Sunday, June 15, 2008

CPA Report 6: A Feast Fit for Philosopher-Kings

(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5)

After the last set of talks yesterday, there was a nice little wine-and-snacks reception. (Did I mention that this trip is totally blowing my diet? But I did (barely) manage to avoid ordering poutine today for lunch!) It was a great time. Roger, Eran, Jaime, Boaz, and the other fellows I got to hang out with over the last few days are really bright, exciting philosophers. I'm thinking that having these fellows to tussle with over the next 5-10 years will make being a philosopher of science very exciting!

Then, somehow, I got Jacob to talk me into buying someone's ticket for the banquet. It was CAN$ 40, which at the going rate is, what, $60? $100? But I got to meet some really excellent philosophers and historians, such as Bernie Lightman, Margaret Schabas, Gordon Something, and several others. I probably unwisely avoided interacting with Alan Richardson again, as well. And I was glutted with a feast of fancy Chinese.

It was good. Plagued by momentary fits of boredom and anxiety as all such events are, but I enjoyed my conversations with people for the most part.

Now, better than a week later, after our quarter is finally over and I got back to this post, things aren't near so fresh in my mind. The next day included some talks on Kuhn and Feyerabend, a hilarious note-passing discussion with Danny Goldstick about whether realist arguments tended to be question-begging against Kuhn, and the long attempt to get home from the conference. It was a good time. Oh, also, I talked to Jon Johnston over the phone, which I wasn't expecting to be able to do nearly so soon. It was very nice.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

CPA Report 5

My last session of the day yesterday was called "Around Quantum Mechanics," which is about right, since quantum mechanics was more or less secondary to each of the presenters topics. First up was Eran Tal, illustrious former guest of the former Beck-Brown-Skywalker household, doing a talk on "Simulated Evidence: Signatures of a Quantum Phase Transition." I think his case study is really interesting, and its going to blow a bunch of stuff wide open. He's looking at cases in which theorists (at Oxford?), using computer simulations based in part on the theory, and in part on the description of an experimental device used by a set of experimentalists in Zurich studying phase transitions between superfluids and Mott-insulators. By simulating both together, and varying certain assumptions about initial conditions and the background device, these theorists claim to have shown that the Zurich experiment (whose results are somewhat messy) was a successful detection of the phase transition, since the signature produced in their simulation has a qualitative match to the results produced in Zurich. In other words, they claim to have shown (a) that the Zurich experiment was reliable, and (b) that the Zurich experiment successfully measured what the theory predicted, when neither was certain before.

This is super-interesting! What they did cannot be said to be an elaborate prediction from theory, nor clarification of the data, but rather some combination of the two, plus something else besides. Most interesting to me, as I pointed out to Eran later at the reception, is how this clearly raises a problem for the Suppes/Giere theory about different levels of models which nonetheless come in two flavors: models of data and theoretical/representational models. I'm not sure what Giere should say, nor am I sure what a Deweyan should say (this process doesn't clearly fit on either side of the existential/conceptual gap distinction, either).

Next, Melanie Frappier gave a talk entitled "If 'Copenhagen' is Leibzig's Code Name, What does 'Interpretation' Mean?: A Re-examination of the Origin of the Copenhagen Interpretation." Melanie was responding to Don Howard's paper, which suggests Heisenberg invented the notion of a unified "Copenhagen" interpretation in the 1950's, but that whatever Heisenberg identified wasn't Bohr's "complementarity" view, and it wasn't really a consensus at all. She agreed with the former point, but denied the later, based on a nuance about what the physicists meant by "interpretation." She showed clearly that from much earlier on, various physicists talked about "interpretation," but that this sense of interpretation is very different from what we mean today. In particular, she gave reasons to believe that the theory has a univocal interpretation, in Heisenberg's sense of "interpretation."

If you think about it, it makes sense. A theory is not just a formal-mathematical system; it is also a set of concepts related together in a certain way, where each concept has a certain meaning, or empirical criterion of application, or something. What an alternative interpretation would have to provide, which most "interpretations" of quantum mechanics today don't, is an alternative criterion of empirical application for the terms of the theory. All the insistence by Bohmians and others that their interpretation has identical empirical results sounds to Heisenberg like they have the same interpretation. All the other stuff is not part of what physicists do. (This makes sense of something I've puzzled with for a long time, which is David Finkelstein's insistence that quantum theory already comes with an interpretation, so there is little sense to the project of "interpreting" quantum theory.)

Isaac Record gave an interesting talk on "Instruments of Explanation" which I'm not going to summarize. He was arguing, basically, that new instruments provide new realms of "technological possibility," which unlike logical and physical possibility, is sensitive to contingent facts and to practical issues like time it takes to complete a procedure. On his view, computers really open up a new realm of possible explanations, because we can realistically consider options that we couldn't before we had super-fast computers. Something to think about, with real echoes in Dewey's own concept of relations and potentials.

Off to the Aeroport!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

CPA Report 4: The Value of Values

The late morning session I went to was quite good! I saw four papers on Science and Value that all brought something interesting to the table. It was a long session, a bit tiring, but I liked all the papers very much.

Kathleen Okruhlik gave an interesting talk entitled "Putman, Proctor, and Political Economy." If it had just been an advertisement for reading Proctor's book, Value-free Science?: Purity and Power in Modern Knowledge, it would have been worthwhile, but it was much more than that. The case of values and the ideal of value-freedom in political economy is an interesting one, one that Putnam brings up in his book on the fact/value, though Okruhlik suggested that Putnam's view of the history of both political economy and the fact/value dichotomy was overly narrow. Proctor has a wider view, in which Max Weber plays an important role. Chief among the interesting feature of Weber's historical mileu is that those arguing for the value-free ideal of science were progressives, whereas their value-happy opponents were conservatives.

One of the things that came up in Okruhlik's talk was also the "promiscuity" of the use of the term "value" in these debates. Think of all the things that "value" might stand in for: emotions, interests, ideologies, ethical norms, preferences, and so on. Moira Howes, in her talk on "Epistemic Emotions, Salience and Ignorance in Scientific Reasoning" was also emphasizing this point. While Okruhlik focused on ethical norms in her own account, Howes talked about how emotional reactions, and emotion-based preferences and aversions, have both necessary and biasing effects in science.

Something else that Okruhlik brought up that I found really interesting, was an extension of Proctor's explanation of the phenomenon of attempting to escape to value-freedom in science to philosophy. According to Proctor, this ideal is used by scientists as both a shield from a certain kind of criticism (value-free science is not subject to political, ideological, or moral critique) and a weapon against other views (value-laden science is full of wishful-thinking, bias, etc.?). So to, suggests Okruhlik, philosophers ascend to formal, meta-level discussions as both a shield and a weapon of the same sort. As she pointed out, for much of the twentieth century, discussions about ethics were limited almost exclusively to meta-ethics, i.e., value-free ethics! Philosophers have another way of escape as well, she suggested: they can descend into naturalism, avoiding the need to engage with ethical, epistemological, and other kinds of norms and values by moving to discussion of moral psychology, learning theory, etc. Very interesting. I wonder whether some good work couldn't be done on this, about "philosophy's evasion of values" or "philosophy's flight from the political." (Dibs!)

Howes' talk was also fantastic and complex. One of the things that I was most interested in was her discussion about the ways (positive and negative) that emotions or feelings guide rationality and the scientific process. She insisted that feminist philosophers should look carefully at the psychology and philosophy of emotions as a tool for feminist critique and feminist understandings of science. I couldn't help but think about how similar her ideas are to John Dewey's obscure but crucial essay, "Qualitative Thought." There Dewey talks about the way in which a "qualitative background" provides the necessary ground, context, and test of thought. Though I'm pretty sure Dewey meant "quality" to be broader than what we usually call "emotion," I think that his point is really aligned with Howes'. I'm pretty sure she even used and example that Dewey also took up: the way that certain feelings accompany the struggle through a mathematical problem, the way that those feelings can guide the process, and the way that being certain one has attained an answer is tied to the distinctive feeling of success at having solved the problem. Dewey applies such considerations to inquiry in general, and it seems as though Howes has similar aims.

The other talks were good as well, though I don't have as much to say about them. Neelam Sethi discussed "Rethinking Normativity," in which she compared feminist discussions of values and normativity to recent work by Philip Kitcher and Nancy Cartwright on ends / goals in science. Burcu Erciyes gave an ambitious paper, "Feminist Objectivity versus Traditional Objectivity," arguing that feminists provide a genuine rival conception of objectivity, rather than using "objectivity" in a different way.

I'm going to skip and go read a bit until the sessions at 4. Maybe I'll walk around the beautiful UBC campus a bit. Maybe I'll have some fancy pictures for ya'll tonight!

CPA Report 3: Throw 'em to the Lions

(Part I, Part II)

What is it with Christian philosophers? I don't mean philosophers who happen to be Christians. Some of the best philosophers I know are Christians. Who I mean is, those who present at, attend, etc. meetings like the (Canadian) Society for Christian Philosophers. My first talk of the day was a CSCP talk, and I've attended the occasional bits of such conferences held in San Diego, and the quality is overall pretty low. Maybe this is just bias, or an othering. Maybe the quality of philosophy is generally low, and I'm just picking on the poor Christians out of some unconscious childhood resentment. Anyhow.

The talk was, "On John Dewey's and Karl Marx's Subtraction Theories of Modernity" by Michael Da Silva, who is a very polite and engaged person, who was, however, deeply wrong about the content of Dewey's philosophy. (I can't speak to Marx. Perhaps he got Marx right.) Da Silva was applying Charles Taylor's worries about subtraction theories of modernity and disenchantment to these two characters, to make them look bad compared to Hegel. For reasons I wasn't able to follow, Dewey and Marx were supposed to be unable to explain the modern condition, or ground projects of human solidarity, social harmony, and other stuff. Basically, the death of belief in God leaves a whole which complete secularism is unable to fill.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not unsympathetic (potentially) to this criticism. I just don't think it fits with Dewey. A short summary of how I think Da Silva got Dewey wrong:
  • Dewey is not a materialist.  Dewey is a naturalist, and there is an important difference, as Dewey, Ernest Nagel, and Sidney Hook point out in a classic paper, "Are Naturalists Materialists?"  Perhaps Da Silva only meant the very broad sense "materialism" which is just any sort of naturalism.  But such a view is not prima facie as problematic for a Taylor-type guy.
  • Dewey is not a narrow pragmatist who only cares about practical utility or who only believes that our technoscientific encounters with the world exist.  On the former, just check out the relevant sections of Experience and Nature or Art as Experience.  Dewey certainly thinks that a focus on practice is more important than philosophers have thought, but so does Hegel.  Dewey also believes that events happened in the distant past, or that distant parts of space currently unexperienced exist.  Responses to these kinds of worries are well-discussed in David Hildebrand's "Progress in History: Dewey on Knowledge of the Past"
  • Dewey does not believe that we've outgrown religion.  For the importance of religiousness and the divine in a general sense, and a celebration of religious experience, see A Common Faith.  
Okay, rant over.  Let's go see some talks on science and values, yeah?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

CPA Report 2: I win!

(Check out Part I here.)

Today was a good day for philosophy.

After lunch, the first thing I did was go to Shane Ralston's talk on Deweyan democracy, "In Defence of Democracy as a way of life." His commentator canceled, which cheesed me a bit, since I had originally volunteered to comment on that paper. But no matter. I think that Shane has a pretty good response to Talisse's criticisms of Dewey. I still worry that Dewey might not be able to accommodate the degree of pluralism that Berlin or Rawls demands, and that this might reflect negatively on Dewey. Shane called such positions "dogmatism" or "fundamentalism," but I worry then that even many liberals and democrats end up as dogmatists. I appreciate Dewey's call for experimentalism and fallibilism, here, but worry that there is a big tension with pluralism.

Next was my session. Jeff Kochan gave a talk on "Popper's Communitarianism." I think Jeff's paper is super-interesting, but ultimately suffers from a big problem that Jeff isn't alive to, since he comes from philosophy of social science rather than normative political philosophy. The debate between "Liberals" and "Communitarians" is essentially a normative debate, dealing with how self-determination and autonomy are valued. His paper casts it as a methodological difference, about how best to conceptualize and explain the behavior of individuals. I think the audience was ultimately sympathetic to my criticisms. I was left thinking that perhaps Jeff could recast his views in a way that was less problematic and might still be able to adopt the term "communitarianism" in a qualified way.

Finally, I caught most of Jacob's paper. Jacob's work on evidence and robustness is super-sharp. I have some serious reservations about the way that these discussions get cast, but Jacob has once again convinced me that the distance between our views isn't so large. I'm still convinced that looking at two oft-ignored features of evidence will dissolve a lot of the worries that Jacob raises, as well as showing the problematic features of the tradition that Jacob wants to critique. First, we need to look at the temporal dynamics of inquiry, and second, we need to look at the functional roles that evidence plays in the course of inquiries, particularly at the diversity of those roles. I think at that point, much of the talk about "robustness," "discordance," and "evidence for use" may look less important that Jacob thinks.

Then there was the President's reception with snacks and drinks, and more drinks at a grad student pub with UBC and other students. It was a good time. Conversation ranged broadly and interestingly. One particularly interesting discussion had to do with the way that standards of evidence changed in response to the complaints of AIDS activists. An important case discussed in cultural studies, by Epstein, and others. Roger Stanev has a couple of papers here on the topic, and Jacob was pushing him on it. Roger is a nice fellow, and so were Jaime and Josh, who I met. I had an awkward interaction with Alan R. at the reception, which is worrisome given that I'm supposed to be doing a panel with him in November (if we get accepted). But probably I'm over-worried. After all, he'd never met me!

Off to bed soon. Supposed to meet Jacob for breakfast around 8! We'll see if that happens.

CPA Report 1: Woooah Canada

Thanks for tuning in to the blog for the CPA report. Wait, is anyone still tuning in?

For those who don't know, the CPA meeting is part of this wild all-Canadian Academiganza called simply Congress 2008, or maybe Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities. In addition to CPA, there is the Canadian Society for History and Philosophy of Science, the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine, the Canadian Society for Adult Education, and so on ad infinitum. It's located on the lovely UBC, which is a wildly huge and beautiful place, in a totally different part of Vancouver that I've never been to before. Getting here was pretty okay, about 4 hours of flying total, and 2 hours of layover in San Francisco (spent having dinner with Corbett, who is awesome). I'm staying in a dorm. Enough about all that.

The first talk I went to was a part of the Canadian Jacques Maritain Association meeting, on "A.N. Whitehead's View of Experience in General and of God in Particular" by Richard Feist. The talk included not only discussions of Whitehead on God and experience, but also his idealism, anti-Kantianism, and views on physics, as well as discussions of Leibniz, Kant, Stephen Hawking, Henri Bergson, Nicholas Rescher, David Lewis, the question of why there is something rather than nothing, black holes, Kip Thorne, logical positivism, Kuhn... Well, you get the idea. It was fun. But it was... not particularly careful.

Next I checked out "What You Don't Know Can Help You: The Ethics of Placebo Treatment," by Daniel Groll, which was actually about 70% conceptual analysis of "placebo" and about 30% ethics. Ethically, placebo treatments still count as deceptions. It was actually the analytic part that bothered me. He ended up saying something like, a placebo is a "treatment" where the only causally efficacious part of the treatment goes through the route of a cognitive state of expecting to get better on the basis of the treatment. I wondered whether it really made sense to talk about "placebos" outside the context of something like placebo-controlled trials; that is, it seems to me that the concept of "placebo" comes about in methodological discussions about controlling a certain kind of bias, which gets labeled "the placebo effect," and gets resolved by placebo-control. But outside something like that context, or some other context, it seems difficult to understand what a placebo is. Daniel responded that doctors in context of treatment rather than research still "prescribe" sugar pills and the like. I'm not sure what to make of that. I think knowing the history of the use of the term would help.

Jeremy Howick pointed out to him that there is no such thing as a placebo simpliciter. A sugar pill is not a placebo for a diabetic, and perhaps in certain psychological cases, changing expectations really is an effective treatment. That seems of a piece with my worry, that he's trying to do context-free something that is pretty context dependent.

Last before lunch, Jacob and I checked out "Probability Judgment and the Problem of Uninformative Statistics" by Paul Thorn. I had not even marked it down as one of the options, but Jacob pushed me into thinking that it was probably the right sort of thing. I had been thinking instead of attending "Zoophilic Encounters: Thinking about Bestiality," which sounded sexy (so to speak). Jacob ended up apologizing to me afterwards. I don't think it was a bad talk for what it was, which was a pretty formalistic philosophy of probability theory talk. I told him afterwards that I think I must have some tacit knowledge that I hadn't been able to deploy once he started trying to convince me about why the talk would be good, about avoiding probability theory talks and papers. Maybe now I can avoid them with explicit knowledge that they tend to be... not of interest to me.

Next up: A defense of Deweyan Democracy, a paper on Popper's politics with yours truly commenting, and Jacob on evidence. Stay tuned!