Thursday, July 29, 2010

Integrated History and Philosophy of Science (&HPS3), IU Bloomington, Sept 23-26

This September 23-26, the Indiana University Department of History and
Philosophy of Science (Bloomington) will host a three day conference on “Integrated
History and Philosophy of Science.” This is the third in a series of
meetings devoted to the topic, and it coincides with the fiftieth
anniversary of the Indiana HPS Department. The paper topics range from a
discussion of seventeenth-century comet theory to history and philosophy
of contemporary embryology. For complete information on the conference,
including the program, abstracts of papers, and details on lodging, go

Questions can be directed to:
Jutta Schickore
Amit Hagar
Bill Newman

Friday, July 23, 2010

Anjan Chakravartty on Brian Ellis, The Metaphysics of Scientific Realism, 2009,

A recurring theme on this blog is the relationship between (general) philosophy of science and contemporary (analytic) metaphysics. For those interested in the topic, the following review by Anjan Chakravartty of Brian Ellis, The Metaphysics of Scientific Realism, 2009, might be of interest:
The review appeared a few weeks ago, but it fell between the cracks.

I was quite taken by these lines:
"The need for ontological explanations of this sort, exemplifying metaphysical necessitation no less, is not universally accepted among philosophers of science, and Ellis does not defend this need in the face of alternative (for example, empiricist and pragmatist) approaches to scientific knowledge. The motivation for the project of the book must, therefore, be taken as preaching to the already converted."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Academic altruism

A bunch of lines in this review caught my attention:
"In The Price of Altruism Oren Harman reiterates this reality, but, importantly he emphasizes that Price felt that it was Hamilton alone in all the world who had perceived the equation’s nature upon first encountering it. The back story, which is told in Narrow Roads of Gene Land, is that George Price had difficulty in getting his papers in this area published because the referees simply did not see the implications. Hamilton, perceiving the importance of Price’s ideas, connived to gain publication by making his own work conditional on the acceptance of Price’s paper (which he cited). As Hamilton already had a reputation the game worked."

Anybody else know comparable examples of academic altruism in the world of science? (I am not interested in supervisors helping their students--kin selection is out.)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

On being a science warrior

This is my first contribution to IOaT, and I am thrilled to have been invited. Philosophy of science is a new discipline to me, having crossed over from evolutionary biology during the past few years. Indeed, this first post is about how interesting (and somewhat puzzling) it is to be considered too much of a scientist by my new colleagues in philosophy, and too much of a philosopher by my old ones in the sciences. I also feel a bit awkward writing a sort of defense of a review (actually two) of my recent book, Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. Then again, that was the original reason I was invited to write here, so I’ll try to get over my own embarrassment and make what follows not about me but about a general point that I do think deserves discussion.
In a recent review of the book in the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, Barry Barnes accuses me of being a “science warrior,” echoing another negative review penned (keyboarded?) by Carlin Romano in the Chronicle of Higher Education, where the term used was “science patriot.” (In case you are wondering, there are in fact positive reviews of the book, for instance here, here, and here.) What both authors vehemently objected to was my apparently uncompromising attitude of defense of science at all costs, and “cocksure hubris” (Romano) in criticizing certain notions as bunk or, as the Bentham-inspired title of the book puts it, nonsense on stilts.
This struck me as rather strange for two reasons. On the one hand, the entire idea of the book is that the famous demarcation problem introduced by Popper — how to tell science from non-science and pseudoscience — is in fact immensely complicated, not the least of which because science itself is a heterogeneous enterprise with its own history of blunders (this is the part that ruffles the feathers of some of my scientistic colleagues, like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne). I should clarify at this point that the book is aimed at the general public, not professional philosophers, and that a major goal of it is to help people appreciate how science and philosophy can work together to provide us with the best understanding of a huge variety of issues that are actually pertinent to our personal lives or to society at large (e.g., the non-existing connection between vaccines and autism, “skepticism” of climate change, and denial of the HIV-AIDS connection, to name a few).
On the other hand, just because the science-non science-pseudoscience landscape is complicated it doesn’t mean that the extremes aren’t easy to spot. Fundamental physics and evolutionary biology are solid sciences, no matter what some misguided philosophers may think of the latter. That is why, to Romano’s horror, I called Bruno Latour to task for his rather silly essay on Einstein’s relativity (where it’s clear that he doesn’t actually understand the theory), or I criticized Paul Feyerabend for cheering creationists at the time of a temporary legal victory in California. By the same token, I classify as bunk (apparently to Barnes’ astonishment) a wide variety of notions ranging from astrology to ufology to intelligent design. In doing all the above, however, I actually provide reasons for the reader to understand why some ideas really do belong to the trash heap of history at the same time that judgment about other ideas needs to be held in check until better understanding and more facts will come along.
What I think is important here is to try to stir a course that keeps us as far as possible from the Scylla of scientism (the uncritical and hubristic promotion of science as the only form of worthwhile knowledge) and the Charybdis of extreme postmodernism (the equally uncritical attitude that all knowledge is socially constructed to the extent that — as Feyerabend put it — society should balance scientists with “magicians, or priests, or astrologers.” And yes, I am aware that Feyerabend actually preceded the postmodern wave and the science wars).
I think philosophers of science have crucial roles to play, both within academia itself and in the public arena. We are generally sympathetic to science and understand its power and importance to society. But we are also well positioned to be critical of science’s excesses because of our understanding of its methodologies and assumptions, as well as appreciation of its nonlinear history. This makes philosophy an ideal bridge between C.P. Snow’s “two cultures,” an invaluable asset not just to scholarship, but to public welfare as well.
Yet, serious philosophy of science also comes with the intellectual integrity to call a spade a spade. Creationism, astrology, ufology and the like really are bunk, and we should make no bones about labeling them as such. Reason and empirical investigations into the nature of things surely have limits, and arguably nobody understands those limits better than philosophers of science. But we cannot pretend that we live in a world where the highest danger is too much reason. Barnes rightly notes (though not in a positive light) that for me “this [the separation of science from pseudoscience] is a moral problem and not simply a technical or aesthetic one: belief in science is conducive to our good, whereas belief in non-science or pseudoscience, of which instances are worryingly abundant, is conducive to harm and has to be opposed.” Not quite what I said. I am not advocating belief in science, but understanding and appreciation of science, of which there is far too little in our society. And yes, belief in pseudoscience is indeed harmful, and sometimes lethal — just look at the millions of people in Africa who don’t believe that HIV causes AIDS, or the millions of American parents who are not going to vaccinate their children on the unfounded fear that they will develop autism.
This isn’t science warfare or patriotism, it simply is taking seriously our intellectual and ethical duties as philosophers and human beings.

Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science

Philosophy of science in action!
A great, technical debate is unfolding on Andrew Gelman's blog about different statistical techniques in the social sciences:

It started here:
Then went on here:
And continued here:
Heavy hitters are involved, and I think it is useful for philosophers to see the statisticians trying to articulate the virtues of their favored approaches...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

CfP: Philosophy and Theory in Biology

Philosophy & Theory in Biology, an online open access journal devoted to bringing together the philosophy of science and theoretical biology communities, seeks submissions for two special ongoing features: Trends and Crosstalk. "Trends" are in depth review (as opposed to original scholarship) papers on topics of current interest within the areas covered by the journal, while "Crosstalk" entries provide technical yet accessible articles written by biologists on topics of interest to philosophers, or by philosophers on topics of interest to biologists.

Submissions for ideas for Trends or Crosstalk papers can be sent to, and more information about the journal (including how to submit regular papers and book essays) can be found at

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Eugenics and Scientific Philosophy

Recently the economist David M. Levy called my attention to Stephen Heathorn's very interesting (2005) "Explaining Russell's Eugenic Discourse in the 1920s," Russell: the Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies: Vol. 25: Iss. 2, Article 4. (It criticizes Ray Monk's biography of Russell for claiming that Russell's interest in eugenics can be best explained by Russell's biography rather than, say, the intellectual currents of the time.) The piece is available at:
Given my long-standing interest in the shared history of economics and philosophy, I should not have been surprised by Russell's flirt with eugenics in *Marriage and Morals* (1929). (Just the other day I was reading Berkeley's *The Querist*, and was amazed and saddened to find him advocate breeding in the context of many other social and progressive reforms of the Irish economy.) After all, many of the leading scientific lights of many political stripes (progressive reformers and social conservatives alike) endorsed eugenics before World War II. (The dissenting voices should not be overlooked, of course!) But this made me wonder how many of the other founders of "scientific philosophy," especially in the Vienna Circle, endorsed or opposed eugenics. Any leads most welcome!

Sociologist of Science vs the Philosopher of Science

An entertainingly critical review of Massimo Pigliucci, *Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk*, U of Chicago Press, 2010, by the sociologist of science Barry Barnes.
It would be fun to hear from readers who have read the book.
I have wondered if the demarcation problem is making a come-back (witness the popular interest in Frankfurt and Lynch).

Friday, July 2, 2010

Call for Papers: HOPOS: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science

HOPOS: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science, seeks to publish the highest-quality scholarship concerning the history of philosophical discussions about science. The first issue will be published Spring 2011.
For submission guidelines and further information, go to
The history of philosophy of science is broadly construed to include topics in the history of related disciplines, in all time periods, and all geographical areas, using diverse methodologies. HOPOS scholarship is firmly concerned with situating philosophical understandings of science within the broader historical and philosophical settings in which they were developed, and against the backdrop of mainstream issues in philosophical thought, covering epistemological, methodological, metaphysical, and moral issues relevant to the growth of our knowledge of the world and human nature.

The journal aims to:
* provide an outlet for interdisciplinary work
* increase the already unusually high level of participation of scholars from Europe and elsewhere in the history of the philosophy of science * raise the level of work in the history of philosophy of science publishing scholarship that helps to explain the links among philosophy, science, and mathematics, along with the social, economic, and political context, which is indispensable for a genuine understanding of the history of philosophy.
Each issue will contain a minimum of four articles (with a flexible length requirement) and 10 to 15 (1500 word) book reviews. Every year we will publish an extensive review of the recent scholarship in a growing area of our field, such as that being done on the history of the Vienna Circle, the history of Logical Empiricism in America, or the history of the emergence of modern philosophical arguments concerning scientific methodology in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Articles are blind reviewed by two or three referees.

The journal does not limit submissions to members of the International Society for the History of the Philosophy of Science. Scholars from all related disciplines are encouraged to submit to the journal.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

On Pythagorean structures and Summer musings

The Leiter Report has been abuzz with discussion about the Pythogorean structures discerned within Plato's texts by Jay Kennedy, a scholar with HPS background. (For the discussion and further links, see:

This post and the links associated with it brought back wonderful memories to one of my undergraduate teachers at Tufts University, the noted Milton scholar Michael Fixler (1928-2007), who was a well known character on campus and around the philosophy department. Fixler was near retirement when I took his seminars on Milton, the Metaphysical poets, and Wallace Stevens with him--all these courses were extended commentaries on Plato (and his role in Derrida, then very popular among English professors much to Fixler's annoyance). At the time Fixler's abiding interest were structures encoded in poetry. In particular, he would call attention to how the *Phaedrus, *Symposium*, and the *Republic* deploy and thematize Pythagorean threefold and fourfold structures that were discerned and transformed by later poets (and, I should add, philosophers). [In that context the opening line of the Timaeus becomes a wonderful joke.] At his death he was still working on three (of course!) enormous books on the topic.

Anyway, As a scholar I sometimes bump into these Pythagorean structures and games, especially in Early Modern Alchemists and natural philosophers with Platonizing tendencies (Kepler most famously). For example, I am probably not the first to have noticed that Newton's Lemma 2 and Scholium (of Book 2, section 2), in which he discusses the calculus in the Principia (it's also the place where he states that he had discussed this earlier with Leibniz in the form of a concealed anagram [something removed in the third edition of the Principia!]), are placed exactly in the middle of the book, if this is measured by numbered Theorems.

Now, I am slowly getting to the point. Christian Huygens had a youthful (Keplerian) flirt with neo-Platonism, especially because after his discovery of Titan he thought the number of potential planets was limited on mathematical grounds. While Huygens quickly learned the error of his ways, I am convinced that Spinoza had him in mind when he wrote that "Indeed there are philosophers who have persuaded themselves that the motions of the heavens produce a [mathematical] harmony" (Appendix 1, Ethics). A century later Huygens would still be explicitly lampooned for his Platonism in Colin MacLaurin's influential Account of Sir Isaac Newton's Discoveries (a text well known to Hume, Adam Smith, and Maxwell).

Recently, I noticed that if we establish the middle of the Principia by the middle proposition of the middle book (that is the propositions in section 6 of book 2), we find a marvelous set of propositions about isochronous simple pendulums in resisting media. (These should not be confused with the propositions in section 10 of book 1, where Pythagorean theorem is used to prove crucial aspects of the properties of an oscillating pendulum which are crucial to Newton's ability to recover and use Galileo's and Huygens' results.) It made me wonder if the placement of these propositions wasn't Newton's Pythagorean homage to Huygens (whom he praises throughout the Principia). After all, Huygens wrote the book on the pendulum.

Anyway, somebody who did se the connection between Plato's pythagoreanism and the Huygens pendulum, is Robert Pirsig (of Zen and motorcycles Fame). Just check out page 301 of his second novel *Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals*. It was a passage that Fixler much appreciated. Anyway, all of this has been explored more elegantly and seriously by Umberto Eco in Foucault's Pendulum, so my time is up here.