Thursday, April 28, 2011

Conference: Philosophy of Cosmology (May 6-7, UWO)

Philosophy of Cosmology Workshop
May 6-7, 2011 University of Western Ontario

Cosmology poses unique challenges to physicists and astronomers in the collection of data and in the interpretation of that data's relation to theory, both as evidence for existing theory and as inspiration for new theory. Philosophers of science have spent a good deal of the past century investigating the relations between theory and evidence. This workshop aims to bring together philosophers and physicists, in order to broaden and deepen what mutual discussion there already is between the two fields. The workshop will include papers on the epistemology of galaxy simulations, theoretical and observational problems regarding dark energy, and alternatives to dark matter and dark energy (modified Newtonian dynamics). Go to the conference website for a full list of titles and abstracts.

Confirmed Speakers: Niayesh Afshordi (Perimeter Institute), Céline Cattoën (Alberta), Bill Harper and Dylan Gault (UWO), Dragan Huterer (Michigan), Stacy McGaugh (Maryland), Priyamvada Natarajan (Yale), Simon Saunders (Oxford), and Lee Smolin (Perimeter Institute)
This workshop is sponsored by the Rotman Institute of Philosophy, the Department of Philosophy, the Dean of the Arts and Humanities, and the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UWO.

The workshop will be followed by the annual LMP graduate conference in philosophy of science, on May 8-9, with George Smith (Tufts) as the invited keynote speaker.
There is no fee to attend the workshop, but please send an email message to rotman "at" with the subject line "Cosmology Workshop," and indicate the number of people planning to attend. You can also send inquiries about the conference to the same address.

Organizing committee: Chris Smeenk (chair), Erik Curiel, Dylan Gault, and Bill Harper

Journal: HOPOS

First Issue of HOPOS Journal Now Available Free

The University of Chicago Press is pleased to announce the publication of HOPOS: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science. The digital edition of the inaugural issue (Spring 2011) is now available free for a limited time to all visitors to the journal’s home on the web:

With no other current publication addressing the history of philosophy of science, the HOPOS journal will have its own place in a growing area of research. HOPOS will draw upon the multiple methods of philosophy and history to study the development, functioning, applications, and social and cultural engagements of the sciences.

The journal situates understanding of individual sciences within their historical settings and against the backdrop of mainstream issues in philosophical thought relevant to the growth of our knowledge of the world and of human nature.

“Our aim is a journal that provides an outlet for interdisciplinary work that is not often easy to publish in existing journals,” said HOPOS editor Rose-Mary Sargent of Merrimack College. “Both subject matter and length restrictions in existing journals do not allow for the extensive bibliographical references so often required in works that are of both a philosophical and a historical nature. HOPOS provides an important new venue for this kind of scholarship.”

The journal is available in both print and electronic formats. Each issue will contain a minimum of four articles and ten to fifteen book reviews. Articles are blind reviewed by two or three referees.

The first issue is dedicated to the memory of Ernan McMullin, one of the founders of the discipline who died unexpectedly while the issue was in press.


Major Articles:

Ernan McMullin, “Kepler: Moving the Earth”

James G. Lennox, “Aristotle on Norms of Inquiry”

Thomas Uebel, “Beyond the Formalist Criterion of Cognitive Significance: Philipp Frank’s Later Antimetaphysics”

Warren Schmaus, “Science and the Social Contract in Renouvier”

Eric Schliesser, “Newton's Challenge to Philosophy: A Programmatic Essay”

Individuals receive access to the journal through their membership in the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science. For membership information, go to the journal’s website,, or the society’s website, For additional information, email or call 877-705-1878 (outside the U.S. and Canada, call 773-753-3347).

Institutions can subscribe via JSTOR,

Founded in 1891, the University of Chicago Press is the largest American university press. The Journals Division publishes periodicals and serials in a wide range of disciplines, including several journals that were the first scholarly publications in their respective fields. The Journals Division has also been a pioneer in electronic publishing, delivering original, peer-reviewed research from international scholars to a worldwide audience.

Contact: Kevin Stacey, University of Chicago Press / 773-834-0386 /

Forrest on Science and Faith: In Response to Matthen

First, I should like to defend the view that Forrest’s piece, 'The Non-Epistemology of Intelligent Design: Its Implications for Public Policy', may be reasonably viewed as making substantive philosophical claims, and not merely as 'contemporary historical research' (Matthen, Leiter Reports). I shall simply quote one of Forrest’s statements about her aims and findings for this purpose. (Those interested in further assessing this claim are directed to the second section of the paper, where Forrest outlines her argument.)

‘I examine the ID movement’s failure to provide either a methodology or a functional epistemology to support their supernaturalism, a deficiency that consequently leaves them without epistemic support for their creationist claims.’ (331)

I would also defend my assessment of the paper as philosophical, and the fairness of criticising it as such, on the basis of the nature and scope of the venue on which it appeared. Stating the full name of the journal should do the trick: Synthese: An International Journal of Epistemology, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science.

Second, I will turn to defending the style of objection I briefly made to her paper in a previous post. The cleanest way to do so, I think, is just to critique what she says in greater depth. I hope thereby not only to show that the issue of the nature of faith and its epistemic role arises in her paper in such a way to make the regress problem relevant, but also to further defend my overall reaction to her paper (which I think is weak, at best, from the point of view of general philosophy of science and epistemology). (I should perhaps mention that very little work from the philosophy of science and epistemology is referenced in the paper. As far as philosophy of science goes, for example, only one piece by Haack, in The Skeptical Inquirer, is cited. Perhaps some will see that as supporting the aforementioned view that the piece shouldn’t be judged as philosophical, rather than as an indication that it is not well grounded in the pertinent literature. But even if that’s right, it is surely reasonable to criticize some of the paper’s claims from a philosophical perspective.)

Let me just kick off with a quotation:

‘The epistemological problems generated by supernatural theism necessitate the faith commitments required of believers. The insufficiency of human cognitive faculties for knowing the supernatural demands willful assent without conclusive evidence—faith—from those who seek temporal meaning in a transcendent reality.’ (332)

What Forrest says here, in the first sentence, is that supernatural theism generates epistemological problems, and that this brings about a need for faith (or an appeal to faith). The suggestion of course, is that such faith is not otherwise required; or, at least, is not required in science. The worry, in short, is that this is false.

Some serious problems with the way Forrest sets up this issue become apparent in the second sentence. First, the demand for conclusive evidence seems quite inappropriate, in science or elsewhere. I take it that I do not need to argue for this in any depth on a philosophy of science blog; I will just list a few ‘greats’ who spring to mind in this context: Peirce, Russell, Carnap, Neurath, Ayer, Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend. Second, to foreshadow a later discussion, note the use of ‘willful’ here. As I will show with a later quotation, Forrest appears to just assume doxastic voluntarism, although this thesis is highly controversial (and the balance of opinion is that it is false). Third, notice that ‘faith’ in the way Forrest has defined it may not require commitment, and certainly does not require commitment come what may. So why mention ‘faith commitments’ in the first sentence? We will return to this too.

For the moment, let’s move back to Forrest’s prose, to see how she continues:

‘The significance of such commitment lies in the sustained effort it requires and the hoped-for recompense that believers see as its culmination. The U.S. Constitution was written to safeguard such commitment against government interference. However, it was also intended to insulate public policy from religious influence given the social tension— sometimes conflict—that results from the inability of believers to resolve disputes over doctrines that some of them would force upon others. The fundamental cause of such disputes is the lack of both a methodology and a [sic] epistemology that would enable believers not only to demonstrate to other knowers the existence of the supernatural object of their commitment, but also to reach consensus among themselves concerning the doctrinal corollaries of their belief.’ (332)

Remember that Forrest is drawing a contrast with science. So Forrest’s claim here, in the final paragraph, appears to be that scientists can resolve disputes because they have both, or at least one of, (a) ‘a methodology’ and (b) ‘a [sic] epistemology’, which fulfil the further criteria she mentions. I am not sure what to make of this somewhat cryptic prose. I do not think scientists study either methods or knowledge. Nor do I think that scientists have explicit theories of method or explicit theories of knowledge. They do, of course, have methods. (And they may, of course, have knowledge.) And there are sometimes procedural norms that may be used to enable consensus. But there is considerable dissensus in science too, and the balance between these two aspects of science is complex and difficult to understand; it is pretty much the central subject of an excellent book by Laudan, namely Science and Values, for example. Forrest makes it all look far too easy.

Here's a case in point. Some contemporary scientists think they can demonstrate the existence of virtual photons, by experiments showing the Casimir effect. Others think not. This kind of dispute is not uncommon, in the history of science, either. (What about so-called extraordinary science, imagining that something resembling this sometimes exists? Don’t the methods change over time? What consequences does this have for the suggested demarcation strategy?) In short, this is just a much more messy business than Forrest’s treatment allows. (The use of ‘demonstrate’ in the quotation needs serious unpacking too.) I emphasize I am not saying that this kind of approach is entirely without merit; it’s just that Forrest does no justice to it, or the intricate questions surrounding it. For example, still further, why not think about Kuhnian exemplars in this instance? And might Kuhn not have been right that what drives science is not rule following, but something more like pattern recognition? (At least, this is the interesting reading of Kuhn given by Alexander Bird, e.g., in his book on Kuhn.)

Let me also note that some of the things Forrest says in the piece directly question whether there is no method to (or are no methods in) ID. For example: ‘since ID ultimately rests on the special revelation of scripture—the Gospel of John—it is grounded on faith at its most fundamental level.’ (339) (Later still, Forrest mentions that ID relies on ‘faith and scriptural authority’ (354) [emphasis mine].) Isn’t there a method, namely reading the gospel, that here underpins ID? (And why are there not corresponding methodological rules, such as 'consult the gospel to resolve disputes'? Forrest does quote Dembski, saying that this is not a matter of textual interpretation, at one point. But this does not defeat the present point.) And can its advocate not invite me to read the gospel? I may not think it shows what the ID theorist thinks it does. But maybe that’s because observation is theory laden? Again, this is a tricky issue. I cannot find any argument against this view in Forrest’s piece; in fact, I find no mention of the idea that observations are theory laden at all. (On this issue, I’d also point to an interesting paper by Ward Jones in the special issue of Synthese that I edited with Otavio Bueno. Do ID theorists have different stances to scientists? Are observations actually stance laden?)

I have taken rather a detour from the issue of faith, I confess, but I think it is important to defend my overall view of the quality of the piece, and in particular to focus on the overarching charge of false (or better, unargued for) contrasting. So let’s get back to what Forrest says on faith. Here’s another key passage:

‘A virtue faith may be, but not an epistemic one. It is not a cognitive state in any identifiable sense, but an act of volition, a decision to believe when one lacks the requisite cognitive capability and evidence to be able to say one knows.’ (339)

I have several problems with this passage. Let’s begin with the issue of doxastic voluntarism, mentioned earlier. Forrest clearly says that faith is ‘a decision to believe’. I submit that it cannot be that, or rather that if it is then ID theorists do not have faith. The arguments are well rehearsed, e.g. by Alston. I cannot elect to believe that my daughter is not crunching on an apple as I type, any more than I can elect to believe in God. (I will note that some people think religious beliefs are special cases. But again, this should be discussed in proper depth in a paper such as Forrest’s.) What one might do, of course, is take actions designed to prevent one's beliefs changing, and so on. In fact, this makes pinning down what it takes to be genuinely open-minded - or critical - a tough problem. (It's one of the things Timothy Williamson pressed me on when we were discussing a draft of a section of my book, 'How to Be A Pancritical Rationalist', which appears at the end of the first chapter. In short, there are lots of strategies one can adopt to shield one's beliefs from criticism. There's a wealth of literature on this, by philosophers in the critical rationalist tradition, such as Bartley, Miller, Agassi and Jarvie.)

Now let’s go on to the next problem. The formulation appears to assume luminosity, i.e. that one is aware of knowing when one does; ‘one is able to say one knows’. I therefore think it also assumes internalism, i.e. that one must have internal access to reasons in order to know. But of course, nowadays, there is a strong externalist movement in epistemology (and in certain quarters in philosophy of science, especially realist ones). Besides, for the internalist, such as Forrest (on my reading) the problems with the formulation are clear. How about so-called basic beliefs, e.g. in simple observation statements such as “There is a table before me”? Do I have evidence 'to be able to say' I know that is true? What does that consist of? Now in the context of a contrast with ID, the significance of such concerns should be reasonably obvious. What grounds do we have for saying that forming beliefs by reading scripture is different? What is the nature of the ‘evidence’ that is present in the simple observational beliefs, but not in the simple revelational ones? (I submit an externalist route, e.g. a reliabilist one, may be easier to take.) I might mention the issue of theory ladenness again here; the route from retinal images (or even just firing of rods, cones, etc.) to observation statements is a difficult one.

Again, I could also point out the imprecise English used by Forrest, which often makes her claims difficult to nail down. Does she really mean ‘cognitive capability… to be able to say one knows’? Surely one can have that without knowing? So I presume she means something else; I am not sure what.

I have to stop somewhere (and I don’t want to turn this into a paper). So let me just finish by discussing one more quotation, which I think again supports my viewing the paper as philosophical:

‘My criticism is directed at ID proponents’ shirking their intellectual responsibility as scholars by elevating faith to an epistemic status it does not truly have, a move that prompts legitimate public concern given their efforts to translate personal conviction into public policy.’ (366)

Forrest needs to show that faith does not, in any interesting sense, have a role in science. She does not, and does not even attempt to. And there may be all kinds of ways in which it does. Perhaps we do have faith, in Forrest's sense, in universal theories. Perhaps, moreover, it is reasonable to believe in such theories in the absence of any evidence in their favour provided one also lacks evidence against them and there is a clearly specified way in which such evidence might arise. Of course, this is one way of taking Popper’s stance (or a Neo-Popperian stance) on science. (Like Herbert Keuth, whose The Philosophy of Karl Popper I heartily recommend for your students, I think it’s a good one; I defend it in my book.) Deny the thesis of evidentialism – this is something else that Forrest just appears to assume – which is roughly that ‘one should not believe in some proposition without evidence in favour of it’ – and instead say that it’s OK, for example, to believe in universal laws despite their logical probability being zero relative to any finite evidence.

On a related note, it is easy to conflate faith with commitment come what may, or faith with blind faith; but these are not the same. In short, some of what Forrest says appears to suggest that ID theorists are committed come what may to the truth of specific propositions in way that scientists are not. (Again, I think the hard arguments need to be made that scientists are not committed come what may, for instance, to metaphysical claims about the existence of spatio-temporally invariant laws of nature. I think such arguments can be made successfully, for what it's worth. And indeed I have tried to argue as much, e.g. in my recent book. The underlying idea is that this is a working assumption, made on functional rather than evidential grounds.)

What I say here also fits with putting a focus on the context of justification. Arguably faith is part of the context of discovery. But we might legitimately ignore that, according to many philosophers of science. We might look at what scientists do with their beliefs when they have them, and contrast that with what ID theorists do with theirs when they have them.

In summary, I do not think this paper is a good work of philosophy. Given the context, I should emphasise that this is purely an academic judgement of this particular paper. I do not intend it to reflect on Forrest, on the accuracy of her historical claims, or anything silly like that.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

New SEP Entry on Scientific Realism

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has just published a new entry for 'Scientific Realism' The new entry is written by Anjan Chakravartty (Toronto) and replaces the old entry by Richard Boyd (Cornell) (the old entry is still available here though).

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Scepticism and the Philosophy of Science: A Comment on Rowbottom

In the thread on the Synthese affair, Darrell Rowbottom raises a point that deserves wider discussion. In her piece on what's-his-name, Barbara Forrest makes a distinction roughly between faith, which is directed at particular propositions, and science which is a method of inquiry. In response to my defence of Forrest, Rowbottom writes: "You may well 'find it sophistical to equate faith in God the Creator with "faith" in reason [and] experience'. But that is no argument. I was alluding to the issue of epistemological regress, and the tu quoque argument raised by Bartley in The Retreat to Commitment." He then expands his point as follows: "Is there any position, or belief set, that is not underpinned by faith (or that lacks dogmatic elements)? The worry is that if there is not, then relativism beckons; that it would be acceptable to choose whichever poison one likes (or to stick with whichever poison one inherits)."

Rowbottom has put his finger on a crucial pivot. Suppose I question Galilean Relativity on the grounds that it is refuted by the Michelson-Morley experiment. Is it legitimate to respond: "Oh, but I take GR on faith. And don't you go citing M-M against me. You would thereby display unquestioning faith in the veracity of sense-experience and scientific observation. And this is no better than my unquestioning faith in GR." Tu quoque.

A good bit of General Philosophy of Science is influenced by the desire to provide a response to scepticism that is better than mere "dogmatism". And this is a problem. For it is the business of epistemology to respond to scepticism. Epistemologists generally talk about beliefs as such, including those formed in ordinary non-scientific contexts. GPOSers, on the other hand, are constrained by their discipline to address the question in restricted contexts (e.g., laboratory situations, theory construction). And responses to scepticism generally do not make a lot of sense in restricted contexts.

In my view, it is important to differentiate arguments that work against any empirical proposition, or worse against any proposition at all, from arguments for and against a particular proposition. A scientific argument for or against Galilean Relativity cannot be transformed by mere substitution of terms into an argument for or against the Michelson-Morley experiment, or the Brain-in-a-Vat proposition. A sceptical argument against GR can be so transformed. Call the former kind of argument content-restricted and the latter content-general.

Here's a methodological observation. Philosophy of X type areas of philosophy -- Philosophy of Biology, Philosophy of Mathematics, Philosophy of Physics -- deal with content-restricted arguments. Epistemology is (most often) concerned with content-general arguments. Given that General Philosophy of Science is itself content-restricted -- i.e., it is concerned with scientific content -- should it not concern itself with content-restricted arguments? The tu quoque argument raised by Bartley is content-general. Therefore, it should have no place in General Philosophy of Science, and certainly no place in Philosophy of Biology, or any other Philosophy of X.

In the Synthese affair, Forrest is operating in the context of various content-restricted scientific arguments against Intelligent Design. She implies that these content-restricted arguments are different in kind from arguments supporting Intelligent Design. Her distinction is quite different from mine: her claim is that anti-ID arguments stem from a methodology not from an interest in a particular proposition. Very broadly, however, this suggests that ID theory employs content-general arguments, while anti-ID arguments are content-restricted. There is some justification for the latter position, but it would take a lot of hard analysis to provide it. (Forrest herself doesn't provide this, but then, she is not doing epistemology.) My point is much easier to make: Rowbottom's argument against Forrest is completely content-general. His argument is exactly the same as the tu quoque argument above, defending Galilean Relativity against Michelson-Morley.

It is my contention that Rowbottom's argument has no place in the Philosophy of Biology. But actually the point that I am making has wider consequences. A good bit of General Philosophy of Science -- operationalism, anti-realism, relativism, etc. -- is a response to content-general arguments. In my view, this is misplaced.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Synthese Affair

You probably have heard about this already, so I shall be brief (see here and here for more details). The Editors-in-Chief of Synthese prefaced the January 2011 special issue of Synthese on "Evolution and Its Rivals" (guest-edited by Glenn Branch and James H. Fetzer) with the following statement (apparently, without the Guest Editors' knowledge):

This special issue addresses a topic of lively current debate with often strongly expressed views. We have observed that some of the papers in this issue employ a tone that may make it hard to distinguish between dispassionate intellectual discussion of other views and disqualification of a targeted author or group.

We believe that vigorous debate is clearly of the essence in intellectual communities, and that even strong disagreements can be an engine of progress. However, tone and prose should follow the usual academic standards of politeness and respect in phrasing. We recognize that these are not consistently met in this particular issue. These standards, especially toward people we deeply disagree with, are a common benefit to us all. We regret any deviation from our usual standards.

Johan van Benthem

Vincent F. Hendricks

John Symons

Editors-in-Chief / SYNTHESE

This was likely the result of pressure from supporters of Intelligent Design in general and of Francis Beckwith (who is the polemical target of one of the papers in the special issue) in particular.

Over at Leiter Reports, Brian Leiter has urged 'all philosophers to stop submitting to Synthese; to withdraw any papers they have submitted at Synthese; and to decline to referee for Synthese until such time as the editors acknowledge their error, and make appropriate amends.'

Since Synthese is one of the main philosophy of science journals and many of the readers of this blog read, submit to, and publish in that Journal and since Leiter's post doesn't allow comments, I thought it might be a good idea to open the floor for discussion here.

To set the ball rolling, here are my two cents. In my experience (and from what I hear from most other people who have first-hand experience as well), Synthese is a very well-run journal and this is in great part to be attributed to the excellent job done by the Editors-in-Chief. I agree, however, that, on this occasion, the EiCs' conduct and judgement were questionable. I think it was inappropriate to add the above statement especially if, as it seems likely, this was done as a result of dubious external pressures. (Incidentally, I wouldn't go as far as saying that the statement 'undermines the integrity of the entire volume and its contributors', as Leiter somewhat hyperbolically does). If the EiCs had any concerns about the tone of any of the papers, they should have voiced them before the papers were published. Since apparently they had not done so, they should have stood by the papers (not all editors may be ready to go to the same lengths as the Editor of the European Journal of International Law but there must be a middle-ground). I think it would be in the best interest of the journal if the EiCs publicly acknowledged their lapse of judgement, but I trust that it's not going to take a boycott to get them to do that.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Conference on Explanation & Representation

Conference of the International Academy for Philosophy of Science in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium (building Socrate, Room SOCR40) on
Tuesday 26 - Thursday 28 April 2011, organised by Michel Ghins.

The general theme will be: Representation and Explanation in the Sciences.

Confirmed speakers include: Evandro Agazzi, Alberto Cordero, Mauro Dorato, Jan Faye, Hans Lenk, Peter Mitttelstaedt, Jesus Mosterin, Roland Omnès, Stathis Psillos, Mauricio Suarez, Bas van Fraassen, Isabelle Pechard, among others.

The full programme is available at