Author Archive


Reading Group

In Uncategorized on May 17, 2010 by bcnjake

Greetings, PhilSci Types!

(Or, as Josh would say, Gentle PhilSciers)

Josh, Lynn, and I are putting together a little reading group for those who might be interested.  We’re reading Woodward’s Making Things Happen and will be meeting on Mondays at 5:00 at Uprise.  If you’re interested in taking part, email one of us and we’ll pass along the relevant information (what we’re reading that week, what the game plan is, etc.).  If you’re only interested in part of Woodward or can’t make it every week, no worries!  We’re happy to have you even for a week.


Lawlessness and Miles Davis

In Uncategorized on April 26, 2010 by bcnjake

Brandon seems to be making a lot of hay over the fact that any distinctly biological generalizations are contingent and therefore not universally true.  If they’re not universally true (i.e. the “rules” can be broken), then they cannot be laws.  But suppose you’re a scientific anti-realist like Cartwright, van Frassen, etc.  At this point, the whole problem seems to dissolve, since anti-realists don’t expect laws to be true; obviously false but explanatory generalizations are extrapolated from a limited set of causal histories.  Obviously, one might take exception to the “laws don’t have to be true” criterion, but assume that you’re okay with this.  Is there any other reason to lose sleep over the contingency thesis?  I can’t think of one, but I’m also inclined to endorse anti-realism.


Use of chimps in Yasha’s paper

In Uncategorized on April 19, 2010 by bcnjake

I had a thought regarding Yasha’s paper – what’s the basis for using chimps as our standard for observational data?

Yasha seems to be arguing that chimps are closest to humans, evolutionarily speaking, but if this is a general PhilSci paper, does that matter? Other species surely form coalitions, and there’s no reason to suspect one way or the other that their coalitions (don’t) form like chimps. Obviously, this comment belies an unfamiliarity with experimental data, and if such data exists, I withdraw that part of the question. But if such data exists, wouldn’t it be to Yasha’s advantage to cite it?

On the other hand, if Yasha’s making a point about human behavior, why not study humans? To make an analogy, if you wanted to know about me, you would get further studying me than you would studying my cousins. Same with chimps and humans. Saying you want to study chimps because they’re so evolutionarily close to us sounds dangerously close to the “we are descended from chimps” misconception. What’s the scientific basis for accepting chimps as a proto-human substitute?


Mathematical Explanations in Saatsi

In Discussion on March 15, 2010 by bcnjake

Something has been bothering me about Saatsi’s handling of the cicada case, and I’m curious what people think.  His account of a “non-mathematical” explanation for cicada periods doesn’t seem like a non-mathematical explanation to me.  Using sticks of various lengths to demonstrate why cicadas have life cycles of 13 or 17 years (or n years in any n-x – n+y period) still seems to depend on mathematics for explanation.  Simply because he’s using sticks instead of a pencil and paper doesn’t mean he’s not using mathematics to explain.

Even if you grant the stick explanation, no one would say that the sticks explain the cicada periods; we would still have the underlying question why do the sticks explain?  The only answer to that question I can think of involves number theory.  So, one of a few things is going on here.  (1) Saatsi is wrong and mathematics is explanatory in the cicada case.  (2) There’s some argument that I’m missing, which I grant is possible.  (3) Saatsi’s argument is wrong, but there’s a different argument that can be made in favor of non-mathematical explanation.

Thoughts?  I have my suspicions, but I fear they’re tainted by my inclination to endorse mathematical explanation.


Are Models Analogies?

In Uncategorized on February 22, 2010 by bcnjake

After working on the analogy/metaphor distinction this week and reading the Weisberg pieces, I’m curious about your input on the following:

Take an analogy to be qualitative isomorphisms between two or more systems.  As the number of isomorphisms grows, so does the strength of the analogy; a sufficiently strong analogy will end up having both predictive and explanatory power.  For example, if I say that planets are baseballs orbiting the sun, this analogy doesn’t have any great predictive or explanatory power.  On the other hand, if I say that the heart is a pump, I have a stronger analogy, since there are a number of isomorphisms between hearts and pumps.  As a result, I can reasonably predict both how and why blood moves throughout the body.

Now consider models.  As I understand models in the reading, they are supposed to have predictive or explanatory powers (or both) regarding the systems they model.  If this is the case, can we say that models are a class of analogy?  I suppose it depends on the origin of the predictive/explanatory power.  If the predictive/explanatory power is the result of an isomorphism, it seems that the model would be an analogy, and (as the Catalans say) if not, not.

But how can a model have explanatory power without some form of isomorphism between the model and the system it seeks to describe?  That would be a rather odd position to hold.  Predictive models, on the other hand, seem to be able to accurately predict outcomes without needing qualitative isomorphisms.  On the other hand, it seems intuitively plausible that without an isomorphism, the predictions will eventually divorce themselves from reality.  If this happens, do we really want to call the system a model?  Take the case of sportswriter Leonard Koppett, who claimed to be able to predict whether the Dow Jones would finish the year up or down.  His model was 100% accurate for (I believe) three decades, but lost steam because his predictor was whether an NFC or AFC representative would win the Super Bowl.  Clearly no isomorphism exists between Super Bowl winners and stock performance.  Do we want to take this as a model, no matter how poor, or do we want to say that it’s something else?

So here’s where I’m at: Analogies between systems share isomorphisms.  Models are predictive or explanatory.  Explanatory models intuitively seem to involve isomorphisms.  Predictive models don’t require isomorphisms, but those that don’t seem fatally flawed.  Do we (1) say that predictive models that are this flawed are somehow not models and claim that all “proper” models are analogies, (2) say that not all models are analogies, because even the flawed predictive models are still models, or (3) argue that, for some reason, models are something separate from analogies?


Sober’s view of evolution

In Discussion on February 1, 2010 by bcnjake

This is admittedly rough thinking in the hopes that I can flesh an idea out via some groupthink.  Since last week’s reading, I’ve been bothered by something that Sober said in his account of evolution.  Specifically, he said that a vague definition of evolution would suffice, since the standard definition (changes in gene frequencies in a population) fails to account for [a] changing genotype frequencies without corresponding gene frequencies changes and [b] evolution taking place outside of the cellular nucleus, which where a gene is located. (“What is Evolutionary Theory”, p. 4-5)  I understand Sober’s criticisms, but fail to see why a more cogent account of evolution cannot be offered.

It seems to me that a better definition would be that evolution is a change in a population’s biological information frequency.  By biological information frequency, I mean (very) roughly any information that is [a] encoded biologically and [b] capable of being passed on through some inheritance mechanism.  Thinking of evolution this way would have some distinct advantages.  First, it accounts for both of Sober’s criticisms of the standard account, in that genotypes and mitochondrial DNA are biological information, even if they are not genetic information in the strictest sense.  Second, this approach would account for not only genetic information, but also epigenetic information and memetic information, two areas that ought to be thought of as evolving.

The obvious objection, at least to me, is that memetic and epigenetic information are either non-biological, lack heritability mechanisms, or both.  The first concern doesn’t strike me as problematic, since epigenetics clearly have a biological component and (besides being encoded biologically) memes could not exist without lower-level biological support.  Biological information must not only exist for memes to propagate, they must be of a certain type of information (i.e. humans can have memes, but earthworms cannot).

As to the second concern, memes are clearly heritable, but this concern might be problematic in the case of epigenetics.  My epigenetic knowledge is limited, but my understanding is that environmental factors trigger latent genetic instructions.  But environmental factors are not heritable the way genetics and memetics are.  How does one get around this?  Would it be fruitful to assert that the potential for epigenetic changes is heritable, or would another avenue be better?  Is there a good reason to not count epigenetic information as evolving?  Is my definition fatally flawed?

As I said, these are all very rough thoughts; more thinking out loud in the hope that someone has a similar inclination and/or helpful ideas.  But I think the basic idea is right.  Evolution can’t only deal with nucleic gene frequencies – there’s more to it.


In Uncategorized on January 23, 2010 by bcnjake

I thought this article from the Times of London might interest a few people.  It’s a discussion of how wolves evolved into dogs and touches on a lot of the points in the Waters piece (especially artificial/natural selection).

Richard Dawkins: The Truth Dogs Reveal About Evolution