Wednesday, December 16, 2009

More on Science and Metaphysics

Two things on the relationship between science and metaphysics, apropos of the recent discussions on this blog (which I've followed with interest and wish I had more to contribute to):
  1. Although I doubt there are many who read this blog who don't already read Leiter's, the recent entry on Jack Ritchie's Understanding Naturalism (and the NDPR review) seems very relevant, and their is a discussion going on in the comments of Leiter's blog.
  2. Craig Callender has a draft of a paper on his website called Metaphysics and Philosophy of Science, and I'm sure it would add something to the discussion (and Craig would likely appreciate feedback on it).
Wish I could take the time to say more about these difficult and interesting issues, but it will have to wait, as grading beckons.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Specialist Views in General Philosophy of Science

The results of David Chalmers' philosophical survey are now out.

In an interesting comment on these results, Chalmers compares the view taken on various topics in the profession as a whole with that held by specialists in the relevant topic-area. In particular, Chalmers reports that in "general philosophy of science" (GPoS), specialists are less likely to favor scientific realism -- only 12% of philosophers as a whole lean toward or accept anti-realism, while 16% of the specialists in GPoS do -- and Humeanism about laws -- 41% of GPoS specialists are Humeans as against 25% of philosophers as a whole.

I find this striking. I wonder why the specialists should be more attracted than philosophers as a whole to a position that runs counter to pre-reflective common-sense. Chalmers suggests the following as reasons for such divergences in general (not particularly in this case): "(i) specialists making better-grounded judgments, (ii) selection effects in entering the speciality, (iii) specialists' judgments corrupted by an insider literature".

Maybe it works like this: published literature in a topic area will be more slanted towards "sexy" positions than to "common-sense" ones. Consequently, the readership within the sub-area will be somewhat biased against "common-sense". That's a bit like Chalmers' (iii).

What do other people think?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Are Subjunctive Facts Dispositional Facts?

Our St. Louis reading group on Lange's book (Laws and Lawmakers: Science, Metaphysics, and the Laws of Nature, OUP, 2009) is over. As I mentioned, Lange argues that the truthmakers for laws of nature are "subjunctive facts".

I still don't understand what a subjunctive fact is supposed to be; Lange doesn't shed much light on this. A subjunctive statement is a statement about what else would be the case, were something the case. Generally, the supposition of a subjunctive statement (i.e., what follows the "if" in "if something were the case") is contrary to fact. So a subjunctive fact is (usually) a fact linking two counterfactual facts, or a fact about contrary-to-fact facts. ???

Lange talks about regular categorical facts, and he seems to make sense of them, like many other people, as instantiations of categorical properties at a time. (I'm reading between the lines here, as Lange doesn't discuss this explicitly; but he does mention categorical properties occasionally.) Lange also occasionally mentions dispositions, but as far as I can see he doesn't draw any connection between dispositions and "subjunctive facts".

The best I can do is to suggest that subjunctive facts are dispositional facts -- facts dependent on the instantiation of a disposition (i.e., a power) at a time. Since dispositions have different manifestations under different conditions, the instantiation of a disposition can ground many different "subjunctive facts".

I would find Lange's view clearer and more persuasive if he said that the truthmakers for laws are dispositions/powers. Of course, other people have said this before, so his view would sound less radical if framed in terms of dispositions/powers. I believe that Lange would reject my gloss on subjunctive facts because he insists that "subjunctive facts" are ontologically primitive. But why should they be ontologically primitive, when (i) regular categorical facts do not seem to be ontologically primitive even by Lange's own lights and (ii) there is a straightforward account available in terms of dispositions/powers? And how are we supposed to make sense of them if not in terms of dispositions/powers? If I'm going to take something as primitive, I'd rather take powers than "subjunctive facts".

Any thoughts on this?

PS: While I'm here, I'll answer a question by anonymous posted to the earlier thread on this topic.

"Does Lange really say that laws are ontologically grounded in counterfactuals? This would be strange, since counterfactuals are linguistic entities (sentences or propositions) and laws are non-linguistic general facts."

No, Lange says laws are ontologically grounded not by counterfactuals tout court but by counterfactual facts, or "subjunctive facts."

Friday, December 4, 2009

Journal: Philosophy and Theory in Biology

Fans of quality open-access journals will be happy to know that, after the Philospher's Imprint, those guys at Michigan have done it again! (Fans of catchy journal titles will not be as happy, I'm afraid, but don't they know it's bad manners to look a gift horse in the mouth?)

The Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan Library is pleased to announce the release of a new peer-reviewed, open-access journal, Philosophy and Theory in Biology (P&TB) ( This interdisciplinary publication brings together philosophers of science and theoretically inclined biologists, fostering a broad conception of what it means to do "theory" in science and to analyze the sciences philosophically. P&TB is published solely online, taking advantage of new technologies to reduce publication and environmental costs. The journal is committed to maintaining the highest standards of scholarship while making its content freely available to the academic community, independent scholars, and the public at large. The University of Michigan Library, through its Scholarly Publishing Office (, provides academic publishing services that are responsive to the needs of both producers and users, that foster a sustainable economic model for academic publishing, and that support institutional control of intellectual assets.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pleas for pluralism

A few times during the exchange over the last few days I murmered that reflection on science casts doubt on a certain kind of single best language with monotonic (is that a word?) "interpretation" that appears to be taken for granted in doing metaphysics by many post-Lewisians. In part this doubt is due to a draft paper by Erik Curiel (against rigidity) I have been reading. For example, I first learned from Erik Curiel (now at LSE--he should not be implicated in my views) that according to the Standard Model, "the phenomena it treats can always be described in any of a competing number of ways, as there is a many-to-one relation between groups of particular particles and their fundamental interactions on the one hand and irreducible representations of symmetry groups on the other."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Metaphysics and the General Philosophy of Science

Let me articulate what I find problematic about mainstream contemporary metaphysics from the point of view of philosophy that wishes to be scientifically informed and open to learning from and be surprised by science. I will discuss one of the central player of that scene, Ted Sider, and point to its debt in David Lewis.

Sider writes this:
"The ontological realist draws the line in a certain place: part of the world’s distinguished structure is its quanticational [sic--it's a pre-print so maybe not in final version]structure. Those who regard ontological realism as “overly metaphysical” should remember that they too must draw a line.
And in fact, the ontological realist can give a pretty convincing argument
for his choice of where to draw the line. Quine’s (1948) criterion for ontological commitment is good as far as it goes: believe in those entities that your best theory says exists. But in trying to decide how much structure there is in the world, I can think of no better strategy than this extension of Quine’s criterion: believe in as much structure as your best theory of the world posits. The structure posited by a theory corresponds to its primitive notions—its “ideology” in Quine’s (1951) terminology—which includes its logical notions as well as its predicates.
This criterion is as vague..." [It's in the Chalmers, Manley volume discussed on this blog recently]

So, the story go like this: in Quine (first order) logic is a) a tool in regimenting our scientific language so that we can generate a perspicuous scheme to articulate or read off our ontology. Moreover, given Quine's linguistic idealism [Jody Azzouni's characterization] (I mean, of course, his semantic holism), logic plays a second role of b) holding together the core of the whole scheme. It's this two-fold function that we may call its "ideology." In principle, Quine is open to whole-scale revolutions of the general web, including giving up standard logic, but these are extremely rare occurrences in principle. (No Carnapian principle of tolerance.)

Now, Sider comes along and says, why separate the underlying logic (quantificational structure) from the scientific theories? All scientific theories have an underlying logic (see the second role of logic in Quine), and we are committed to this. Moreover, this underlying logic captures what David Lewis calls 'natural properties.' So, once one gives up on Quine-ean holism and returns to realism, then there really is no reason to call the underlying logic/quantificational structure an ideology--it just is the way nature is carved up, etc. (Moreover, Seider also seems to argue that having an underlying logic is indispensable to science--I found this argument a bit hazy.)

Sider relies on David Lewis' argument in favor of natural properties, which is really a kind of transcendental argument--if reference is possible the world must have natural properties; there is reference, ergo, future/final scientific language must include natural properties (and, thus, have a classical logic).

If I get this right, then this would explain the general hostility among 'core' metaphysicians to non-classical logics (as I was surprised to discover this during my stay at Syracuse); if pluralism about logic gets a beach-head, then claims about natural properties and shared underlying logic (or a general quantificational structure) don't get off the ground.

So, what's wrong with Sider's view? I can think of six proposals:
i) it throws away Occam's razor unnecessarily. Even if there is an underlying logic, quantificational structure really isn't indispensable in science or in justifying science;
ii) it is dogmatic about logic (in this sense of, can't take alternative logics seriously)
iii) it is dogmatic about (future) science; it can't take conventionalism in science seriously, (and takes the mere possibility of quantification way too seriously);
iva) quantificational structure is too coarse-grained to have any connection with the content of the sciences.
IVb) the sciences don't and won't exhibit natural properties. (Here I am with Ladyman & Ross!).
[iva-b, alternatively claim that Sider's metaphysics is constructed in such a way as to make appeals from science unrewarding.]
ivc) There is a conflict between first-order and second-order axiomatizers, which is the preferred one? [It sometimes seems that Sider's quantificational structures are part of a future, unspeakable language.]
V) Why can't there be non trivial different axiomatizations (constructive, non constructive) of particular sciences? (Start making Cartwright/Dupre style noises.)
VI) Deny that the sciences refer in the way this is understood by Lewis/Sider--argue that science is operationalism all the way down.

No doubt not all of these proposals are equally promising or popular. No doubt Sider and his fans have responses...I want to thank Erik Curiel, Jody Azzouni, Matt Frank, Graham Priest, and Mark Barber for discussing some of these reflections in emails with me this week.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lange on Laws and Lawmakers

Here in St. Louis, we are having a reading group on Marc Lange’s interesting Laws and Lawmakers: Science, Metaphysics, and the Laws of Nature (OUP, 2009).

The book is motivated by the observation that there seems to be a tight connection between laws and counterfactuals. As everyone knows, laws support counterfactuals in a way that accidental truths do not. Lange offers a novel and interesting way to account for this link: he argues that laws are a “stable set of truths” in a way that sets of accidental truths are not. What this means is that unlike sets of accidental truths, all laws are still true under any counterfactual supposition that is consistent with their all being true.

Lange begins with this connection between laws and counterfactual and, in the course of the book, turns it into an ontological dependence between laws and counterfactual truths. He posits the existence of ontologically primitive “subjunctive facts” and argues that those are the truthmakers for law statements. I have only read the first two (out of four) chapters, so don’t ask me how to make sense of the notion of a “subjunctive fact” yet. But I do have a comment on the early part of the book.

Lange discusses some apparent counterexamples to his thesis of the “stability” of laws. Such counterexamples include David Lewis’s view that at least when dealing with deterministic situations, any ordinary counterfactual supposition requires a violation of the laws (a “miracle”).

(Lange discusses these counterfactuals only in a 9 pp. long footnote (Chap 1, fn. 29). That seems odd. It seems that given the relevance of these counterexamples to Lange’s view, he should have discussed them in the main text.)

I’m not entirely convinced by Lange’s response to the counterexamples (and also by some of the arguments in the main text that are similar in structure). Obviously I cannot do justice to the issue here, but very briefly, Lange seems to argue along the following lines: true, there are counterfactual suppositions that are consistent with the laws but under which the laws are violated, at least in some “worlds”; however, intuitively, under the same counterfactual suppositions, the “worlds” in which the laws are violated are more dissimilar from our world than the “worlds” in which the laws are not violated, and this still supports the stability of laws. Even granting the relevant intuitions, I suspect that the intuitions about similarity between “worlds” that ground the relevant judgments are generated, in turn, by knowledge of which truths are and are not laws. In other words, the counterfactual judgments that are supposed to support the claim that laws form a stable set (in a way that accidents do not) seem to depend on knowing which truths are lawful and which are not. So I am not convinced that Lange has found a noncircular way to connect laws and counterfactuals, contrary to what he suggests in his book. (Circularity is not a problem, unless you want to ontologically ground the laws in the counterfactuals, as Lange does.) Am I missing something? If anyone has insights on this matter, I’d be interested to hear them.

(Another odd choice: John Roberts is in the same department as Lange at UNC Chapel Hill and has published extensively on laws [including his own book on laws: The Law-Governed Universe, OUP 2009]. Even though Roberts is acknowledged at least four times in the book for having contributed this or that point, none of Roberts’ publications are cited by Lange. It’s hard not to wonder how that came about.)

All this being said, Lange’s book is thought-provoking and worth reading.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

MS4: Models and Simulations, 7-9 May 2010, University of Toronto

Abstract submission deadline: 20 November 2009
Scientific models and computer simulations play numerous roles in the
sciences, but as a class of tools for use in the articulation of theory,
experiment, technological design and application, and prognostication for
purposes of public policy, they have only relatively recently come under
systematic scrutiny by the community of scholars in history and philosophy
of science. The conference aims to raise and investigate important questions
about the methodology of practices of modelling and computer simulation,
providing a forum for ongoing debates and new angles of approach, on such
topics as: how models and simulations are constructed; how they are
confirmed; how they may be understood to represent and explain worldly
phenomena; how they function in cutting-edge research; and how they
influence decision making in the arena of public policy. A number of
bursaries for graduate students presenting papers will be available to help
defray the cost of travel and accommodation.

Submissions of proposals for individual papers and symposia are welcome in
the form of an extended abstract. For information on submissions,
registration, etc., please visit the conference website:

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A philosopher defends metaphysics

In a NDPR review of Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology Oxford UP, 2009 David Chalmers, David Manley, Ryan Wasserman (eds.), Elizabeth Barnes writes:

That the questions asked by metaphysicians should simply be left to physicists is not a criticism that those not generally skeptical of philosophical inquiry should take seriously. As philosophers, we tend to value the methodology of our own discipline and (whether justified or not) think that this methodology can make uniquely valuable contributions. Philosophy of language should not be abandoned for linguistics, aesthetics should not be abandoned for art criticism and art history, philosophy of mind should not be abandoned for psychology and cognitive science, and so on. There are often more empirical disciplines concerned with the same subject matter, but that doesn't mean the philosophy is in bad standing. Or so say the philosophers, anyway.

Barnes fails to address a missing alternative: that metaphysics should be informed and constrained by relatively up to date physics (and other sciences).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Minnesota Studies in Philosophy of Science

volumes 1-14 of Minnesota Studies in Philosophy of Science are now available online and for free here; this is very cool.

Even more on chapter 1 of Every Thing Must Go (1.4-1.6)

This past Summer I started a reading group with the eminent philosopher of physics, Fred Muller, and Dutch wunderkind, Victor Gijsbers, on Ladyman & Ross (et all) *Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalists*. Recall my earlier postings:

Now that I have read about a third of the book, I can make one general positive comment: Ladyman & Ross are very generous toward young scholars; they often cite unpublished papers. They also make a genuine effort to connect their views to figures (historical and present) that share aspects of their views.

Okay, so much for making nice, I will continue with Chapter one by page-number and numbered points (where I left off).
11. (p37) They introduce two important principles (summarized by Fred as follows): i) Principle of Naturalistic Closure (PNC). If with the aid of a metaphysical claim (H) two currently accepted scientific propositions (of which at least one is taken from current physics) explain more than they do separately and without H, then H should be taken seriously. (p. 37) ii) The Principle of the Primacy of Physics (PPC). If a hypothesis from some special science conflicts with currently accepted fundamental physics, then reject it (see also p. 44). Both end up doing non-trivial work in the argument (in what follows it allows them to rule out Davidson's token identity theory, emergentism [which has solid Carnapian credentials!], non-Nagelian reductionisms, supervenience, mereological atomism.

11A: PPC has interesting consequences: a) it makes (fundamental, etc) physics immune from other sciences. Should we want/promote this, and does this make for good metaphysics? At Michael Weisberg's EPSA talk it occurred to me that the practice of Chemistry is massively pressupposing and successfully tacitly testing a theory that has some resemblance to quantum mechanics, but that might be interestingly different, too. (Here's the analogy: 19th century planetary astronomy was creating extremely subtle evidence for lots of differences that make a differences two 'theories' Newton's and Einstein's'.) Why shouldn't we permit future chemistry help us reform physics? b) it rules out a priori competing sciences as fundamental, e.g., Darwinism, information theory, or what we may label, 'Santa Fe' science.

11B: PNC seems to suggest that metaphysics without fundamental physics is not worthy of the name metaphysics. It seems to suggest that asking, what is a "Person?" or "what are rights?" are bogus questions.

12. (p.42): PPC gets argued for based on the history of success in extending and unifying physics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. But institutionally (recall it's preferred epistemic proxy), science has really only exploded since the Cold War. So, who knows what science is morphing into now? (Lots of simulations, raw data crunching, and applying physics-alien formal methods to fancy new areas.)

13. (p. 48-52): Nagelian reductions (the deductive explanation of a theory by another theory) are the heroes of L&R's account. This is used to attack functionalism and multiple realization theories in the philosophy of mind. (L&R bite bullets along the way: no natural kinds, p. 51.) This is fun stuff to read; it won't convince anybody working in philosophy of mind (who is not already predisposed to disliking functionalism). I am surprised, for example, that they don't take on the Turingian source for the idea that minds and computers are basically same thing.

14. (p. 51 &53): they make a tantalizing remark about ontology being scale-relative, preventing barriers to identifying referents of different theories. It looks like that their unification project also has some disunity consequences; no special science tokens will have fundamental-physical descriptions (but they promise to address this in chapter 4).

15. (section 1.6): I really liked this section. It argues against all kinds of micro/macro (and mereological) distinctions and the thought that the world comes in 'levels'. (Bill Wimsatt's work springs to mind here.)

Next time, 1.7 and their admission "to being materialist Hegelians" (the synethsis between empiricist and materialist stances).

Monday, November 2, 2009

Galileo and Spinoza in Paris 12-19 December, 2009

Responsables scientifiques : Chantal Jaquet et Filip Buyse
Colloque organisé par le CHSPM
December 12&19, 2009, Sorbonne, Paris
Salle Cavaillès, Escalier C, 1er étage
17 rue de la Sorbonne, 75005 Paris
Entrance : Free
Contact :

Saturday December 12
8:45 – 9:15 : Introduction (Chantal Jaquet & Filip Buyse, Université Paris 1 - Panthéon Sorbonne)
9:15 – 10:30 : Mechanics versus mechanism: Galileo, Spinoza, and Newton.
(Stephen Gaukroger, University of Sydney and University of Aberdeen)
10:30 – 11:30 : Boyle, Spinoza and Galileo: Is Spinoza a strict Mechanical Philosopher? (Filip Buyse, Université Paris 1 - Panthéon Sorbonne)
11:30 – 12:30 : Science, Demonstration and the Art of Hermeneutics in Spinoza and Galileo. (Tamar Rudavsky, Ohio State University)
14: 30 - 15:30 : Spinoza's Library: its Mathematical and Scientific Books.
(Henri Krop, University of Rotterdam)
15:30 – 16:30 : Spinoza critique de Galilée. (Pietro Redondi, Università di Milano-Bicocca)
16:30 – 17:30: Natura naturans and Natura naturata in Spinoza.
(Herman De Dijn, Harvard University + Prof. Em. of the KU Leuven)
17:30 – 18:00: Questions and discussion. (Theo Verbeek, The Utrecht University)

Saturday December 19
9:30 - 10:00 : Introduction (Chantal Jaquet & Filip Buyse, Université Paris 1 Panthéon - Sorbonne)
10:00 - 11:00 : Galileo and Spinoza : Historical and Theoretical Perspectives .
(Franco Biasutti, Università di Padova)
11:00 – 12:00 : Joseph Solomon Delmedigo: Student of Galileo and Teacher of Spinoza.
(Jacob Adler, University of Arkansas)
13:30 – 14:30: L'infini chez Spinoza et Galilée. (Epaminondas Vampoulis, University of Patras)
14:30 – 15:30: Spinoza, l'unité individuelle et le principe du mouvement relatif.
(Fabien Chareix, Université Paris IV- Sorbonne)
15:30 – 16:30: From Italy to The Hague: Optics and Optical Instruments.
(Rienk Vermij, University of Oklahoma).
16:30 – 17:00: Discussion and questions. (Filip Buyse, Université Paris 1 - Panthéon Sorbonne)

cfp: European Society for the History of Science Barcelona, November 18-20, 2010

4th International Conference of the European Society for the History of Science (ESHS). The Circulation of Science and Technology.
Barcelona, November 18-20, 2010
Hosted by Institut d'Estudis Catalans (IEC)
Conference Secretariat
Carme 47, Barcelona E-08001
Fax: +34 932 701 180
Official website:

CFP: HOPOS 2010 Conference - June 24-27, 2010 Budapest

HOPOS 2010 Conference - June 24-27, 2010
Central European University - Budapest, Hungary

Call for Submissions
Deadline for Submissions: December 15, 2009.
Notification Date: February 28, 2010.

The conference is open to scholarly work on the history of philosophy of science from any disciplinary perspective. Submissions of abstracts of papers of approximately 25-30 minutes' reading length, and of symposia of three to four thematically related papers will be considered for the program. The members of the Program Committee are listed below. Submissions should be sent as an email attachment directly to the appropriate Program Sub-Committee chair, either as a Word document or PDF file. The conference language is English.

Proposals for papers should include:
• title and abstract of the paper (maximum 500 words)
• address of the participant, including e-mail, phone, and institution

Proposals for symposia should include:
• title of symposium
• symposium summary statement (maximum 500 words)
• titles and abstracts of papers (maximum 500 words for each paper)
• address of each participant, including e-mail, phone, and institution
• identification of symposium organizer, who will serve as contact person

Program Committee
James Lennox (Pittsburgh), Chair ‘Kant and Before’ Sub-Committee
István Bodnar ( ELTE, Budapest)
George Gale (UMKC)
Helen Hattab (Houston)
Don Morrison (Rice, Houston)
Erik Watkins (UCSD)

Martin Carrier (Bielefeld), Chair ‘Post-Kant’ Sub-Committee
Jean Gayon (Paris)
Don Howard (Notre Dame)
David Hyder (Ottawa)
Jutta Schickore (Indiana)
Friedrich Stadler (Vienna)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

European Journal for Philosophy of Science

Announcement and call for submissions:

The European Philosophy of Science Association (EPSA) is pleased to announce the launch of its new journal:


Editor-in-Chief: Carl Hoefer (Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain)
Deputy Editor: Mauro Dorato (University of Rome III, Italy)
Associate Editors: Franz Huber (Konstanz, Germany), Edouard Machery (Pittsburgh, USA), Michela Massimi (London, UK), Samir Okasha (Bristol, UK) and Jesús Zamora (UNED, Spain).
The Editorial Team will be assisted in its work by an Editorial Board of highly reputed philosophers of science from around the world.

EJPS is the official journal of EPSA and will appear three times a year, beginning in January 2011. EJPS intends to publish first-rate research in all areas of philosophy of science, and now welcomes submissions via the on-line portal:

The Journal’s website (still partly under construction) is here:

European Philosophy of Science Association (EPSA):

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

More on the history of "pessimistic meta-induction"

Another lovely early example:
"[Aristotle’s ghost] freely acknowledged his own mistakes in natural philosophy,
because he proceeded in many things upon conjecture, as all men must
do; and he found that Gassendi, who had made the doctrine of Epicurus as
palatable as he could, and the *vortices* of Descartes, were equally exploded. He
predicted the same fate to *attraction*, whereof the present learned are such
zealous asserters. He said, that new systems of nature were but new fashions,
which would vary in every age..." (Swift, *Gulliver's Travels*, In Chapter VIII of Voyage III, emphasis in original)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

pessimistic meta-induction

At EPSA I was reminded that the main (if not only) interest general philosophers of science have in the history of science (or philosophy) is in what is known as "pessimistic meta-induction." So, for all the Realists out there, here's some consolation: the argument precedes the scientific revolution.
"The writings of the ancients, the best authors I mean, being full and solid, tempt and carry me which way almost they will: he that I am reading, seems always to have the most force, and I find that every one of them in turn has reason, though they contradict one another. The facility that good wits have of rendering everything they would recommend likely, and that there is nothing so strange to which they will not undertake to give color enough to deceive such a simplicity as mine, this evidently shows the weakness of their testimony. The heavens and the stars have been three thousand years in motion; all the world were of that belief till Cleanthes the Samian, or, according to Theophrastus, Nicetas of Syracuse, bethought him to maintain that it was the earth that moved, turning about its axis by the oblique circle of the zodiac; and in our time Copernicus has so grounded this doctrine, that it very regularly serves to all astrological consequences: what use can we make of this, except that we need not much care which is the true opinion? And who knows but that a third, a thousand years hence, may overthrow the two former?—
“Thus revolving time changes the seasons of things; that which was once in estimation becomes of no reputation at all, while another thing succeeds and bursts forth from contempt, is daily more sought, and, when found, flourishes among mankind with praises and wonderful honor.”
So that when any new doctrine presents itself to us, we have great reason to mistrust it, and to consider that before it was set on foot the contrary had been in vogue; and that as that has been overthrown by this, a third invention in time to come may start up which may knock the second on the head. Before the principles that Aristotle introduced were in reputation, other principles contented human reason, as these satisfy us now. What letters-patent have these, what particular privilege, that the career of our invention must be stopped by them, and that to them should appertain for all time to come the possession of our belief? They are no more exempt from being thrust out of doors than their predecessors were."
Michel de Montaigne, Essays of Montaigne, vol. 5, trans. Charles Cotton, revised by William Carew Hazlett (New York: Edwin C. Hill, 1910). Chapter: ESSAYS OF MONTAIGNE

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Conference: Société de Philosophie des Sciences (Paris, Nov. 12-14)

The third congress of the Société de philosophie des sciences, to be held in Paris Nov. 12-14. For more details, go to

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Epistemic Role of Suggestive Evidence

This'll be my last post on this particular subject for a while, since this project has to go on the back burner for a while as certain other deadlines loom.

As Eric Winsberg says in reply to my first post,

suggestion is a causal relation, support is not. Whether E suggested H is a matter of historical fact indexed to a particular time. whether A supports B is a very different kind of fact; one which might vary over time, etc.


A dream or a blow to the head might very well suggest a hypothesis, but they are not evidence. the kinds of examples where we are inclined to call the thing that suggests a hypothesis "evidence" are the ones where the thing also supports the hypothesis.

In other words, insofar as suggestion is independent of support, it is purely a causal relationship. Now, I'm disinclined to admit a complete epistemic/causal dichotomy, as I think it is well-established that we rely on all kinds of causal relations in our epistemology. But I also think that suggestion has clear epistemic features independent of actual causal events. As I said above, suggestion is an ability in scientists that is trained, it is something we evaluate agents as being better and worse at. Making good suggestions is a kind of agential epistemic virtue. It's also not entirely the case that "Whether E suggested H is a matter of historical fact indexed to a particular time." Whether E is taken to suggest H is such a historical fact, but so is whether it is taken to support H. On the other hand, we can, looking back at the historical case, verify or evaluate whether E suggests H (this is probably clear to anyone who has had that "detective story" experience when reading the history of science, coming up with the hypothesis "before" the scientist), just as we can do with support. We can also identify alternative hypotheses the evidence suggests that went unrecognized.

Now, I won't deny that it is possible in some degree to re-construct many cases of suggestion as cases of support; rational reconstruction can be a powerful tool for fitting square pegs in round holes. However, I would argue that doing so is not only fairly unilluminating for understanding the practice of science, but also that it provides succor to skeptical arguments. It is my eventual hope to argue that it is precisely such reductive, mono-functional, uni-direcitonal accounts of evidence as support which are responsible for skeptical worries about, e.g., theory-ladenness and the experimenter's regress. Such skeptical worries can (and are) ignored, but the common refrain that skeptical problems are insoluble and irrelevant ignores the fact that the problem is internal to these common accounts of evidence. Compelling versions of anti-skepticism have always been accompanied by alternative theories of evidence in which the "E supports H" relation is supplemented by other epistemic functions. (e.g., Quine's view that treats evidence-statements and theoretical statements as symmetrically related and judged on their functional fitness in accommodating experience, for all its problems, provides an internal reason for saying that skeptical worries ask too much).

Physical and Philosophical Perspectives on Probability, Explanation and Time

Before EPSA, the Netherlands is hosting all kinds of cool philosophy of science related workshops.
I am at:
For the abstracts see this:
This combines three groups, Team A: Formal Methods; Team D: Philosophy of the Physical Sciences; Team E: History of the Philosophy of Science. In simple terms it combines people who wished that Carnap had not 'lost' to Quine (E); people who pretend that Carnap did not (A); and people who if they know of Carnap just love Carnap's treatment of Ramsey-sentence (D).
I hope to share some observations about the workshop later.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Examples of Suggestive Evidence

I argued in my last post and in the lively discussion in the comments that evidence has a wider variety of epistemic functions that is commonly appreciated and that those epistemic functions are not reducible to the "support" function. In other words, I want to characterize the essential features of inquiry not as an attempt to gather information that confirms or contradicts some theory of hypothesis, but rather as a complex, multi-phase, multi-directional set of interactions between evidence and theory, as well as problem-statement and other elements.

To be clear, I'm defining evidence in a very broad way: observationally or experimentally generated information about empirical particulars, including not only "raw data" but also models of data, basic interpretations of the data, and even rather generic statements about the phenomena. What I don't mean is what Greg Frost-Arnold suggested in his comment: that we reserve "evidence" for that set of data or information which is settled at the end of an inquiry as figuring in the "support" relation. That is, Greg suggested a dichotomy between "data," which serves all the complex roles I'm interested in, and "evidence," which is the end-product serving the traditional "support" role. While we can go far on this amendment to my argument, I don't ultimately accept it. A basic part of the problem is that philosophers tend to cut off the product from the process and then focus exclusively on the former. This is one of the cases where I think the best way to avoid the strategy is to insist that the product cannot be treated independently. Thus, the broader sense of evidence.

One forceful objection to my view (pressed especially by Thomas and Gabriele Contessa in comments) is that the only way evidence could serve any other function is derivative on and reducible to its function of supporting. Let's focus on my claim that evidence not only supports hypotheses but also suggests them. I think this works in the following way: the inquirer, faced with a problematic situation, surveys the preliminary evidence, which allows them to generate first an attempt to state the problem to be investigated and subsequently a hypothesis for solving the problem. In scientific inquiry, the ability to suggest hypotheses worth investigating further depends heavily on training and "tacit knowledge," but it is, I think, just as essential in naive, commonsense inquiry.

Let's look at some examples:

  1. Consider a child attempting to grow flowers in a flower bed. She's rather upset by the fact that some of the flowers aren't growing very well, while those in a small part of the bed are growing rather well. Looking carefully at the garden during the day, she notices that the small part of the garden with healthy flowers gets full sunlight, whereas the other parts are shaded by the fence or a nearby tree. This suggests to her that maybe the difference is due to the amount of sunlight the plants receive. (Probably the initial observations suggest several other hypotheses as well, but she decides to choose this one.) Now, in order to really support her hypothesis, she'll have to do an experiment. . . .

  2. A case from John Dewey's How We Think (1910) of inquiry involving an experiment:

    In washing tumblers in hot soapsuds and placing them mouth downward on a plate, bubbles appeared on the outside of the mouth of the tumblers and then went inside. Why? The presence of bubbles suggests air, which I note must come from inside the tumbler. I see that the soapy water on the plate prevents escape of the air save as it may be caught in bubbles. But why should air leave the tumbler? There was no substance entering to force it out. It must have expanded. It expands by increase of heat or by decrease of pressure, or by both. Could the air have become heated after the tumbler was taken from the hot suds ? Clearly not the air that was already entangled in the water. If heated air was the cause, cold air must have entered in transferring the tumblers from the suds to the plate. I test to see if this supposition is true by taking several more tumblers out. Some I shake so as to make sure of entrapping cold air in them. Some I take out holding mouth downward in order to prevent cold air from entering. Bubbles appear on the outside of every one of the former and on none of the latter. I must be right in my inference. Air from the outside must have been expanded by the heat of the tumbler, which explains the appearance of the bubbles on the outside. . . . (pp. 70-71, emphasis added)

  3. A case from John Snow's work on cholera in the 19th Century: various kinds of evidence has shown that the effluvial hypothesis for the transmission of the disease was unworkable. From reports and his observation of cholera patients, Snow saw that the pathology of the disease began with intestinal symptoms, rather than symptoms of systematic infection such as fever. This suggested the hypothesis that some morbid material ejected from sick patients was subsequently ingested by those who became infected (and several of the histories of Snow describe it in just this way, that the pathology along with other facts suggested the hypothesis about transmission). Snow then went on to support hist hypothesis by certain epidemiological evidence. . . .
Now, I guess we can't deny that suggestion is a real process going on in inquiry. What is at issue is whether it is both distinctive and epistemic, which I'll attempt to defend in a subsequent post.

Friday, October 9, 2009

PhD Fellowship, Ghent University (HPS, philosophy of economics)

The Department of philosophy and moral sciences Ghent University has a vacancy for a PhD researcher in connection with the research professorship of Prof. Dr. Eric Schliesser. The area of interest is open with a slight preference for candidates interested in history and philosophy of science, early modern philosophy, philosophy and history of economics, and the role of sympathy in moral sciences/ethics.

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Eric Schliesser.
Starting date: between June 1 and October 1, 2010.
Period: four years.
Salary: approx. 1700 EUR/month (net).
Profile of the candidate:
- Independent, passionate thinker.
- Entrepreneurial attitude.
- Master’s degree in philosophy (or equivalent in exact science, economics, history, or Latin with strong interest in philosophy).
- Able to read, speak and write in English fluently.

Task of the researcher:
The research has to result in a PhD thesis.
The researcher will present the fruits of his/her research at international conferences. S/he will be expected to publish regularly research results in international, refereed journals.
The researcher is expected to organize at least one international conference on the topic of her dissertation. S/he is expected to spend some of his/research time with top-experts at universities abroad. The researcher is expected to be an active participant in the exciting intellectual life of the department and to be eager to keep developing philosophically.

If you are interested in this position, send an email with your dissertation proposal (ca. 1000 words), a CV and list of publications (if any) to Eric Schliesser (, no later than 30 December 2009.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


I suppose because of Darwin's 200th birthday, I'm starting to be asked to speak to general audiences about how philosophers think of evolution by natural selection. It makes me think about the various audiences we speak to. I think it is tough enough to speak to our own kind (given the liveliness of the debates). But, what to do when the audience is of general philosophers, some of which are skeptical about whether we are "doing philosophy" at all? And, what about a general audience (from elementary school kids to retirees)?

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Varieties of Evidence

One of the things that seems to me to distort a lot of the discussions of evidence in philosophy of science (and related areas of epistemology) is an over-simplification of the role of evidence in science and inquiry. In particular, many accounts tend to treat evidence as mono-functional, where the only important function evidence plays is support. The nature of that support relation might vary from account to account (Bayesianism, falsification, inductivism, etc.), but many accounts agree that this is how evidence should be understood.

In contrast, I think we can point to a number of equally essential roles that evidence plays in inquiry. When first setting out to investigate the problem, early observational evidence can help locate or specify the problem. When you have an outbreak of disease, or an unexpected astronomical event, you first have to gather as much evidence about the nature of the problem as possible, before you can pose hypotheses or explanations for testing / support. Gathering evidence can also actually suggest hypotheses. A first look at the evidence suggests that this problem might be best analyzed by Fourier analysis, or a simple retrospective study design, or spectral analysis, etc., or by hypothesizing that the disease is malaria, that the new object in our telescope is a type of quasar, etc. Gathering evidence can also help with the elaboration of a hypothesis, specifying, clarifying, or improving it. And not only can it provide support for a hypothesis by testing or confirming its predictions, but experimental testing can be understood as a type of testing by application. If we understand experiment as a kind of intervention on the basis of a theory or hypothesis, then it is really a type of application of the hypothesis to some situation (often a highly controlled one).

So, to sum up, a (probably partial) list of the various functions of evidence: locating the problem, suggesting a hypothesis, elaborating the hypothesis, supporting the hypothesis, and testing it by application. Probably I should say something about helping specify initial conditions, too, though I'm not sure everyone would be willing to call that "evidence."

One way that idealizing evidence as mono-functional, focusing exclusively on the support relation, might go wrong, is the tendency to worry overmuch about the independent status of evidence; i.e., if evidence is to be judged solely by its suitability for providing firm support, then all of the problems of the "empirical basis" start to rear their ugly heads. I suspect that when we have a more complex picture of the functions of evidence, we can use it to develop a multi-scale analysis of the functional fitness of that evidence, which gives as a way of assessing the adequacy of it to stand as evidence.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Alex Rosenberg debates economist David Levine

It's not often that you see a scientist (especially an economist) seriously engaging with philosophers of science (especially philosophers of economics). So I really appreciated this debate:

Alex Rosenberg's analysis is as always sharp and stimulating. Many thanks to him for representing philosophy of science!

In my view, however, Levine has done a good job using empirical examples from experimental and behavioral economics to counter the skeptical claim Rosenberg makes about economics - that it has failed to improve the quality of its predictions. Eventually the debate seems to shiftto whether or not Levine represents mainstream economics. I think it's hard to deny that he does. So as much as I agree with Rosenberg's skeptical analysis of neoclassical micro- and macroeconomics, it no longer seems viable to extend it to the discipline as a whole.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Hasok Chang on the state of Philosophy of Science.

I was asked to provide a blurb to Matthew Lund's indispensable book, *N.R. Hanson: Observation, Discovery, and Scientific Change*. It has a very elegant foreword by Hasok Chang that resonates with some recent discussion on this blog. I quote with permission:

"the discipline of philosophy of science is at a critical juncture today. While research in the fiels has surely continued to grow in its quantity and sophistication, many traditional debates seem to be at a standstill, and captivating new ideas are rare. There is also a palpable sense of frustration on the part of many scholars that somehow there are few debates that can still elicit excitement in more than a small fraction of an already small field, not to mention people outside the field. Where introductory courses in philosophy of science are offered, students still flock to them; however, good teachers will know not to introduce too many current debates, as their highly technical and inward-looking nature tend to turn students off. Somehow, after so much good work done in the intervening period, it is still the debates from the time of Hanson's death that most excite students and the educated public--debates with the names of Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend attach to them." Hasok Chang, "Foreword" to Matthew Lund *N.R. Hanson: Observation, Discovery, and Scientific Change* (Amherst: Humanity Books, in press).

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

CFP: Special Issue of The Monist on Powers

The Monist


Deadline for Submissions: January 31, 2010
Advisory Editor: Neil Williams, University at Buffalo (new [at]

A sewing needle is swiped across a bar magnet, then pushed through a piece of cork and dropped into a glass of water. The needle will point immediately to the nearest pole. A female moth releases a small trace of sex pheromone; immediately males of the species up to two miles away will be attracted to her. The evidence for such causal powers is all around us. And as is shown in the response to the work of authors such as George Molnar and C. B. Martin, the thought that objects might be inherently powerful is on the rise. What is the nature of such causal powers? How are they to be characterised? What place do non-powers have within power-based ontologies? To what extent can powers be explanatory? Can powers exist entirely ungrounded? Contributions are invited addressing these and connected issues about the role and nature of powers.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Spinoza; Science

Kevin Von Duuglas develops his views on Spinoza and science in his blog:

CFP: Models and Simulations 4 (University of Toronto, May, 7-9 2010)

University of Toronto
7-9 May 2010

The University of Toronto is delighted to be hosting Models and Simulations
4, the fourth in a series international conferences examining the nature and
use of scientific models and simulations across the natural and social

Scientific models and computer simulations play numerous roles in the
sciences, but as a class of tools for use in the articulation of theory,
experiment, technological design and application, and prognostication for
purposes of public policy, they have only relatively recently come under
systematic scrutiny by the community of scholars in history and philosophy
of science. The conference aims to raise and investigate important questions
about the methodology of practices of modelling and computer simulation,
providing a forum for ongoing debates and new angles of approach, on such
topics as: how models and simulations are constructed; how they are
confirmed; how they may be understood to represent and explain worldly
phenomena; how they function in cutting-edge research; and how they
influence decision making in the arena of public policy.

Proposals for papers (in the form an extended abstract) are welcome from
both philosophers and scientists. For instructions regarding submission and
information on registration, travel, and accommodation, please visit the
conference website at The
conference language is English, and all submissions will be refereed. The
submission deadline is 20 November 2009.


Anjan Chakravartty, University of Toronto
Margaret Morrison, University of Toronto

Program Committee

Anouk Barberousse, University of Paris
Robert Batterman, University of Western Ontario
Roman Frigg, London School of Economics
Stephan Hartmann, Tilburg University
Paul Humphreys, University of West Virginia
Philippe Huneman, University of Paris
Tarja Knuuttila, University of Helsinki
Ulrich Krohs, University of Hamburg
Uskali Mäki, University of Helsinki
Wendy Parker, Ohio University
Eric Winsberg, University of South Florida
Andrea Woody, University of Washington

Friday, September 25, 2009

Exciting Trends in General Philosophy of Science

I'd like to resurrect in a way a thread from February, where Gabriele posted about whether general philosophers of science are becoming an endangered species and Eric worried about the decline of general philosophy of science. I want to register a dissenting opinion; it seems to me that exciting discussions in general phil sci are on the rise, and this is one of the more exciting times to be working in general philosophy of science.

In comments, Mohan Matthen suggested that there may have been a progressive problem-shift in the area. If one defines the discipline by way of a specific set of questions, this may make it look like the discipline is in decline. I see a discipline regaining its prominence by taking on a more fruitful set of questions and projects. One direction is the move towards formal analyses. The move to engage with mainstream M&E is another. Work on mechanisms and models, insofar as it can be said to be general, is another. Here are some other new projects that interest me:
  1. History of Philosophy of Science—To me, this is a very exciting development, though perhaps the one least likely to be recognized as a proper part of general philosophy of science. We're now starting to recover the early history of the field, both the various pre-20th century influences and the 20th century movements that led to the shape of the discipline today. The work by folks like Alan Richardson, George Reisch, Thomas Uebel, Don Howard, Heather Douglas, Jordi Cat, Nancy Cartwright, Michael Friedman and others uncovering the original interests and motivations of the members of the Vienna Circle is one of the best examples. This is great for general philosophy not only because it helps us remember why these general projects were important in the first place (no small achievement!), but also because it (a) reminds us of other projects which may have largely been forgotten about and (b) shows us that there are significant differences between the "received view" of what certain projects mean and the original projects themselves.

    An example of (a) is Neurath's project of attempting to identify and help bridge "gaps" between different areas of science, which differs significantly from most familiar discussions of "intertheoretic reduction" and "unity of science" by being a more practical aid to scientists and the consumers of science. There is a related example of (b), since this goal was part and parcel of Neurath's conception of the Unity of Science movement, and these histories have uncovered that members of that movement like Neurath, Frank, and Dewey were up to something very different than what Feyerabend, Dupré, and others were attacking.

    Turning back to history can often be a source of renewal for philosophy. It can shake our assumptions, offer radically different perspectives, and spur a change of approach. Philosophers of science turning back to the history of the discipline promises to be the beginning of a renewal of the field.

  2. Values in Science—This is not exactly a new area, but it is definitely one that is receiving a new life in recent years. Talk of "cognitive values" has been around for quite a while, but in the 1970's, for suggesting that science was susceptible not only to epistemic and metaphysical analysis, but moral and political critique (among other things), Feyerabend was considered to have gone off the rails. In the 1990's, a small but important cadre of feminist philosophers insisted on important relationships between science and values. In recent years, gladly, there has been an explosion of such work. Recent work examines in detail the complex relations between science, ethics, social values, and public policy. Kitcher's Science, Truth, and Democracy is obviously a landmark work, as much as for who produced it as for its contents (though the contents, blending methods from philosophy of science and political philosophy, provides ). Putnam, Longino, Kourany, Douglas, Howard, and Martin Carrier have also made exciting contributions, and there is an exciting group of scholars coming out of Bielefeld (e.g. Justin Biddle) who are exploring such topics. One of the great discoveries of HOPOS in recent years is that many of the original logical positivists, other members of the Unity of Science movement, and the founders of the journal Philosophy of Science were strongly concerned with issues of science, values, and politics.

  3. Evidence—Beyond talking about how evidence confirms hypotheses in a general way, there has been a lot of interesting work recently on the nature of evidence. John Worrall, Nancy Cartwright, and a group of students at LSE have been doing some fantastic work on evidence for use and so-called "evidence-based policy." Work on topics like experimental evidence and robustness is another interesting case. The work of Allan Franklin, Kent Staley, and Jacob Stegenga are also good examples.

  4. Simulation—Though I haven't figured out my own views on the matter, I've been following the recent work on computer simulations with great interest. Simulations are used across a broad variety of sciences, and they may well differ in interesting way from theories, mathematical models, and experimental measurements. The work of Margaret Morrison, Wendy Parker and Eran Tal comes to mind.
So, while many traditional topics like realism, confirmation, explanation, paradigms, &c. seem to be significantly less popular, many areas seem quite vibrant!

[Thanks Gabriele and everybody for inviting me to join the blog!]

Spinoza, mathematics,

A novelist, Kevin van Duuglas, has been doing lovely work on Spinoza's optics in his very attractively designed blog.
Along the way, he has been advertising and commenting on aspects of my (contrarian) views on Spinoza's relationship with both the mechanical science of his day and his attitude toward mathematics. Leaving aside the larger issue of Spinoza's attitude toward the mechanical philosophy, on my view Spinoza is very skeptical about the application of mathematical tools to nature (in measuring or describing nature). (Letter on the Infinite provides best evidence for this claim, but it shows up elsewhere.) This can never lead to stable/secure/highest form of knowledge, it remains in the domain of imaginary (first kind of knowledge). At best he thinks mathematics plays a useful calculating role in study of nature. (On my view Spinoza is also extremely skeptical about our very ability to have knowledge of nature; Della Rocca defends a similar position but on different grounds.)
This is not to deny that Spinoza values mathematics as a topic of investigation in its own right, and finds more geometrico a useful way to present his views (although it is by no means as straightforward as folks believe). Nor is it to deny that Spinoza's views on different kinds of infinite may have inspired later mathematicians (Cantor).

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Call for Contributors

It looks like we may be able to add a few new contributors to this blog. New contributors will be expected to post and comment regularly on the blog and will normally be professional philosophers who work on philosophy of science or closely related areas.

If you are interested in becoming a contributor, please send an e-mail with the subject line 'IOAT Contributor Application' to gabriele_contessa 'at' and attach your CV or a link to your professional website. Please note that, due to limited resources, only successful candidates will be contacted.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

CFP: FEW 2010

Call for Papers: Seventh Annual Formal Epistemology Workshop

Konstanz, September 2-4, 2010

Organized by Franz Huber (Konstanz) and Branden Fitelson (UC Berkeley)

Kindly funded by the Zukunftskolleg of the University of Konstanz and the German Research Foundation.

September 2, 2010: FE Meets Traditional Epistemology
Invited Speakers: Elke Brendel (Mainz), Hartry Field (NYU)
September 3, 2010: FE Meets Philosophy of Science
Invited Speakers: David Atkinson (Groningen), Peter Milne (Stirling), Jeanne Peijnenburg (Groningen)
September 4, 2010: Ernest W. Adams Memorial - FE Meets Logic and Philosophy of Language
Invited Speakers: Dorothy Edgington (Birkbeck), Hannes Leitgeb (Bristol), Vann McGee (MIT)

There will be 5-8 slots for presenting participants and 15-18 slots for non-presenting participants.

Every participant will be reimbursed for travel expenses. Presenting participants will also be reimbursed for lodging expenses. Non-presenting participants are offered accomodation from September 1-5, 2010, for a total of EUR 80.-

Presenting participants are required to submit a paper by e-mail to
Non-presenting participants are required to submit a letter of motivation (at most 1 page) plus CV by e-mail to

Submission of papers: December 31, 2009
Notification of acceptance for presentation: February 28, 2010
Submission of letter of application plus CV: March 31, 2010
Notification of acceptance for participation: May 31, 2010

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Monday, September 21, 2009

Postdocs: Center for Philosophy of Science (University of Pittsburgh)

The Center for Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh, announces two postdoctoral fellowships for the academic year 2010-2011. Each fellowship includes a $40,000 stipend with benefits. Eligible candidates must be within 5 years of the awarding of their doctorates at the time of commencement in September 2010 and must have their doctorate awarded by April 15, 2010.

Visit the Center Web site for more details about the Postdoctoral Fellows Program.

CfP: Objectivity in Science (UBC, June 17-20, 2010)

Objectivity in Science

June 17-20, 2010

University of British Columbia

Over the past two decades questions have arisen regarding the objectivity of specific projects in or fields of science: for example, can we trust medical research when it is funded by pharmaceutical companies? Or, whose research in climate science meets the standards of scientific objectivity? Such questions have become important in framing public debate about science and science policy. At the same time, the objectivity of science has become an increasingly important topic among historians and philosophers of science as well as researchers in other fields in science and technology studies (STS) such as sociology of science, rhetoric of science, and cultural studies of science. This conference seeks to advance scholarly perspectives on the objectivity of science by bringing them into conversation with one another. The conference also asks whether and how such scholarly perspectives on objectivity might or should inform public debate. The conference will investigate, moreover, how the specific concerns of scientists, science policy experts, science journalists, and other groups might be made more salient in the research of the STS community.

The goal of this conference, thus, is to provide a forum for STS researchers of diverse disciplinary backgrounds, practicing scientists, and other researchers to discuss and debate issues concerning the nature of objectivity in science. A particular concern will be to discuss how, when, and why questions of objectivity arise within science, in science policy debates, and in public engagement with science. In addition to conference sessions held during the day, this conference will feature two evening panel discussions, open to the public and focused on particular areas of research wherein the issue of scientific objectivity is particularly salient. The public panel discussions will focus on questions of objectivity in collaborative aboriginal research and in research on harm reduction.

Confirmed keynote speakers include Professor Ian Hacking (University of Toronto and the Collège de France) and Professor Naomi Oreskes (University of California at San Diego).


We welcome individual paper and panel submissions related to the theme of scientific objectivity.

Proposals for papers should include author information (including email address), paper title, and an abstract of no more than 500 words. Speakers will have 30 minutes to present and discuss their work.

Proposals for panel sessions should include the name of the panel organizer (including email), a brief description of the panel, author information, paper titles, and abstracts for each paper. Panel sessions will be ninety minutes in duration, including discussion time.

Program Committee: Alan Richardson (UBC), Robert Brain (UBC), Candis Callison (UBC), Lesley Cormack (Simon Fraser University), Flavia Padovani (UBC), and Jonathan Tsou (Iowa State University).

The deadline for paper and panel submissions is December 1, 2009. Please email submissions to Dani Hallet at:

The Objectivity in Science Conference is sponsored by the Situating Science Cluster

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Reflections on the financial crisis, Neo-Liberalism, and mathematical economics

The financial crisis has cast renewed critical attention on the discipline of economics. In particular, the crisis is taken as evidence of the bankruptcy of Neo-Liberalism, often associated with Milton Friedman and the so-called "Chicago school of Economics," and the over-reliance of formal mathematical techniques in evaluating risk models for financial products.

In opposition to Keynesian economics and policies, Milton Friedman succeeded in becoming the face of economics in the second half of the twentieth century while advocating deregulation and free-markets. Nevertheless, Friedman insisted that his policy advocacy was founded on value-neutral science. He often likened the technical policy expertise of the economist with the medical advice of a physician. This argument got intertwined with cold war politics in 1976 when Friedman’s Nobel price celebrations got caught up in protests over how economists trained at The University of Chicago turned out to be the economic policy masterminds behind General Pinochet’s military dictatorship in Chile. The so-called ‘Chicago Boys’ self-consciously and explicitly relied on Friedman’s arguments about economic experts being like medical experts to justify their involvement in the dictatorship. (Of course, some also appealed to national duty and/or anti-Communist sentiment/arguments.) One of Friedman’s foremost critics, Orlando Letelier (a former minister under the deposed President Allende), was assassinated by Chile ’s secret police in Washington, DC, a few weeks before the Nobel ceremony. By the 1980s Chile became the laboratory for neo-Liberal policies. (In practice, this involved a lot of trial and error, but the "Washington consensus" tended to ignore this.)

The story of neo-Liberalism is rich with ironies and not only because the advocate of small government finds himself on the side of despotic dictatorship. For example, it turns out that most of the Chilean ‘Chicago Boys’ had been protégés of Friedman’s then Chicago-colleague, Arnold Harberger, not Friedman. Harberger was an early and important advocate of mathematical economics, especially welfare economics (as developed by Friedman’s rival, Paul Samuelson). By contrast, Friedman, who (together with LJ Savage) helped develop some of the mathematical tools behind a field known as portfolio theory (which forms the basis of many of the models implicated in the financial crisis), was also one of the early leading critics of econometrics and the reliance on mathematical models (such as Harberger’s) in economics. In a further twist, portfolio theory only got off the ground only after a reinterpretation of Friedman’s mathematical result by Harry Markowitz (who also won a Nobel Prize for it). One of Friedman's contributions to statistics is the Friedman rank test which one uses when you don't believe in normality. One of the technical problems with standard risk models is of course the assumption of normality. It turns out Friedman got credit for lots of ideas he opposed.

But ironies aside, while populist commentators attack financial bonuses and business-spokespeople attack regulatory failures, we ought to encourage politicians to reform the system so that we end up with structure in which private financial incentives is reasonably aligned with long-term public welfare. Meanwhile, many economists are re-examining their assumptions: many place their faith in making economics more realistic psychologically (by drawing on neuroscience and behavioral psychology). In all of this, everybody is relying on experts who are trained into thinking that when evaluating evidence values can be kept at arm’s length.

But, of course, as long as experts do not model their own role and influence on the ways models are applied in the real world and can shield themselves from potential ill effects, we are all rats in the social scientific laboratory. So, we should encourage social institutions (within education, financial regulation, bureaucracy) in which we make sure that some of the risks (in reputation and financial costs) that come from using various mathematical techniques are also felt by the folks (professors, business schools, consultants, regulators, financial analysts, etc) that promote the use of these.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Job Listing--Research Chair (updated)

Each year Ghent University (Flanders) has an international search to fill seven research-focused Chairs across all disciplines. The initial appointment is for five years with renewal for another five years (if one meets certain performance criteria). During this period one teaches one or two courses per year and one is offered funding support to appoint a PhD student. After ten years one is moved to a (tenured) appointment with regular teaching duties.
For more information (now with English version):

The English language application form is here:

The idea is to appoint productive, ambitious people with a research vision and to provide them with seed money to implement it. Part of the application process is to write a research proposal, which gets submitted to international referees.
Ghent is a lovely town. The philosophy department is thriving and growing and has particular strengths in history and philosophy of science, non-standard logics, history of science, and applied ethics (especially medical ethics).
If you are interested in exploring this opportunity, please feel free to contact me:

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Thanks to the Bloggers

On August 12th, Eric posted a new comment on downward sloping demand curves. I was reminded that the original discussion occurred in the context of an "economic parable" I posted, in which I casually touted this possibility.

The ensuing discussion was lively and very interesting. I would just like to mention that the economic parable is part of a paper entitled "Drift and 'Statistically Abstractive Explanation'" which will appear in the October 2009 issue of Philosophy of Science. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all of those who read and commented. In the published version, I specifically thank Thomas Basbøll and Eric Schliesser.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Rawls and Economics

I bet Rawls doesn't often get mentioned in philosophy of science circles. But here goes. A strain of argument in a recent review by Michael Rosen of G.A. Cohen's (idealistic) criticism of Rawls, reminded me of the importance of Rawls' engagement with economics in the 50s and 60s--the crucial years in which *A Theory of Justice* got developed. (Interestingly, some of the most immediate and insightful responses to TJ came from economists like Arrow, Harsany, Buchanan.) Rawls is deeply enmeshed in the language of welfare economics, but he engages rather broadly with moral aspects of economics and he admits he uses economics to illustrate several of his main claims. Contemporary Rawlsians have tended to move away this engagement with the practice of political economy (and science more generally). Anyway, let me turn this into a question: does anybody know of any good secondary literature on Rawls and the Economists (broadly conceived)?

4 CFPs

4 Calls for Participation
Sept 1-4, Prague: Foundations of Uncertainty
Oct 2-4, Konstanz: Explanation, Confirmation, and Prediction in Biology and Medicine
Nov 2, Konstanz: Karen Bennett (Cornell) and Branden Fitelson (UC Berkeley)
Dec 7, Konstanz: Gerhard Schurz (Düsseldorf) and Jiji Zhang (Lingnan)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Should Scientific Methods and Data be Public?

At the last Eastern APA meeting in Philly, I attended an excellent session on The Epistemology of Experimental Practices, with Allan Franklin and Marcel Weber. During the discussion, I asked whether scientific methods and data should be public – that is, whether different investigators applying the same methods to the same questions should get the same data.

Franklin argued that publicity is not necessary, because some experiments might be too difficult or expensive to replicate, and different data analyses by different groups count as different experiments. This seems pretty wrong to me.

For one thing, I got the impression that Franklin didn’t fully understand what method publicity amounts to. Publicity does not require that all experiments be replicated; only that it is possible for different investigators to apply the same methods, and if they did, then they would get the same results. (Of course, much hinges on what we mean by “possible” and who counts as an investigator; for some more details, see here.)

For another thing, it’s better to say that actual replication of experiments is often unnecessary, as Marcel Weber said. Weber pointed out that experimentalists are part of a scientific network that shares techniques and materials, so they often feel they already know what was done. Nevertheless, Weber maintained that publicity is essential to science (and is implemented in the network itself, by the sharing of techniques etc.).

In fact, in his own talk, Allan Franklin listed a number of arguments/reasons for believing the results of experiments, along the lines of those listed in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Experiments in Physics. All of Franklin’s reasons seem to have to do with publicity and the public validation of data.

Does anyone else have opinions on this? Should scientific methods and data be public or is this methodological principle obsolete?

I care about this because there are philosophers who have argued that introspection is a private yet legitimate method of observation, and this shows that method publicity is not necessary for science. I think this view is a disaster. If we reject method publicity, it’s not clear why we should reject all kinds of pseudo-scientific methods.

(And incidentally, I’ve also argued elsewhere that introspection is not a private method of scientific observation; rather, it’s a process of self-measurement by which public data are generated.)

(cross-posted at Brains.)

Monday, August 17, 2009

CFP: HOPOS 2010, Budapest, June 24-27

HOPOS 2010, Budapest, Hungary, June 24-27

Call for Submissions
Deadline for Submissions: December 15, 2009.
Notification Date: February 28, 2010.

The conference is open to scholarly work on the history of philosophy of science from any disciplinary perspective. Submissions of abstracts of papers of approximately 25-30 minutes' reading length, and of symposia of three to four thematically related papers will be considered for the program. The members of the Program Committee are listed below.
Submissions should be sent as an email attachment directly to the appropriate Program Sub-Committee chair, either as a Word document or PDF file.
The conference language is English.

Proposals for papers should include:
• title and abstract of the paper (maximum 500 words)
• address of the participant, including e-mail, phone, and institution

Proposals for symposia should include:
• title of symposium
• symposium summary statement (maximum 500 words)
• titles and abstracts of papers (maximum 500 words for each paper)
• address of each participant, including e-mail, phone, and institution
• identification of symposium organizer, who will serve as contact person

Program Committee:
James Lennox (Pittsburgh), Chair ‘Kant and Before’ Sub-Committee
István Bodnar ( ELTE, Budapest)
George Gale (UMKC)
Helen Hattab (Houston)
Don Morrison (Rice, Houston)
Erik Watkins (UCSD)

Martin Carrier (Bielefeld), Chair ‘Post-Kant’ Sub-Committee
Jean Gayon (Paris)
Don Howard (Notre Dame)
David Hyder (Ottawa)
Jutta Schickore (Indiana)
Friedrich Stadler (Vienna)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Downward sloping demand curves (?)

A while back on this blog there was some discussion of the nature of the demand curve in economics. I claimed that economists rather dogmatically insist it is downward-sloping. (To be sure, it had once been a matter of considerable debate, but views seem to have hardened on it post WWII.)
Anyway, recently I was emailing with a bright economist PhD student, David Wiczer, at Illinois. He recounted a discussion he had with a co-author (it has some jargon but the main point should be clear enough):
"We were pretty convinced that it implies we can’t just estimate reduced form models and expect the coefficients to stay fixed, that is the same negative slope on a demand equation doesn’t hold between different contexts, but beyond this, we were pretty unsure where to go.
Finding “true” forms for these relations is fraught, as exemplified by a debate right now about how labor and output respond to news of productivity increases. On the one side, a set of models has it the people work more because new technology makes their wage go up, on the other there’s an effect that labor input goes down and there’s a recession because some friction either in the firm’s demand for labor or household demand for leisure (i.e. supply). I guess the point is that these demand and supply curves are very difficult to pin down, and our understanding the data that should suggest their form is itself in flux. There’s a nice line a Francis Ramey paper on the subject, discussing the proper model to study technology shocks and business cycles:
“It is interesting to note that the first of these models had been previously dismissed in the literature because the implied negative correlation between technology and labor was ‘counterfactual.’ The previous empirical results [their VARs] suggest that the model’s predictions are completely in line with the ‘facts.’”
As a student who’s spent most of his life receiving truth and wisdom put on a chalk board, this is an exciting realization: not only am I ignorant, but so is everyone else."

So, I am glad to correct myself: there is empirical discussion of the demand curve in economics (again). These are exciting times to be following the economics discipline. Because of the implosion of financial markets last year and the recession based on it, there is a lot more willingness to question foundational principles.

PhilPapers General Philosophy of Science Category Structure

The category structure of the General Philosophy of Science area at PhilPapers is undergoing some changes and I'd like to get some feedback from readers about the current category structure.

In particular:

  1. Are there any notable absences?
  2. Are there any superfluous categories?
  3. Would you put any subcategory under a different category or cross-list it somewhere else?
(I answer 'yes' to both 1 and 2 but I'm curious to hear what readers of this blog think)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Two Doctoral Studentships in Bristol

There will be two doctoral studentships as part of the AHRC funded Structuralism project hosted by the Department of Philosophy, University of Bristol (Principal Investigator: James Ladyman).
These fully funded three year studentships are in the following areas:
(1) The student will investigate formal and philosophical aspects of the dependence of the identity and distinctness of entities on other entities. The notions of dependence that are operative here will be considered in terms of abstraction principles and identity criteria.
(2) The student will investigate the status of individuals in physics in the light of recent work by Müller and Saunders on weak discernibility, and Ladyman and Leitgeb on primitive contextual individuality. The student will expand the terms of the debate to take account of field theories, and consider the implications for structural realism.
Further details will be advertised soon but the deadline for applications is expected to be 1st September 2009.
Professor James Ladyman
Department of Philosophy
University of Bristol
9 Woodland Road
Bristol BS81TB
0117 9287609

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Workshop: The Effect of Causality (August 7-8, 2009, Amsterdam)

On August 7-8, the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences hosts a workshop on methodological and philosophical aspects causality. There are still a few places available.

Program Academy Colloquium
"The effect of causality: State of the art, open problems, and future directions"
Kloveniersburgwal 9, Amsterdam, on 7 and 8 August 2009

August 7
8.30 - 8.45 Opening
8.45 - 9.45 Clark Glymour, Carnegie Mellon University
9.45 - 10.45 Rolf Steyer, University of Jena
10.45 - 11.00 Coffee break
11.00 - 12.00 Mark Steyvers, University of California at Irvine
12.00 - 13.30 Lunch
13.30 - 14.30 David Cox, University of Oxford
14.30 - 15.30 Giovanni Marchetti, University of Florence
15.30 - 16.00 Coffee break
16.00 - 17.00 Julian Reiss, Erasmus University Rotterdam
17.00 - 18.00 Drinks
18:00 Dinner

August 8
9.30 - 9.45 Opening
9.45 - 10.45 Nancy Cartwright, London School of Economics
10.45 - 11.00 Coffee Break
11.00 - 12.00 Michael Lee, University of California at Irvine
12.00 - 13.30 Lunch
13.30 - 14.30 Nanny Wermuth, University of Gothenborg
14.30 - 15.30 David Lagnado, University College London
15.30 - 16.00 Coffee Break
16.00 - 17.00 Michael Eichler, Maastricht University
17.00 - 18.00 Drinks

The workshop is free of charge, but registration is required, and there are only few places left. Make sure to register as soon as possible if you want to attend, by sending an email to See for further details.

CFP: The Future of Philosophy of Science (April 14-16, 2010, Tilburg)

I guess this will be of interest to many readers:


Tilburg Center for Logic and Philosophy of Science

14-16 April 2010


Philosophy of science deals with the foundations and the methods of science. While the scope of philosophy of science is rather uncontroversial, there is considerable disagreement about its methodology. A look into the relevant journals reveals that there is a plurality of approaches. Some researchers use the traditional method of conceptual analysis, other engage in formal modeling, conduct case studies and -- more recently -- experiments, or consult the history of science in considerable detail. Despite the differences in these approaches, there also seem to be undeniable trends in our discipline, such as the increasing specialization, and the increasing co-operation with empirical scientists. This conference will explore the future of philosophy of science. In particular, we are interested in how the different methods philosophers of science use relate to each other, whether they can fruitfully complement each other, and whether current trends allow predictions about the development of our field. We invite contributions that combine cutting-edge individual research with a general perspective on the methods and future of philosophy of science.

We invite submissions of extended abstracts of 1000 to 1500 words by 15 November 2009. Decisions will be made by 15 December 2009.

KEYNOTE SPEAKERS: Michael Friedman (Stanford), Christopher Hitchcock
(Caltech), Hannes Leigeb (Bristol), and Samir Okasha (Bristol)

ORGANISERS: Mark Colyvan (Sydney), Paul Griffiths (Sydney), Stephan Hartmann
(Tilburg) and Jan Sprenger (Tilburg)

PUBLICATION: Selected papers will be published in a special issue of
European Journal for the Philosophy of Science (subject to the usual
refereeing process). The submission deadline is 1 July 2010. The maximal
paper length is 7000 words.

GRADUATE FELLOWSHIPS: A few travel bursaries for graduate students are
available (up to 200 Euro). If you wish to be considered please submit a CV
and a travel budget in addition to your extended abstract.

The conference language is English.

Monday, July 27, 2009

David Lewis and Newton's Challenge, (or the relationship between science & metaphysics)

By "Newton's Challenge," I refer to the fact that after the Principia’s success the authority of "science" has been used to settle debates within "philosophy." I distinguish among three different but closely related versions of this challenge: (NC1) a philosopher claims that natural philosophy must be consulted in the process of doing metaphysics; (NC2) a philosopher claims that natural philosophy is epistemically prior to metaphysics; (NC3) a philosopher appeals to the authority of a natural science, which is in some sense (institutionally, methodologically) taken to be a non-philosophical source, in order to settle argument over doctrine. Much of my recent scholarship focuses on tracing out the development and crucial role of Newton's Challenge in the history of philosophy and science.

Sometimes "Newton's Challenge" gets resisted by philosophers. Here's an interesting and prominent example:

"...maybe the lesson of Bell's theorem is exactly that there are physical entities which are unlocalized, and which therefore might make a difference between worlds--worlds in the inner sphere--that match perfectly in their arrangements of local qualities. Maybe so. I'm ready to believe it. But I am not ready to take lessons in ontology from quantum physics as it now is. First I must see how it looks when it is purified of instrumentalist frivolity, and dares to say something not just about pointer readings but about the consitution of the world; and when it is purified of doublethinking deviant logic; and--most of all--when it is purified of supernatural tales about the observant mind to make things jump. If, after all that, it still teaches nonlocality, I shall submit willingly to the best of authority."--David Lewis Philosophical Papers, V2, introduction xi

Given the way I have formulated "Newton's Challenge," I just love Lewis' terminology ("submit," "authority"," "lessons in ontology," etc.)!
In a fascinating recent plenary lecture at BSPS in Norwich, Simon Saunders claimed that with the theory of decoherence, Quantum Mechanics now meets Lewis' challenge. If Saunders is right then philosophers of science have a club to beat the metaphysicians.

Tilburg PhDs, back to four years...

A few months ago I was mean to our friendly colleagues in Tilburg, the Netherlands, when I protested their leading role in stimulating a trend toward three year PhDs (and the accompanying dumbing down/narrowing of the profession). Recall:
I am happy to report that in recent advertisements for PhD position in a project on "A Formal Analysis of Social Procedures", which is led by Eric Pacuit, they have reverted back to the four year norm. For more details, on the project see:

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

CFP: Philosophy of Probability Mini Conference: Oxford, September 24–25 2009

This announcement/call for papers for a small conference I'm organising may interest some who follow this blog:

Philosophy of Probability Mini Conference

University of Oxford, Faculty of Philosophy

Thursday, September 24 – Friday, September 25, 2009

The Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Oxford presents a mini conference on the philosophy of probability. The topic is taken broadly, encompassing among other things Bayesian epistemology, the foundations of statistics, and physical probability. Speakers so far confirmed are:

We hope also to include up to two papers by graduate students; see the Call for Papers below.

Further details about the conference will be posted on as the timetable, speakers, and talk titles are finalised. For further information about the conference, or to register your planned attendance, please contact Antony Eagle.

Call for Papers

We hope to include up to two papers by graduate students in the program. We invite submissions of papers of any length, though the main ideas should be suitable for presentation in 40 minutes. Papers can be on any topic in the philosophy of probability, broadly construed. Papers need not be prepared for blind review.

Please email papers, and full contact information, by Monday August 24th to antony.eagle[at] We aim to notify successful candidates by September 1.

With the support of the Faculty of Philosophy, we are able to contribute to UK travel and accomodation costs for successful candidates.