Deconstructive empiricism 
I've been thinking about Bas van Fraassen's epistemology. Here are some distinct points: a clarification, an objection, and a question

The clarification


The usual story goes like this: Anti-realism as a semantic doctrine was seen to be a dead letter, but van Fraassen's The Scientific Image resuscitated it as an epistemic doctrine. In the decades since, a thriving literature in scientific realism has developed. Realists disagree among themselves about exactly why, but they generally agree that we ought to believe our best scientific theories - including its unobservable posits.

This becoming the crux of the issue is ironic, because this form of 'scientific realism' is not opposed to van Fraasen's anti-realist constructive empiricism.

First, because van Fraassen thinks that this way of posing the problem is confused. He thinks that rationality never obligates us to believe anything. Rather, it gives us permission. Given such an account of rationality, its simply misleading to ask whether we ought to believe any specific thing. Moreover, he admits that it is permissible to believe in the unobservable posits of our best theories.

Second, because van Fraassen doesn't see the disagreement as one about epistemic attitudes at all. Instead, it's about the proper aim of science. He puts the point this way:
Scientific realism and constructive empiricism are. as I understand them, not epistemologies but views of what science is. Both views characterize science as an activity with an aim - a point, a criterion of success - and construe (unqualified) acceptance of science as involving the belief that science meets that criterion. According to scientific realism the aim is truth (literally true theories about what things are like). Constructive empiricism sees the aim as not truth but empirical adequacy.*
And that's the catch.

The objection


I don't think science as an activity has a singular point. I haven't argued this at length, but I intimate it in my dcog paper.

Of course specific scientific projects can have identifiable purposes. A particular drug trial may be to determine whether the drug is safe and efficacious, for example.

And of course specific scientists may be involved in science for identifiable reasons. This may be to discover truths, to make true predictions, to make the world a better place, or just to impress their parents.

Scientific realism and constructive empiricism both need more. They need there to be a purpose to science altogether - SCIENCE write large. Even supposing that there is such a purpose, it is not something that can be divined by a priori rumination. As van Fraassen admits, our account of what science is about must accommodate the actual history of science. It is a partly empirical enquiry responsible to evidence.

In this enquiry, what are the phenomena? Conservatively, we might answer that the phenomena are historical documents and physical evidence. More liberally, we might say that phenomena are the actual historical activities of scientists.** Yet under no account is the aim or purpose of the activity itself among the data. The aim of the activity is a posit, introduced as part of a philosophical-historical theory. Moreover, it is an unobservable posit.

Therefore, an agnostic (who declines to believe in the unobservable posits of even the most successful theories) must decline to believe in the aim of science. This follows regardless of what the aim of science is posited to be, so an agnostic must decline to be a constructive empiricist.

This would be a problem for van Fraassen, who thinks that agnosticism is a natural position for constructive empiricists. I see two possible replies.

First, he might stick to his agnostic guns. Refusing to believe in constructive empiricism, he still might accept it. That is, he could treat constructive empiricism as involving not a true theory about science but instead an empirically adequate one. This involves some mental gymnastics, but being an agnostic already involves mental gymnastics. This meta move is only a small additional flourish.

Second, he might deny that the aim of science is a theoretical posit. Perhaps history is not a science. Perhaps discovering what what science is is not history. I don't see this line as terribly promising.***

The question


Van Fraassen has argued that we need a richer epistemology, one which allows for more than just binary beliefs or probabilistic degrees of belief. Moreover, he resists formal models of belief as direct representations of entities in the mind or brain. Yet he does seem to genuinely believe in states of opinion, "real epistemic attitudes, pointed to by traditional epistemology, which cannot be accommodated in the probabilist models we have developed so far."*

As Sellars and Churchland convincingly argue, though, epistemic attitudes like this are not among the immediate phenomena of the world. We posit them as part of a (folk) psychological theory. An agnostic about scientific and folk scientific theories ought not to believe in beliefs.

Does van Fraassen acknowledge this anywhere? or is his psychological musing a personal matter rather than an announcement ex cathedra qua constructive empiricist?


* Analysis 58.3, July 1998
** Even van Fraassen would allow the more liberal construal, since he thinks that past objects count among the observables.
*** Admittedly, I see science as basically synonymous with responsible enquiry. For someone with a narrower conception of science, perhaps this line of response could go further.

Note: I cross-posted at It is only a theory, and there are lively replies there as well.


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x 1.28 
Last week I released a new version of forall x: 1.28. It corrects several typographical errors, some of which make a substantive logical difference.

The blurb description on the back page still says 'assistant professor', although that is only accurate for the moment. My tenure is waiting only on the signature of the university president, which I'm told is a formality. I have even signed the relevant employment paperwork for the change to associate.

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Short subject on featured articles 
In my little study of Wikipedia, I initially stumbled on the difference between featured and regular articles. If I had thought about it in advance, I would not have tested any featured articles at all. I had included them, however, so I reported the results and suggested that the data about featured articles be set aside.

This was not an admission that featured articles were especially reliable, but just that they were different. They needed to be thought of as a separate population.

Now somebody has taken a look at them. In this week's First Monday, David Lindsey directly evaluates the quality of featured articles; Evaluating quality control of Wikipedia's feature articles. The upshot is that many featured articles are good but that some are terrible. They are, despite the 'feature' glitter, much like the rest of Wikipedia. He concludes with the suggestion that, "[t]o put it simply, being a featured article may not mean much at all."

As a methodological aside, Lindsey evaluated the current version of specific articles rather than the development of those articles across time. I still suspect that Wikipedians do pay more attention on average to featured articles than they do other articles. If that's true, then random vandalism is probably caught more quickly and reliably on featured pages. That is compatible with Lindsey's conclusion that the articles can still be poorly written, misleading, or just downright bad.

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Approaches to thinking about approaching grad school 
Several undergraduates have come to me recently asking about philosophy grad school. There are several wrong approaches to take in answering such students.

The Polyanna approach would be to enthusiastically encourage them and, on the subject of job prospects, either implicitly or explicitly lie to them by suggesting that jobs in philosophy are low-hanging fruit. Some people are told this lie and believe it, and they feel betrayed late in grad school if they realize that they won't end up with an academic job.

The scylla to that charybdis is to tell students that there simply are no jobs. We might call this the Pannabacker approach.* It also trades on a lie. There are some jobs. The junior professors at any institution are testament to that. I got a job, and so did many of my friends in the discipline.

A third approach, explicitly advocated by Brian Leiter, is to tell students that they should only go to graduate school if they get into a highly ranked program.** Here's Leiter's advice:
[D]on't go to graduate school unless you get into a strong program. Period. If you get funding to go to a strong program, and you love the subject, then go to graduate school. The odds of securing a tenure-track job, indeed a good tenure-track job, from a strong program are very high.
The Leiter approach includes more truth than the other two, but it's weighed down by three spoonfuls of elitism and polyanna extract. Here's what I mean:

1. There are a non-negligible number of graduates from any program who don't get jobs. This is especially true if we look at people working in niche specialties, like philosophy of art.

2. Students at lower-ranked and unranked programs do get jobs. I teach at a department with an unranked program, and we place the majority of our graduates in tenure track jobs.

3. I suspect that Leiter's standards for a what count as a 'good tenure-track job' are skewed to favor prestige. Highly-ranked programs tend to hire graduates from other highly-ranked programs, but not every student wants a publish-or-perish job. There is a sense among both highfalutin and ignoble schools that graduates of the former are not for jobs at the latter. I know people who were discouraged by the placement director at their prestigious program from even applying for jobs deemed to be beneath the dignity of the graduate. I had some APA interviews for jobs at which the interview committee was dismissive about my application because (they thought) my pedigree put me out of their league. (This last point is not meant as bragging; UCSD, where I did my grad work, is well-ranked but not top five.)

4. A big constraint on whether graduates find jobs is how widely they apply. Imposing strong geographic constraints on the job search can sink anyone. This relates to prestige, because higher-ranked programs are more likely to admit traditional students who are willing to move for a job after school. Less prestigious programs are more likely to admit students who select a graduate school close to home and who have family complications that lead them to apply for jobs only in a restricted area. This common cause - student background - explains some of the correlation between prestige and placement success.

5. Yet there are real advantages to attending a better graduate program. It isn't primarily, as Leiter suggests, to avoid having "the albatross of a not very good graduate program around [your] neck." Rather, a better program means more notable faculty.*** This obviously means a greater depth and breadth of courses. But it also equips graduates with better letters of recommendation. Letters, more than just a good pedigree, do matter on the job market.

Better programs also tend to have more active colloquium schedules. This gives students a chance to learn about a bunch of different things, network with philosophers from other places, and learn the mores of professional interaction. Stronger programs also tend to support placement more aggressively.

As important as attending a program that offers these things can be, it's necessary to take advantage of them. A graduate is not helped by a weak, nonspecific letter from a famous person. And students only get something out of colloquia that they actually attend. The plus of a strong program, then, isn't primarily the name of the institution. It's that opportunities are more numerous and more easily exploited.

The approach I do take


So what advice do I give to students thinking about grad school?

Honestly, the job market is terrible. If going through graduate school and not having an academic job on the other side would crush you, then you should probably do something else. This isn't because nobody gets a job, but rather because not having a job is a real possibility regardless of what you do in grad school.

Don't go to grad school if it would mean taking out tremendous student loans. Even success - an academic job at the end - will not mean big money.

If you have strong constraints on where you could go for a job - or on how much you need to earn - then don't look to an academic job in philosophy. A number of graduates from our program who did get tenure-track jobs left them for family reasons or geography. The ones I have in mind found other academic jobs that fit their needs, but they took a serious gamble. That kind of constraint often leads graduates to leave the discipline.

Finally, application to top grad programs is competitive. Even solid candidates can be lost in the noise of the process. So applicants are well-advised to apply to numerous places, selected from various strata of the rankings.

Notes


* I take the label from Leiter's poster child for it, English professor William Pannabacker.
** Years ago, Leiter also started the Philosophal Gourmet Report, which is really the only available ranking of philosophy grad programs. The rankings can create an illusion of precision, but they are a useful guide. So I don't at all mean to be attacking the PGR. I discussed prestige and the PGR briefly in this old post.
*** This is not meant to suggest that there are no luminary faculty at less-than-luminary graduate programs. Rather, the 'more' is about quantity. At a stronger program, there are more likely to be multiple high-profile faculty working in a student's area.

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Once more the New Wave 
More shilling: Here is the full text of the introduction to New Waves in Philosophy of Science. I wrote it with Jacob Busch, with whom I editted the volume.

New Waves in Philosophy of Science


The explicit aim of volumes in this series is to collect contributions from young researchers likely to dominate the discipline; for this volume, the discipline in question is philosophy of science. It has been our privilege to edit such an audacious project, but it has also been a great challenge. We can only make educated guesses about the future. We cannot say with certainty which recent topics will be central to the discipline. Even selecting among areas which will probably remain central, there are competing desiderata: for example, to balance perennial topics against others which have more recently attracted the attention of philosophers.
Read More...

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