Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Assignment 14 (due 5/6)

There is no assigned reading for this week, so the final assignment is to tell me in some detail how you think this class could be improved? What worked particularly well, what did not? What readings/topics did you particular enjoy, which did you not? I'm always looking for ways of improving my courses. Your input into this process is particularly valuable. I'll consider this to be a completion grade, lest you think I might give you a higher mark for praise. Anyone who writes me some substantive feedback gets a '4'.

Oh, and please also go fill out a simple course evaluation if you're a UI student (these are due by May 10th). Thanks!

Final Meeting: Potpourri (5/6)

For our final meeting, we will close with our final four presentations:

Barbara | Kaitlin commenting
Kaitlin | Graham commenting
Kristian | Troy commenting
Zoe | Kristian commenting

Since we'll be pressed for time, we'll have to be quite strict about timing: each person's discussion should get no more than 3o minutes (including commentary).

Monday, April 27, 2009

Sahotra Sarkar Lecture on Campus

Professor Sarkar will be speaking on a subject that you folks will be specially poised to appreciate this Thursday at 2:30PM in the Whitewater Room. Hope to see you there.

INPC Reminder

Hey folks, just a reminder that the 12th Annual Inland Northwest Philosophy Conference on "The Environment" starts on Friday May 1st (at WSU) and continues over the weekend in the UI Commons. For more information, check out the website. If you'd like to be more involved, feel free to get in touch with me.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Final Essays: Guidelines and Due-Date

Your final essays are due by May 11th at 3:30PM. Since I will be traveling, you should submit these to me by email. If you do not receive a response confirming receipt of the essay within 24 hours, please try to get in touch by other means to make sure it came through.

These essays should be somewhat more significant than your first (2,000–3,000 words for undergraduates, 3,000–5,000 words for graduates) and should involve (in a non-trivial way) at least five peer-reviewed sources (including at least three that were not assigned in class).

I'll be using the same rubric as I used to mark the first essays. If you have any questions about what you need to do to get into the right-most column, please don't hesitate to ask. Following my writing advice (and attending to the associated links) will help. Make sure you've got a clearly articulated, specific, focused thesis to argue for. Make sure that you're actually arguing for it, rather than just repeating the claim in slightly different words (keep asking yourself, "How might Slater — or some other moderately intelligent and skeptical reader — object here? How would I respond to those objections?"). And of course you should follow the formatting guide as an easy source of points: you may have your own nifty personal convention, but I'd rather see you consistently put into play a commonly-employed style of citing work, formatting essays, &c.

As usual, I'll be happy to look at drafts, but my ability to do so declines as the deadline gets closer and more people ask me to.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Comments about Comments

I meant to mention something about this last time: commentators are not doing quite what is typically expected. That's my fault for not being clearer as we've gone along — I'm not holding it against you — but you should know how it's done.

Commentary is not generally interactive; they are not a series of questions. Rather, comments are delivered to the speaker first in writing, in the form of a narrative. This narrative may, of course, contain questions or requests for clarification for the speaker, but it should not need to await those answers to make sense. You might think of the commentary as the beginnings of a reply paper (like Lange 2004, for example).

There will be numerous examples of commentary at the upcoming INPC, if you'd like to see some examples of this. For those of you with professional academic aspirations, volunteering to be commentators at conferences such as this is a good way of getting your foot in the door, so to say.

Assignment 13 (due 4/29)

Do you think that there might be ecological laws in Lange's sense?

Meeting 14: Ecological Diversity and Biodiversity (4/29)

  • Mikkelson, “Ecological Kinds and Ecological Laws” [PDF]
  • Sarkar, “Defining ‘Biodiversity’; Assessing Biodiversity” [PDF]
No presentations

This week will be our last with any appreciable reading. All the remaining presentations will be done in our final meeting on 5/6 — to be described in a future post. First, I’d like to spend around 30 minutes or so finishing up our discussion of Lange (2004) — in particular, whether you think that he offers a compelling response to Rosenberg (2001) and whether he offers an attractive picture of natural laws in general. If you find that you are interested in this topic, I’d strongly recommend you pick up a copy of his forthcoming Laws and Lawmakers (I was fortunate enough to read a draft of it). It’s fascinating but still digestible reading.

We’ll then turn to Mikkelson’s essay, which will throw us back to our talk about natural kinds and continue the thread about biological laws. History is often regarded as the dominant “influence” in biology: Mikkelson suggests that its preeminence may be exaggerated. This may be the case, but does he succeed in carving out enough room for ecological laws? I suggest we think about Mikkelson’s paper in the context of Lange’s Nomic Preservation framework.
Finally, we’ll turn to Sahotra Sarkar’s essay on biodiversity. What is it? How should we measure and define it? And how does these choices influence our policy decisions. Sarkar focuses on the first questions, but we see immediately that things in conservation biology are not nearly as simple as one might have naively expected.

Speaking of Professor Sarkar, I remind you that his lecture in the History and Philosophy of Science Lecture series will occur the day after class, Thursday 4/30 at 2:30PM in the Whitewater room (Idaho Commons) on “Heredity before Genetics: The Significance of the Environment”. I hope to see many of you there, as I expect this lecture to connect with much of what we’ve been on about in this course so far. He will also be speaking at the INPC on Saturday at 3PM (on “Environmental Decisions: The Limits of Homo economicus”) in the Aurora room, I believe. In general, there are many excellent philosophers of biology and of the environment coming to town for the INPC (here’s the program). You are all welcome to attend. If you think you’ll be around for several sessions, I can even get you a name tag (fancy!).

Study Questions
  • What is the difference between the ideographic and nomothetic aspects of ecology? Why might one regard ecology to be in tension between these two modes of investigation?
  • On what grounds does Mikkelson contend that law-like generalizations often explain what he calls historical generalizations?
  • What’s the deal with the Sonoran desert studies? What are their significance to Mikkelson?
  • What is the “being dropped in a random spot on earth” thought experiment supposed to show? Do you think it successfully shows it?
  • Sarkar suggests that there is an analogy between biodiversity and health. How far do you reckon this analogy may be extended?
  • Why is “place” important and difficult for conservation biology?
  • Sarkar suggests that the attempt to limit the definition of ‘biodiversity’ to a subset of biological entities fails to capture something important about the diversity of biological phenomena. How so?
  • Describe the “surrogacy” problem.
  • What is the difference between species richness and species diversity? Why does Sarkar think that we should not use species richness to prioritize places?
  • Why does Sarkar suppose that there are in fact many different concepts of ‘biodiversity’ at stake in conservation biology?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Assignment 12 (due 4/22)

Do you think Lange successfully rebuts Rosenberg’s contention that his (and others’) attempt to “redefine the concept of law” in biology fails? Explain either way.

Meeting 13: Biological Laws and Special Science Autonomy (4/22)

  • Rosenberg, “How is Biological Explanation Possible?” [PDF]
  • Lange, “The Autonomy of Functional Biology: a Reply to Rosenberg” [PDF]
Cameron | Brian commenting
Graham | Cameron commenting

Rosenberg begins his essay by considering an apparent problem for Hempel’s famous "Deductive-Nomological" (D-N) Account of explanation (also known as the "Covering-Law Model"). The model is so-called, because it identifies an explanation as an argument with some premises (e.g., those stating initial conditions) together with a law statement that deductively implies a conclusion: the event or state of affairs to be explained (the “explanandum”). For example: why did the window shatter? The explanation is that in a fit of rage, I threw a rock at it. There’s no law statement evident in that explanation, but Hempel thought that it was implicit. The fact that I threw a certain object only provides an explanation of the window breaking if that action is connected via a law to the explanandum.

If it turns out, then, that biology has no laws, and we buy the D-N model of explanation, it is unclear how biological explanation is possible. As Rosenberg notes: we need to take for granted that biology does provide explanations — we philosophers had better be able to make sense of this obvious fact.

This is just the background to the dispute between Lange and Rosenberg. Rosenberg’s (2001) is a response to Lange (1995) and Lange (2004) replies to Rosenberg (2001) — we’re giving Lange the last word here. Lange’s account of natural laws in functional biology will also illuminate the question about “reduction” and “special science autonomy” that we grappled with earlier.

Study Questions
  • What is Rosenberg’s argument that there can be “few if any strict laws in biology”?
  • What is Rosenberg’s argument that there can be “no non-strict laws [in biology]”?
  • What is the importance of the concept of natural selection “arms races” (think about the Newts/Garter snakes mentioned earlier in the term)?
  • How does Lange respond to Rosenberg’s contentions about arms races?
  • Rosenberg contends that Lange’s (1995) use of statements of the form ‘The S is T’ is difficult to construe as a natural law. Why is this?
  • Do you think Rosenberg’s proposed law achieves his advertised goals? Does it provide a way of understanding explanations in biology?
  • Lange suggests that Rosenberg’s core argument against generalizations like ‘The S is T’ counting as laws involves their possible falsification, not that they will eventually go false (2004, 96). Does this strengthen or weaken Rosenberg’s argument?
  • Why does Lange think it’s implausible that “the range of counterfactual suppositions under which an accident is invariant” need not be narrower than the range of a law’s invariance? (Think through the apple-tree and wire examples.)
  • How does Lange make room for laws of functional biology by seeing NP as a “general schema” (97)?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Upcoming Presentation Schedule (updated)

Here's what I have for presentations. Please correct me if I'm wrong. If you haven't signed up to comment on anyone else's presentation, you can claim an open spot by emailing me. Remember: you need to have your companion paper (1,500-2,000 words) emailed to me and your commentator by the weekend before your presentation. It would also be a nice idea to include any slides you would like to present if you have them ready (though you do not need to use slides).

Remember: no meeting on 4/8.

12. Biological Laws I (4/15): Cameron | Brian commenting
13. Biological Laws II (4/22): Graham | Cameron commenting
14. Ecology and Biodiversity (4/29): Barbara | Kaitlin commenting; Kaitlin | Graham commenting
15. No assigned topic (5/5): Kristian | Troy commenting; Zoe | Kristian commenting

Assignment 11 (due 4/15)

How do you think Lange would respond to Beatty's argument that there are no distinctively biological laws?

Meeting 12: Biological Laws (4/15)

  • Beatty, “The Evolutionary Contingency Thesis” [CIEB §11]
  • Sober, “Two Outbreaks of Lawlessness in the Philosophy of Biology” [CIEB §12]
  • Lange, “Are There Laws About Particular Species?” [PDF]
Cameron | Brian commenting

One of the more recalcitrant issues in the philosophy of biology, to my mind, concerns the existence of biological laws. Now, one might well wish to dismiss this debate as unimportant. While it used to be the case that a science was legitimized by the identification of laws, this view has fallen out of favor. Philosophers have gradually come to accept that biology is an important science, whether or not it has laws. As Dupré remarks in his Disorder of Things, “biology is surely the science that addresses much of what is of greatest concern to us biological beings, and if it cannot serve as a paradigm for science, then science is a far less interesting undertaking than is generally supposed” (Dupré 1993, 1). This of course leaves open the issue of whether there are laws in biology: it just emphasizes that biology’s status as a legitimate science doesn’t turn on it.

What are natural laws in general — in, say, physics? This is also a vexed question. Early on, the logical positivists wanted to make sense of laws’ necessity by virtue of something syntactic. But this clearly fails when we consider pairs of syntactically isomorphic propositions like (1) and (2) mentioned by Beatty (CIEB, 221). Something’s being a law thus must have something to do with its content. But what? Laws are necessary truths, but they seem not to be as necessary as broadly logical truths. There’s no inconsistency in the proposition that electrons have a charge of π coulombs. Not so for the claim that some bachelor is married. But then, laws seem to have more necessity than run of the mill contingent truths (like the proposition that every coin in my pocket is made of copper). This perplexing “intermediate” sort of necessity has proved extremely difficult to capture rigorously.

Whatever laws are, it is generally agreed that they possess some degree of necessity and (perhaps because of this) support counterfactuals (claims about what would have been the case, had something else occurred). Here is where Beatty’s expansion of Gould’s evolutionary contingency thesis seems relevant! If facts about biology are “highly contingent”, as Beatty supposes, then it seems that there cannot be genuine biological laws. Perhaps there might be natural laws that in a sense overlap biology (the Hardy-Weinberg “law”, for example?), but these are not distinctively biological.

Lange believes this claim to be too hasty. Perhaps we are being too demanding to require that laws be exceptionless regularities (propositions of the form ‘All Ps are Q’, with no exceptions). As Nancy Cartwright has argued in the past, it may be that even presumably paradigmatic physical laws hold at best ceteris paribus. Be that as it may, biologists evidently have in mind something other than strictly universal generalizations when they say things like ‘the robin’s egg is greenish-blue’. These claims seem to play the role of laws. Indeed, Lange believes that a close look at what role they play in biology might help illuminate what laws are in general.

For more background on the philosophical debates about natural laws, I recommend this entry in the SEP by John Carroll.

Study Questions
  • Why does Beatty believe that biological generalizations describe evolutionary outcomes? What does this mean?
  • Beatty identifies a weak and strong sense of evolutionary contingency. What is the difference? How do these compare to Gould’s thesis?
  • We might identify an argument-from-cartoon in Beatty’s paper (232-3). How might that argument go?
  • Why does Lange believe that attempts to circumscribe natural laws by reference to “local predicates” fails?
  • How does a claim like ‘The S is T’ differ from the claim ‘All Ss are T’?
  • Why is it problematic to construe claims like ‘The S is T’ as ascriptions of T-ness to healthy Ss?
  • Beatty speaks at one point of “frozen accidents”. How could Lange put this notion to work?
  • How might Lange respond to Beatty’s “Evolutionary Contingency Thesis”?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Different Office Hours

For a various reasons, I need to change my office hours for the next few weeks. Rather than the usual Friday office hours, I'll hold them on Thursday April 2nd, Monday April 6th, Monday April 13th, and Thursday April 23rd, all from 1-3PM. I'll have other times available by appointment. Sorry about this: just turns out that Fridays are getting quite complicated for me for the foreseeable future.