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).