Laying Down the Law 
The New York Times has just run a perverse item about the origin of laws of nature. The article is a muddle in more ways than I can count.

The author, Dennis Overbye, quotes some physicists as proposing that there might be some underlying random context in which the complex laws of nature evolved.* Overbye writes
I love this idea of intrinsic randomness much for the same reason that I love the idea of natural selection in biology, because it and only it ensures that every possibility will be tried, every circumstance tested, every niche inhabited, every escape hatch explored.
This is simply to misunderstand natural selection. There is no assurance that mutation will generate every permutation of traits. In fact, quite the opposite: Evolution is path dependent just because it isn't constantly trying out every possibility.

Throughout, the story presumes that laws of nature are claims that are true always and everywhere. This is what Nancy Cartwright dubs fundamentalism. It motivates wild metaphysical speculation, but why thinks it's true?

When I was an undergraduate, I majored in both philosophy and physics. It seemed to me that there were philosophers who took physics seriously and had clever things to say, but that most physicists who tried to do metaphysics did it poorly. And so I became a philosopher.**


* The evolution of law was proposed in the 19th century by C.S. Peirce. It was wacky then, and it's still wacky.

** To be fair, it is hard to know how much the physicists are responsible for the confusion in this article.

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Conference Call 
The students here at UAlbany are organizing an epistemology-themed graduate student conference. As far as I can tell, they have done it autonomously. The masterminds behind the project have a clear vision of what they want to do, have tapped into extradepartmental pots of money, and have exploited the experience of other schools that have hosted grad conferences.


I am unsure of the demographics of my readers, but if you are a potential participant then submissions are due February 1. See the call for papers for all the fine print.

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Second annual bulletpoint year in review 
At the end of 2006, I summarized the year by aggregating the first sentence from the first post of each month. Now, as Janet notes, it's a tradition.

For 2006, the conclusion of the analysis was that "I seem to be concerned with logic, pragmatism, random bits of pop culture, my blog, and myself."

Here it is for 2007:

I: As any regular reader will recall, I have misgivings about the epistemology of the Wikipedia.

II: Greg links to an item in the New York Times about Marcus Ross, a guy who got a PhD in geosciences at the University of Rhode Island and now teaches at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

III: I wrote this back in February, but saved it with the intention of honing it further.

IV: I've heard several reports about Marilee Jones, dean of admissions at MIT, who resigned last week after it was revealed that she had lied about her academic history.

V: Brian Leiter links to a cheeky column by Jonathan Wolff that begins in this way...

VI: Yesterday, I put a draft paper about scientific significance on-line.

VII: Subjective Bayesianism as it is often employed in philosophy of science consists of three commitments...

VIII: The New York Times Science section recently ran this item on Nick Bostrom's Simulation Argument.

IX: I am teaching Poincaré and Duhem in seminar this week.

X: Thus concludes year two of the blog.

XI: Andre Kukla insists... This principle is offered without argument, and Kukla seems to suppose that it is intuitively obvious.

XII: I've been thinking about the distinction between retail and wholesale arguments in philosophy of science.

The blog seems be an aggregate of thoughts prompted by my philosophical research and thoughts prompted by random news items, which seems like a reasonable mix. Also, I seem to have done quite a lot of name dropping this year.

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Working retail 
I've been thinking about the distinction between retail and wholesale arguments in philosophy of science. A retail argument is about a specific theory, specific kinds of entity, or a specific practice. A wholesale argument promises a conclusion about all or most of science. Wholesale arguments are often stated in more modest terms; for example, the conclusion might be about all the theories in mature sciences. However, such modest authors typically slip back into talking about science simpliciter over the course of an essay.

Suppose one studied 1000 specific cases, and the retail arguments led to a realist victory in 900 of them and an antirealist victory in 100. One might then be tempted to say that most of the other cases will turn out realist as well. Roughly, we should expect 90% of cases to be victories for the realist.* This is what Arthur Fine calls piecemeal realism. It generates a wholesale argument by generalizing over many retail arguments.

I am suspicious of wholesale arguments, but that suspicion is threatened here. If retail arguments can be successful, then we might consider them for a great many different cases. And then we might generalize.

However, the generalization would only be justified if (a) the cases involved formed a homogenous reference class and (b) the cases studied were representative.** Neither of these assumptions is likely to be true.

a. Positing entities serves different functions, and scientific posits are of different kinds. Even if belief is merited in 90% of the posits studied, there is no reason to expect that belief will be merited in 90% of the posits in mature sciences generally. The factors that make the difference between realism and antirealism are more fine-grained than that.

b. Philosophers, historians, and sociologists of science select cases to study based on their own background, on what research material is available, and on what they hope to establish in their enquiry. One might make out general trends based on cases studies, but one will not be able to draw any precise statistical conclusions.

If most retail arguments did favor realism, then of course we would form the expectation of the next retail argument that it would favor realism. But we will never be secure enough in this expectation that we could do without the retail argument entirely and rest on a probability that realism wins in the unexplored cases.


* Nothing that I say here requires that realism be the 9/10th victor. Everything should still hold mutatis mutandis if the preponderance of cases went antirealist.

** One also needs to assume that scientific cases comprise a well-defined sample space. There might be reasons to be dubious of this, too.

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Ruminations on type 
Carefully deployed fonts and typefaces can add clarity and precision to a manuscript, but it makes is unclear what to do when presenting the same material in lecture.

In forall x, I differentiate bits of the object language from metavariables by writing the former in roman letters and the latter in script letters. As it's typeset in the book, the 'x' in the title of the book is a metavariable. This week in Intro Logic I lectured on the definitions of satisfaction and truth. Although I explain the difference between object language and metalanguage elements, I have a hard time differentiating my letters when I write on the chalk board. My block As are distinct from my script As, but other letters tend to be ambiguous. Of course, there is no difference at all when talk out loud about As and Bs.

In a recent paper, I distinguish objects from concepts by writing the former normally and the latter in all caps. The title ('What SPECIES can teach us about THEORY') plays on this convention. Tomorrow I am going to present the paper at the Creighton Club, and there is really no way to mark this distinction in speech.

These conventions are fairly standard, and I used them because I think they help to clarify somewhat subtle differences. They work because they are not really essential. If someone reads forall x and skips the explanation of why some expressions are in Chancery and others are in Computer Modern, I don't think the difference is distracting. It underscores a distinction, but it can be transparent to readers who are attending to the content.

Contrivances like these become problematic when they are distracting or when they are the only indication of crucial distinctions. To take a non-scholarly example, many webcomics typeset dialogue in different fonts for different characters. Some authors pick fonts that are more decorative then readable. Some use it as an excuse not to connect speech bubbles clearly to speakers. If a reader can only figure out the dialogue by looking at the font, then the typsetting is no longer an effective way of emphasizing certain information; it has become the sole means of conveying that information.

Similar points might be made about italics in scholarly papers. They can be effective for emphasis, but they are not substitute for actually saying something. Depending on the typesetting and the quality of the copy, a reader might not even notice careful and clever italics. Continental italics, obtained by extended letter s p a c i n g, are especially easy to miss.

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