Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Snowy Portland

Wow: Portland was an absolute disaster! I went home to visit my family (once I-84 opened up again after being closed for a few days). We already know from the previous year that Portlanders can't drive in snow (I was fortunate enough to learn in New Hampshire). But this was a whole different ballgame. . . . With no --- or few --- snowplows clearing off the foot or so of snow, things ground to a halt. Huge ruts in the roads formed. It was like driving a rollercoaster. Someone sent me this time-lapse video of cars trying to make it up a little hill. Pretty funny stuff:

We're now in New York City where ironically it was just randomly warm and pleasant (read high 50s!). The world has gone haywire!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Ethics in Science Course

I've uploaded a draft syllabus for my ethics in science class (PHIL 450) for Spring 2009 for those interested students. It's just a draft: more readings will be added as we go along. I'm going to try out a new aspect of the course by increasing my blogging responsibilities with a course blog. Luckily I'll have some "co-bloggers" (those enrolled in the course).

Ethics in Science 2009 Syllabus

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Snowy Moscow

It's been fun in the snow for Belly as she turned a year old. And yes, she's wearing pink, fleece dog-booties — otherwise she ended up with snowballs on her feet. Now hopefully the snow will calm down in the gorge long enough for us to drive to Portland (and then to New York for New Year).

Monday, December 15, 2008

Philosophy of Biology in Spring 2009

A few students have asked about my Philosophy of Biology course (PHIL 417/517, W 3:30–5:50, Spring 2009). Here's a near-final draft of the syllabus that will answer questions about the requirements and topics. Let me point out a few things for interested parties: First, the course will not be a survey. I've decided to alternate between offering more survey-style courses on the philosophy of biology (really surveys of a limited terrain within the phil bio world) and more focused, topic-based courses — the latter will be in odd years; the former in even years. In this case (an odd year par excellence), the topics we'll be dealing with will cluster around questions about biological taxonomy, biological laws, and reductionism — coincidentally all questions that I am actively working on. Thus, the course will feature a healthy dose of my articles, for better or worse. If you're inclined to think worse (my mother chided me about doing this before --- one of her professors in college apparently did something similar, to ill effect), then you should perhaps wait a year to take the course when I'll be much diluted. If you like the idea of talking about and influencing research that is currently going on, then you should enjoy the course.

Second, as the course will be taught as an advanced philosophy course (an undergrad-grad "slash" course), it is highly advisable that you have a bit of philosophy and biology under your belt (students interested in completing the Bioethics Minor should not start with this course!). If you feel especially nervous about your knowledge of evolutionary biology, I can recommend these two classic texts: Ridley's or Futuyma's. In fact, 3 credits of philosophy and 3 credits of biology are prerequisites for being in the class. Apparently, though the registrar will allow you to register for PHIL 417 without either or both (something about not being able to automatically handle non-specific prereqs). That doesn't detract from the fact that they are prerequisites still: if you do not meet them, then you need my permission to take the course.

I'll soon post the course website here. In the meantime, you wish to take a look at the course books as you course-shop, I've ordered Elliott Sober's excellent anthology Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology (3rd Edition, MIT 2006) and Lewontin's little book The Triple Helix. I also asked the UI Bookstore to order a few copies of Sterelny and Griffith's excellent and nicely named introductory text in Phil Bio as an optional text. Please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions about the course or need to chat about your preparation for it in order to take it.

Phil Bio 2009 Syllabus

Monday, December 8, 2008

Laws in Lonely Worlds

Chris Haufe and I were just informed of the acceptance of a paper we've been tinkering with for a while, "Where No Mind Has Gone Before: Exploring Laws in Distant and Lonely Worlds", in the International Studies in the Philosophy of Science. The two referees offered us some quite helpful comments, but of course the most comment to deal with (even when offered in a friendly way) is: "Say more about this. . . . (the final section)". Hmmm. . . . yes. . . . I see your point. Hopefully we'll be able to add something without doubling the length of the paper. We'll see! Is there no room for tentative speculation to close philosophy papers anymore?!

Monday, November 10, 2008


Had a wonderful time at the Philosophy of Science Association Biennial. It was my first time there — what a conference! So many great talks, the worst part was choosing between them. Hell, I was almost torn about whether to attend my talk, given that John Norton, Peter Achinstein, Thomas Kelly symposium on induction was going on then. Thus, I'm awfully grateful for (though somewhat puzzled by!) those who chose to attend my session! Thanks. For the many who missed it, I don't blame you — here's the paper if you're curious: "Macromolecular Pluralism". I'll give a lightning quick version at the Eastern APA as well, complete with flashy animations of flopping proteins.

But the best part of the conference for me was the symposium that Chris Haufe and I organized on whether evolutionary theory is a theory of forces: Robert Brandon and Chris Stephens contended (in their own ways) that it is whereas Denis Walsh took the unpopular position that it is not — that if we construe fitness in the way that Gillespie suggests, we can't straightforwardly interpret it as a cause, as it makes possible a kind of Simpson's Paradox. A lot of the discussion focused on whether this was in fact true — whether there was a Simpson's Paradox afoot (I'm still not sure) — Bruce Glymour had to be physically restrained lest he attempt to pummel Denis into submission (just kidding, Bruce!). Despite the hot debate, everything was kept friendly and efficient by John Beatty who graciously agreed to chair the session. Hopefully we'll see their papers in the proceedings!

I tell you: organizing symposia is great! Chris and I wanted to see this debate take place and . . . Lo, it did! Too bad the next PSA isn't for another two years.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Monday, October 27, 2008

Can a joke be a premise?

Some jokes are philosophically deep. Here's a classic that I'm surprised that (as far as I know) philosophers of science haven't picked up on (my verision): A panda walks into a bar and orders a Guinness and a salad. When he's done, he pulls out a gun, fires a few shots into the air, and ambles out. As he passes, the bartender shouts: "Hey, what'dya do that for?!" To which the animal replies: "It's 'cause I'm a panda: look it up!" The bartender reaches for his copy of Mammalian Systematics and reads with a groan: "Giant Panda . . . Ailuropoda melanoleuca . . . eats shoots and leaves."

Thus begins my paper "Why the Long Face?: The Stable Property Cluster Account of Natural Kinds". The title references the (quick) joke about the horse that walks into the bar --- the bartender asks "Why the long face?" The answer, of course, is because it's a horse. So here's a quick argument that there are natural kinds in biology: These jokes wouldn't be funny if species were not natural kinds. But they are funny (well, sort of). Hence there are biological natural kinds.

The paper is basically a defense of the first premise. But I must say, it's getting a little out of hand. After "trimming" my for a while dormant paper on biological kinds, it now weighs in at a hefty 22,000 words. And of course I found all sorts of things that I need to expand and eleborate. Damn! The journey continues. [inner voice: Shhhh! Don't tell anyone or they might not read it! --- oops!]. At this rate, perhaps I should give up trying to trim it down to a stand-alone article and instead simply focus on my book.

Well, in case you work in this area and are interested, here's the most recent copy, warts and all. Comments welcome. But please don't cite it, of course.

"Why the Long Face?: The Stable Property Cluster Account of Natural Kinds"
as of 10/27/08

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The HPS Series at UI

We're getting there. I've been working with a number of folks in various departments to raise funds (basically going door-to-door to departments) to start a lecture series in the History and Philosophy of Science. So far, we have two scheduled speakers: Ned Hall and Sahotra Sarkar (with hopefully more to come shortly).

Professor Hall will offer two talks, one aimed at scientists and one aimed at philosophers on November 13th and 14th. I'm still working on getting a suitable room scheduled.

The new HPS Group webpage is up (in a fetal — or blastular, even — state). Look for updates there if you're interested. I'd also be keen to get suggestions for other folks to add to our list of potential invitees — particularly people outside of philosophy of whom I'm less likely to know.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Yellowstone in Fall

Laura and I were recently guests of the Yellowstone Association during their Legacy for Learning Weekend. We're not going to get our names on any lists for our financial support of the association (which, by they way, deserves as much financial support as folks can muster). Instead, we played evangelists — especially after our amazing wolf-watching trip last winter. I had my camera of course and managed to get several shots I'm pretty proud of. This one might be my favorite. I love how putting the tree vertically gets the horizon just slightly off kilter. Neat.

Here are some more photos from that trip.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

White Winter Hymnal

I recently bought the Fleet Foxes' new self-titled album. Seattle band that doesn't really sound like Seattle. But I dig it. Particularly this song:

But I have to ask: what does it mean? Anyone?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Trip to Alaska

Laura and I just returned from a fabulous ten day trip to Alaska (Juneau and the Kenai Peninsula). Great food, decent weather, and amazing scenery made for a wonderful trip. Laura's brother is a fishing guide out of Juneau and so we got the reciprocal touring hookups. I particularly enjoyed hearing his stories about idiotic tourists. You know, the ones who ask whether these fish swimming by are Atlantic salmon, or "what elevation is Juneau?": um, there's the sea . . . so. . . . Or on the Mendenhall Glacier, someone asked the guide "How did these [few] leaves get up here?!" He responded in rhythm: "Oh, those are meteoric leaves from outer space."

Some photos from the trip are here.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Course Release

Just got word that my EPSCoR Proposal Enhancement Release Time (PERT) Grant was recommended for funding — gotta love the pervasive acronyms in the grant game! — allowing me a course release for the fall. While this is great and will allow me to spend a bunch more time prepping my NSF grant application supporting the History and Philosophy of Science lecture series I'm trying to get going here, it does mean giving up a course I've been hoping to teach for quite a while (Metaphysics). And of course it was the course for which I had done the most prep work. . . . Oh well, hopefully I'll get the chance again sometime soon.

To the students registered for the course: Sorry! But I've got to ask (since I won't get the chance in person): for those of you who were signed up for the course without having taken any philosophy before, what made you want to take it? It would have been damned hard to jump into an advanced class like that. Imagine signing up for PHYSICS 446: Condensed Matter Physics (or whatever) not having taken Physics 101. . . . Perhaps I'll never know.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Stay at CFI

Just got back from a very pleasant stay at the Center for Inquiry, the world's "foremost not-for-profit organization devoted to the defense of reason, science, secular humanism, and the naturalistic worldview". Got to work on a few papers, talk to other research fellows and U at Buffalo faculty, and enjoy some fabulous BBQ courtesy of Neil Williams! Neil and I are working on a paper on Toxins — exploring whether they are a natural kind. Should be interesting: Neil's a rabid "powers"-guy, I'm a bit more circumspect. Fire and ice: hopefully the paper won't turn out to be lukewarm water (jeez: two Spinal Tap references in two posts). . . .

Creativity in Science

I've been thinking recently about the role of creativity in scientific research. Is it necessary? What is it, exactly? At first glance, one might attempt to cash it out in Kuhnian terms as paradigm-breaking hypotheses unprompted by previous experiment รข€” in other words as original "insights" that begin to define novel paradigms. The history of science would seem to lend some support for this interpretation (ask yourself: who are the creative scientists?). But it also seems that one could find scientific creativity in "normal science". Finding the right deferents and epicycles to approximately cohere with observations or developing the right experiments (e.g., Ray Davis' neutrino detector) are difficult. Moreover, simply being "original" doesn't seem to exhaust what we have in mind — one could be stupidly or mechanically original. If 'creative' only describes the source of an idea, does it turn it into a black box? On this count, there has been a good deal of work in neuroscience about where insight comes from. I'm not sure what light any of that would shed on the questions above.

So in short, I'm still casting about for ideas. Comments and references welcome. . . .

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Hello Pittsburgh!!!

(Imagine me shouting that like Spinal Tap's "Hello Cleveland!!!!")

I'm delighted to be on the program at the upcoming PSA2008 (Philosophy of Science Association) coming up in November. I'll present "Macromolecular Pluralism". Never been to one. From a quick glance at the schedule, it should be fantastic; I'll get to catch up with friends I don't see often and chat with people I've been hoping to chat with.

Plus, Chris Haufe (Virginia Tech) and I organized a can't-miss Symposium on whether evolutionary theory is a theory of forces with Elliott Sober, Robert Brandon, and Denis Walsh (chaired by John Beatty). At first, for some reason, I read the schedule wrong and thought that I was presenting at the same time as that symposium. I might have let out a Colbert-esque bellow of "NOOOOOooooo!", but then read a bit more carefully. . . .

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Slater Reports

I'm not entirely sure why I have a blog. Nor am I sure why you're reading it. But here we both are.

Actually, it's fairly simple. A handful of people are interested in what's happening in my (publically-shareable) personal life: e.g., how's our dog doing, what neato trips have we taken recently, what havoc have we gotten into in home improvement, &c. Another small handful of people are (or profess to be) interested in what I'm thinking about and working on research-wise. I'm hoping that an added bonus to writing occasionally here would be that it gets some of the ideas flowing, elicits useful comments and direction, and so on. We shall see. So if you fall into one of those categories: hey, how ya doin'. If you don't, hello, welcome; nothing like idle curiosity, eh? Mmm hmm. . . .