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!

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