Monday, December 19, 2011

Natural Kinds in Granada

With the term over, I finally had time to look back at some of my photos (and papers). Here are some shots from the lovely workshop on "Natural Kinds in Philosophy and in the Life Sciences: Scholastic Twilight or New Dawn?" The title is a reference to a recent screed by the famous philosopher of science Ian Hacking called "Natural Kinds: Rosy Dawn, Scholastic Twilight". As the title suggests, Hacking thinks that philosophical research on natural kinds has entered a period of scholastic navel-gazing. I have two (conflicting) reactions to this. (1) No it's not! (2) He's wrong to think that it ever wasn't (in at least some sense) — it's just that our navels were previously out of focus. Right now, I'm more inclined to the second interpretation, no doubt partly because I'm busy writing two books on natural kinds! Fortunately, Hacking's arguments are pretty uncompelling.

Anyway, Hacking wasn't at the conference to defend his honor. And that's fine. The folks there were for the most part committed to the idea that there's something non-incestuous (or not problematically incestuous) about the idea of natural kinds in the biological sciences. I decided to talk about cell types — extending some of the sketchy thoughts offered at ISHPSSB a few weeks back. Finally, I have a decent draft of a paper on this subject:

"Cell Types as Natural Kinds"

It feels like just a start. But that's okay. I'm already way over the word-limit. And I'll definitely be coming back to these issues when I'm able to get back to writing my book on Biological Kinds. In the meanwhile, I'm all about species! Got a June deadline to worry about. . . .

Anyway, while at the conference, enjoying spectacular weather — I stayed a few extra days because I had a Tuesday/Thursday teaching schedule and I could — Lewisburg saw the worst flooding since the catastrophic 1972 Agnes flood. Bloomsburg, about 40 minutes away, was really devastated: like roads/bridges washed away, homes floating down the Susquehanna River, and so on. So between checks of the hydrological survey online and Facebook updates of emergency basement clearings — our house, being on a hill, was unaffected —, I was touring the Alhambra. Bizarre. I missed the whole flood visiting a parched country.

More photos here.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Species & Biodiversity Reading Group

I was delighted to receive a David T. Scadden Fellowship to fund a project investigating the philosophical and biological underpinnings of the concept of biodiversity. It seems to me that this term is much used, but poorly understood. The more I've thought about the vagaries of biological classification, the more problematic the issue seems.

So starting in the Spring 2012 term, I will be running an interdisciplinary reading group on the nature of species and biodiversity. The group will include a mix of students and professors and we will read several books and articles — to be decided, but right now I'm thinking about reading Wheeler & Meier (eds.) Species Concepts and Phylogenetic Theory: A Debate, Richard Richards' The Species Problem, James Maclauren and Kim Sterelny's What is Biodiversity?, and some chapters form my book manuscript, Are Species Real? (forthcoming from Palgrave-Macmillan in 2012), among other things. Meetings are tentatively scheduled for alternating Wednesdays from noon-1PM (over lunch).

Students may join the reading group for credit (a full course-credit section of PHIL 320). If you're interested, please send me an email (matthew.slater@b...) or come chat with me about your experience/coursework in biology (and philosophy, if any). Specific requirements (papers, projects, &c.) for receiving credit will be negotiated on an individual basis.

The Fellowship will also allow me to fund one or two students to continue their research over the summer or fall of 2012 (and possibly attend a relevant conference). So students who are interested in getting some independent research experience on biodiversity are especially encouraged to join.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Carving Nature at its Joints

Well isn't this a handsome, well-priced, and interesting-looking volume of essays on natural kinds! Now on sale at all discerning bookshops (and some undiscerning ones too).

Here's the penultimate version of the introduction co-written by one of the co-editors (me).

Thursday, September 22, 2011

My Species Book — now forthcoming

So now it appears that I actually have to finish my book on the metaphysics of species, for it will soon be under contract with Palgrave-Macmillan in their new "New Directions in the Philosophy of Science" series. The manuscript is due in June, so I have months, but they will doubtless go by quickly. If anyone would like to read a draft manuscript, please let me know. I'll be happy to send you a link when I get the draft ready enough to bother folks with (probably in January).

I'm grateful to Steven French and the editorial board for the series for pursuing this with me. I had originally thought that I was writing one giant book on biological kinds, but then realized when they got in touch that in fact I had a book on biological species a bit closer to hand. I'd encourage anyone who's working on a book-length manuscript in the philosophy of science to get in touch with them. All signs are that this is going to be an excellent series and that Palgrave is really serious about stepping up their presence in philosophical monographs generally.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


I can't shut down my computer when MS Word is running, because whenever the computer attempts to quit it, Word crashes and then opens the Microsoft Crash Reporting program. I've gotten used to this, partly because I've been successful reducing my usage of Word to simply formatting my bibliographies when I'm ready to send out a paper.

Recently, however, the crash reporter has started crashing. Fortunately the crash reporter has no crash reporter, so it doesn't look like I'll get stuck in a big loop. My new solution is to simply use MacOSX's "Force Quit" function whenever I want to stop using Word (which is pretty much right after I start using it).

Monday, July 18, 2011

ISHPSSB 2011 in Salt Lake City

I just got back from my last philosophy-related trip for a good two months: my first time at the biennial meeting of the International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB, pronounced as “Ishkabibble” by its members). The idea of the conference is to bring together a bunch of humanists and biologists and get some good cross-disciplinary discussion going. And I have to say, the conference did a nice job at this. I was in a triple session on cell signaling that included biologists Brian Hall (one of the early founders of Evo-Devo!), Scott Gilbert (a prominent developmental biologist — he wrote the textbook I and everyone I know learned developmental biology from), Karl Matlin (a professor of surgery at the University of Chicago), and other philosophers, historians, and sociologists (Barton Moffatt, Ken WatersBeckett SternerChristina BrandtHannah Landecker, and Andrew Reynolds: the organizers of the session). Unfortunately Scott had to return early for a minor medical emergency, but otherwise, I thought the sessions were really good. There turned out to be a good deal of cohesion between the talks and some good discussion. And, as I've mentioned before, Utah is still gorgeous! This time, I brought my camera!

For some reason, I was particularly anxious about this talk. This isn’t usually an issue for me, but I had the distinct feeling that I had bitten off more than I could chew as I was preparing for my presentation. When Hannah and Andrew posted the idea for the session in the ISH (“Ish”) discussion board, I thought: “Oh, I can see how one could give an account of cellular kinds by drawing on research on cell signaling!” I wrote the following abstract for my talk:
Talk of different types of cells is commonplace in the biological sciences. We know a great deal, for example, about human muscle cells by studying the same type of cells in mice. Information about cell type is apparently largely projectible across species boundaries. But what defines cell type? Do cells come pre-packaged into different natural kinds? Philosophical attention to these questions has been extremely limited (see, e.g., Wilson 1999 and Wilson, Barker, and Brigandt 2007). On the face of it, the problems we face in individuating cellular kinds resemble those biologists and philosophers of biology encountered in thinking about species: there are apparently many different (and interconnected) bases on which we might legitimately classify cells. We could, for example, focus on their developmental history (a sort of analogue to a species' evolutionary history); or we might divide on the basis of certain structural features, functional role, location within larger systems, and so on. In this paper, I focus on an especially promising way of thinking about many cell types which unifies much of this plurality. In multicellular contexts, cells become the sorts of things they are, find themselves where they are, and do the sorts of things they do in virtue of complex communication networks with other cells. Cells, in a sense, announce — or are told — what kinds they are and take up their proper roles accordingly. While this cannot be the whole story about cell type individuation, it seems to me an important component. The paper will conclude with some preliminary thoughts about how to think about the plurality of ways to divide cells into kinds and whether a "Cell Problem" analogous to the infamous "Species Problem" results.
I titled my paper “Hi, I’m a Fibroblast!” — an attempt at a clever reference to my signaling metaphor; think conference name badges. This lead to several references in Brian Hall’s talk along the lines of “we’ll be hearing more about fibroblasts in the next talk….” Oops: I guess I set expectations for biological-information content too high!

Matt Haber and Jim Tabery — the local organizers
on the last day of the conference (whew!)
Anyway, troublesome details about the workings of signal transduction started revealing themselves as I looked into the literature a bit more — troublesome for my name-tag analogy, anyway. Damned reality! I was hoping that I’d be able to offer a sort of top-down approach to kind membership for cells rather than the recursive, bottom up stance about kinds that is currently popular. It turns out that some cells do different things even when they receive the same signal (in the chemical sense — I suppose one could argue that it’s a different signal in a more nuanced, context-sensitive sense). So unless we were prepared to paper over such differences in a cellular taxonomy, other internal features of cells are relevant to how they integrate themselves into signaling. It’s as if name tags meant different things in different rooms or depending on who else was around. There are other complications that I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that I’ve got some work to do. Since I’m planning on presenting on this topic at a workshop on natural kinds in Granada in September, I’d better get on it. Sincere thanks to Matt and Jim for organizing such a fantastic conference. Big success, guys.

Aside from catching up with a lot of phil-bio friends, I was able to get up into the hills outside of Salt Lake City. Maureen O’Malley and I had a nice afternoon hike in Alta the day before my talk. We were initially cross that the dirt road to some of the longer hikes was closed off. So we started a short one and made it longer by going off trail a bit (though every so often, we’d say “oh, there’s a trail again!”) in order to get to the top of the ridge. As we tried to make a loop our of our there-and-back trail, we discovered the likely reason that the road was closed: even on July 13th, there was still a lot of snow up there. Go figure. Photos from the whole shebang here.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Protein Classification

My last talk in Sydney was, appropriately, in the "Work-in-Progress" Seminar. As I mentioned in my previous post, Emma Tobin and I are working on a joint reply to William Goodwin's paper, "Structure, Function, and Protein Taxonomy". We're still in thinking-stage now, squeezing it in between other projects. So the WiP Seminar offered a good opportunity for me to think out loud a little.

One of the strange things about my reaction to Goodwin's paper is that I'm not really sure how much I disagree with him (or he with me). He wants to say that amino acid sequence plays a "fundamental" role for protein taxonomy in that it substantially determines the possibilities for protein function. True, which of these functions are realized may depend on biochemical context, but that's something that biochemists can accommodate in their practice. He makes a number of other points, but this seems to be Goodwin's core position. And I don't disagree substantially with it. Clearly, the possibilities of "higher-order" structures of proteins are constrained by its primary structure. But it's not as clear that this shows that primary structure delimits different protein kinds. In my (2009) paper, I argued that counting by primary structure plausibly undercounts protein kinds. The same primary structure can be differently folded in different contexts and assume different biochemical functions. Emma noted a similar point in connection with intrinsically-disordered/unstructured proteins: sometimes there's simply no single "native" folding (the kind of conformation that encourages the anthropomorphic language in videos like the following).

The pluralist about protein taxonomy, in my view, takes such facts as giving us good reason for refusing to make generalizations about how to classify proteins. Perhaps in some cases we ought to divide by function and in others by primary structure; perhaps in some cases, tertiary or quaternary structure is stable and fruitful enough to be useful. The monist's claim appears to be a normative one: that one should conform one's categories to those defined by primary structure. It's not totally clear to me that Goodwin would accept even this much. Perhaps monism for him is a metaphysical/explanatory thesis: that primary structure is explanatorily fundamental. I don't think I know what this means, though. . . . And even if there turned out to be some sense of 'explanatorily fundamental' that attached to primary structure, again, I don't see how it would show that it should have a 'fundamental individuating role'.

I was thinking about this sort of analogy from metaphysics. One flat-footed justification for primary-structure-monism could be that biochemists often say things like "proteins are certain polymers of amino acids", suggesting that they ought to be divided into kinds on that basis. Likewise, one might be tempted to say that statues are certain conformations of lumps of clay (or what have you). That looks like an identification on the surface. But it’s problematic. For when I steamroll the statue of David, I destroy the statue but not the lump of clay. Lump is squashable; David isn’t: so they must be different things (goes the thought). Indeed, I might take Lump and reshape it into a statue of Joe the Plumber. David ≠ Joe, so it can’t be that David = Lump and Joe = Lump by the transitivity of identity. Certain metaphysicians want to say that the Lump constitutes David. I think this response has some problems (despite its obvious appeal) in this case, but I find that I'm tempted to give this sort of response in the protein case. While biochemists often say that proteins are strings of amino acids (suggesting that a monism about 1-ary structure is appropriate to describe biochemical discourse), what they mean is that proteins are (mostly) constituted by amino acids. Perhaps ‘protein’ is actually ambiguous between meaning just polypeptide strings and some more complicated notion with connected to structure and evincing different identity conditions.

Apply the statue/clay analogy back to biochemistry. Here’s a globular protein: when I denature it, have I destroyed it? I feel a bit torn. Well: I’ve most likely taken away its function, but as Goodwin might insist, it still has that function inasmuch as it retains the capacity to refold and execute that function in the proper circumstances. (Capacities are funny, though: as David Lewis wrote, he has the capacity to speak Finnish; but don’t take him to Finland, because he can’t speak Finnish!) But now let’s reform the lump: take our polypeptide into a different context where it refolds into a radically different globular structure. How many different types of proteins has this story been about? There’s been one polypeptide but two proteins, I can imagine being inclined to say (filling out the details in certain ways). This is roughly what I had in mind when I cited the possibility of different "modes" of classification. I don’t think that this is pluralism exactly (I might be changing my mind from what I wrote in 2009 — or perhaps I wasn’t clear about it there). The pluralism comes from there being cases of the same basic structure where we lump instead of split (or vice-versa), perhaps because we are impressed with certain functional differences or what not. And the point is that there doesn’t seem to be any fact of the matter about what level of organization is more important for doing so. Take Emma's example of different hemoglobin isoforms: judged on a metric of amino-acid similarity, it might be that the functionally very different forms are much closer together (they might have just one substitution), whereas the silent polymorphisms are much farther apart in terms of their primary structure. Paul Griffiths pointed out to me that there’s a nice analogy with databases of RNAs: geneticists often have to annotate the sequences so as to cross-classify rather dissimilar sequences which are similar but which have different higher-level structural properties.

Once again, I'm indebted to the Sydney crew for their insightful comments/questions on my ramblings on this topic (and others). They sure were a good group of people to hang out with. Now returned to the Northern Hemisphere, I'm happy to be enjoying summer again, but sad to have left their company (and the beauty of Sydney!). I'd certainly encourage philosophers/historians of science to apply to their visiting fellows program (especially if they like bushwalking!).

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Talking and Walking in Sydney

The Quad
Last week started my first week properly at the Centre for the Foundations of Science at the University of Sydney (rather than merely a resident of Sydney). We got right to business with a reading-group session in Paul Griffiths’ office on a very interesting paper by John Wilkins on whether species should be considered as theoretical objects of biology (objects necessary for biological explanation) or rather as targets of explanation. This was warm-up for his seminar on the 15th to which I’m looking forward. After that, I started getting situated in the Centre office, in the front of the amazing Quad building. Because there aren’t a lot of other visitors to the Centre at the moment, and the administrator is on leave, I’ve so far had this huge office to myself (I’ll post interior photos soon).

On Wednesday, I gave my own talk in the seminar series. Again, it was on material drawn from my paper on stable property cluster kinds — this time on the heart of the concept of stability I think makes for a more general account of natural kinds, developing some of the ideas I started working out in the UK last fall. I was, I admit, a little reticent about this since the paper straddles the fence between criticism and friendly amendment to the Homeostatic Property Cluster (HPC) account of kinds — an account that one of my hosts (and the chair of the session) Paul Griffiths has done much to articulate and promote. Couple that with the fact that the audience was sprinkled with philosophical heavyweights (e.g., Huw Price, shortly to take up the Bertrand Russell chair at Cambridge), wicked-smart metaphysicians (Rachel Briggs, David Braddon-Mitchell, Kristie Miller, &c.) and a host of philosopher of biology (Wilkins, Dominic MurphyMark Colyvan, and walking-biological-encyclopedia Maureen O’Malley) and the Q&A session was ripe for devastating objections. Fortunately, though, the audience was ideal: challenges were offered in a friendly and productive spirit and suggestions for clarification and extension were unusually helpful. Whew! Thanks everyone!

Once again, though, I have another talk to prepare before I’m able to really process the questions and suggestions that came up. Fortunately, it’s a “Work-in-Progress” seminar in a room without slideshow capabilities (lest I get tempted): so there’s no demand to present something “polished”. The plan is to start working out a reply to a paper William Goodwin recently published in Biology & Philosophy criticizing papers by me and Emma Tobin about protein classification. Emma and I are talking about co-writing the response. But first I need to sort out what I want to say. . . .

Meanwhile, Maureen took me walking in Balmain (basically across the bay from Glebe), a former factory district, now turned site of rather expensive cottages, with lovely views back east onto the inner harbors. Photos from that (and around Glebe) here. Tomorrow I head out into the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney for a long walk (aka “hike”) with Paul, Maureen, and Kristie. Hopefully the weather will hold enough for some nice shots of the many vistas we’re supposed to enjoy.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Australia Arrival and ANU Talk

After a one day delay because I and the Australian government were stupid about visa issues — I won’t try to settle who was more stupid (though let’s just note that if their credit card processor for visa transactions had been working, I’d have gone on my flight no problem) — I finally survived the 2-hour, 4-hour, then 15-hour flights and made it to my home base off of Blackwattle Bay in Sydney. I’m just adjacent to a little park with running trails. The runners and the rowers constantly crossing my view both shame and inspire me. To stay up and get adjusted to the 14-hour time difference, I walked for about five hours around to the fish markets and then around Pyrmont.

But then it was back to preparing for the talk I'd give at ANU the next day. I had originally planned on talking about the problems facing the species-as-individuals (SAI) metaphysic (something I’ve been thinking about for a good while now); specifically, addressing the move that my friend Matt Haber suggested to me back in Utah and why it didn’t look very promising to me. But on the plane ride over, I started thinking about the issue from a methodological perspective (inspired by the discussion at MPSC2011) and wrote out a different talk where I said a bit about the worries for SAI, a bit about my (supposed-to-be non-worrisome) alternative view, and concentrated on the status of SAI as a piece of “naturalized metaphysics”. It seems like an interesting case to me, since (if I’m right about it) we have some scientists reading off metaphysical conclusions from the science which I think decisively run afoul of considerations from analytic metaphysics. So it’s a case where naturalizing metaphysics goes wrong — or better, where you can't just read off the metaphysics without doing significant work in the very domain that the philosophers of science often find themselves decrying. After writing out all this and what to think of it, I managed to leave my notebook on the plane. Damn! The only consolation was that it was a brand-new notebook and I didn’t lose any other bright ideas.

In the haze of my jet-lag, I tried my best to put together a coherent and interesting talk, mostly on the train to Canberra (some lovely views!). I can’t judge whether either aim succeeded. The schtick for talks there is quite something. It starts off with a seminar with the graduate students, designed to fill them in on any necessary background. Then we retire to a balcony/courtyard thing for tea and biscuits. Then there’s the talk and Q&A that goes about two hours. My audience was sympathetic of my jet lag but not with my ideas, raising worries and challenges that will keep me busy for a while. (I certainly wasn’t able to offer satisfactory replies there — judging from their facial expressions, anyway. At least Dave liked my fonts. . . .) But that’s exactly what one wants out of this kind of experience. Thanks in particular are due to Dave Chalmers, Adrian Currie, Zoe Drayson (my old pal from Edinburgh), Dan Korman (my old pal from metaphysics talks at various APAs and seminar convener), Daniel Nolan, Wolfgang Schwarz, Adam Sennet, and Daniel Stoljar (and probably others I’ve undeservedly forgotten).

Post-pre-talk, pre-seminar tea.

Korman is not convinced by my gesturing. . . .

More skeptical looks. 

Most of these photos taken by notorious conference/talk photojournalist, Dave Chalmers. Thanks! I'll be collecting more photos from Australia as I have time to upload them here.

Back in Sydney now, I have to put off processing all this in order to prepare for my next talk on the 1st on a completely different topic (expanding something else from my paper on SPC kinds). My walk over to Darling Harbour will have to wait.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Metaphysics in the Philosophy of Science 2011 at Toronto

I'm recently back from the MPSC2011 Conference at the University of Toronto and must say that I thought it went extremely well. Thanks to everyone who came and to our gracious hosts at IHPST! Of course, I wish we had more time for discussion (in pretty much every session), but I thought that the discussion was really great. It was certainly helpful for me (that was the point, right?). If you missed it, here are some photos (email me if you have any more to contribute) and here's an area for papers from the conference.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Westward Swing

Quarters of the Philosophy Department at Utah: cool building! 
On my way to the Pacific APA, I stopped off at the University of Utah to give a talk and visit my friend Matt Haber. The paper I gave was an a brief summary and then elaboration of §7 of my paper on Stable Property Cluster kinds: the bit on the polymorphism problem for cluster kind views of species. My response is basically to admit that it could be a problem in some cases and simply accept that the relevant species taxa fail to be natural kinds in those cases. This only gets awkward and embarrassing, I think, if one is interprets the thesis that species are natural kinds as an answer to a metaphysical question: to what ontological category do species taxa belong? Fortunately, that's not the question I think we ought to be asking — or better, it's not the question that is answered when I claim that (many) species taxa are natural kinds. This is one issues my book on species (Are Species Real?) will aim to clarify. But in talking with Haber, I realized that my interpretation of one very popular philosophical account of species may be overly narrow [sigh]. Not a "back-to-the-drawing-board" realization, by any means, but it looks like I'll need to at least reframe and expand a chapter or two. So it goes. . . .

But interestingly, it also seemed to me that though Haber and I are notationally on other sides of the table on the metaphysics of species (he is a sympathizer of the "species-as-individuals" view, I am a critic), we aren't as far apart as I previously thought. This might be because he's a non-standard SAI-ist — I'm not sure. His suggestion, as I understand it, is that there is a biological notion of parthood that applies to species and which lacks many of the features of the standard-issue parthood relation (e.g., transitivity). I'm now working on a paper exploring different ways of putting this idea into practice.

San Diego had it all! (not my photo, unfortunately!)
I must say as well that Salt Lake City triggered a bit of West Coast envy: those mountains, that weather, the laid-back atmosphere. . . . Utah reminded me a lot of Idaho. I'm looking forward to heading back to SLC for the ISHPSSB meeting in July. That West Coast envy was triggered in a slightly different way when I continued on to San Diego for the Pacific APA. Since the Pacific meeting is often held over Easter weekend, it coincided with Laura's Spring "Break" (I still find it unbelievable that — before snow days take their toll — spring break here doesn't go weekend to weekend!). We made a long weekend of it and visited our favorite pair of ENT surgeons, Jeremiah and Rowley, driving around twisty hillside roads in our rented convertible, going on hikes among gorgeous flowering cacti, visiting the many breweries in and around San Diego (including the Stone Brewery — a must-go for an IPA fan like myself), and going sailing with Miah. Fun stuff! Why I didn't bring my camera on the trip remains a compete mystery.

As far as my professional responsibilities at the APA went, I was commenting on a really interesting paper by Kelly Trogdon on the "Non-Transitivity of Metaphysical Grounding", which argued from a purported failure of the transitivity of causal explanation that metaphysical grounding may fail to be transitive for similar reasons. My commentary focused Kelly's contention that causal explanation fails to be transitive. The old example that is supposed to reveal this comes from the proverb "For Want of a Nail":
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
We're supposed to have the intuition that though the want of a nail explains why the shoe was lost (and so on for each proximate explanatory connection), the want of a nail does not explain why the kingdom was lost. I won't trot out my full commentary here (mostly because it was from handwritten notes), but it  occurs to me now why this sort of example might get one thinking that transitivity can fail. Take the individual explanatory links in the lines of the proverb: the lack of a nail sure does seem to explain why the horseshoe was lost; it is a clear "difference-maker" for the horseshoe loss. It's even a strong contender  for being counted as the explanation of that shoe loss (rather than being merely explanatorily relevant in some weaker fashion). Why? Because the background conditions which facilitate the relevant difference-making are unexceptional. They don't themselves cry out for explanation. The salient difference-maker is the nail lack. If we wished to extend the explanation, these background conditions (things being eminently normal) will be a less tempting target than the lack of a nail: was a careless farrier to blame or are the nails faulty? That's the fact that (still) calls out for explanation.

But as we widen our scope and assemble the explanatory links, the need for explanation shifts to the background conditions which ground the chain as a whole. So assembled, they are hardly unexceptional. They depict a kingdom on the brink — where one nail can make the difference between victory and defeat! This is a very delicate situation indeed: one might fairly wonder how it came to pass. But given that they constitute the background conditions for the chain (the sum, as it were, of the background conditions of each link), the transitivity of the explanatory difference-making between the lack of a nail and the loss of the kingdom seems untouched. Of course, it won't be very tempting to say that the lack of a nail is the explanation of the loss of the kingdom. The lack of a nail is now the more unexceptional fact! Here's an analogy: suppose Kelly's jacket is dirty. I ask my friend why. She explains that it's because he dived into the dirt after the assassin appeared from behind the bushes to take a shot at him. It would be quite strange for me to be satisfied with this explanation! I should want to know why some assassin is hunting him (and I should probably decline to comment in his APA session). But I can still recognize that his diving onto the ground is an explanatory difference-maker for his jacket being dirty. It seems to me that the same sort of thing is going on in the "For Want of a Nail" example. I need to think more about Kelly's diagnosis of the case and its relevance for metaphysical grounding.

Side note: I've now been tangentially involved with different philosophers suggesting that the grounding relation is not irreflexive (Carrie Jenkins' paper in my Monist issue — out just recently!) and not transitive. Simple induction would suggest that someone will attack the asymmetry of the relation directly and I will be asked to comment. Or maybe I should try it!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Monist Issue Released

Found this in the mail the other day. I was hoping for the green! Sweet! Here's the Table of Contents:

My hat's off to the contributors, who wrote what I think are some really interesting papers and were a pleasure to deal with throughout the editorial process. Thanks for your hard work on this topic! Thanks as well to the dozens of referees, who slaved away in anonymity to provide the authors and me with valuable feedback. Likewise, it was a pleasure working with Barry Smith and George Reisch at the Monist Mothership.

I just looked back into my email and see that it was in late June 2007 that Barry asked me to design an issue around the theme "Carving Nature at its Joints". It so happened that I was in the planning stages of a conference on that theme which was to have an associated volume with precisely that title. I was delighted to be asked to edit an issue, but somewhat panicked at the thought of editing two distinct volumes with the same name. (In retrospect, I kind of wish I had just for novelty's sake.) In 2007, the issue's release date of April 2011 seemed flying-car, hoverboard distant — a different decade! The future is now.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Stable Property Cluster Kinds

I've just posted a significantly updated version of a paper I've been working on for a while that sketches my favored account of natural kinds (a loosening of the Homeostatic Property Cluster account). It's still quite drafty: bracketed notes sprinkled about request some specific help/advice, and it clearly needs to be expanded in places and cut down in others. In particular, I'm not certain that I'm really in a position to say something about species as a case-study in the last section. I worry that it just raises more questions than it answers. So any opinions about that would be most welcome. Feel free to post in the comments or simply email me.

"A Different Kind of Property Cluster Kind" [PDF]

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Program for MPSC 2011 Posted

My co-organizers and I just posted a tentative program for the Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science Conference taking place from May 13th–15th. It's looking vaguely coherent — hopefully not too many people will need to move around due to travel stuff.

We were pretty much inundated with papers for this thing, getting more than 85 submissions and ending up doing more parallel sessions than we were expecting. Should be a really interesting conference. And registration is free, so hopefully more folks will decide to come.

See you in Toronto in late May!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Arguments for the Existence of God

I am constantly impressed by the rhetorical power of satire to efficiently rebut nonsense. Colbert is a master.