Sunday, April 26, 2009

The cult of contingency and the Future of the history and philosophy of science.

History and philosophy of science (HPS) is dead. On the whole historians have turned their backs on philosophy and celebrate the ideology of contingency. Meanwhile philosophers have become focused on narrow patches of science, especially physics, biology, and (I hope) economics. There are some patches in the history of science that attract healthy philosophic interest (Aristotle, Newton, Kant's reaction to Newton, and Darwin), but they are increasingly as specialized as these other narrow patches as Max Weber has predicted. While there is some general philosophy of science left, it is becoming increasingly formal with technique dominating insight. I am still hoping that philosophers of science reconnect with metaphysics in competition with the Lewis-style program dominating contemporary metaphysics. But that's for another time.
Now when I attacked the cult of contingency among historians at a recent conference, the eminent philosophical historian, Lorraine Daston (Max Planck), reacted forcefully. She thought it was high time that philosophers accept real thick history, and use it as a building block for new kind of philosophy. After we made nice, she sent me a recent paper of hers: "Toward a history of reason," in *Aurora Torealis* Beretta, Marco et al [eds.]. - Sagamore Beach: Science History Publications, 2008, p. 165-180. The paper shares my diagnosis above of the current situation, although it adds to it that from the history of science side its new (historicist and cultural anthropological) approach has caused it to be without a wide audience. (One could say that the 'science wars' of the 80s ended because scientists have told historians of science to drop dead.)
Daston's response to this situation is to promote an agenda to chart the growth and transmutation of reason and the accompanying techniques and epistemic virtues through the ages. (One sees some of this in her book with Gallison on objectivity.) While this (Foucault-lite genealogy) is certainly a philosophic project in so far as philosophy is the science that also reflects on itself and its (historical) presuppositions (one can say that reason is partial without historical self-understanding), the philosophy to be found here is skin-deep. Its results will provide a lot of information, and, perhaps, a healthy skepticism about the nature and sources of science's self-image.
But it lacks philosophic ambition because it has fully embraced the cult of contingency. It can't even bring itself to use this historical knowledge to ask what the necessary conceptual, social, mathematical or technical pre-conditions are or may be for the way (scientific) reason develops in society. That project, first hinted at by David Hume (in his treatment of justice) and widened by Adam Smith, Hegel, and Marx, was revived and transformed by the early Foucault in *The Order of Things* (original title: Les Mots et les choses), while Kuhn, Popper, Feyerabend, and Lakatos were having their epic debates during the 1960s. The problem with Foucault's archeology is that he never appears to have seriously engaged with the citadel of science: physics. Now a half century later there appear to be few ambitious historically informed projects left. In future postings I'll engage and discuss a few of these, but I have gone on long enough now.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Vote now.

Brian Leiter is running one of his voting surveys. (It's not even Summer yet!) This one is on "Who are the most important philosophers of the early modern period prior to the 19th-century?" Before I start complaining about the (likely) final winner (Kant), let me note (speaking to my audience) that Newton, Euler, Condorcet, Galileo, Maupertuis, D'Alembert, and Franklin (not to mention my very own Huygens) are not even candidates. Given contemporary disciplinary education this should not be surprising, although Newton, especially, has been making a comeback in treatments of the history of philosophy, especially since Friedman's Kant and the Exact Sciences. Even more amazing is that Brian omitted Rousseau, Hutcheson, Mandeville, Wollstonecraft, Sophy de Condorcet, Thomas Paine, Franklin, and Montesquieu. Several of these are really more important that Hammann and Maimon. My only consolation is that Adam Smith, who was a lovely and unappreciated philosopher of science, is in the current top ten. Vote here:

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Choice & Inference

Along with Jake Chandler (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven), I have just initiated a new blog called Choice & Inference (at the url! Choice & Inference provides a platform for dialogue and news within the fields of formal epistemology and decision theory, broadly construed. Topics include (but are not limited to) uncertain and ampliative inference, coherence, paradoxes of belief and / or action, belief revision, disagreement and consensus, causal discovery, epistemology of religion, etc. And the formal tools used to pursue questions within these topics include (but are not limited to) game theory and decision theory, formal learning theory, probability theory and statistics, networks and graphs, and formal logic.

Contributors so far include: Alan Hájek, Carlo Martini, Franz Huber, Gregory Wheeler, Horacio Arló-Costa, Jake Chandler, Jan Sprenger, Jan-Willem Romeijn, Jeffrey Helzner, Jon Williamson, Jonah Schupbach, Katie Steele, Kevin Zollman, Luc Bovens, Richard Bradley, Stefan Wintein, Stephan Hartmann, Ted Poston, Tomoji Shogenji, Trent Dougherty, and Vincenzo Crupi. Also, Choice & Inference is run with the support of some external affiliates: Carnegie Mellon University; the Formal Epistemology Project, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven; and the Tilburg Center for Logic and Philosophy of Science, Tilburg University.

The blog is shaping up to be a wonderful resource to those doing formal work related to rationality! Anyone working within the relevant fields who is interested in becoming a contributor to Choice & Inference is welcome to contact either Jake Chandler or myself (you can find our email addresses on our respective websites).

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Lewis and Vague Laws of Nature?

Sometimes people seem to assume that David Lewis took the notion of law of nature to be (somewhat) vague (which I take to mean that 'x is a law of nature at @' has borderline cases), but does Lewis say that explicitly anywhere? (On the face of it, it would seem to be in contrast with the best system thesis being expressed as a biconditional, but, on the other hand, Lewis seems to concede that strength and simplicity are somewhat vague criteria.) And would any other sophisticated regularity theorist be happy with that?

(Crossposted at Matters of Substance. Please post any comments there. (To keep discussion tidy I have disabled them here))

Bayesians and Probability One

It is often said that a Bayesian agent should not assign probability one to a proposition unless it is a logical truth. However, this principle is often appealed to without any reference or argument. I guess this is because people take the principle to be so self-evident that it doesn't need any support, but can anyone point me to any "standard" references or discussions of the principle?