Monday, June 2, 2014

Philosophy of Biology at Madison

Third time's a charm! After two previous attempts to get on the program at POBAM, I finally made it for a development of the presentation I made at the Paris workshop. As with the previous workshops, this was a really high quality affair. Many kudos and thanks to the organizers. It was great to see a lot of old friends and meet some new folks.

POBAM is a "pre-read" conference, meaning that attendees are distributed all papers in advance and asked to read them. Presenters only get 10–15 minutes (of their hour session) to present (or remind folks) of the main ideas of the paper. The result is — when people actually fulfill their obligations — a much deeper conversation than is typical. But it of course also presents some challenges for the presenters — because you know that not everyone has read your work (and fewer have read it recently), so it's hard to resist the urge to just zip through a super-short summary. I actually found the paper challenging to write (submissions are evaluated on the basis of an extended abstract). Since the subject of ecosystemic kinds is meant to be a chapter in my next book, and not a standalone paper, I essentially had to cobble together just enough background detail of how my general view on natural kinds works to apply it to this case and start thinking through some of the relevant nuances. The result (hosted by POBAM) is here if anyone cares to read it. As I note, it's pretty drafty. . . . Hopefully, I'll be able to get an updated version along with some other draft chapters from The Nature of Biological Kinds posted in a few months.

As usual, I had some fun with my new Canon 6D and recently-aquired lenses (24–70mm f/2.8 and 70–200mm f/2.8). Nice to finally have some L-series lenses to play with. Photos here. They're heavy, but pretty amazing. I'm eager to break them out in Hawaii and Alaska this summer. Next stop: Hawaii.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Natural Kinds and Causation in Paris

It was lovely to be invited to a workshop on the Metaphysics of Science: Causation and Natural Kinds put on by the Institut d'Histoire et de Philosophie des Sciences et des Techniques (IHPST) in Paris. It was a very congenial group and lots of interesting talks — and of course Paris is quite a nice place to be for a few days. This was the view outside my (tiny) hotel room.

I presented some very in-progress work — no written out paper or slides yet, unfortunately — on natural kinds of ecosystems, presumably a chapter in my next book. More specifically, I started getting interested in the ways in which non-fundamental kinds can find themselves "anchored" to contingent features of lower-level kinds. So, for example, a particular ecosystem might be characterized by a stable ensemble of species taxa because the functional characteristics of these taxa (mutualisms, climatic range, and so on). But the fact that these taxa possess the relevant functional characteristics is an accident of evolution — others could easily have played the same role. Indeed, in other geographical contexts, this sort of substitution does occur, with phylogenetically quite distantly-related (though morphologically similar) taxa playing more or less the same role in different geographical contexts.

More photos from the conference and a day of wandering Paris in the (much earlier) early spring here. This one's probably my favorite. . . .

Monday, March 3, 2014

Naturalizing Metaphysics and AACU in Portland

I was asked by our deans' office to attend the AAC&U Conference on Liberal Education in Portland, Oregon — just to attend, contribute in discussion, and bring back ideas. Can do! I'll always take an excuse to go home for a few days.

I also took the opportunity to give a talk at Lewis & Clark University. I've known Jay Odenbaugh now for several years and really enjoy talking philosophy with him. Turns out his colleagues and students are really top notch too! Richard Boyd is in residence there, so it was pretty tempting to get right into my stuff on natural kinds (which modifies and extends his HPC view), but it sounded like I'd do better to talk through some ideas on naturalized metaphysics.

Here's my title slide, which is a metaphor for how the debate between naturalists and non-naturalists (or perhaps "trenchant agnostics") has gone. It's one of my favorite photos from our Gal├ípagos trip last summer in which a sea lion (Zalophus californianus) attempts to dislodge a napping Gal├ípagos fur seal (Arctocephalus galapagoensis) from its resting spot. They barked at each other for a good twenty minutes before the fur seal relented.

My basic contention in the paper (at the moment) is that the standoff between those who want to see metaphysics fully "naturalized" and their detractors is that while the impulse of the naturalists is broadly right, their programme cannot be defended as an all-or-nothing restriction on acceptable metaphysical theorizing. This much is perhaps implicit in my previous work. Apparently there's a paper in the South African Journal of Philosophy by R. Grant entitled "Naturalizing the Metaphysics of Species: A Perspective on the Species Problem" that takes me as an example of a non-naturalized metaphysical perspective on species (I can't access it, though, so I'm not sure what it says). So one of the things I wanted to do in the paper — and am still working out — is how to get the balance right (if possible at all). Here's the abstract and a copy of the draft.
When I close my hand into a fist, have I created a new object or merely rearranged some previously existing things? Is a sheet of paper with letters written on its two sides one object or two? Do holes exist? Such questions — seriously addressed by many philosophers — are often cited as examples of the excesses of speculative metaphysics. Philosophers of science have argued that the only way to make metaphysics an intellectually respectable enterprise is to “naturalize” it. But it is not at all straightforward to say what naturalized metaphysics amounts to. If it means only maintaining a sort of vague “science-friendliness”, then it will not rule out much; if it means (as Ladyman and Ross hold) limiting its scope to very specific unification projects in science, then it appears unduly restrictive. A popular (and initially plausible) happy medium suggests that metaphysics should defer to science on all matters — for after all, while the former is speculative and a priori, the latter is empirical and (as these things go) secure. I will use the case study of the attempt to provide a metaphysics of species — a paradigm topic for naturalized metaphysics — to argue that this proposal also fails. I will then make some suggestions for how to best approach the naturalistic project.
While at the conference, I stayed at the downtown Hilton (the conference hotel) with the rest of the Bucknell delegation (which tied for second biggest group in attendance, by the way). That was kind of a strange experience — I've never stayed in a hotel in my hometown. But it was nice not to have to drive/park. Rather than miss one of my once-a-week philosophy of biology meetings, the tech folk were nice enough to set up a remote classroom experience. So I also had the somewhat strange experience of running a seminar via Skype. Apparently, my chair was occupied by a sort of dalek with a screen and camera, so perhaps it was stranger for the students. But it was still a good meeting. . . .

> More photos from the week here.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Happy Life Day!

It's that time of the year again . . . to reflect on the fact that some pieces of entertainment are so bad that they actually transcend the familiar "So-Bad-It's-Good" phenomenon and fly right past bad on their way to being unwatchably horrible. The paradigm case of this is "the Star Wars Holiday Special" [fascinating wikipedia entry here].

I have first hand experience that exactly corresponds to this cartoon: a few years ago, we had a bunch of friends from out of town over for an early December holiday party. I had heard rumors of the existence of the Holiday Special years earlier, but thanks to the internets, I confirmed that it wasn't some kind of urban legend, obtained a copy (it was much still somewhat hard to find at this point), and broke it out as a Christmas Surprise. There was a near mutiny; we all felt awful.

Now, you're probably asking yourself: how bad can it really be? Well, take a look. I recommend small doses initially; unless you've done something really bad in your life. In that case, you should watch the whole thing in one sitting . . . in the morning.