Tuesday, August 17, 2010

CFP: Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science


Presented by the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Toronto
and the Fishbein Center for the History of Science and Medicine, University of Chicago

13-15 May 2011
University of Toronto

The philosophy of science has an illustrious history of attraction and antipathy towards metaphysics. The latter was famously exemplified in the Logical Positivist contention that metaphysical questions are meaningless, but in the wake of the demise of Positivism, metaphysics has found its way back into the philosophy of science. Increasingly, questions about the nature of natural laws, kinds, dispositions, and so on have taken a metaphysical cast. The metaphysics of science commands significant attention in contemporary philosophy.

While many philosophers embrace the increased contact between metaphysics and the philosophy of science, others are wary. Should science (and its philosophical study) lead us into doing metaphysics? If so, which metaphysical issues are genuine and which are illusory, and how might we tell? Such questions dovetail with similar soul-searching in metaphysics proper (sometimes under the banner of "meta-metaphysics", sometimes simply as methodology).

This conference will examine ground-level debates about metaphysics within the philosophy of physics and the philosophy of biology as well as broader methodological questions about the role of metaphysics in the philosophy of science. Participation is open and welcome from all parties to these questions: from those who hold that metaphysics must have a place within the philosophy of science, to those who hold it should not.

Craig Callender (University of California, San Diego)
Anjan Chakravartty (University of Toronto)
Katherine Hawley (University of St. Andrews)
Jenann Ismael (University of Arizona)
James Ladyman (University of Bristol)
Kyle Stanford (University of California, Irvine)
Michael Strevens (New York University)
Robert Wilson (University of Alberta)
C. Kenneth Waters (Minnesota)


Essays of 4,000-5,000 words (30 minutes allotted for presentations) concerning any aspect of metaphysics and the natural or social sciences will be accepted for review until January 10, 2011. Please include a short abstract (200 words or so), a few keywords, prepare your essayfor blind review (do not include your name or other identifying references in the document), and submit it in PDF format here.

Science and Policy: Deforestation

Regular readers of this blog know that I do this more for myself than for you. Is there any handier, searchable, linkable way to keep track of the things I come across which might someday make useful handouts, references or exercises to use in my teaching?

Using the blog in this way is an idea I got from Rob Loftis, whose blog also files away his teaching ideas and notes from the AAPT conferences. I think I'll modify this one to use in my Intro to Philosophy class this fall, and I've thought about--but never actually stolen--his exercises on Twelve Angry Men.


Last time I taught Environmental Philosophy, we spent a week talking about deforestation at the end of the course. It's a messy environmental/economic issue that offered an opportunity to review and integrate a number of the theoretical topics from earlier in the course. To provide background, I assigned this New Yorker article about illegal logging. Now, a news story that gives a swift update.

In essence, illegal logging may have decreased in the past decade (by 22% globally). That would be good news. But, then again, if no one has any idea how much timber is passing from the tropics and Siberia into China, then how can this report be accurate?

Science and Policy: Climate

Sometimes when teaching about the ethics of climate change, I hope to find a really short but authoritative newspaper article to give students. I like them to see some figures about the magnitude of climate change and to get an idea about the effects of global warming in terms that are easy to understand.

Here is a one-page news article from the AAAS, describing the contents of the latest NRC report.

The closest the committee comes to a policy recommendation is to point out the magnitude of the challenge. "Emissions reductions larger than about 80%, relative to whatever peak global emissions rate may be reached, are required to approximately stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations," it observes.

The paragraph sounds critical. Is such restraint from recommending specific policy choices required by objectivity, professional respect for policy-makers, common sense, or good taste?

On the one hand, a report focused on science should not make recommendations that can't be justified within the space given. So a recommendation for a cap-and-trade policy, or a rejection of a tax on emissions, or an expressed preference for investing more heavily in the development of tidal power, would certainly be beyond the scope of the report. On the other hand, reports, like journal articles, are rhetorical devices and are structured so that it is clear which parts are descriptive and which prescriptive. Other NRC reports have not shied away from offering prescriptions for change in education, in medical practice, and in other policy areas. There is no good reason the NRC couldn't maintain neutrality with regard to specific alternative energy development policies and conservation policies without offering much stronger verbal support that more needs to be done. Much, much more.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

David Hull

I'll remember David Hull for the support he showed to young philosophers and for the fierce and unwavering loyalty he had for his friends, who were many. Talking to David allowed one to make a molehill out of any mountain. Problems could be figured out, deconstructed, detoured around, or walked right over. The size of a problem did not discourage him from taking it on, even when doing so required 600 pages or decades of activism.

John Wilkins, at Evolving Thoughts, has posted a memorial note and a description of David's philosophical work and its impact.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Scientific Communities and Equality of Authority

Philosophers theorize, and too often we're undisturbed by the tremendous gap that can appear between the ideal theories we develop and the practices that could actualize those theories.

In her study of the ideal structure and function of scientific communities, Helen Longino argued in favor of applying the Habermasian ideal democratic speech conditions to scientific communities. Thus, well-structured scientific communities would (should) be structured so that members:
a. are willing to genuinely engage with each other;
b. treat each other as moral, political, social, and intellectual equals; and
c. are willing to modify their beliefs in response to criticism and evidence.

Item c is actually not so hard. Peer review of published work and peer pressure in general exert some force. But how in the world can item b be accomplished?

Though many philosophers of science have written on and built on Longino's work, not much has been done to identify how to nudge real scientific (or our own academic) communities in directions that would meet these ideal conditions.

Atul Gawande suggests that one thing that can improve the communicative equality of communities of professionals working together is to use checklists. Huh? So simple? The bridge between theory and practice is constructed of little practical steps.

From Michael Goldman's review of Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto:
The safe surgery checklist that Gawande helped develop instructs the entire [surgery] team to introduce themselves by name and role and to discuss the unusual aspects of the case and potential problems. The checklist distributes power, so that a nurse reading a checklist acquires the authority, as a member of of the team, to stop the surgeon from omitting a critical step or making a stupid mistake.

Scientific communities do not usually work under the constraints and risk of crisis that surgery teams do, but the larger point is that formalizing working methods and instituting time for face-to-face communication between team members can change the social and power dynamic of collaborative teams.

Monday, August 09, 2010

You Must Read Heidegger!

I don't read Leiter but someone who loves me does and passed along the link below. I am entitled to repost it, snickering all the while, because I did read Sein und Zeit in the original German, while tramping in the Schwarzwald and snacking on Spaetzle. Lucky for me, I took that lesson before even starting grad school.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Women in Politics: Not Even in Fantasyland

I just received a brochure from my county elections board about the newly required Sequoia "Imagecast" electronic voting machine. It will replace the mechanical devices that many counties in New York state have used for decades. Those old-fashioned lever machines have the drawback that they don't record individual votes for recounts, but they also have distinct advantages, such as their simplicity of use, not permitting overvoting, and having some of the lowest error rates of any voting method.

Oh, but that rant was off-topic!

On said brochure, there is an illustration of how to fill in a circle next to a candidate's name. The imaginary candidates are:
  • Neil Diamond
  • Carrie Underwood
  • Kenny Rogers
  • Luther Vandros [sic!]
  • Pink Floyd
  • Toby Keith
The hidden message? Women are as unlikely to succeed in politics as in the music industry.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Maternity and Job Markets

In academia, but not only in academia, maternity costs women job opportunities and advancement.

David Leonhart writes in the NYTimes that:
"[O]utright sexism is no longer the main barrier to gender equality. The main barrier is the harsh price most workers pay for pursuing anything other than the old-fashioned career path."
"Last year, 40.2 percent of married women with children under 3 years old were outside the labor force, up from a low of 38.6 percent in 1998. The increase, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics analysis, “occurred across all educational levels and, for most groups, by about the same magnitude.” By contrast, women without children at home have continued to join the work force in growing numbers."
His proposed solution is the right one, which is not an easy one:

"The best hope for making progress against today’s gender inequality probably involves some combination of legal and cultural changes, which happens to be the same combination that beat back the old sexism. We’ll have to get beyond the Mommy Wars and instead create rewarding career paths even for parents — fathers, too — who take months or years off. We’ll have to get more creative about part-time and flexible work, too."

Thanks Alexandra!

Philosophy Listens

The radio program Philosophy Talks has podcasts (to stream for free and to purchase for downloads) to help pass the time and keep sharp during the summer. I've taken them on long runs...but that's just me--I don't run fast enough to need a strong beat to keep me going!

This week's prize is John Searle on Social Reality. The upcoming schedule contains repeats well worth hearing if you missed them the first time. (Unlike the world of politics, philosophy definitely doesn't age quickly!) The week of August 8 we get a program on William James and the following week is feminist ethicist Debra Satz on commodifying body parts. These aren't just monologues--they have all the elements of Car Talk but with arguments instead of gears.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Covering Laws and Background Assumptions

In the debate over burka bans, there is a background assumption which makes all the difference.

Either burkas and full-face veils are essentially (and only) expressions of religious piety, or they essentially differ from other religious head coverings by symbolically (or actually) removing women from public life.

Martha Nussbaum adopts the first assumption; in a response to her piece, Feisal Mohamed defends the latter.

The adoption of burka bans in European cities and countries is a new development, but the essentials of this debate are not. Susan Moller Okin's excellent "Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?," though 10 years old, is still relevant. Her title essay is followed by a number of responses, including one by Nussbaum broadly defending expression of religious freedom.

As Mohamed points out in his commentary, the key issue is not whether to support religious freedom (there is broad agreement--outside of the French public schools anyway--that religious dress is not in itself at odds with multicultural, liberal society). The key issue is how to assess conflicts between religious demands and individual and group rights to autonomy.

This reduces a theoretical question to a practical one: for women who are covered to a point that participation in civic life as individuals becomes difficult or impossible (or as a symbol of their non-participation in public life), what policy is most likely to reduce oppression? As a matter of practical results, it's not clear to me that a burka ban would actually result in those women being fully engaged in public, educational, and civic life. Instead, they might become even more cloistered than before.

This has been a fruitful topic for discussion in my feminist theory course, and now that it's prominent in the news, I would consider integrating it into a topically oriented intro to philosophy course. Comments welcome on how you think this topic would be received by a lower-level audience.