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.