*PC accounts 
In a just-published article, Manolo Martínez tries to modify the Homeostatic Property Cluster (HPC) account so as to accommodate polymorphic species.* I have two comments about the relation between his discussion and my own work.
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What PhilArt can teach PhilSci 
In recent work, I have argued that, when thinking about natural kinds, we should distinguish the taxonomy question (which categories are natural kinds and which are not?) from the ontology question (what kind of being have natural kinds got?).

Familiar ways of posing the problem of natural kinds invite either ignoring one of the two questions or conflating the two. For example, finding natural kinds is described as carving the world at its joints. That answers both questions: A natural kind is a cut at the joints of nature, and its ontology is given by those joints.

Most approaches to the problem are guilty of this. Even some people who mark the distinction nevertheless argue that there is a single ontology to be given for all natural kinds.

I'm teaching a course on philosophy of art this semester, and we're just switching from talking about definitions of art to art ontology. And it occurred to me that the distinction which is rarely made about natural kinds is entirely standard in philosophy of art. The issue of definition is a question of what separates art from non-art. The issue of art ontology is a question of what kinds of objects art works are. Many authors pursue one but not the other. It is widely accepted that different art works might belong to different ontological categories even if there is a single, unified definition. Mutatis mutandis, this is just the taxonomy/ontology distinction.

It surprised me that, in this respect, philosophers of art have a clear and valuable distinction that parallels one philosophers of science need. I have written some papers in which I take lessons from philosophy of science and apply them to thinking about art, but I am happy to note that some traffic could go the other way.

I only came to distinguish the two questions in the course of struggling with Homeostatic Property Cluster accounts of natural kinds. As a result, I did not have the distinction clearly in mind when writing SENK. I came to realize its importance when writing the introduction and the conclusion to the book. As I'd put the point now: The first five chapters of the book are directed at the taxonomy question, but the final chapter is directed at the ontology question.

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God, purposes, and the misuse of probabilities 
Massimo Pigliucci and Mohan Matthen have blogged recently about probabilistic arguments against naturalism and evolution. Recent arguments by Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Nagel begin by considering how likely some development is given only natural causes and evolutionary processes: How likely are we to know anything? How likely was it that there would come to be conscious life? The answer is supposed to be unlikely and that these would be utterly to be expected if there were a God (Plantinga) or if there were purposive, teleological laws (Nagel). From this, it is concluded that there is a God or that there are teleological laws.*

Reasoning like this seems to misuse probabilities in at least two respects. I'll focus on the theological version.

First: It is unclear to me why the existence of God makes sentient knowers more likely than the absence of God does. Of course, the omnipotence of God entails that there will be sentient knowers if She wants there to be, but why suppose that She does? There does not seem to me to be any obvious probability metric over the space of possible gods, and I doubt that the space is well-defined. Theologians have often argued that there is only one possible god, namely God, but their arguments also typically entail that She exists. The probabilistic argument is superfluous at best if it relies on such an apodictic rationalist argument to establish one of its premises!

Second: Even accepting that sentient knowers are more likely given God than not, this only shows that the existence of sentient knowers should increase our credence in God. Whether we should think that She is likely to exist at the end of the exercise depends on the prior probability. There are two ways this could go. (A) Suppose the prior is objective. If the principle of indifference that is doing the work, so that the prior for "God exists" is .5, then we need to have winnowed down the space of alternatives to include only atheism and this specific flavour of monotheism. Again, the argument seems to be falling back on rationalist arguments about the space of possible gods. (B) So suppose instead that the prior is subjective. Then the conclusion is just that someone who believes that God is tolerably likely should, after looking around, be rather more confident. This will not and rationally should not convince those who start with strong atheist inclinations. Those who believe in God place a high prior probability on Her existence, and they might just as well have report that to begin with. The fideism of subjective probability makes the argument irrelevant.

These concerns apply to teleological laws, too. There is even more uncertainty about what would or wouldn't be likely given teleological laws and what the prior probabilities should be, because Nagel's proposal is dismally obscure. At least with God, there is a long philosophical history of worrying over what She might be like.


* Now that I've written it out in this form, it looks rather like the No-Miracles Argument for scientific realism. Naturally I think there are problems with base rates. A quick search also reveals that I've responded to Mohan blogging about Plantinga and Nagel before.

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Open fire 
At the Creative Commons blog, there's discussion of a recent report by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund about the the impact of expensive textbooks. It documents something I had observed anecdotally in my own classes, that lots of students decide not to buy textbooks because of the cost and that their performance in classes suffers for it.

I agree with the core of the findings and with the sentiment that open textbooks are a good thing, but there is one aspect that's worrisome.

The study includes this factoid: "82% of students felt they would do significantly better in a course if the textbook was available free online and buying a hard copy was optional. This is exactly how open textbooks are designed."

It does not surprise me to learn that this is what many students feel. However, we know that students do not relate to text on screen in the same way they relate to text on paper. It is harder to read actively and mark up a text on screen; in some contexts, it is simply impossible. Although a free online version is an improvement on an expensive hard copy that they refuse to buy, an affordable hard copy which they buy or print would be even better.

As tablets and e-readers proliferate, this may change, but it would be premature to pretend we are already in that brave digital future.

My own book, forall x, is not designed for online consumption. It is intended to be used as a hard copy, and on line distribution is a way for people to freely get the print-ready files. I use electronic resources similarly in other courses. In history of philosophy, for example, it's a way of cutting out the margin that book publishers and the bookstore would add to public domain material. So the report conflates open access versus commercial books (whether there are license fees or not) with online versus hardcopy (how the student interacts with the content).

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Florida and the last mile of logic 
Back in 2007, I opted to change the license for my logic textbook, forall x. The removal of the Non-Commercial provision meant that, since then, people have been allowed to sell copies of the book and of any derivative works they might make. At the time, I wrote this:
There is little danger that a publisher will sell an overpriced deluxe edition of forall x, because the Sharealike provision would preclude them from exercising restrictive rights over it. The content would still be free.

I was perhaps a bit too optimistic.

A while later, a company began selling a poorly made ebook version on Amazon. I wrote a review telling people not to buy it and pointing them to where they can download it for free.

Today I discovered that University Press of Florida is offering forall x for $32.50. They assigned it an ISBN and everything. Their product page does not have any product description at all. If you do a search, though, the description includes information about how to get a copy from Lulu where it's available for $8.50.

They also have the title slightly wrong: "Forall x: Introductory Textbook in Formal Logic" rather than "forall x: An introduction to formal logic"

At the same time, the Senate is considering legislation to support more open licensed textbooks in an effort to make college textbooks affordable. We need to remember that an open license only saves the bit that would be paid to the author. The last mile is getting the text into student hands, which requires not screwing them on printing costs.

UPDATE nov19: I just spoke with someone at UPF. They print the book on-demand for Orange Grove, an imprint which has offered it on Amazon since 2009. So it was already something I knew about, really.

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