynthesis? A footnote to Kuhn

On Friday at the Free University Brussels I participated in the lively public defense of the dissertation, *From Sunlight to Insight: Jan IngenHousz , the discovery of photosynthesis & science in the light of ecology*, by Geerdt Magiels, a well known science writer and radio commentator in Belgium. According to Magiels Jan Ingenhousz (1730-1799), a good friend of Ben Franklin and Lavoisier, is the largely forgotten discoverer of photosynthesis. Magiels tells the story of the role of the eudiometer as well as the many-sided controversies between Priestley, Senebier, and Ingenhousz in their epistemic, political, and social contexts.
A fact worth knowing is that Ingenhousz discovered photosynthesis (a term only invented a hundred years later) while working with phlogiston theory, but over the course of a decade while continuing to defend his discovery turned himself into a follower of Lavoisier's new chemistry. It turns out that Priestley's response to Lavoisier was a-typical (and related to Priestley's views on the economic basis of science).

Saturday, January 30, 2010

HPS in St Louis

We just had our second yearly conference today!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Happy Birthday, IOAT!

I haven't been much around lately but I've read some of the interesting discussions going on on different threads (I'm still catching up though), but, since today is It's Only A Theory's first birthday, I thought I'd pop by to say 'Happy Birthday, IOAT!'

So far, we have had 127 posts and over 40,000 visitors. So the blog seems to have been doing well in its first year. However, if anyone has any suggestions on how to make IOAT even better, please feel free to post them below (happy birthday messages are also welcome :-)).

Tales in a subdued palette of chestnut and white

Charles Sander Peirce observed that it's a poor bet to insist that science will never be able to solve some question. Make the bet, he says, and
[t]he likelihood is that it will be solved long before you could have dreamed possible. Think of Auguste Comte who when asked to name any thing that could never be found out instanced the chemical composition of the fixed stars; and almost before his book became known to the world at large, the first steps had been taken in spectral analysis.*
Yet there are certainly some questions we won't be able to solve. The problem, of course, is identifying which facts those are.

Traces of the past have been effaced, and so there are some facts about what the past was like that are unrecoverable. In explaining underdetermination to people, I use the colour of dinosaurs as an example. It may just be that the fossil record has not preserved enough for us to figure it out.

And yet researchers claim to figure it out based on microscopic bits responsible for extruding pigment; see the NYTimes article. The Sinosauropteryx, we are told, had "had a head-to-tail feathered mohawk in a subdued palette of chestnut and white stripes."

The story goes on to indicate that other scientists challenge the result, that the data set is small, and so on. And I only ever used the example in a conditional way, to say that the relevant evidence might not exist in the fossil record. I only meant say that this kind of underdetermination will arise in historical sciences. Of course we can't know with certainty which questions will be underdeterminated in this way.

Still, I need a new example.

* I give the full citation and more commentary in an old paper.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ontology of numbers and physical theory...

In a recent NDPR review (2010.01.17) of a collection of essays by Burgess, Thomas Hofweber discusses debates over nominalism in mathematics. (In particular the status of indispensability arguments.) At one point in the dialectic he writes:
"We should believe in our best [scientific] theories as they are, even if we realize that we could have done things completely differently. Approaches that show that we could have done science or mathematics differently shouldn't undermine our belief in science and mathematics as it is, or at least they shouldn't undermine it by much."
Let's leave aside the wrinkle in the last clause. I want to focus on how the authority of physical theory is being used to make claims about the ontological status of numbers (a familiar strategy following Quine-Putnam). I think there is a slide in the argument where Thomas conflates claims about what the theory is about and the way the theory is formulated.

To be clear: for the sake of argument I grant that notational variants, even excessive ones, do not undermine our belief in the truth of a scientific theory. Even conflicting theories [a la Duhem-Quine] that can account for the same current and future data need not undermine our belief in our current ruling theory. (I am very fond of Newton's fourth rule of reasoning.) [I also grant, for the sake of argument, that there is such a thing a standard ruling theory.]

But...scientific-practitioners do not take physical theories as making claims about the nature of number nor is there a reasonable way to interpret most of these theories as such. [I am open to the idea that string theory and parts of quantum mechanics may be interpreted at odds with this claim!]. As Jody Azzouni has argued, scientists don't create measuring tools to interact with numbers. And the particular math one uses is often introduced pragmatic purposes. Not to mention that the standard of "proof" in science is often very different from the standard of proof in mathematics--so here's a case where science's authority is very much questioned).

So, one cannot appeal to the *general* authority of physics to settle the question about the nature of number or mathematical objects. Rather than accepting a theory without further analysis (as a whole package), I believe one needs to do piece-meal investigation of what mathematical objects are required for (indispensable to) the empirical content of particular physical theories. (After all, the physical theory comes as a package for physics purposes, but it wasn't designed to meet all philosophical or mathematical purposes at once--note, for example, that standards of proof in physics and math can differ.)

There is more to be said about this (and I haven't reported Thomas' responses), but this has grown long enough.

Friday, January 22, 2010

canonical texts post-1980 in philosophy of science and/or HPS?

Chris Smeenk (UWO) asks, "what do you take to be the canonical texts post-1980 in philosophy of science and/or HPS? By canonical I mean the kind of texts that should be required readings for graduate students entering the field." I like this question because it forces us to think about the Post-Kuhnian (etc) area.

Luckily, my working library is being moved to Ghent, so I had to respond without looking at the books I own.

I decided to focus on books (so this leaves out David Malament's, Howard Stein's and George Smith's articles--all personal favorites). I limit myself to one per author. (I also excluded philosophy of mind!) Maybe somebody else can start an articles section?

General Philosophy of Science (unranked!):
1. Nancy Cartwright, "How the Laws of Physics Lie"
2. William Wimsatt, "Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings: Piecewise Approximations to Reality"
3. Tim Maudlin The Metaphysics within Phyisics
4. Ian Hacking, Representing and Intervening
5. James Woodward, Making Things Happen
6. Morgan/Morrison, Models as Mediators
7. Stathos Psillos, Scientific Realism
8. Peter Lipton, Inference to the Best Explanation
9. Eliot Sober, Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology
10. Helen Longino Science as Social Knowledge.

HPS (unranked):
1. Michael Friedman, Kant and the Exact Sciences
2. Gary Hatfield, The Natural and the Normative
3. James Lennox, Aristotle's Philosophy of Biology
4. I.B. Cohen & G.E. Smith The Cambridge Companion to newton
5. Jed Buchwald, The rise of the Wave-Theory of Light
6. Peter Gallison How Experiments End.
7. Dan Garber, Descartes Metaphysical Physics
8. George Reisch, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy
9. Ian Mueller, Philosophy of Mathematics and Deductive Structure in Euclid
10. Alan Richardson, Carnap's Construction of the World

I am painfully aware I excluded a lot of people I admire...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cluster Concepts

A cluster concept is one that is defined by a weighted list of criteria, such that no one of these criteria is either necessary or sufficient for membership. Wittgenstein alleged that game was such a concept; some have claimed that species concepts are cluster concepts. (Homo sapiens was once defined as featherless biped, but there are human amputees who are not (actually) bipeds; moreover evolution may some day give us feathers (or analogues thereof).

It was at one time pretty commonplace to think that cluster concepts are quite common in science and culture. People say, for instance, that democracy is a cluster concept; Denis Dutton has recently argued that art is a cluster concept. I disagree. In my view, clusters are needed for what I call "diagnostic definitions": definitions that tell you how to recognize a concept-instance. But I would argue that despite the surface variability, there is an underlying unity in the sorts of concept that are robustly used in everyday and scientific discourse.

The classic articulation of this notion was of course Wittgenstein's in Philosophical Investigations I 66: "Consider for example the proceedings that we call 'games'. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? -- Don't say: "There must be something common, or they would not be called 'games'" -- but look and see whether there is anything in common to all. -- For if you lok at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that." Some games involve cards, others boards, yet others balls; some involve winning and losing, others (like ring-a-ring-a-roses, or a child bouncing a ball off a wall) do not. "Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis." And so on.

The classic refutation of this particular claim was due to Bernard Suits. He defined a game as an activity in which you accept certain rules that limit how you can achieve a certain activity. "To play a game is to engage in activity designed to bring about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules, where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they would be in the absence of such rules, and where the sole reason for accepting the rules is to make possible such activity." In golf the "specific state of affairs" aimed at is that a ball wind up in a hole: but you limit how you will achieve this end in order to play the game.

The difference between Wittgenstein and Suits is while the former looked at ways for an observer to identify games, Suits articulated an underlying commonality that is unobservable to a casual observer. Wittgenstein's definitions were diagnostic; Suits was after the real essence.

The same is, of course, true of species. The theory of natural selection demands that there be variability among members of a species, both at a time and through evolutionary history. This is an obstacle faced by those who would give a diagnostic definition of species (or what naturalists sometimes call a "key" -- the sort of thing you find in bird-watching books -- if you think a key is a diagnostic definition). But historical definitions of species, i.e., definitions that define species in terms of common origin, or definitions that define them in terms of reproductive isolation give unified definitions in terms of non-observables.

My thesis is that no cluster concept -- no concept primarily defined by a cluster -- plays an explanatory role in science or everyday discourse. (I would include social science under science, and aesthetics under everyday discourse -- so the scope of my thesis is quite wide.) I would spice up my thesis by adding: no non-explanatory noun-phrase plays any important role in scientific or everyday discourse. The "spicing up" is just a way of saying that you hardly ever come across a cluster concept. But this is an add-on.

Do people think that this thesis is obvious, vacuous, false, inflammatory . . . what?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

CfP: The Architecture of Reality


The Architecture of Reality
Deadline for submissions: April 30, 2010
Advisory Editor: Matthew H. Slater (Bucknell University)

Humans are dividers and systematizers, confidently wielding the classificatory knife in the natural sciences and in metaphysics alike. But are we carving nature at its joints? We can identify distinct ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ components to this basic question. Horizontal: Is the world ‘intrinsically jointed’? Are there natural properties or natural kinds? Are there natural units which instantiate these properties and kinds? Vertical: Is reality divided into levels? If so, is there a fundamental level comprising reality’s ultimate furniture? If not, what? Presumably, these two sets of questions intersect. But how, precisely? What, in short, is the architecture of reality? Might we require multiple ‘architectural plans’ to describe nature correctly, or would just one do? We invite contributions on both the ground- level metaphysical issues (proposals for particular architectures or particular approaches to plan-drawing) and to methodological issues concerning these efforts.

CFP: European Complex Systems Society

As the deadline draws near for submission to the European Complex Systems Society meeting in September, interested philosophers should know that selected papers from the Philosophy of Science section will be included in a special issue of Foundations of Science on philosophy and complexity. You can send a six page paper by the Feb 15 deadline and then revise your paper for the special issue. More details here:

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

More on the Philpapers Survey: Anti-Realism

As I'm presently writing something about instrumentalism - I've recently decided that it's still a respectable position when suitably moderated, and deserves reincarnation, in my latest phase of madness - I decided to have a closer look at the figures on anti-realism in the Philpapers survey.

I spotted some interesting differences, which I thought I'd share:

Of professional philosophers with an AOS 'Philosophy of Physical Science', 1.6% (1!) accepted anti-realism and 4.9% leaned towards it.

Of those with an AOS 'Philosophy of Biology', by contrast, 10.5% accepted scientific anti-realism and 10.5% leaned towards it.

And rather surprisingly, I think, no-one with an AOS 'Philosophy of Social Sciences' fully accepted anti-realism. (Less surprisingly, given the likelihood of crossover from fashionable anti-realist stances in certain areas of social science, e.g. sociology, 23.8% leaned towards it.)

So is there an underlying difference between physics and biology (or at least the perception thereof)? My first knee-jerk reaction is that complexity may have something to do with this, perhaps because of the areas of physics which philosophers of physics - quite contingently - happen to be interested in. (I suppose some might be interested in, say, condensed matter physics of biological systems. But I haven't met any on my travels! There are, of course, some significant methodological differences, e.g. in the way modelling and particuarly idealisation is considered, but I've written about those elsewhere. Suffice it to mention systems biology as a reaction to a peculiar view on the limitations of perceived approaches in the physical sciences.)

And why, oh why, are fewer philosophers of social sciences than philosophers of biology willing to go all the way and accept anti-realism if complexity is the issue?

Are there better explanations for all this, taking the stats at face value?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

How do you think about natural kinds?

Although there is not consensus about what would make a natural kind natural, most traditional views agree that naturalness is a monadic feature; ie, "K is a natural kind" can be true or false of a given kind without specifying any further parameters. Call this the monadic presumption.

A few philosophers of science have denied this assumption and insisted that a kind is only a natural kind relative to a specified enquiry; ie, it's a relation of the form "K is a natural kind for E." (Proposals of this kind have been made by Dupre and Boyd.)

Consider an example like 'race.' There is no essential biological difference between members of different races, and so it may be tempting to say that race is not a natural kind. This flatfooted conclusion that race is not a natural kind only makes sense given the monadic presumption. On the relational conception, all that follows is that race is not a natural kind for biology.

A sociologist trying to understand social stratification and discrimination in the US South (for example) might need to recognize race, at least in some form. If so, then race would be a natural kind for that sociological enquiry.

It's tempting to say that race is not a natural kind because we want to deny the bogus rationale for discrimination. Recognizing race as a natural kind for sociology doesn't undercut that, however, since the sociologist's 'race' category couldn't justify the practices that it is used to explain.

To take a different example, biological kinds will not be natural kinds for particle physics - but they are nevertheless natural kinds for appropriately specified enquiries.

Although Dupre proposed a relativized conception of natural kinds over twenty years ago, the monadic presumption is still alive; eg, Bird and Tobin, in the SEP entry on Natural Kinds, simply presume it.

What I'm wondering is whether you, reader of this blog, consider the monadic presumption to be the default view of natural kinds. How heterodox is the relativized conception? Do you even consider the relativized conception when you think about natural kinds?