Fallout from Pittsburgh 
A few weeks ago, I participated in a workshop on underdetermination at the Pittsburgh Center for Philosophy of Science. The conference was fabulous, both socially and intellectually. Here's a post growing out of that, specifically about John Manchak's work on global features of spacetime.

The post is somewhat rambling, so let me begin by summing up:
The underdetermination facing our theorizing about global features of spacetime is formally more like familiar illustrations of the problem of induction than it is like familiar examples of empirical equivalence. Yet (if Manchak is right) it is different than usual worries about induction because we could never have the right kind of background knowledge to justify the inductive generalization.
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A blog before the internet 
We have been rearranging our department lounge. Previous efforts have made it less of a cluttered dump, and efforts are now directed at making it less clinical.* Today we got new chairs from university surplus, green relics which were probably purchased for an administrative office in the 1970s.



While shuffling around furniture, I happened to pick up a bound volume in the department store room. It contains issues of Phib, the Philosophy Information Bulletin, from 1972-1974. It was a department newsletter, filled with trivia like contact information, records of faculty meetings, announcements of events, and descriptions of what various faculty had done on vacation.

Phib was editted by "WHL." I surmise from internal references that this was William Leue, who was part of the department at the time. Each issue consisted of a few typewritten, mimeographed pages. But the series is numbered as two volumes, with continuous page numbering within each volume.

There is a long, multi-part history of the department which I may comment on later. For now let me quote something that WHL wrote at the end of the academic year in 1973:
I guess I'm not really in a position to judge whether doing this thing was worth it. I'm not sure what the criteria should be. It certainly isn't a project I would urge upon a young man trying to forge an academic career for himself, but then I'm not a young man. It fits no recognized category - it isn't "research," it isn't "teaching." It isn't even a "publication" - it is probably "infra-professional" - too casual, too episodic, too "journalistic." I guess it isn't even good journalism - irresponsible mixing of the reporting and the editorializing, with snide innuendoes and private jokes at which only I can snicker. But then that's probably part of the reward for me - getting my own anomic kicks - and the price that you, poor (but quick-scanning) readers have to pay.**
Phib was essentially his blog, and almost the same paragraph might be written today by any blogging academic. The only sentence out of place would be the warning to career-minded young men, since blogging has been predominantly a young philosophers' game.

If I were just starting to blog now, I might have settled on Phib as a name rather than FoE.


* Most of the recent work has been done by my colleague Lisa Fuller, who has been watching the university surplus website for better lounge furniture.

** 'A Year of Phibbing.' Phib. v 1, n 31. p 148.

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Now with fifty percent more bupkis 
I recently stumbled across Forbes' America's Best Colleges, which was published last year. The assessment is explicitly intended to break the hegemony of U.S. News & World Report's rankings of American colleges, which seems like a good thing whether or not ratings are ultimately a good thing.

UAlbany comes out in the middle of the pack (295th out of 569), which is not at all bad. Among SUNY centers, we are ranked behind Binghamton (119) but ahead of Stony Brook (332) and Buffalo (436). The rankings seem plausible.

Nevertheless, the methodology is disturbingly weak sauce. A full 25% of each institution's score is derived from the number of its alumni who appear in Who's Who in America. I was recently contacted by Who's Who and asked for biographical information so that I could be included. I did not reply, because Who cares? Forbes magazine, that's who.

A further 25% of each institution's score is derived from student evaluations at RateMyProfessors.com. Now, I think it's a fun website. It allows students to gossip about which prof is good for which courses, and I get pretty good marks there. Yet, as I said in an earlier post, "it would worrisome if an unrepresentative and deliberately somewhat frivolous resource came to play an important part in campus life." Now Forbes expects it to play such a role.

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Two dead senators and an extra Wilhelm 
Some people have suggested to me that I should try my hand at writing some newspaper op-ed pieces. One natural topic for me, given where my research intersects with the interests of the guy down at the Dairy Queen, is nattering about the Wikipedia. So last month, in response to then current events, I wrote a piece that essentially recapitulates the thesis of my Episteme paper.

I submitted it a couple of places, but no luck. Rather than leave it in a directory on my hard drive where no one will ever read it, I've opted to put it here on the blog where no one will read it...
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Pluralism takes all kinds 
A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk to the UNLV philosophy department. I extend a belated thanks to Greg for inviting me and to everyone else for vigorous discussion.

I presented on theory concept pluralism. There's a woefully old version of the paper here.

The gist of my argument is that pluralism about SPECIES concepts in philosophy of biology provides us with a model for pluralism about THEORY concepts. So it's an argument by analogy:
[T]he features that figure in the argument for species concept pluralism are present in the case of theory: There are several distinct THEORY concepts which are employed by practitioners in science studies and philosophy of science. Some of the concepts are inscrutable in important instances. Some of them depend on an arbitrary fineness of grain. Some overlook important temporal and contextual features. Ultimately, no concept applies usefully in all cases.
In another paper I'm working on with Christy Mag Uidhir, we argue that a similar analogy supports pluralism about ART concepts. I insist, however, that the argument won't establish pluralism about every philosophically interesting concept. It doesn't generalize into mad dog pluralism about everything. It won't yield crypto-omnivorous relativism. That would be a reductio of my argument; even if such an extreme position were correct, my little argument by analogy couldn't be enough to establish somethign so extreme.

Todd began the Q&A by suggesting a scenario which might motivate pluralism about FAIRNESS concepts. Karen extended this example in a way I found plausible. In some contexts we may be concerned about equity while in others we might be concerned with procedural impartiality. Our projects in particular situations may lead us to sometimes prefer one FAIRNESS concept over the other, while still keeping them both in our conceptual repertoire.

Even if this is taken as some motivation for fairness concept pluralism, the case is different than species, theory, and art in some significant respects. First, there is nothing conceptually impossible about applying just one FAIRNESS concept to every situation. It would just lead to unpleasant results. In contrast, it is not simply that biology would become a distasteful practice if we used just (for example) BIOLOGICAL SPECIES. There are some organisms to which the concept does not sensibly apply at all.

Bill, James, and others pressed the matter further. They thought my argument might be used to establish pluralism generally in ethics. I think the idea was to run a parallel argument for pluralism about the concept GOOD or the concept RIGHT.

Something funny happens if we try to extend the argument this far, however. In the case of SPECIES, different concepts are appropriate depending on the objects of enquiry (which organisms are in question) and the aims of enquiry (what we want to learn or explain). Biological enquiry itself does not say what questions we should ask or which enquiries are worthwhile. It can say which enquiries are important given our aims or interests, but it can't tell us what our interests should be. To take a specific example: Fruit flies and zebra fish are studied because they are useful as genetic models, but the fact that we do or should care about genetics is not a result of those studies.

Similarly for THEORY: Which concept is appropriate depends on which scientific episodes we are examining and what questions we mean to answer.

And for ART: Which concept is appropriate depends on the particular objects we are considering and on why we care. Someone interested in spiritual contemplation may use a different ART concept than someone interested in brokering art sales.

Even with FAIRNESS: Which concept is appropriate depends on the context in which decisions are being made and on our broader value commitments.

Of we course, we can ask whether it is best to engage in biological enquiry, where we should concentrate our attention in science studies, what role artifacts should play in our lives, and what our values ought to be. In answering questions like these, we appeal to a general conception of the good or the right.

If pluralism about concepts of goodness is supposed to be like the kind of pluralism I advocate, we would have different conceptions of GOOD that we would use as appropriate in different contexts and for different purposes. Yet what purposes should we have? Answering that requires considering what would be good, and so we would need to determine which GOOD is the right one to consider. Vicious circularity ensues.

Thus, it seems to me, there is an important disanalogy between the argument deployed for pluralism about GOOD and all of the other parallel arguments. The analogy is much weaker. This does mean that there still is some analogy, I guess. If you were inclined to be a goodness concept pluralist, then this would provide you with some additional reason for that view.

All I need to avoid the mad-dog-pluralism reductio, however, is to show that my argument by analogy would not establish pluralism about every concept there is. The strong disanalogies in the ethical case are sufficient to do so.*

I now think there is a more direct argument against the reductio: Pluralism about SPECIES means that there are several ways of specifying what a species is. The pluralist may say that 'species' is really just an imprecise way of gesturing at these different specifications. A concept like BIOLOGICAL SPECIES, one among the plurality of species concepts, must be more precise. It may still require context to become fully determinate, but it cannot split into several fundamentally distinct concepts the way SPECIES simpliciter does. If it did, a regress ensues and species concept pluralism dies the death of a thousand cuts. As such, species concept pluralism requires that there are concepts which we are not pluralist about in the way it recommends we be pluralist about SPECIES.

So any position established by analogy with species concept pluralism similarly requires that some concepts be more determinate than the one to which the position applies. SPECIES, THEORY, ART, and perhaps others-- but not everything.**


* I am honestly not sure what to say about the FAIRNESS case, but I do think this: The premises required for applying my argument also make fairness concept pluralism plausible. Either the premises hold or they don't. If so, then my argument would yield a plausible position. If not, then my argument would not yield the position. The reductio fails in either case.

** Of course, this does not show that we should be monists about the concept GOOD. The people advocating mad dog pluralism during the Q&A after my talk did not offer it as a reductio of my position. Rather, they seemed to think it would lead to a kind of moral anti-realism that they found appealing.

Thinking about it now, I don't thin that goodness concept pluralism would require moral anti-realism. In a sense, GE Moore was a pluralist about GOOD. He thought that moral good, truth, and beauty were irreducible and incommensurable values. Moore was not similarly a pluralist about the beautiful, however.

In recent work, Jerrold Levinson argues for pluralism about BEAUTY. He offers a whole roster of more specific concepts.

Although Moore and Levinson aim to establish pluralism by different arguments than mine, both cases nicely illustrate the inconsistency of mad-dog pluralism. In each case, the philosopher aims to replace one concept which has traditionally been thought of singular but mysterious. The replacements must themselves be less mysterious and so more determinate.

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