Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Review of Depth.

Speaking of TiLPs, Stephan Hartmann and our very own Jonah N. Schupbach (Pitt) have a recent review of Michael Strevens, *Depth: An Account of Scientific Explanation*, Harvard UP, 2008, at NDPR: http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=20248
Because I have not read the book it's hard to say how fair the review is. At 500 pages the book is a bit daunting to start (and being committed to funky causes, I am not very receptive of mono-accounts of causation). Nevertheless, I was struck that the reviews' objections are both methodological in character rather than substantive.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Cool interview with TiLPS

Jan Willem Romeyn (Groningen) has a very nice interview with the folks at TilPs (Tilburg) in the latest issue of the reasoner:
The interview very nicely showcases one of the leading groups in philosophy of science in the Low Countries.
My only (extremely minor) kvetch is that I would have loved to see a bit more critical examination by Jan Willem of the choice of (and justification for) Bayesianism as the preferred "general [or "theoretical"] framework" at TiLPs.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Two conferences of possible interest:

For those who happen to be hanging around the old Austro-Hungarian Empire during the next few days:

Hopos 2010 in Budapest:

Carnap Conference (June 28-9) in Vienna:

Friday, June 18, 2010

A few other reflections on Dorr's review of Ladyman & Ross

Last week I blogged a bit about Cian Dorr's review of Ladyman & Ross http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=19947.

I had a few more reflections:
1. At one point in his review Dorr writes, "If anyone can ever succeed in explaining category theory in a way that the larger philosophical community can understand"
I think a text that does this exists: Steve Awodey's (aptly named) Category Theory (OUP, 2006).

My remaining comments are about Dorr's concluding *Apologia* for analytic metaphysics.
2. Dorr writes, "Opening up some works of analytic metaphysics, the authors found a lot of arguments they didn't like. They concluded that they had nothing to learn from this tradition, and went on to write a book of metaphysics that is largely uninfluenced by anything written in mainstream metaphysics from the last forty years. But in focusing only on the arguments, they have missed what is best and most distinctive about the tradition they set themselves against: its gradual raising of the standards of clarity and explicitness in the statement of metaphysical claims. It is this, rather than any supposed consensus about the appropriate methods of argument, that constitutes analytic metaphysics's strongest claim to be part of the story of the advance of human knowledge."
There can be no doubt that Dorr is right to say that L&R attempted to bypass contemporary metaphysics and in doing so missed out on some important virtues.
I was amused to see, however, that Dorr's defense of contemporary metaphysics, (which echoes a claim made in a very illuminating review of L&R by Kathleen Hawley, http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~kjh5/OnlinePapers/EveryThingMustGoReview.pdf), *turns not on the arguments or its progress toward truth*, but rather on the raising of standards of clarity and explicitness. This is very much in the spirit of David Lewis (who only gets mentioned in a footnote by Dorr), who had taught that we can get clear on the costs and benefits of certain metaphysical moves (see his lovely underrated methodological dialogue with Stephanie Lewis, Holes). Yet, it echoes the claim by the Scholastics against the philosophical newcomers of the 17th century. Compared to the sophisticated distinctions and clarifications of the Scholastics, Descartes and Galileo and the other "new philosophers" were really philosophical amateurs (and objectively lowered the standards of philosophical argument as anyone who has looked at Suarez can tell you). (Hawley, incidentally, defends analytic metaphysics for its neo-scholastic virtues--this seems to me the most promising and also most credible approach.)

3. Dorr continues "Ironically, analytic metaphysicians have been much more gripped by the kinds of concern that motivated Hume and the positivists than are the authors of Every Thing Must Go. Much of what is distinctive about the analytic way of doing metaphysics is meant to guard against the danger that we might accidentally lapse into nonsense, or launch into disputes that turn out to be merely verbal. This explains the focus, dominant since Quine, on theses that can be stated using familiar everyday words ('there are no numbers', 'everything with more than one part is alive', and so on). When analytic metaphysicians do introduce technical vocabulary without defining it explicitly in ordinary terms, their approach tends to be tentative and defensive: they propose logical constraints on the new vocabulary, and attempt to draw connections between it and questions expressed in more familiar terms, in the hopes of thereby imposing enough discipline on its use to fend off the charge of unintelligibility. This applies, in particular, to discussions about the "fundamental" and the "derivative". Concerned that such discussions have, in the past, come unmoored from any standards of meaningfulness -- most notoriously, in the work of the British Idealists to which Russell and Moore were reacting (and which, interestingly, has many echoes in Every Thing Must Go) -- metaphysicians who are willing to talk in these terms at all have attempted to impose some discipline, by requiring those who want to claim that X is more fundamental than Y to describe an adequately expressive language for talking about X without mentioning Y. In the work of philosophers as disparate as Russell, Carnap, Prior, Armstrong and Fine, this constraint has been enormously fruitful: it has given us a much more fine-grained understanding of the range of possible views about the fundamental nature of the world, and of the challenges they face."
This paragraph is full of quite breathtaking even ironical historical claims. A) If by "positivists" Dorr means either Comte and his followers or (more likely) the Logical Positivists of the Vienna Circle then much of contemporary metaphysics runs afoul of the verificationist and scientistic commitments of both movements. B) Much contemporary scholarship has tried to read as a kind of naturalist, but I agree with Don Baxter that Hume was a genuine metaphysician. But Hume wished to constrain his metaphysics by considerations of utility (just read his Introduction to the Treatise and his criticism of the false claim to exactness by geometry) in order to improve the human sciences, and I don't think that by those lights much contemporary metaphysics will pass muster. C) Note how Dorr links L&R with the failings of the British Idealists. I do wonder if Dorr has gone back to the British Idealists to see if they really are as unintelligible (as our analytic founding mythology maintains). D) Dorr is right to say that a wide variety of analytic philosophers have explored the technical details and characteristics of formal languages. But the question is has this really "given us a much more fine-grained understanding of the range of possible views about the fundamental nature of the world"? Why think that? Here there is a commitment (inherited, by the way, from the Idealists) that somehow the study of the structure of language has anything to teach about the range of ways in which the world can be. But (ever since Locke) if the history of physics has taught us anything, it is that the world keeps surprising us in ways that force us to develop (or deploy) ever new (and stranger) languages. (Call this my pessimistic meta induction about the very possibility of characterizing the fundamental language.)

Finally, Dorr concludes with the following:
4. "Alas, the alienated approach of Every Thing Must Go seems likely, if it has any effect at all on analytic metaphysicians, merely to confirm a few more of them in their impression that no one has yet shown how developments in the sciences might be relevant to their concerns."
I was a bit amazed by this last claim because there have been quite a few people (several of them contributors to this blog) who have embraced a project along the lines of the metaphysics of science or issues in causation. Moreover, there has been quite lively analytic literature in the philosophy of space/time that deals with recognizably metaphysical questions. So this made me wonder what the "concerns" are that Dorr is alluding to? For, the whole point of L&R's project is to claim that if metaphysical concerns are not in some way responsive to (or motivated by) the sciences then they are not really worthy of interest. Now I have criticized L&R for this dogmatism on this blog before. But contemporary metaphysicians often want it both ways: on the one hand they appeal to scientific virtues of various sort and claim to be studying a topic that relates to "the fundamental nature of the world," yet, on the other hand, when scientifically informed criticism arises they claim it is irrelevant to their (unspecified) "concerns." (Again, I think Hawley meets that challenge in her review.)

Okay, this went on too long, alas.

Monday, June 14, 2010

‘What is HPS for?’ 28-29 June 2010

Fifth Joint Workshop on Integrated History and Philosophy of Science
ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society
Byrne House, University of Exeter

The event is free and open to all, however we would be grateful if you could register in advance to give us an idea of the numbers. To register, contact Egenis secretary Laura Dobb (l.c.dobbATexeter.ac.uk). All information about travel, accommodation, student funding and the programme can be found on the workshop webpage: http://www.genomicsnetwork.ac.uk/egenis/events/workshops/title,23542,en.html

Monday 28 June
12:30 – 13:45 Lunch
13:45 – 14:00 Welcome and introduction
14:00 – 15:30 Session 1: Complementary science. Chair: Sabina Leonelli
14:00 - 14:20 Hasok Chang (UCL) on ‘complementary science’
14:20 – 15:00 Comments by Gregory Radick (Leeds), Robin Hendry (Durham) and John Dupré (Exeter)
15:00 – 15:30 General discussion
15:30 – 16:00 Coffee break
16:00 – 18:00 Session 2: What is HPS for? Chair: Staffan Mueller-Wille
16:00-16:20 Graeme Gooday (Leeds) "How an HPS perspective can help in the present controversies over intellectual property"
16:20-16:40 Pierre Olivier Méthot (Exeter) "HPS as Conceptual History: the Case of Virulence and its Relation to Disease"
16:40-17:00 Rachel Dunn (Durham) "Best of Both Worlds: Why HPS Matters"
17:00-17:20 Sorin Bangu (Cambridge) 'Reducing Thermodynamics to Statistical Mechanics - an HPS perspective'
17:20-17:40 Josipa Petrunic (UCL) "Can HPS focus usefully on failed physics/mathematics?"
17:40-18:00 General Discussion
Drinks and dinner downtown

Tuesday 29 June
9:00 - 10:30 Session 3: Pluralism: Pros and Cons. Chair: John Dupré
9:00-9:20 Maria Kon (Leeds) "What's Wrong with Pluralism, in Metaethics and (maybe) Philosophy of Science Too"
9:20-9:40 Ian Kidd (Durham) "Is it Intellectually Virtuous to be an Epistemic Pluralist?"
9:40- 10:00 Catherine Kendig and Chiara Ambrosio (UCL) "Pluralism in investigative inquiry: lessons from Buffon and Peirce"
10:00-10:30 Stephen John (Cambridge) "Is pluralism too promiscuous for policy? The case of discrimination"
10:30 – 11:00 Coffee break
11:00 – 12:30 Session 4: Making HPS Relevant Through Teaching. Chair: Hasok Chang
11:00-11:20 Peter Vickers (Leeds) "Science Cross-Examined: HPS as Courtroom Drama"
11:20-11:40 Brendan Clarke (UCL) "Teaching and making mechanisms"
11:40-12:00 Dan Nicholson (Exeter) “Teaching the Philosophy of Biology”
12:00-12:30 General Discussion
12:30 Lunch

Friday, June 11, 2010

Cian Dorr on Every Thing Must Go

Cian Dorr just reviewed Ladyman and Ross (et al), *Every Thing Must Go* at: http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=19947

Not surprisingly, he spends much time on chapter 1 (in which analytic metaphysics is attacked), especially on the 'Principle of Naturalistic Closure' (PNC). [It echoes one of the criticisms I made on this blog: http://itisonlyatheory.blogspot.com/2009/11/even-more-on-chapter-1-of-every-thing.html) Dorr then moves to challenging L&R, and offers the following gloss on the methodology of analytic metaphysics:

"To the extent that analytic metaphysicians have been willing to engage in debates about ontological priority, their substantive conclusions have been wildly divergent. If there is any consensus, it is merely that those who want to defend claims about ontological priority should articulate these claims in a certain kind of detail. It is not enough simply to announce that Xs are more fundamental than Ys: if I want to defend this claim, I am supposed, at a minimum, to (i) introduce a language in which I can talk about Xs without even seeming to talk about Ys; and (ii) make some kind of adequacy claim about this language, e.g., that it can express all the genuine facts that we can express using Y-talk, or that all the Y-facts supervene on the facts stateable in the language. For example, if I want to maintain that spacetime is less fundamental than the spatiotemporal relations between bodies, I must describe a language for characterizing these relations, and explain how it can adequately capture, e.g., claims about the global topological structure of spacetime.
The authors do not submit to this discipline in any sustained way."

So, far so good. (It is nice to see the linguistic turn defended so nicely.) Dorr then moves to offering (quite elegantly) four different possible ways of characterizing possible positions that might have been available to L&R. He then points out the moral of his analysis: "But one cannot simply announce that such disputes are to be dissolved: one must earn the right to do so by describing a fundamental language within which no corresponding questions can be formulated"

Dorr has moved from the non-trivial (but eminently defensible) methodological demand that metaphysical claims be made in a clear language to the more strict claim that one must formulate the properties of a fundamental language before one can rule out certain questions (and views). Now, the pluralist in me likes this incredibly high demand because it probably means very few questions can ever be ruled out of philosophy. But against Ladyman & Ross this move is begging the question because why would they have to accept that meta-philosophical [sic] questions need to be settled by appeal to a (hypothetical) fundamental language? It is especially unfair because in analytic metaphysics the deployment of fundamental language is generally used to articulate views that are dogmatically realist (without having to take the philosophy and history of science seriously at all [recall the debates on this blog: http://itisonlyatheory.blogspot.com/2009/11/metaphysics-and-general-philosophy-of.html ) while L&R are, in part, motivated by taking pessimistic meta-induction argument seriously.

There is more to be said about both Dorr's criticism and his defense of analytic metaphysics. Maybe later.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Call for Proposals: Experiment Month

The Experiment Month initiative is a program designed to help philosophers conduct experimental studies. If you are interested in running a study, you can send your study proposal to the Experiment Month staff. Then, if your proposal is selected for inclusion, we will conduct the study online, send you the results and help out with any statistical analysis you may need. All proposals are due Sept. 1.

For further information, see the Experiment Month website.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Can We Derive Aesthetic Norms from Biology?

Suppose that X is an evolutionary adaptation. Can one infer, prima facie, that it is good? The consensus in philosophy is that one cannot. Reflecting on Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct made me reconsider.

Here, in very schematic form, is the argument that cuts against the consensus:

1. Suppose that X is an adaptation to circumstances C. (E.g: the heart is an adaptation to the need for oxygenated blood throughout the body.)

2. From a scientific account that shows why X is an adaptation, we can (usually?) derive a function-attribution of the form: F is a function of X. (E.g.: oxygenation and pumping of blood are functions of the heart.)

3. If F is a function of X, and A is an X that does not perform F, then A is a bad X. (E.g.: a heart that doesn’t pump and oxygenate blood properly is a bad heart.)

Suppose that some human practices are adaptations. Specifically, suppose that art is one. Then by 2 above we may conclude that art has a function. Suppose that work of art A does not perform that function. Then, by 3 above, work of art A is deficient.

Dutton (who does not give the above argument) argues that an evolutionary account of art would be a source of critical norms. The above argument supports him.

I want to emphasize that the conclusion of the above argument is defeasible. It could be argued that art acquires new functions as human culture grows. If so, works that fall short of the evolutionary functions of art may nevertheless be good. My question is whether conclusions drawn from 3 are prima facie correct.

(Interactions with Dutton and Justine Kingsbury prompted this post.)