Archive for the ‘Discussion’ Category


Scientific Anarchism

In Discussion on April 30, 2010 by dcmzb8

Dan here. This post is way too long, but it’s as short as I can make it.

Thesis: We have *no* reason to think that *any* synthetic proposition is necessarily true, for any strong sense of necessary.

Beatty’s Evolutionary Contingency Thesis claims that there are no laws in biology, because it is possible to find exceptions to any distinctly biological generalization. When we find an exception to a law-like generalization, we can save it from falsification by modifying the antecedent of the generalization’s conditional so that it doesn’t apply in the case of the exception. Do this enough times, and you either have a conditional that belongs to a lower-level science, or an analytically true tautology. I don’t have a major problem with calling such a tautology a law, since I think this is merely a linguistic dispute. I would prefer to call such a tautology a model, not a law, but this is partly because I like the cool name for my position.

However, I think we might eventually be able to extend the ECT to lower levels of science. Take Hempel’s example of a law-like generalization: you can’t have a sphere of U-238 1 km in diameter (because the thing would explode!). Now consider the fine-tunning thesis. In our current physical theories, there are about 16 free parameters. These are constants where we have no theoretical basis for setting their values – they have to be obtained empirically. According to the fine-tunning thesis, stellar formation is only possible for a small range of the possible values for these free parameters. One possible explanation for this is that there is some processes that is creating a large number of universes (possibly infinite) with the values of the free parameters assigned randomly. We just happen to be in one of the very few universes that can support observers, otherwise, we wouldn’t be around to observe. So, if we could explore other universes, we would quickly find exceptions to Hempel’s U-238 generalization.

So, it might be the case that, for *any* synthetic proposition in our current body of theory, we will eventually discover that this proposition can only be explained by a set of analytically true conditionals (a model) + the very contingent empirical proposition that the model applies in this case.

As for nomic necessity: Per this hypothesis, all “laws” are contingent, and nomic ‘possibility” (which is defined in terms of holding scientific laws constant) means holding the contingency base that makes a given set of laws true constant between possible worlds. The trouble with biology is that we have nomic ‘impossibilities’ that are actual. At some point, this may be true for chemistry and physics as well. So, we will have to bite the bullet: accept that we can have actual nomic impossibilities, or let nomic necessity recede to the point that it resembles logical necessity.


A priori statements about biology

In Discussion on April 26, 2010 by Pete Abram

What kind of a priori statement about biology (or even physics) could be remotely interesting? Like Strawson said, an a priori statement is one which you can know is true from your couch, you don’t have to do any science. But if we’re not doing science, then it seems like the statement isn’t going to be biological in any interesting way.


Niche Construction and Miles Davis

In Discussion on April 13, 2010 by Joshua Smart

[Looking at Wenwen’s post, I’m not entirely sure mine is sufficiently different to warrant a new thread. If not, sorry.]

I think that several little questions that I had about this weeks readings can be summed up one bigger one: So What? Lewontin and Odling-Smee seem to think that niche construction is a revolutionary idea that will drastically alter the way we understand evolution. But I don’t see it. It shows us that evolution can be more complicated than how we often think about it–which is certainly good and important–but it does seem to entail any large scale upheaval. After all, wouldn’t we expect these constructive behaviors to have some genetic basis if they’re going to spread throughout the species and last for generations?

I see the change as something like the following crude example. Resources are on a high table, out of reach of most or all members of a species. Normally we would expect tallness to be advantageous and lead the population to evolve to be taller. Now, we should realize that evolution will favor members of the species that can build stairs as well. Useful, but not earth shattering.

Am I missing something?


Pre-class discussion: Metaphors

In Discussion on April 11, 2010 by Lynn Chiu

Hi all,

As a warm-up for our discussion on Tuesday, I’m opening a thread for pre-class discussions. This week we’re going to focus on two widespread metaphors describing the relation between the internal (genetic or “beneath the skin”) and external (or environmental) factors that determine organismic ontogeny and phylogeny.

These metaphors are, as described in Lewontin’s book “The Triple Helix”,

(1) the genetic blueprint metaphor (Chapter 1),

which concerns the development of organismic form


(2) the key-lock metaphor (Chapter 2),

which concerns the evolution of organismic form.

On Tuesday, we will attempt to identify the key components these metaphors and Lewontin’s arguments against them. Then we will discuss in detail the niche construction hypothesis (as proposed by Odeling-Smee, et. al. in their book: “Niche Construction: the neglected process in evolution”) and how it rejects the second metaphor.

Feel free to post your thoughts on these metaphors and we will include them into our discussion on Tuesday.



Non-causal counterfactuals

In Discussion on March 22, 2010 by Joshua Smart

[For the record, I’m rather angry at WordPress that I lost this post the first time around.]

I have no doubt that Lewis has considered the following objection, but either I missed it or he does so elsewhere. Any suggestions on what response he makes/might make?

Suppose that c (alone) causes both e and f and that c []–> ec []–> f~c []–> ~e, and ~c []–> ~f. It would appear that f []–> e and ~f []–> ~e follow. But if that’s the case, then doesn’t Lewis have to say that that f also caused e?

An example in English. Suppose that my genetic makeup is such that in each possible world in which I exist my heart beats irregularly. Suppose further that there is only one medication that can fix this, however it is a side effect that my ears swell up to a size they never would have otherwise. On Lewis’ theory, it seems as though we have to say that my heart beating rhythmically caused my ears to swell since, had my heart not beat rhythmically, my ears would not have swollen.

A few possible responses that don’t seem right:

  1. Lewis seems at pains to reject backtracking through counterfactual dependence. So we can’t say something like, “if my heart hadn’t beat rhythmically then I wouldn’t have taken the medicine and then the medicine wouldn’t have caused my ears to swell.
  2. He might try to appeal to a causal chain, but one can imagine a case in which e and f are both immediate effects of c (e.g. are two adjacent neurons simultaneously stimulated by a third neuron).
  3. He always could bite the bullet, but I doubt he does here given how much he avoids it throughout “Postscripts”.


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.



In Discussion on March 13, 2010 by ariew

I’ve been thinking a bit more about how the non-philosophers of science might be perceiving the course so far–I’m including the ethicists, historians, economists.

On the one hand, it might look like a mess.  Philosophers are particularly good at blowing a problem up rather than solving them.  For instance, we started with reductionism as a subject and we learned that the issue is divided into numerous sub-issues, e.g. metaphysical vs. theoretical reduction, macro vs. micro explanation, causal vs. unificatory virtues.

Perhaps perversely, I think we’ve made progress: there’s a method to the mad mess-making.  I’m recalling Descartes’s Discourse on Method (one of the first expressions of analytic philosophy) where he proscribes that to truly understand something we must divide it into its simplest parts where the simplest parts are certain and indubitable.  At least we’re doing some dividing…  Issues like “explanation”, “reduction”, “virtues of modeling”, dog us because they aren’t easily understood unless we partake in some dividing and analysis.

Still, there’s a problem with the way the course is currently constructed.  I think it serves as a rather poor introduction to philosophy of science.  My original aim was that it would.  But, I think, some of the debates we’ve seen in class and on this blog suggest to me that a basic background in philosophy of science would have been helpful.  Yet, on the other hand, I think the course serves as a good “teaser” for a philosophy of science class. There’s something to be said for motivating students to want to dig deeper into the issues we cover.

Any thoughts on how the course is going?