Monday, May 25, 2009

Unified Frameworks vs patchworks (etc)

This past week-end I enjoyed participating at a small conference on new perspectives in history and philosophy of science hosted by the distinguished philosopher and historian of mathematics, Niccolo Guicciardini, who is actually descendant of the Renaissance historians and political theorists with the same last name, in idyllic Bergamo [yeah, life is a bitch!]. (In a bookstore in Milan I noticed Niccolo has also published a textbook on philosophy of quantum mechanics, but that has not been translated into English yet.) The speakers included Michael Friedman, George Smith, Menachem Fish, Andrew Janiak, Andre Carus, and Nico Bertoloni Melli. The conference was inspired by the work of Howard Stein; I was impressed (but unpersuaded) by Carus' efforts to show how Stein's works can be understood in light of his mentor's (Carnap) understanding of pragmatics.
Anyway, nearly all of us gave programmatic papers (perhaps, undermining my claim in an earlier posting that the field is moribund). Maybe I'll try to summarize these in a future post. Here I focus on the only fierce debate at the conference. In his paper, Fish tried to extend Friedman's project of *Dynamics of Reason* in order to address the question how individuals operating within a framework can generate normative criticism of the framework. (Frish's solution was fresh by drawing on a mixture of Peter Gallison's stuff on trading zones and Frankfurtian moral psychology.) George Smith, who has become the world authority on Newton's Principia and who is increasingly intolerant of philosophical toy-examples (Smith was my undergraduate teacher), criticized Fish's (ahum) framework by being so framework-focused. On Smith's account there are just many different (and potentially conflicting) formulations of what we call 'Newtonian mechanics' that may only share a certain way of using deflections from inertial motion. Amusingly, Smith did not think he and *Friedman* differ on these matters; by the end of the workshop this was left unresolved--but I expect they are having an entertaining conversation in Stanford this week.

Added on May 30: just noticed that in the last few pages of *Word and Object* Quine (of all people) defends the patchwork view. (He cites *Modern Science and Modern Man* (1952) by Kuhn's mentor, James B. Conant, approvingly twice.) I seem to recall that in Two Dogmas (and maybe later) he has a more unified picture.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

PhilPapers Looking For Editors

I have recently become area editor for philosophy of science on PhilPapers, the directory of online philosophy articles launched a few months ago by David Bourget and David Chalmers. It is my understanding that there are still many editorial positions available especially in the Science, Logic and Mathematics section. So, if you are interested, apply, apply, apply! It's a worthwile philosophical cause. ;-)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

CfP: Workshop on Reduction and Emergence

Emergence and Reduction in the Sciences (Second Pittsburgh-Paris Workshop)

Friday, December 11- Saturday, December 12, 2009 at the Center for Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh

Center for Philosophy of Science and Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh / Institut d'Histoire et de Philosophie des Sciences et des Techniques, Paris.

The theme of the conference, emergence and reduction in the sciences, reflects the interest that these dual notions continue to attract in philosophy of science, most notably in philosophy of physics, of biology and of cognitive science. The organizers invite papers that address these dual notions in any science. Papers that connect the notions in several sciences are encouraged.

Contributors are asked to send: Paper title, abstract (500 words) and a short CV in a single pdf file to the EasyChair conference page at by the submission deadline. (If you are not already a registered user of, you will need to create a free account as part of the submission process.) Deadline for submission: August 15; Notification of acceptance: September 15. For general inquiries, Supplementary funding may be available to provide partial support for speakers contributing papers.

Invited speakers:

Jacques Dubucs, Philippe Huneman; IHPST, Paris

Peter Machamer, Sandra Mitchell, Kenneth Schaffner; HPS, Pittsburgh

Michael Silberstein, Philosophy, Elizabethtown College

Jessica Wilson, Philosophy, University of Toronto

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Diffeomorphism equivalence and permutation equivalence

I've written a little (4-page) paper about diffeomorphism equivalence and permutation equivalence. It is on my university homepage, here. The argument, though a bit technical, is quite short. A diffeomorphism of a manifold M to itself is a permutation of the points that is an automorphism. A spacetime S is something of the form (M, g, phi_1, ..., phi_n). Suppose h : M -> M is a diffeomorphism of M (i.e., an automorphism). Then we can drag all other fields along by h, and obtain another spacetime, call it h[S]. By construction, S and h[S] are isomorphic. The "gauge equivalence" claim is that S and h[S] are "physically equivalent" solutions. However, a diffeomorphism h is just a special case of permuting the elements of the base set of the manifold. And one can in principle use any permutation one likes. Given a spacetime S and a permutation p, one can drag the topology along too, as well as the metric and other matter fields. Then one gets a spacetime p[S] isomorphic to the first, by construction. The equivalence claim now is that S and p[S] are "physically equivalent" solutions. If so, then perhaps the "gauge symmetry" of GR is not restricted to permutations of the points which are diffeomorphisms. Rather, it involves all permutations of the points: a kind of general permutation symmetry. (I relate this in the paper to Quine's idea that permutations of the interpretation of an interpreted language (using proxy functions) yields an interpreted language which is in some sense indistinguishable from the first.)
Anyway, the paper is short and comments by anyone who works on this kind of thing would be welcome.

UPDATE (May 18th).
After several days checking for any other related literature, I see that John Stachel seems to have made a somewhat similar suggestion in:

- Stachel, J. 2002. "‘The relations between things’ versus ‘the things between relations’: The deeper meaning of the hole argument." In D. Malament (ed.), Reading Natural Philosophy: Essays in the History and Philosophy of Science and Mathematics. Chicago and LaSalle, IL: Open Court.

I haven't read this paper yet. Stachel's proposal is discussed in a very interesting 2006 article by Oliver Pooley,

- Pooley, O. 2006. "Points, Particles and Structural Realism", in D. Rickles, S. French & J. Saatsi (eds), The Structural Foundations of Quantum Gravity, Oxford University Press.

This is available here

[Pooley's paper contains a nice discussion of the way to categorically axiomatize a structure M by, in effect, taking the logical conjunction of its diagram (set of atomic sentences true in M, in a language L_M with a name for each domain element), adding all inequation clauses saying all the names denote distinct things and that they exhaust the domain, and then existentially quantifying the result. For an infinite structure, clearly this is an infinitary formula.]

Monday, May 4, 2009

Use of proxies in science

I am working on Chicago economics of the 1940s and 50s. One interesting methodological feature of the program is that it was eager to connect empirical-statistical research to theoretical development. This meant it was suspicious of (among other things) overly formal mathematical (general equilibrium) models and over reliance of econometric technique. Now when faced with the (large) gap between general theory and messy or theoretically malformed data, they did not turn (primarily) to modeling (the focus of much recent philosophy of science). Instead, the Chicago economists developed empirical proxy measures on a case by case basis. Obviously, the application and reliance of proxies involves many complications. Yet it seems to be a standard practice in science. (I am aware of use of proxies in 17th century physics and 18th century economics.) Now my question to readers of this blog is this: can anybody recommend any philosophical work on proxies? Anybody have any interesting ideas on proxies? I would be much obliged.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Obviously plenty of philosophers use history as a source in philosophy of science

But that does not mean HPS is alive and kicking. Let's distinguish between soft HPS, in which philosophers use history as 'data' or case studies for claims within philosophy of science, e.g. the standard uses of history in realism vs anti-realism debates. [Let's allow, for the sake of argument, that such uses of history are genuinely historical and not pseudo-history.]
Let's contrast this with hard HPS in which there is i) a historical way of knowing (think Lakatos, who was not much concerned with historical accuracy, or George Smith, who is very much concerned with historical accuracy); ii) a trans-historical way of knowing (think Kuhn, who privileged the historian's stance over that of the puzzle-solving scientist, or Foucault, who claimed to detect hidden epistemes unknown to the historical agents); iii) a genuinely historicist stance (sometimes associated with Laudan, but probably better associated with members of the Edinburgh School). Of course, there are/were blended versions of these three.
No doubt there are genuine HPS projects (Hasok Chang comes to mind) that don't fit this too neat division. My claim is that HPS has it source and animating drive in the varieties and debates of hard HPS (Hanson, Polanyi, Bachelard, etc). My claim in my previous post should have been that hard HPS is (almost?) dead.