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.