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.

Announcement: BSPS Doctoral Scholarship in Philosophy of Science

I am copying below an announcement from the British Society for the Philosophy of Science, which I hope will be of interest to some readers of this blog:

The British Society for the Philosophy of Science announces that it will be offering a scholarship for doctoral work in philosophy of science in a UK university (subject to a suitable candidate coming forward). The level of the award will be the same as that of AHRC funding and will cover fees and maintenance for three years. The BSPS award will not be awarded to anyone with another source of funding. Applicants must have applied for AHRC funding where eligible (either in the open studentship competition or via a block grant holder), and the BSPS scholarship will only be awarded when the
AHRC has informed candidates of its decisions. The closing date for applications is 1st August 2009. Applicants are responsible for ensuring that complete applications, including references, arrive by the deadline.

Applicants should send a curriculum vitae (no more than 2 sides of A4), an outline of the proposed research (no more than 500 words), evidence of an application to the AHRC or a statement explaining lack of eligibility, a statement testifying that they have no other source of funding, and evidence that they have been accepted onto an appropriate Ph.D. programme to the address below. They should also ask two academic referees to write directly to:

BSPS Doctoral Scholarship
Dr Rachel Cooper
Lancaster University


1. Where an applicant is already part way through their PhD the BSPS grant will be correspondingly reduced. (For example, an applicant who has already completed one year of study will receive a grant for two years).

2. In cases where applicants have minimal funding from other sources this will be made up to AHRC levels by the BSPS grant. (For example, an applicant who has a fees-only award from elsewhere would be eligible to apply for a maintenance grant from the BSPS.)

3. Applicants who are not eligible for AHRC funding are expected to have applied for any other sources of funding for which they are eligible. They should list the sources of funding that they have applied for in their application.

4. Incomplete applications, including those with missing references, will not be considered. I have had some requests for clarification regarding the requirement
that applicants should have applied to the AHRC where eligible. If you didn't apply to the AHRC because you missed the deadline you are not eligible to apply for BSPS funding. If you are in any of the following situations you are eligible to apply:
i.You have applied to the AHRC through the Open Competition
ii. You have applied to the AHRC via a block grant.
iii. The institution where you want to do your PhD holds a block grant
with philosophy awards for this year. However, your application didn't
get through their internal procedures for selecting applicants for
nomination to the AHRC.
iv. The institution where you want to do your PhD holds a block grant
but has no philosophy awards for this year (and so you cannot apply for
AHRC funding)

HPS Dead: the numbers and first stab at analysis

A few months ago, I reported that HPS is dead. (See here and here In exchanges, I recanted a bit.
But having just been at BSPS 2009 and looking over EPSA 2009's program, the situation is more dire than I imagined.
The hard numbers: at BSPS 2009, 3 (two on Newton, one on Darwin and Darwinism) out of 45 parallel sessions had a historical orientation. The situation is actually dire because none of these presenters are current or recent PhD students (whereas much of the excitement at BSPS comes from learning about fresh work), and two of these were educated at and influenced by Howard Stein of The University of Chicago in 1990s. Conclusion: British HPS has no discernible influence on British contemporary philosophy of science. Simon Saunders' plenary talk had a bit of a HPSy feel, but it was by no means a historical talk.
At upcoming EPSA, at most 15 out of 107 contributed papers have a historical slant (and several of these are 'meta' talks about the role history of science plays in contemporary debates about scientific realism); if it weren't for an abiding interest in Vienna Circle, the numbers would be much smaller. 2 out of 20 contributed symposia have, perhaps, a historical component (I recognized a few names, including a few papers by folks who appear to be double-dipping in the regular program).
Now, these numbers largely reflects the state of play in British philosophy (a major source of training of many of the best European philosophers of science); it has an alarming lack of interest/competence in pre-Fregean/Wittgensteinian philosophy in the analytic mainstream. This lack of interest carries over in lack of interest in HPS (history of philosophy and history of science overlaps a lot prior to 1900) Given that funding agencies in mainlaind Europe want European philosophers to emulate UK practices I expect this situation to accelerate.
At BSPS 2009 I enjoyed listening in on a conversation among folks from and trained at Leeds, LSE, and Oxbridge. The debates were good-natured and serious. Yet, if we leave aside concerns with so-called meta-induction argument, historical sensibility seems entirely absent. The community-wide narrow focus has many virtues, but the losses are also apparent to an outsider: there is a nearly complete lack of interest in issues concerning normativity of science and the politics of science (despite fact that medicine, psychology, and biology are major focus of case studies); feminist and pragmatist orientations are nowhere to be discerned. (I gave Anjan Chakravartty a hard time over his treatment of Arthur Fine in his keynote at BSPS.)
The worst aspect of the demise of HPS (in conjunction with broader sociological trends) is, I fear, that the 'cult of progress' will get an even tighter grip on philosophers' imagination. Accelerated and more specialized PhDs and specialist faculty in PhD granting programs will remove from the discipline any semblance of historical self-awareness and much needed skeptical self-criticism.
I regret not being able to change this tide by joining the department at Aberdeen, where next to a stellar analytic ML&E program a potentially terrific HPS program is being assembled with recent hires (Gaukroger, Catherine Wilson, Guido BacciaGaluppi, Mogens Laerke, and Ulrich Steegman). But more about that some other time.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Does Bayes' Theorem Have Any Special Epistemological Significance?

Bayesian epistemologists seem to think that Bayes' theorem (BT) has some special epistemological significance. Let's assume that BT provides us with a synchronic constraint on the coherence of one's degrees of belief (it tells us that whatever our degrees of beliefs in H, E, H given E, and E given H are at time t they have to be related so that Pr(H|E)t=(Pr(H)tPr(E|H)t)/Pr(E)t) and that synchronc coherence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for epistemic rationality. So far nothing epistemologically special about BT--every other theorem or axiom of probability theory also provides us with such a synchronic constraint.

Supposedly, however, BT does more than just that--it also tells us how to "conditionalize on new evidence". What I don't understand is how it is supposed to do so. As far as I can see, the theorem only tells us that the conditional probability of H given E, (Pr(H|E)t) is equal to (Pr(H)tPr(E|H)t)/Pr(E)t but this is only the old synchronic constraint again. It is only if we assume that, in observing that E, our degree of belief in H (Pr(H)t+1) becomes identical to our previous degree of belief in H given E (Pr(H|E)t) (i.e. if we assume that Pr(E)t+1=1 and Pr(H|E)t+1=Pr(H|E)t) that we can use BT to find out what that degree of belief was equal to. But then if this is the case BT in and of itself does not tell us what our degree of belief in H should be after the evidence is in. It only tell us what our degree of belief in Pr(H|E)t had to be before the new evidence was in.

Can someone please show me the error of my ways? Why do Bayesian epistemologists assume that BT plays any different role from that of other axioms of probability? In what sense it is providing us with anything other than a synchornic constraint on our degrees of belief?

Is Ladyman recanting?

James Ladyman was supposed to give a plenary session (with Anjan Chakravartty) at the most recent BSPS on Tuesday. Sadly he could not deliver it in person; he was ill with swineflu and told to stay at home by authorities; I hope you feel better soon, James!
Steven French was kind enough to deliver Ladyman's talk (which exists as powerpoint slides). It sounded like Ladyman is recanting on some of the crucial issues in chapter 1 of *Every Thing Must* Go (discussed below). (Pressed in Q&A, French said Ladyman "has mellowed".") In particular, I wrote a few weeks ago: "1C: Many of their arguments against far-fetched metaphysics may also be directed at topics in mathematics (the vast majority?) that have no hope of ever being applied to our world. Why can't we be tolerant of a priori metaphysics in the same way we are tolerant of much of mathematics?" To me the new, mature Ladyman agrees with this now. If Ladyman now has a principle of tolerance, much of the polemic bite of the book disappears. Perhaps French misunderstood Ladyman, or I French/Ladyman.
Anyway, I hope to return to my running comments soon.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Draft: Scientific Models and Representation

For those interested, I have uploaded the penultimate draft of my entry on scientific models and representation for The Continuum Companion to the Philosophy of Science (edited by fellow blogger Steven French and Juha Saatsi). (You can get a copy of it here)

The piece is meant to be a user-friendly introduction to this very interesting but somewhat baffling topic. As usual, comments (either here or by e-mail) are greatly appreciated.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Pincock on Colyvan on the "Easy Road" to Nominalism

Chris (Pincock) has a post that I think will be of interest to many readers of this blog.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Conference: Newton and Empiricism (Pittsburgh, 10-11 April 2010)

Of interest to some readers of this blog:

Newton and Empiricism

Center for Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh

10-11 April 2010

Invited Speaker: Lisa Downing (Ohio State)

Program Committee: Zvi Biener (Western Michigan University), J. E. McGuire (University of Pittsburgh), and Eric Schliesser (University of Leiden)

Call for papers

Isaac Newton and John Locke are sometimes portrayed as dual fathers of the British Enlightenment, with Newton providing the exemplar of human knowledge and Locke providing the philosophical infrastructure required for understanding the merit and reach of that exemplar. Yet their union was neither simple nor unchallenged. Newton’s empiricism developed while defending and revising his Principia against philosophical critique, and Locke’s hospitability to Newtonian gravity and realization of Newton’s achievement developed through successive drafts of the Essay and other texts. Moreover, similar complexity exists in the work of Newton’s and Locke’s intellectual heirs. This conference will focus on the compatibility and incompatibility, tensions, and developing relations between Newton, Locke, and their successors in Newtonianism and Empiricism.

The conference will take place on 10-11 April 2010 at the Center for Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh. Possible conference participants should note that Catherine Wilson (University of Aberdeen) will deliver an Annual Lecture Series talk for the Center for Philosophy of Science on the afternoon of 9 April 2010. Conference participants are encouraged to attend.

Partial travel stipends will be available for young scholars, who are highly encouraged to submit abstracts.

The deadline for submitting abstracts (of approximately 750 words) is 1 December 2009. Email submissions are highly encouraged and can be sent to Zvi Biener at If you do not receive confirmation of receipt of your abstract within a week, please resubmit or contact the organizers.

For updates, visit the Center Web site: