Yesterday, in my Twentieth Century Philosophy class, we worked our way through Bertrand Russell's essay on "Appearance and Reality" (excerpted, along with "The Value of Philosophy" and "Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description" from Russell's 'popular' work The Problems of Philosophy.) I introduced the class to Russell's notion of physical objects being inferences from sense-data, and then went on to his discussions of idealism, materialism, and realism as metaphysical responses to the epistemological problems created by such an understanding of objects. This discussion led to the epistemological stances--rationalism and empiricism--that these metaphysical positions might generate. (There was also a digression into the distinction between necessary and contingent truths.)
At one point, shortly after I had made a statement to the effect that science could be seen as informed by materialist, realist, and empiricist conceptions of its metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions, I blurted out, "Really, scientists who think philosophy is useless and irrelevant to their work are stupid and ungrateful." This was an embarrassingly intemperate remark to have made in a classroom, and sure enough, it provoked some amused twittering from my students, waking up many who were only paying partial attention at that time to my ramblings.
My friend Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, a historian of science at the University of Florida, has drawn my attention to a number of concerning events at the eminent journal Science.
One was an appalling magazine cover, for which they were roundly and rightly criticized. The Editor-in-Chief issued a non-apology for the cover, saying that she is "truly sorry for any discomfort that this cover may have caused anyone" and promising "that we will strive to do much better in the future to be sensitive to all groups and not assume that context and intent will speak for themselves."
A second recent development is the shortening of book reviews to 600 words, with an increased focus on popular books and fewer reviews coming from scholars in the history and philosophy of science as compared to the past. This is an unfortunate loss of an important perspective from Science.
Now, a blog post from Michael Balter, who has been with the journal for over 21 years, talks about some of the behind-the-scenes troubles at Science and its publishing organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). These include the recent dismissal of four women in the art and production departments, with essentially no notice in three cases and very little notice in the fourth case, and the absence of any serious response to the concerns expressed by the overwhelming majority of Science's news staff about the way these dismissals were handled.
I am not in a position to fully comment on these recent developments; I am only reporting what I have read and what I have been told. But as a member of the AAAS Section on History and Philosophy of Science (Section L) I am very concerned. Indeed, perhaps given the important role that Science plays, we should all be concerned about what what is involved with the "strategic transformation that AAAS is currently undergoing, to enhance its engagement with its members and to be in the forefront of the multimedia landscape of the future."
New APPS readers probably remember Helen De Cruz's excellent post on the polarized debate surrounding evolutionary science (which was picked up by NPR), as well as Roberta Millstein's follow-up post on the perhaps equally polarized debate concerning climate change. Both posts cite the work of Dan Kahan, who has a distinct take on these issues:
"I study risk perception and science communication. I’m going to tell you what I regard as the single most consequential insight you can learn from empirical research in these fields if your goal is to promote constructive public engagement with climate science in American society. It's this: What people “believe” about global warming doesn’t reflect what they know; it expresses who they are."
I just attended a talk by Michael Ranney, who opposes Kahan's position. In Ranney's view, communicating the mechanism of global climate change is enough to change the minds of people on both sides of the political spectrum. (Check out the videos!) Ranney shows, surprisingly, that just about no one understands the mechanism of climate change (Study 1). Further, he shows that revealing that mechanism changes participants' minds about climate change (Study 2).
Last week, Jerry Coyne gave a talk at my university, UC Davis. Coyne is one of the "new atheists," people who believe that "religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises" (Simon Hooper). In his talk, he argued that science and religion were incompatible, focusing on evolution and religion in particular. When pressed afterward, however, he seemed to grant that not all forms of supernatural-believing religions are incompatible with science; deism, for example, is not incompatible with science. However, he then wanted to know why those of us who were pressing him – people who think that the theory of evolution is well-supported and are not ourselves religious – were giving religion a "pass." We would not, he suggested, give a similar pass to beliefs in UFOs or fairies or tarot cards. And that is probably true. So is there a difference?
Now, admittedly, part of my reasons are pragmatic. I happen to think that religious believers who accept the theory of evolution are our best allies in the fight to keep good science education in public schools. That's because they show people that they don't have to give up their deeply held beliefs in order to accept views about common descent and evolutionary processes like natural selection and random drift. They don't force a choice, a choice that religion would most likely win most of the time.
Next Saturday, the University of Leuven is hosting an outreach event called Philosophy Festival ("Feest van de Filosofie"). This year's theme is people & technology ("mens & techniek"). I was asked to join a panel discussion on the technological singularity. The introduction will be given by a computer engineer (Philip Dutré, Leuven). There will be a philosopher of technology (Peter-Paul Verbeek, Twente) and a philosopher of probability (me, Groningen); and the moderator is a philosopher, too (Filip Mattens, Leuven). So far, I have not worked on this topic, although it does combine a number of my interests: materials science, philosophy of science, and science fiction.
The idea of a technological singularity (often associated with Ray Kurzweil) originates from the observation that the rate of technological innovations seems to be speeding up. Extrapolating these past and current trends suggests that there may be a point in the future at which systems that have been built by humans (software, robots, ...) will become more intelligent than humans. This is called the technological singularity. Moreover, once there are systems that are able to develop systems that are more intelligent than systems of the previous generation, there may be an intelligence explosion. The possibilities of later generations of such systems are inconceivable to humans. (This theme has been explored in many science fiction stories, including the robot stories by Isaac Asimov (1950's and later), the television series "Battlestar Galactica" (2004-2009), and the movie "Her" (2013).)
Even this brief introduction gives us plenty of opportunity for reflection on concepts (What is intelligence?) and consequences (What will happen to humans in a post-singularity world?). I am planning to analyze a very basic assumption, by raising the following question: When are we justified to pick a particular trend that has been observed in the past (e.g., Moore's observation of an exponential increase in the number of transistors on commercial chips) and extrapolate it into the future? Viewed in this way, the current topic is an example of the general problem of induction.
The hypothesis "The observed trend will continue to hold" is only one among many. Let me offer two alternative hypotheses:
Many philosophers of science are understandably excited about Neil deGrasse Tyson's reinvorgoration of the TV show Cosmos. After all, most of us are pretty excited about science and anything that improves the public's scientific literacy. Thus, it is extremely disappointing to hear him articulate the comments that he does at about 1:02:46 of this video.* He says that a "philosopher is a would-be scientist without a laboratory" and that we have been "rendered essentially obsolete." He later suggests that there is much positive work that a philosophers can do (in ethics, for example), but doesn't seem to think that there can be any good philosophy of science. (Richard Dawkins, who is also shown in the video, seems to take a slightly more positive view of the field).
This morning, I saw two things that shook the cobwebs: 1) Eric Winsberg's intriguing post about dark matter, and, more to the point at hand, the fact that he was at an event that involved astronmers and philosophers, and 2) with the web announcement for a “Genomics and Philosophy of Race” Conference that I am a part of, involving both biologists and philosophers (not to mention historians and sociologists). These two events are only two of the many, many productive collaborations between scientists and philosophers of science. We need to do a better job telling people about them, and about telling the general public what philosophers of science do.
* H/T to Lucas Matthews, graduate stuent at the University of Utah, for the pointer to the video and NdGT's attitude toward philosophy of science
If Plutynski and Weatherall's reviews are right (and they read wonderfully) both books in different ways seem to me to mark decisive moves away from Generalized Philosophy of Science. The very first paragraph of Weatherall's reads:
If this collection has an overarching theme, it is that the details matter. If philosophers hope to understand contemporary physics, we need to engage in depth both with the technicalities of our best physical theories and the practicalities of how those theories are applied. The authors in this volume brush aside an older tradition in the philosophy of physics -- and the philosophy of science more generally -- in which actual physics entered only to illustrate high-level accounts of theories, explanation, or reduction. Of course, by itself, dismissing this tradition is hardly worth remarking on: such an approach to philosophy of physics has been going out of fashion for decades. Taken as whole, however, this volume pushes the theme still further, in ways that mark important shifts in recent philosophy of physics.
I have nothing particularly interesting to say on the topic, but this account of recent science on the migration of people to the Americas is fascinating. What is most cool is the way that three distinct scientific routes - genetics, archeology, and linguistics - are converging on an account.
On the Nature website, Richard Van Noorden reports that a French computer scientist, Cyril Labbé, has discovered over 120 computer-generated papers that have been published in conference proceedings between 2008 and 2013. Over 100 of these papers were published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and 16 others appeared in Springer publications.
The papers have been composed using SCIgen, which only requires the user to input author names, and automatically generates random papers that look like Computer Science, but which are actually meaningless. Cyril Labbé has written a program that is able to recognize papers that have been generated by SCIgen. (The program compares the vocabulary of a text to that of a reference corpus; in particular, it measures the inter-textual distance as the proportion of word-tokens shared by two texts. For details of the method, see Labbé's 2012 paper published in Scientometrics.)
The proceedings issues that appeared in Springer publications were (supposed to be) peer-reviewed; for the IEEE proceedings, it is less clear whether they underwent peer review. In any case, the former examples show that the peer review system is not always watertight, not just in the case of open-access journals (which was also discussed here at NewApps).
Most of the conferences took place in China and most of the authors have Chinese affiliations. Of course, it remains to be checked whether the author names correspond to real scholars and if so, whether they were aware of the submission in their name. Nature was able to contact one actual researcher: he does not know why his name appeared in the author list of such a computer-generated paper.
Below the fold, I offer a speculation on the motivation behind the submission of these fake papers.
After a recent move and going through my storage facility, I came across the following memo (below the fold--click to enlarge) among some of my late mother’s things. The date is February 19th, 1958, and the author is Nobel Prize winner Polykarp Kush. My mother was then a graduate student in Physics at Columbia University. Do read it for yourself in all its blue mimeographed glory, but the money line is, of course, “If your personal lives are of such complexity that they require a continuing contact with family and friends in time that should be devoted to a serious concern with physics, I very much doubt that you have the makings of a good physicist.” I heard my mother joke about seeing this memo posted in her lab at least a half-dozen times, but I never knew she kept a copy of the memo for fifty years! She left physics with a Masters degree and returned to graduate school to get her PhD in data analysis in the late 70s. She always told the memo-story as if it were a knee-slapper (“Physicists in those days were such characters!”) and she never really mentioned the climate for women as a reason why she left Physics.
In a series of experiments, the developmental psychologists Paul Harris, Kathleen Corriveau and Melissa Koenig have shown that young children are more confident about the existence of unobservable scientific entities than they are about the existence of unobservable (semi-)religious entities. 5-year-olds in the Boston area, for example, were more sure about the existence of germs and oxygen than they were about the existence of God and Santa Claus. The experimenters were surprised by this finding, and replicated in several settings, including children from religious households in Spain who were sent to religious (Catholic) schools, and children from a Mayan community in Mexico (Santa was replaced by local spirits that people widely express belief in). As I will show below the fold, a plausible explanation for why children are less confident about religious entities is that the testimony to religious entities differs from that of most scientific entities. It that’s true, we need to rethink how to spread and promote the acceptance of “controversial” scientific ideas like climate change, the safety of vaccines, and evolutionary theory. For, as I will argue, some well-meant efforts to promote such ideas may actually backfire and fuel skepticism.
If Elisabeth Lloyd’s take on the female orgasm is
correct—i.e. if it is homologous to the male orgasm—then FEMALE ORGASMis not a proper evolutionary category. Homology is sameness. Hence, male and female orgasms belong to the same category. The orgasm is an adaptation, whether male or female (and
Lloyd should agree). It is not a spandrel or by-product.
I’ll get back to this in a moment, but first some background. There are five NewAPPSers who have a particular interest in the
philosophy of biology. Roberta Millstein, Helen De Cruz, Catarina Dutilh Novaes, John Protevi, and myself. Aside from Roberta, each of us comes at it from a related area in which biological insight is
important. For me, that area is perception. I have written quite a bit about
biology, but my mind has always been at least half on the eye (and the ear, and
the nose, and the tongue, . . .).
There is a divide among us with respect to a leading controversy
in the field. Catarina is strongly anti-adaptationist and I am strongly
adaptationist (perhaps because of my motivating interest in perception, which is exquistely adaptive). Roberta, Helen, and John are somewhere in between, but likely closer to Catarina than to me. You can gauge where I stand when I tell you that in my view, Gould and Lewontin’s 1979
anti-adaptationist manifesto, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian
Paradigm” is one of the worst, and certainly one of the most mendacious, papers I have
ever read in any field. Among the five of us, I am sure I am alone in this.
Given all of this, my take on adaptationism with regard to the orgasm may get a
hotly negative response from my co-bloggers. Nevertheless, I’ll get on with it.
Evolutionary accounts of deductive reasoning have been
enjoying a fair amount of popularity in the last decades. Some of those who
have defended views of this kind are Cooper, Maddy, and more recently Joshua
Schechter. The basic idea is that an explanation for why we have developed
the ability to reason deductively (if indeed we have developed this ability!)
is that it conferred a survival advantage to those individuals who possessed it among our ancestors, who in
turn were reproductively more successful than those individuals in the
ancestral population who did not possess this ability. In other words,
deductive reasoning would have arisen as an adaptation
in humans (and possibly in non-human animals too, but I will leave this question
aside). Attractive though it may seem at first sight (and I confess having had
a fair amount of sympathy for it for a while), this approach faces a number of
difficulties, and in my opinion is ultimately untenable. (Some readers will not
be surprised to hear this, if they recall a previous post where I argue that
deductive reasoning is best seen as a cultural product, not as a biological,
genetically encoded endowment in humans.)
In this post, I will spell out what I take to be the main
flaw of such accounts, namely the fact that they seem incompatible with the
empirical evidence on deductive reasoning in human reasoners as produced by
experimental psychology. In this sense, these accounts fall prey to the same
mistake that plagues many evolutionary accounts of female orgasm, in particular
those according to which female orgasm has arisen as an adaptation in the human
species. To draw the parallel between the case for deductive reasoning and the
case for the female orgasm, I will rely on Elisabeth Lloyd’s fantastic book The Case of the Female Orgasm (which, as
it so happens, I had the pleasure of re-reading during my vacation last
Ingrid Robeyns has a very nice post at Crookedtimber with an excellent discussion on why "economics should become much more aware of the values it (implicitly or
explicitly) endorses. Those values are embedded in some of the basis
concepts used but also in some of the assumptions in the
theory-building." Her post includes a lovely, brief and clear treatment of the abuse of the Pareto-improvement criterion; it's worth your time to check it out.
However, I worry a bit about the meme that focuses on the lack of clarity about values by economists. For, it reinforces the convenient economist's (and philosopher's) distinction between positive and normative questions, embraced since Sidgwick encouraged the split between the two fields (recall and here). To put the worry more constructively and subtly reinterpret my two earlier posts (here and here) on Raj Chetty's widely discussed NYT op-ed piece: economists are not transparent about their status-quo bias that is embedded in their empirical methodology, which (recall (and here and here), takes important institutions and norms as given).[+] From the point of view of the political economy of economics this (relative) status-quo bias of policy oriented economics is to be expected because the demand for economists is fuelled by existing institutions.
One attractive story about the demise of the Principle Sufficient Reason (PSR) is that it was discarded in the founding of analytical philosophy together with the heritage of British Idealism and related polemics against Spinoza (and Bergson) by Bertrand Russell. When Russell was given the option, accept (a) Bradley's Regress or (b) the PSR, he chose neither; and he opted, instead, for (c) submission to scientific fact: "The scientific philosophy, therefore...aims only at understanding
the world... without being turned aside from
that submission to fact which is the essence of the scientific temper." (On Scientific Method In Philosophy [recall my discussion and Jeff Bell.] If the to-be-explained-facts are brute, then it is possible that even if they can be fully captured by integrated into a theory/model (etc.) some arbitrariness is inevitable (in, say, initial conditions). One might even think that this stance is (informally) justified by the "principle of indifference" that accompanies the embrace of a classical probability theory in one's inductive logic (see, Carnap).
"I have no great faith in political
arithmetick, and I mean not to warrant the exactness of either of these
computations." Adam Smith (1776) Wealth of Nations.
While Ancient writers (Pliny) certainly noted the existence of
fossils, the meaning of the existence fossils was explosive during the eighteenth
century. In posthumously published work on Discourse on Earthquakes (1705), the secretary
of the Royal Society, Robert Hooke, had while surveying fossil evidence suggested that "There
have been many other Species of Creatures in former Ages, of which we can find
none at present; and that 'tis not unlikely also but that there may be divers
new kinds now, which have not been from the beginning." (here)
As it happens, Adam Smith's two best friends in old age, James Hutton and Joseph Black, the editors of his posthumous (1795) work, Essays on Philosophical Subjects (EPS), understood what was at stake. For, in 1785 Hutton gave
a public lecture, “Concerning the System of the Earth, Its Duration, and
Stability,” at University of Edinburgh. Due to Hutton's illness, Black gave
the lecture on Hutton’s behalf. In the lecture Hutton used geological and
fossil evidence to argue that the Earth was almost certainly older than 6000
years. We do not know for sure if Smith attended the lecture,
although he was in town.The argument was elaborated in far greater detail in Hutton's (1788) Theory of the Earth, which made him an international celebrity. The significance of this episode to the history of geology and Darwinism is much studied.
But what does this have to do with the history of economics?
Smith's closeness to Hutton may provide additional clues for one of the enduring mysteries of the history of economics: why did Adam Smith forsake the deployment of a mathematical model in the Wealth of Nations (1776)?
True understanding of everything contained in the sacred writings is to be sought from them, and not elsewhere...we do not study the passages about nature as if Scripture were a philosophical textbook [of nature], but rather as books in which the Holy Spirit desired to teach us something necessary for our salvation...For who would deny that if God, the creator of nature, had desired to describe the nature of things for us by His Word, nothing in the whole world could have remained hidden to us, of which we now would not know exactly, the nature, causes, and powers?--G.J.Rheticus, translated by R. Hooykaas.
Rheticus is Copernicus sole student. I was reminded of his significance by examining a PhD dissertation, "Lutheran Astronomers after the Fall (1540-1590): A reappraisal of the Renaissance dynamic of religion and astronomy," by the Ghent historian of science, Dr. Nienke Roelants (recall here and here). The quoted passage was probably written around 1541 (so before Copernicus death and the publication of On the Revolutions) as part of a short treatise on biblical interpretation in light of the embrace of mobility of the earth. It was only published as an addition to Gorleaus Idea Physicae in Utrecht in 1651.
One annoying feature of re-reading other people's scholarship, is the possibility of discovering that one's treasured ideas may well be anticipated by others. Memory and self-deception can be funny like that. So, it's probably not uncommon that folk really fail to attribute to others what is due to them without realizing they are in the wrong. Even when the mistakes are honest, they still involve injustices, and these may be quite large given that they may, say, reinforce gender related unfairness, too. Such injustices are not easy to excuse or forgive when one feels that one's work or presence has been silenced or unfairly ignored. Even so, we try to cope with this kind of injustice. Yet, faking data or copying (and pasting) texts without attribution is legitimately an unpardonable sin in the Academy, especially if it is part of a pattern of such (plagiarism/faking) cases. One might be willing to give a student a second chance, but recoil from letting a confirmed fraudulent senior scholar back into the fold. Paradoxically many of us treat such cases as worse sin than many crimes on the 'outside.' (Coetzee's Disgrace reflects on this.)
It is, thus, understandable that the good folk at Retractionwatch react with dismay that prominent scholars, including philosophy's very own Philip Pettit, are willing to endorse Marc Hauser's forthcoming book, Evilicious. What really rankles Retractionwatch is that Hauser has not owned up to his record of misconduct and "only acknowledged “mistakes.”" (As they write: "But we do prefer when those given a second chance acknowledge that they
did something wrong. That might start with noting a retraction, instead
of continuing to list the retracted paperamong your publications.")
Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications (BBRC), a journal that proudly lists that it is "the fastest submission-to-print journal! Number 1 journal in the Thomson's JCR ranking for Biophysics in terms of Total Cites, Number of Articles and Eigen Factor ™ score." It is a "5-Year Impact Factor: 2.500." Apparently, sometimes speed does not pay because the journal has been victim of a spectacular hoax (recall). Naturereports:
Oddly enough, so far there is no evidence that the hoax was perpetrated to expose the vulnerability of scientific refereeing practices. In fact, Nature quotes a scientists (the one who alerted the editors to the hoax), who "believes that the paper was intended to hurt him and his lab."
Three illustrations of why scientists need to know history:
 Biologists often appeal to founders in the field such as Darwin or
Haeckel, either as a point of contrast or as intellectual ancestor - but
are their depictions accurate?
 Scientists need to know the nature of the scientific practice, e.g.,
the refutations of well accepted theories, the failures, the dead ends.
 Terms like "fitness" may be loaded with historical baggage that scientists are not aware of, but which affects their reception.--Roberta Millstein. [Numbers added to facilitate discussion.--ES]
The image(s) of science that philosophers of (the) science(s) describe and promote often has an afterlife in (the) science(s).
Ever since Kuhn projected his experiences within and about physics onto a persuasive and widely discussed image of science, philosophers of science and the scientists that embrace Kuhn and his image [see here], have thought that progressive science requires certain features (paradigmatic consensus, mythic history, puzzle-solving, etc.)* In the exchange over her post, Millstein offered three reasons for thinking that praticing scientists need to know an accurate history. Let's grant a critic that  is not very persuasive. For those kind of appeals are primarily rhetorical techniques; there is a sense in which the truth does not matter in such appeals. Let's grant a critic that  can be achieved without knowledge of history (which now is conceived as a repository of error). So,  is not intrinsic to scientific practice, but it does not mean that history does not have this useful, therapeutic role.
I certainly applaud and concur with the spirit of Gary Gutting's recent piece, "Science’s Humanities Gap." He agrees with Steven Pinker that specialists in any area are likely to benefit from acquaintance with relevant work beyond their disciplinary boundaries, but thinks that Pinker errs in saying that it is humanists who need to pay more attention to science. Instead, Gutting says, "it’s humanists who are the choir and scientists who need a call to grace." Gutting then goes on to characterize all of the areas in which philosophy has been informed by a deep knowledge of science. All well and good.
However, I have a bone to pick with Gutting. Here is the sum total of what he has to say about the philosophy of biology: "Philosophers of biology like David Hull have been similarly well versed in that discipline [as philosophers of physics have been versed in physics]." It is true that Hull is a fine example of someone who was well-versed in biology, who engaged with biologists, and who inspired many other philosophers of biology to do likewise. But that is just the point. Many, many other philosophers of biology since Hull have immersed themselves in various areas of biology – far too many to list here, since such philosophers comprise a substantial portion of the field. What I can attempt to list, however, is all of the different areas of biology that philosophers of biology engage with, knowing that I will miss some: systematics (an area that Hull particularly focused on), genetics, population genetics, paleobiology, developmental biology, evo-devo, molecular biology, genomics and other -omics, ecology, conservation biology, cell biology, behavioral biology. Once all these areas are listed, it becomes clearer just how empirical the philosophy of biology has become.
The problem with giving short shrift to philosophy of biology is that one might actually walk away with the opposite impression of what was intended, i.e., one might get the mistaken impression that not much science-oriented philosophy of biology is going on. And that would be a shame, particularly since Pinker could do with a greater appreciation of the philosophy of biology, such as Elisabeth Lloyd's excellent shredding of his views in"Kanzi, evolution, and language."
Let's stipulate that there is genuine bullshit (see Frankfurt 1986). Let's also stipulate there is bullshit in the Humanities, even in philosophy.
A lot of people I know in philosophy are pretty confident that much of what passes in Literary Theory and the philosophies that influence(d) it is bullshit. I have seen testimony people that ardently defend this view who have studied quite a bit of, say, Continental philosophy and reached this conclusion. (Of course, in reality, a lot more folk are dismissive on the basis of extremely slender personal, intellectual investment.) When pressed for evidence, the Sokal Hoax is trotted out as exhibit A. It made a great splash inside the academy and the popular media that covers it. Rather than interpreting the case as an instance of bad refereeing, editorial misjudgment, whole areas of thought got written off by quite a few people.
I just learned that a paper was retracted from Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics--a very fine physics journal published by a reputable institute. It frankly reports, "The Editorial Board has investigated this and found that the XPS
spectra shown in figure 3 all exhibit an identical noise pattern that is
unphysical." [HT Retractionwatch] In other words, the journal published artfully presented bullshit. (It recently announced that it "is now using ScholarOne Manuscripts for submission and peer-review management.") Undoubtedly, this incident is unpleasant for all the parties involved, but nobody in their right mind will draw any inferences about physics from it.
The moral: very good journals can publish bullshit, and the refereeing institutions of all disciplines need constant maintenance.
These are all general merits of the book, which make it refreshing, stimulating, and well worth the reading time of Joe the Philosopher of Science (not to mention Joe the Doctor). In addition, the prose is clear and lively.--Alex Broadbent, Philosophy of Science, Vol. 80, No. 1 (January 2013), pp. 165-6.
I am all for clear and lively prose, especially in reviews. But "Joe the Philosopher of Science" and "Joe the Doctor" is inappropriate language for a professional review in a leading journal. It recycles stereotypes (cf. stereotype threat) without any philosophical benefit, or economy of prose.
Moreover, 'Joe the doctor' is also a terrible statistical generalization. In the US women were 47.0% of all first year medical school students in 2010-2011 and women are 45.4% of all residents/fellows. In Britain: women doctors will outnumber men by 2017. Finally, there is a very a good chance that when Prof. Broadbent needs medical care in South Africa his physician will be female. My unsolicited advise, don't call her "Joe," Prof.[*]
[*] My wife is a surgeon, so maybe I am not impartial observer here.
We sought ways around the gridlock of current debates over the role
of religion in public life by examining the way an early 18th century
philosopher and theologian had responded to similar circumstances by
refashioning the concept of God to accommodate modern ways of thought.
The Australian Research Council’s panel of experts, acting on the advice
of independent specialist assessors, deemed it worth pursuing. On the
basis of its title alone, however, Briggs deems it “ridiculous”.
"Scientific philosophy" as I will be using it here is an eighteenth century invention by now-forgotten philosophers (McLaurin, 's Gravesande) or not read as philosophers anymore (Euler) (and then opposed by now-canonical philosophers like Berkeley, Hume, Kant, and folk that are fun to read like Mandeville and Diderot) that, after the split between philosophy and science, was re-introduced into philosophy by people like Russell, and echoed by Carnap, and Reichenbach. Scientific philosophy has six characteristics:
‘success’ trumps other
(rational/methodological) claims. Given that scientific philosophers sometimes retreat to the idea that philosophy is an a priori discipline, the 'empirical' (in 1) is often re-packaged as, say, inference to the best explanation in light of a variety of enduring 'scientific virtues' (i.e., simplicity, scope, predictive power, fruitfulness, exactness, etc.)
(a) Physics is the foundational science and/but it (b) has no need
for ultimate foundations. While 2(a) may seem obvious (see, e.g., Ladymann & Ross) due to its universal scope, its foundational nature was contested well into the nineteenth century. One could imagine, say, the science of information taking over as the foundational science in the future.
Within scientific philosophy reason
limits itself in various ways: in doing so (a) it avoid the fallacy of systematicity because it does not try to say
everything about everything; (b) it embraces the intellectual division
of labor (from 3(b)); it avoids the fallacy of (metaphysical) foundationalism because it has no
need to try to to secure its practice in un-shakeable, first principles
(see 2(b)). So, it is no surprise that Russell rejected the principle of sufficient reason or Bradley's regress argument.
is a self-directed, autonomous practice; once one has mastered certain rigorous tools, one moves
from one given experiment/solution (etc.) to the next problem. Given the emphasis on rigor, it is no surprise that:
Scientific philosophy is often opposed to a licentious or unintelligible
alternative(s) associated with past failures, sometimes even moral. (Exhibit a.) It, thus, embraces commitments to transparency (and clarity).
offers submission to the
facts (recall) and is disciplined (recall) by way of a careful, painful, modest and most
importantly open-ended progressive method. This entails that any scientific philosopher will enter a pre-existing, moving research trajectory and can expect to die before any destination is ever reached.
It may well be irrational to believe that history is progress after the unprecedented moral and political calamities of the twentieth century. But it does not follow, as [John] Gray apparently assumes, that history has no meaning. There is another possibility. To my knowledge Gray never endorses it, and it extremely difficult for a post-Darwinian mind to grap, but it has been presumed true by most civilizations and philosophies of the past, and is still so regarded by many non-Westernized cultures today. The possibility is that history does indeed have a meaning, purpose and end, and that these can easily be discerned by human beings, but that the direction of history's development is backward not forwards. History is not progress but regress, not advance but decline, and it leads to destruction rather than to utopia.--David Hawkes reviewing John Gray "The Silence of Animals" in TLS (30 August, 2013).
Let's distinguish four main conceptions of history:
Eternal Return. Within philosophy this goes back to Book 3 of Plato's Laws. It was revived by Nietzsche (and is part of the sub-structure of much continental philosophy and via Ian Hacking it is seeping into philosophy of science). It accords well with a cyclical conception of history with a rise and fall narrative or with periodic destruction of civilization(s) (think of the Atlantis story in the Timaeus and Bacon's riff on it). I expect it to become increasingly attractive to people as we head for man-made environmental catastrophe.
But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods' shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.--Xenophanes
"Not all ethical issues are equally important. Many ethicists spend their professional lives performing in sideshows.
entertaining the sideshow, sideshow performers do not deserve the same
recognition or remuneration as those performing on our philosophical
What really matters
now is not the nuance of our approach to mitochondrial manipulation for
glycogen storage diseases, or yet another set of footnotes to footnotes
to footnotes in the debate about the naturalistic fallacy. It is: (a)
Whether or not we should be allowed to destroy our planet (and if not,
how to stop it happening); and (b) Whether or not
it is fine to allow 20,000 children in the developing world to die
daily of hunger and entirely avoidable disease (and if not, how to stop
it happening). My concern in this post is mainly with (a). A habitable planet is a
prerequisite for all the rest of our ethical cogitation. If we can’t
live here at all, it’s pointless trying to draft the small print of
philosophy departments should be restructured. The junior members
should cut their teeth on lesser subjects such as the mind-body problem.
As their experience, status and salary rises, they should increasingly
specialise in problems (a) and (b). By the time they have reached the
top of the tree, that’s all they should be doing. Anyone who wants to
spend their lives paddling around in the philosophical shallows, along
with Kant and Wittgenstein, should of course be free to do so, but
should realise that it will condemn them to a life of penury and
obscurity."--Charles Foster. [HT Ingrid Robeyns.]
Foster relies on the -- welcome to me (now that I am balding and greying) -- premise that philosophy has a very long apprenticeship. Let's grant this for the sake of argument and learn to ignore the purported boy-wonders in our midst (there might be other good benefits that flow from not focusing on them). Sadly, Foster does not suggests that ethical reflection requires considerable schooling in life--a point I have long been more partial to. Foster unabashedly endorses [A] a practical conception of philosophy; in fact, in the post he relies on [A] as a tacit premise because while at first he only speaks of "ethical issues," "ethicists," and "ethical cogitation," his conclusions involve the organization of philosophy an sich. This is why Foster's really important ethicist reminds me of Xenophanes' cattle and horses and lions. Foster's post (and the subsequent discussion) is primarily useful for posting what is often said sotte vocce,
especially in contexts where philosophers need to prove their
usefulness. Blessed are those who work in an environment -- primarily
rich private institutions -- where their philosophical lack of utility
The fact that the discipline of economics hasn’t helped us improve our
predictive abilities suggests it is still far from being a science, and
may never be....Over time, the question of why economics has not (yet) qualified as a
science has become an obsession among theorists, including philosophers
of science like us...What is economics up to if it isn’t interested enough
in predictive success to adjust its theories the way a science does
when its predictions go wrong?--Alex Rosenberg and Tyler Curtain, in the New York Times.
Sometimes I receive the following back-handed, compliment-question, "Why do you do history? You might make a decent real philosopher." A part of the answer is that the second-order stories we tell ourselves -- often handed down by mentors and supervisors, and senior peers -- about where we come from and what we do often are just as interesting and important as the first-order activities; they may also influence us and others in ways that are often hard to spot. This by way of introduction because in what follows I primarily challenge the conceptual oppositions (and associated historical myths) in Rosenberg and Curtain's Opinionater piece (allowing that the genre they are writing in need not require scholarly precision). Perhaps, my challenge allows some clarity about the first-order issues to emerge.
The main stated point of Rosenberg & Curtain (hereafter RC) is that "the task of the Fed’s next leader will be more a matter of craft and wisdom than of science." Surprisingly enough, given that RC are philosophers, they spend very little words on conceptualizing the nature or origin and causes of such "craft and wisdom," even though at the end of their piece they boldly assert that "the Fed chairman must,
like a first violinist tuning the orchestra, have the rare ear to
fine-tune complexity (probably a Keynesian ability to fine-tune at
that)." We are not told why of all the crafts and skills, the fine-tuning violin is the most appropriate exemplar for a Fed chairman. Even if we grant the fruitfulness of the tuning metaphor, a fine-tuning violinist possesses a skill that may not require (much) wisdom; she tunes an orchestra that is oriented toward a common goal with skilled performers. The Fed-chairman deals with a more heterogeneous population with ends that are -- I hope -- not unified.
In fairness to RC, most of their piece is focused on a self-described "obsession:" is economics 'science?' So, let's turn to that first.
One formal philosopher sees a bright future ahead:
First, from the point of view of the philosophy of science, data
science arguably does offer a new mode of inquiry insofar as we are now
routinely handling population datasets directly, or sample sizes so
immense that they behave like population data. In this setting,
inferential methods of statistical reasoning are used for an altogether
different task, namely, as a form of quality control for the direct
methods applied to these huge data sets. Second, there is now a
realignment of interests that will make for new bed fellows. The
fundamental needs of business and science resemble one another more
closely on this score than they have on practically any other in the
past, (with the exception of chemistry, perhaps) which means, among
several things, that some scientific innovations will come from
the business community. Third, one of the skills required by this
emerging field, in addition to statistical and programming savvy, is an
ability to synthesize results and, all at once, to convey the story and
the limitations of the story. This is something that formal/scientific
philosophers are particularly good at.
Last, but not least, as we see in the news, the collection and
storage of society’s “data exhaust” by governments and private companies
is easily repurposed for countless tasks, some for the public good,
others less so.--Gregory Wheeler.
Of course, down the road nobody should hold the technocratic philosophers accountable for their role(s) in serving the (commercial) surveillance state faithfully.
UPDATE: On Facebook I am being read as if I am accusing the personal integrity of all formal philosophers; that's unfortunate because (a) I am perfectly willing to believe that not all of formal philosophy is useful to the data-miners, and (b) I would prefer to generate a discussion about the potential abuses of philosophical technologies (rather than prompt 'not-me' reflexes).